Book World Live: Reading the Bible Anew

James Kugel
Author, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 3:00 PM

Despite the title, "How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now," James Kugel does not offer latecomers a new way to read the Bible. Instead, over some 700 well-written pages, Kugel goes through the Hebrew Bible (which Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament) alternating a discussion of how ancient interpreters understood key passages with what modern scholarship can tell us about the origins and accuracy of the text. This is wonderfully interesting stuff, extremely well presented.

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Kugel will be online Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss his book.

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James Kugel: Well here I am, writing from Jerusalem. Actually, it's 10 o'clock at night here, but I'm sort of a night-owl anyway, and looking forward to answering any questions I can. So shoot.


Laurel, Md: Last winter/spring I spent a few weeks reading some modern historical scholarship about the Old Testament period, by the likes of Friedman, Finkelstein and Dever. Being a person of secularist proclivities, I found it a LOT more interesting to learn about the history and culture that went into writing the Bible, than about the spiritual ideas in it.

Once you strip away the Bible's sexism, tribalism and superstition, you're left with a moral system worthy of practice by half the world's population. And reading the history of how that developed, you can how they got there.

James Kugel: I'm not sure what you say in your second paragraph is inevitably a result of reading the three authors. But in any case, what I find impressive is the way later readers (starting with my "ancient interpreters," but certainly not ending there) have managed to refine what the Bible says (often through the most creative bits of interpretation) in order to get rid of anything that looks like superstition, tribalism, etc. It's really the case that Bible did not end with the composition of its last verse -- that was really just the beginning.


Los Angeles, Calif: What has been your response from the Rabbi groups who have studied and pratice and teach the commentaries?

James Kugel: I think in general the response has been pretty positive. I know some people have been upset at reading what modern scholars say about different biblical texts -- and some Jewish readers in particular have been bothered by the fact that this book was written by someone who claims to be an Orthodox Jew. But frankly, I've heard from far more readers who tell me they're really glad to have everything out there, on the table, so that they can draw their own conclusions.


New York: Isn't it ridiculous to assert the Old Testament has broad relevance for our modern lives once we "strip away the sexism, triablism and superstition." I mean, are male Jews really that insular a group? That hasn't been my impression of them.

James Kugel: I think that's the point -- some things have been stripped away, long ago. I guess those "male Jews" you know are the result of a successful transformation of the original text.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Words have different meanings to different readers. "Get the to a nunnery" could mean one wishes one to go to a convent and study the Bible, or it could mean to go to a house of prostitution. What are some of the major differences in phrases and words in the Bible whose meanings have changed the most through these thousands of years?

James Kugel: I think I mentioned in the book that the word "nefesh" in Hebrew used to always be translated as "soul." But now we know that it had another meaning, "neck" or "throat" (and hence, sometimes, "appetite"). SO when the Israelites say in the Pentateuch "Our souls are fed up with this manna," they probably mean something more concrete about their throats or appetites, and when the Psalmist cries out that the waters have risen "unto soul," it now seems he really meant that he was close to drowning.


Anonymous: Aren't there many parts of the New Testament that translate vastly differently depending on the times they are read? For instance, weren't only the more wealthy citizens counted for the census to be taxed, so Joseph and Mary were more likely prominent members of their community rather than of more humble roots?

James Kugel: I don't think that's a translation question, strictly speaking; it's more a matter of trying to understand the social and political background of the texts. By the way,

I didn't talk much about New Testament scholarship in my book, but it's quite amazing how much more today's scholars understand about the New Testament -- not only the social background I just mentioned, but how the text came into its present form, what the meaning underlying different Greek phrases might be (some of them imitations of Aramaic phrases), and so on.


Washington, DC: I was recently in Jerusalem and had the opportunity to visit the Ir David archaeological site (King David's palace, Solomon's well, and the source of Jerusalem's ancient spring). What significance do you think Jews should place on concrete confirmations of biblical events?

James Kugel: I'm not sure what overall significance different sites have. Sometimes they can help us understand a biblical story better -- you can really see the lay of the land in Israel, and it helps. But apart from that, I find it's fairly thrilling to stand next to some heap of stones a be fairly sure that this is Megiddo, or this is where the first inhabitants of Jerusalem lived, and this building got destroyed when the Babylonians invaded the city. Of course, you really have to go around with an archaeologist or a qualified guide -- they can tell you exactly what that pile of stones was -- "Here's the socket where the city gates opened," etc. Actually, Megiddo and Hazor are great places to visit.


Harrisburg, Pa.: As you mention how meanings of words have changed over the years, isn't there also a change in the meaning of the expression of having a camel going through a needle? The expression did not mean getting a large size animal through a smaller sized object, but the difficulty of getting a camel to move through a portion of a desert where traveling is difficult, if I recall this correctly.

James Kugel: You should really talk to a New Testament expert about this; what I remember is about fifty years old, and things may have changed by now. But scholars used to have two different explanations (at least that I know of), both of which sound fairly plausible (but I'm not sure if the evidence exists to back them up). One was that "eye of a needle" was an expression used for a particularly narrow archway in the city. The other was that "camel" here is short for a twine or thick, wool-like thread made out of camel's hair. In the first case, I guess the meaning would be: a tight squeeze, but definitely possible; in the second, pretty much impossible. But if either is correct, this would in any case mean that an image that's hard to understand as is in the New Testament has become a lot more comprehensible. In any case, I'd certainly recommend checking with a very recent commentary and see what they say.


Shepherd Park, DC: I remember from an Old Testament course I took in college that there are often contradictory sections in the Pentatuch (e.g., creation order or number of animals in the ark). Much of it also seemed to parallel David's story, perhaps to give a "divinely sanctioned" basis for his ascension to the throne. Do you address these in your book?

James Kugel: I do talk about the perceived contradictions in the creation account and in the story of Noah and the flood -- both of these have been the focus of much discussion by modern scholars. They also are interested in David's story, but more in regard to "what really happened" as opposed to what the biblical text says. I do give a summary of the research in my book. "What really happened," according to some scholars, was that David was a kind of guerrilla leader who eventually amassed a large enough band of followers to arrange a violent coup d'etat, overthrowing (and perhaps murdering) King Saul and then getting rid of any of his plausible successors so as to allow David to become king of a mighty empire. The evidence is sometimes, well, inferential -- but the case has been well argued, especially by Professor Baruch Halpern (Penn State).


Upper Marlboro, MD: My husband and I consider the entire Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments, to be required reading, and I think I just added your book to his Christmas gifts. I find something in the review interesting and honestly, frightening: "he is an orthodox Jew committed to fulfilling all 613 commandments traditionally found in the Hebrew Bible..." Seriously!?! How can you possibly pull this off? Will you please, PLEASE, write a book about your adherence to the Law, if you haven't already.

James Kugel: Well, I did try to write a bit about that in the last chapter of the book, but I think you're right (at least judging by the reaction so far); I should probably try to write another book just about that.


James Kugel: Okay, I see we've reached the end of the hour. If you didn't get a chance to get your question in, you can always send it to me at my Web site: Hope to hear from you.

James Kugel


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