Saturday, March 13, 2010

James Kugel and Me on How to Read the Bible

OMT gets dissed as a bush-league post-modernist Miltonist by noted author James Kugel - who responds to my review of his How to Read the Bible. Read his comments on my review below or here, but first an abstract of my review - which can be read in full in number 100.1 of the journal JQR. The review is available through JSTOR, or you can send a request for an offprint to me.

Here's the abstract of my review:

In How to Read the Bible, James Kugel employs the many resources at his disposal - among them archaeology, anthropology and linguistic - to reveal a Bible, at once thought unified, to be rather “contradictory and incoherent.” The story which takes center stage in the book is the contrast between the reading habits of “ancient interpreters” and “modern scholars,” – and of how “people went from one way of reading the Bible” to “reading it in another.”

The heroes of Kugel’s account, modern scholars, he explains, “understand the Bible afresh”; reading it “scientifically” and “without any presuppositions,” they embark upon a “cold, objective search for the truth about the text.” They write about the text’s “real meaning,” its “original meaning,” or the Bible at “face value.” Ancient interpreters “had a stake in what the text would end up saying,” while modern biblical scholars oblige by telling us what “really happened”; where “Biblical texts really come from”; and what these texts “really mean.”

Claiming allegiance to both sets of traditions, Kugel fashions himself as the one who delivers “reality” - that is, “the real Bible,” summoned by his own “unbiased interpretation.” For Kugel, there are two Bibles: the real biblical texts and the “Interpreted Bible”: they “make up side by side, two completely different books.” Modern biblical scholars are said to deliver the former; traditionalists, liberal theologians and literary critics offer instead the debris of “human dogmas” and “interpretations.” Kugel ends up delivering what Thomas Nagel calls a “voice from nowhere” – the ostensible perspective of objectivity and so-called unbiased interpretation. How to Read the Bible thus fulfills the dream of the nineteenth century, in having finally revealed what von Ranke calls “Wie es eigentlich gewesen,” the world—in Kugel’s case, the Bible—as it really was.

Kugel’s hypothetical “unInterpreted Bible” is also a fantasy – the fantasy of modern biblical scholars. Not just from a post-modernist sensibility (which Kugel rightfully dismisses), but, from a perspective which ranges from Aristotle to Kuhn, from Milton to Wittgenstein, that understands that perceptions are never innocent of assumptions, and traditions of interpretation are always the vehicles for encountering texts. The mostly etiological (that is causal) interpretations of Kugel’s modern scholars may be elegant, clever and ordered, but such interpretations leave the Bible as simplistic, even simpleminded. Kugel claims that the ancient interpreters ignore the “plain sense” of Scripture and supply the “final and definitive interpretation,” but it’s really the explanations he advocates that provide final and definitive interpretations of the biblical text. In Kugel’s reading, it is predictably the heroic modern biblical scholar, from his (ostensibly) Archimedean vantage point, who provides the causal link that renders everything coherent and final.

Foregoing the objectivity which turns the Bible into a sloppy collection of unrelated fragments may not mean, as Kugel says of traditional interpreters ‘crouching’ in front of the Biblical text, but rather trying to occupy the traditions of those ancient interpreters which allow us to attend to a work that transcends our (sometimes overly narrow scholarly) expectations of what texts should be.

Here's Kugel:

William Kolbrener’s “How to Read How to Read the Bible” presents a pretty good summary of some of my ideas, but he certainly errs in saying (p. 188) that while I “gesture to the role of assumptions in interpretation (p. 135), the mantra of ‘the real Bible,’ repeated throughout How to Read the Bible, betrays a faith in a somehow unmediated text.” I gesture? It is the role of assumptions in interpretation that is the true mantra of my book, chanted in every chapter. But if he is implying that I am not sufficiently interested in the interpretive assumptions of modern biblical scholars, I should point out that the Bible is a rather different from Paradise Lost, to which Kolbrener compares it. Much of the Hebrew Bible was written twenty centuries or more before Milton, in a society and literary environment very different from our own, and in a language still imperfectly understood. What is more, many biblical texts purport to recount historical events, and almost all of them presume a knowledge of specific historical and cultural details proper to biblical times. All these things have been immeasurably illuminated by the last six or seven generations of scholars working in various fields connected to the Bible. What I find lacking in Kolbrener’s article is any appreciation of this circumstance or, indeed, any real acquaintance with modern scholarship apart from the things that I have to say about it – and sometimes not even with those. He doesn’t seem to think that archaeological evidence, Assyriology, Egyptology, ancient Near Eastern history, and comparative Semitics need to play any decisive role in our attempt to understand the meaning of biblical texts. But it is precisely these things that must mediate any serious, critical engagement with the Bible today.

Kolbrener apparently believes that they can be dismissed with a postmodernist wave of the hand: they’re all just one possible way of reading. This may fly with Milton scholars, but I don’t think biblical studies are quite there yet. In short: I would like to be kinder, but I’m afraid this is one game he shouldn’t have suited up for.


naomi said...

Ouch! He's a bit nasty. i can't decide if i think it's honourable that you posted his mean comments or sadistic. :-/

wdk said...

did you mean masochistic? though I have to confess, I find the casting of me as radical post-modernist amusing...

Lindsey Shapiro said...

I am reminded of Stanley Fish's insistence that interpretation of a text must always bear in mind the writer's intention in writing it. Kugel would do well to appreciate that the Bible was never intended as a history book and that the people for whom the bible is important really don't care very much about "what really happened".

wdk said...

But Kugel is interested in authorship and intention - but he has a non-traditional conception of authorship...

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Biblical criticism has long been shown to be faulty and based on assumptions more tenuous than anything true believers of the Bible could be accused of. However, like the climate change proponents who were unmasked by the e-mail Climategate scandal, they have also long realized that a good offence is the best defence. Ignore the weaknesses in your position, ignore the proofs for your opponent's position and keep hammering away with the same arguments, acting like they haven't been discredited.
Nothing like the "Everyone's stupid but me" attitude to give one confidence.