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How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now [Paperback]

James L. Kugel
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 819 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (21 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743235878
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743235877
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 14.7 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 26,887 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Synopsis

A reader's companion to the Bible draws on classic interpretations as well as modern scholarship to explain how the Bible may also be a metaphorical reflection of anthropological history. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Buy 9 April 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a brilliantly written book, making a complex subject seem interesting. It reads almost like a novel. I couldn't put it down.
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Having wrestled with theological questions all my life I was delighted to read this book .While reading you know you are in the hands of a real expert who while himself is an orthodox jew does not duck from the hard facts .Someone reviewed on here that they still have questions having read the book....well the author doesnt have loads of answers but he does make you think....the result of a good teacher.When reading such a book one often reads with a hand on the comfort rail that is the rail of previous secure beliefs that one is frightened of letting go of ....my counsel is relax and let him speak to you ....you will not be disappointed .
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent guide to the Old Testament 3 July 2014
By Ohcci
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Somewhat to my surprise (I'm neither a Jew nor a Christian), this book is a great read. While being erudite it is written is a down-to-earth yet never less than interesting style which makes it a pleasure to dip into (or indeed read from cover to cover). It should be required reading for all idiot fundamentalists who think that a "holy" book can be read literally. The author makes no secret of the fact that he is a believing Jew, but this does not stop him from advancing a wide range of theories about the background of all the most important themes and stories in the Old Testament - be warned it does not, for obvious authorial reasons cover the New Testament.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  66 reviews
150 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for dummies 23 Dec 2007
By mrliteral - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
At first glance, a book titled "How to Read the Bible" would seem like one of those "for Dummies" books that offers simple explanations to an often mysterious tome. It is quickly apparent that James Kugel's book does not actually fit into this category: instead, it is a much more in-depth and insightful look into the Bible (which is to say the Jewish Bible, or to Christians, the Old Testament).

The overall premise of this book is that through the course of history, there have been two general methods of reading the Bible, and that these two methods are often in conflict. First, there is the method of the ancient interpreters, which despite its name, was the dominant methods until relatively recently. For these interpreters, Biblical reading was based on four general assumptions: (1) the Bible is cryptic; that is, what it seems to say may be different from it actually means; (2) the Bible is a book of lessons for readers in their own day; it is not merely a historical text; (3) the Bible is perfect and without contradiction; any seeming error can be explained (assumption #1 is helpful with this); (4) the Bible is the divine word of God.

Modern interpretation, which really began in the nineteenth century, does not adhere to the ancient assumptions. In particular, the modern interpreter views the Bible as a text written by men, with all the flaws that are associated with mortals. This interpreter views the Bible in the larger context of the ancient world to determine how it was constructed.

Take, for example, the story of Jacob and Esau. An ancient interpreter would view the stories of this brotherly conflict as leading to the general hostility between Israel and Edom, the two nations that the siblings were the founders of. A modern interpreter would view things in the opposite direction: to give historical justification to the Israel/Edom conflict, the Jacob/Esau legend was composed.

Obviously, the modern interpretation of the Bible can cause problems for certain devout people, and the ancient method has been far from retired, particularly among fundamentalists. Kugel himself is an orthodox Jew who has his issues with the modern method, but overall, he presents a balance view, showing the flaws in both sides.

Think about how much trouble we Americans have with deciding what the First or Second Amendments of the Constitution mean. Depending on political bent, we derive our own meaning from these passages. And these amendments were written in English, only two centuries ago. Furthermore, we have plenty of supporting documentary material from the era it was written. Yet, even now, we can't reach a consensus on what the right to bear arms or have a church-state separation means. If we can't even agree on that, how much more difficult is it to definitively interpret a text that was written more than two millennia back in another language that didn't even have punctuation or vowels.

It is inarguable that the Bible is the most important book in history, with an influence that extends over thousands of years and, at this point, all over the world. Whatever your faith - Jewish or Christian or Hindu or Wiccan or other - or even if you're a Deist, agnostic or atheist, it is worth your while to know the Bible (even if you don't believe in it). Kugel's book is not a fast read (it is too packed with information to read at a quick pace), but it is a fascinating one and a great way to learn a lot about the Bible.
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Study of Old Testament Scholarship. Buy it Now! 17 Dec 2007
By B. Marold - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
`How to Read the Bible' by the former Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard University is about as different from the similarly titled `How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth' by New Testament professor, Gordon D. Fee and Old Testament professor, Douglas Stuart, and still be a superb read for anyone, especially lay readers, who are interested in understanding the Hebrew scriptures.
Yes, this book deals exclusively with Professor Kugel's specialty, the Old Testament, while the Fee / Stuart book deals with both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
Another huge difference is that Professor Kugel not only advises us on how to read the scriptures today, he outlines how they have been read since they were first gathered together, sometime around the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE. The big surprise to us lay readers is that these scriptures were not taken as the perfect inspiration from God, with every statement literally, or at least figuratively true, given the right amount of interpretation. Professor Kugel does not make this comparison, but I suspect that the attitude toward much of the scriptures was very similar to the Achaeans' (early Greeks) attitude toward Homer's `Iliad' and `Odyssey', as national epic poems. Even without modern archeology, it would not have been difficult to detect anachronisms and downright errors when, for example, a Psalm attributed to King David describes events which happened 500 years after his death.
The attitude of `high reverence' for the scriptures developed shortly after the last book, `Daniel', was added to the canon, the era of the last prophet Ezra, and the Maccabean revolt. This fits remarkably into the picture we have of the state of Judaism at the time of Jesus, and Jesus criticisms of the priests and Pharisees for their excessive dedication to a strict reading of the scriptures and the intense interpretation to which the scriptures, especially the law of the Torah was put.
The overall plan of the book is based on instructing us on how to read the scriptures `by example'. Of the 36 chapters, all but the first and the last deal with books, such as Psalms, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and individual episodes from books, such as chapters on the episodes of Cain and Able, Noah and the flood, and the tower of Babel from Genesis.
The first chapter introduces us, in a novel fashion, to the rise of modern Bible criticism over the last 200 years, by recounting the trial of Professor Charles Augustus Briggs by the ruling body of the American Presbyterian church, for making strongly positive comments about the type of scholarship he saw in Germany, where the strong tradition of Luther fueled critical studies of both old and new Testaments.
The last chapter summarizes all the points detailed in the individual studies throughout the rest of the book.
It is easy for those whose Christian beliefs run to the more conservative to dismiss this book and its findings out of hand. For those, I may point out that Professor Kugel is a devout Orthodox! Jew, now living in Jerusalem, who has no problem maintaining his faith and his analytical approach to his subject.
For the lay reader, Kugel's text is eminently readable, as almost all the scholarly impedimenta are relegated to endnotes and the usual index to the scriptures in an appendix. For the Christian reader, there is much here to enlighten. Even Luther had deep interest in much of the Old Testament, especially Genesis and Psalms. It would be really interesting to read Luther's commentary on Genesis in the light of Kugel's information.
If there is anything in this book which reaffirms my own inclinations to Bible study, it is the attention to external archeological information. This is most famously represented by the discovery, in the early 19th century, of the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, which has a flood episode which predates the writing of Genesis by almost a thousand years. And, many passages in Genesis' account of the flood seem to almost be copied idea for idea, from the Gilgamesh. This `borrowing' is made more plausible by the fact that while the sub-desert heights of Judea received very little rainfall, the delta of the Tigris - Euphrates probably floods quite often, albeit not as often as the dependable Nile.
Anyone with any interest at all in understanding the Old Testament really needs to read this book to have the advantage of the broadest possible perspective on issues regarding the origins and interpretation of these scriptures.
85 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely scholarly and easy to read, a combination difficult to find 21 Nov 2007
By César González Rouco - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Kugel's "How to read the Bible" is a masterful work that will join a number of important new works on religion this Fall (for instance, Rodney Stark's " Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief " or Charles Taylor's massive "Secular Age"). I felt like buying it because it offers a comment on the bible from a Jewish scholar point of view, which is a novelty for someone brought up in Spanish Catholic traditions.

After reading this book I much agree with DAVID PLOTZ's review [...], particularly when he states: "Though Kugel surely did not intend this, in its own way, his book proves as devastating to the godly cause as any of the pro-atheism books that have been dominating the best-seller lists in recent months". In my opinion, this is because the author is intellectually honest given that i) although one realizes he does believe in the God of the Bible, however ii) he clearly shows that the ancient interpreters' and the modern scholars' way of understanding the Bible clearly contradict each other; before that iii) he escapes from [in his opinion] non-well argued apologetics to save such a contradiction; and then iv) if I understood him correctly, he tries to square this circle in the last few pages, in the section called "The Very Idea of the Bible" (whether he achieves it or not, or whether his answer may please those who do not follow the Jewish path I let it to each one to decide on his own).

In any event, Kugel's work is a pleasure to read, which is very important for a book 700 pages long plus notes [plus an appendix and bibliography which are available at the author's web site, jameskugle.com]. And the proof that I have liked it a lot [deeds speak louder than words] is that I have ordered another of his books, "Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era", which is even lengthier than "How to read the Bible".

Other books on religion that I would recommend to read would be the following: "The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach," by Moojan Momen and "Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion" by Brian Hayden (both of them astonishingly encyclopaedic and readable); "Islam. History, present, future" by Hans Küng (the best and the brightest on Islam, a masterpiece); and (more or less related to the matter) "A Social History of Dying" and "Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion" by Allan Kellehear.

Additionally, as a complement to Kugel's book (and hoping that will be of use for those looking for a broad framework to understand the past) I would also recommend to read the following works, whose scope is amazingly global: 1. Agrarian cultures: "Pre-industrial societies" by Patricia Crone; 2. Economy: "The world economy. A millennial perspective" (2001) plus "The world economy: Historical Statistics" (2003) by Angus Maddison (a combined edition of these two volumes is to appear on December 2007); 3. Government: "The History of Government" by S.E. Finer; 4. Ideas: "Ideas, a History from Fire to Freud", by Peter Watson; and 5. War: "War in Human Civilization" by Azar Gat.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Still Leaves Me With Questions 15 Aug 2010
By Coach - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
James Kugel is an exceptional writer, humble man, and fascinating human being. I was so looking forward to reading this book. In the opening pages, he talks about his own dilemma as an Orthodox Jew and how his personal belief system and conscience (being drawn to modern biblical criticism) seemed to be at odds. So, I read diligently with interest. At the beginning, Kugel makes the point that there were four rules to interpreting the Torah: 1. Cryptic text. Even though the Oral Torah says A it really means B. 2. The Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It is not history but instruction. 3. The text is perfect and seamless--it contains no contradictions or mistakes, therefore any contradictions within the same story (maybe two versions?) or between two accounts of laws in Exodus and Deuternomy for example have to be explained away. 4. The Bible is essentially a divinely given text.

Skip ahead to the end of the book. Kugel basically makes the point that even though the Documentary Hypothesis is interesting and has some believability to it, well, Jews don't need to worry because the Torah text (the written Torah) could change because the real authoritative text is the Oral Torah. The Bible may have been a patchwork of different texts and sources but the interpreters (anonymous) who codified the Jewish system of interpretation (which makes up the Oral Torah) from the years roughly between 300 BCE and 0 CE interpreted in a divine manner. And all told, the four rules of interpretation are therefore the foundation of a system which was essentially divinely given. I have a tremendous respect for Professor Kugel. He is a first class writer and academic. I was hoping for a little more of an answer to his own personal dilemma as opposed to his just setting up a firewall between his professional and personal life. I recognize that this is not fair. Professor Kugel has a right to believe or rather choose to believe what he wants to. I just feel let down that he did not truly enter into his own dilemma and try to explore the fascinating dilemmas, challenges and contradictions of questioning and making meaning out of the meeting place between tradition and modernity. Given his skills and insights, this would not only be fascinating. I am convinced he would change modern Jewish thought in profound ways.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two Irreconcilable Ways of Interpreting the Bible 26 Oct 2007
By Still Thinking Kyle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Kugel details two irreconcilable methods of reading the Jewish bible: 1) the method used by ancient interpreters and 2) the method used by modern bible scholars. The first method requires that you make certain assumptions: that the meaning of a passage is often hidden, that it has a message for today, that it does not contradict itself, and that it was inspired by God. He argues that to appreciate the bible as the BIBLE requires this and this is his preferred way of reading it. But he doesn't hide his admiration for modern bible scholarship as well, which questions the historicity, critically examines sources, and views the bible as a human rather than a divine book. He appreciates the brilliant scholarship of those who have pieced together a picture of the bible from other ancient texts, archeology, textual analysis, etc. But after his excellent presentation of both ways of reading, I found his reasons for preferring the ancient interpreters over modern bible scholarship puzzling. If the modern bible scholars are right, it is hard to see how the bible is truly a divine book. So what makes the bible special? I think many readers, like me, will conclude nothing, if you mean special in the sense of truer or superior to all other literature. But Kugel apparently wants to view the bible as special, so he concludes that the ancient interpreters provide a way to do just that. So if you are worried about modern scholarship destroying your faith, Kugel does provide an out. But it comes at a price.
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