Monday, March 29, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
In my review of How to Read the Bible, I did not suggest that Kugel is too ‘biased,’ as some commenters have suggested on a blog devoted to the subject have suggested nor did I, as Gil Student, in apparent agreement with my argument, suggest that Kugel is ‘subjective.’ I did express in a comment of my own a sense of disappointment in understandings of interpretation that rely upon the subject-object distinction. It is a nineteenth century philosophical distinction - wielded in various contexts, usually now as a form of polemic (which predictably happened following Gil’s Student's comments) - which has nothing to do with traditions of Jewish interpretation, nor conceptions of interpretation that go back to
Have no doubt about it: the heroes of How to Read the Bible are the modern biblical scholars who supposedly ‘read the Bible scientifically’ and ‘without any presuppositions’ and conclude that the Torah is just a scramble of different human traditions and interpretive accretions. It is true, as Kugel writes, that I did not address him on some of his areas of scholarly expertise – in which I admittedly have limited expertise. But I do address him on methodological assumptions about hermeneutics – theories of interpretation – to which he offers no response. How to Read the Bible as the title announces is not only about the Bible, but about interpretation. My review took issue with Kugel’s methodological assumptions about interpretation (and assumptions about objectivity which come from it) – which, as I wrote, arose in the nineteenth century and have since been discredited by scholars working in a large variety of disciplines (and not by post-modernists with which he blithely groups me). The assumption that ancient interpreters ‘play fast and loose’ with the ‘face value’ of the Bible, and that modern scholars tell us like it really was, leads to Kugel’s clear advocacy of the conclusions of the latter, and the ‘great secret’ which they reveal. For, as Kugel writes, they understood Scripture to be on ‘the level of any ordinary human composition – in fact arguing that it was in some cases even worse: sloppy, inconsistent, sometimes cynical, and more than occasionally deceitful.’ This conclusion is based upon flawed methodological assumptions, and it is to these flaws that my review attempts to draw attention.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
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.