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The Bible as it Was (Belknap) [Paperback]

James Kugel
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Nov 1999 Belknap
This is a guide to the Hebrew Bible. Leading the reader chapter by chapter through its most important stories from the "Creation" and the "Tree of Knowledge" through the "Exodus from Egypt" and the "Journey to the Promised Land", James Kugel shows how a group of anonymous, ancient interpreters radically transformed the Bible and made it into the book that has come down to us today. Was the snake in the Garden of Eden the devil, or the garden itself "paradise"? Did Abraham discover monotheism, and was his son Isaac a willing martyr? Not until the ancient interpreters set to work. Poring over every detail in the Bible's stories, prophecies, and laws, they let their own theological and imaginative inclinations transform the Bible's very nature. Their sometimes surprising interpretations soon became the generally accepted meaning. These interpretations, and not the mere words of the text, became the Bible in the time of Jesus and Paul or the rabbis of the Talmud. Drawing on such sources as the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish apocrypha, Hellenistic writings, longlost retellings of Bible stories, and prayers and sermons of the early church and synagogue, Kugel reconstructs the theory and methods of interpretation at the time when the Bible was becoming the bedrock of Judaism and Christianity. Here the reader is shown all the major transformations of the text and the development of the Bible is recreated as it was at the start of the Common era, the Bible as we know it.


Product details

  • Paperback: 696 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New edition edition (1 Nov 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674069412
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674069411
  • Product Dimensions: 26.1 x 15.6 x 3.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,060,782 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

[A] wonderfully rich and learned volume...[Kugel's] purpose in The Bible As It Was is to describe the way the Bible was understood by various ancient peoples, from the Israelites who returned to Palestine after the Babylonian Captivity to the early Christian redactors of the New Testament. Using a staggering number of sources, Mr. Kugel evokes the manner in which the Bible was understood at the time of these interpreters; he also traces the origins of many of the explanations that have remained standard over the millennia. Mr. Kugel's enormous undertaking is likely to be seen as a milestone in the long critical history of Bible studies, that is, of the approach to the Bible as both a human document and a living one, rather than as the immutable and perfect word of God. -- Richard Bernstein New York Times [A] fascinating study...[Kugel's] main purpose is to provide a detailed look at how the Torah, the first five books, was interpreted in antiquity, most particularly from the third century B.C. through the first century A.D...To cull material from these diverse sources requires no small expertise as a sleuth and a scholar. Kugel is equal to the task...He tackles his chosen subject with erudition and enthusiasm...Compellingly written. -- Phyllis Trible New York Times Book Review It is the general reader whom Kugel has in view throughout, and his aim, in which he admirably succeeds, is both to provide such reader with a first-hand acquaintance with some examples of ancient biblical interpretation and also to show how these make sense, once writers' assumptions and exegetical techniques are grasped...The Bible At It Was is an enjoyable work. It is beautifully produced, clearly set out, so that, in spite of its size, it is easy to use, and is written in a lively, often racy, style; it displays that expository mastery of a complicated subject which is the mark of a distinguished scholar, and it will make the readers to whom it is directed feel at home in an unfamiliar world. -- J. R. Porter Times Literary Supplement [This book] takes something you thought you knew and shows you--doesn't just tell you--that you didn't really know it at all...Kugel, who has the wherewithal to be a world-class academic show-off, instead lets the ancients speak in their own voice, make their own case. His learning is staggering, but his scholarly humility is exemplary. You mustn't skip a sentence in his book, and his has so deftly fashioned it that you don't want to. -- Patrick Henry Harvard Divinity Bulletin In this learned yet readable book, James Kugel explains how the earliest scholars tried to make some sense of difficult passages and how their work has forever influenced the way later generations understood the Bible...His book is a good introduction to Jewish biblical tradition and how ancient scribes and scholars understood the Bible. -- Joseph F. Kelly Cleveland Plain Dealer [The Bible As It Was] engages the reader...without demanding knowledge of any ancient languages, and in a prose so sweetly reasonable that daunting scholarship gets spooned out as the delight of discovery...It offers rich resources for the study of comparative scriptural interpretation...[and] not only reminds us of a deeper and broader tradition of biblical study that the profoundly amnesiac version called the historical-critical, but provides a sense of what that older tradition might still offer...[Kugel] shows how the 'legends' developed, not by random imagination, but by means of careful exegetical deduction. Here is the real intellectual thrill, to see how the 'questions' posed by the notorious gaps, indirections, and obscurities of the Hebrew text led naturally...to the sorts of 'answers' gathered together in this volume. Kugel is a talented teacher, who successfully leads his readers through an imaginative reconstruction of the logic at work at every stage from text to traditions...[This anthology] offers valuable resources for a fuller and more organic engagement with Scripture...[It is] brilliantly presented. -- Luke Timothy Johnson Commonweal The Bible As It Was guides us deftly through a web that turns out to have been far more extensive and ecumenical than most of us would have thought. -- Hillel Halkin Commentary With humor and insight derived from modern scholarship, archaeology, linguistics, and history, Kugel succeeds as did his ancient interpretive forebears in bringing out 'the universal and enduring messages of biblical texts. -- Steven Schnur Reform Judaism A dazzlingly learned and clever study...Kugel's fascinating, eclectic anthology of wisdom is graced by many choice passages from Philo, the 1st-century B.C.E. Jew of Alexandria who excelled in Torah interpretation. -- Stuart Schoffman Jerusalem Report Biblical commentaries from 1,500 years ago? How significant could they be to our modern-day perception of biblical stories? Extremely. The picture painted by James L. Kugel... in his recent book, The Bible As It Was, is that it was those interpreters, often anonymous and today largely unknown, who significantly molded our understanding of the Bible...Kugel offers a large, well-selected collection of these interpretations on 23 of the better-known biblical stories. He presents them in a masterful way that makes them easily accessible and enjoyable to the layman...[and places them in]...proper historical and religious context...The Bible As It Was can be read from cover to cover or it can be used as a resource by someone studying a particular biblical incident. The sources in this book are crucial to understanding our Bible, and Kugel has done a great service by making them accessible to the general public. -- Ari Zivotofsky Cleveland Jewish News The most important biblical study this decade. Library Booknotes An extraordinary, pathbreaking scholarly achievement: an annotated anthology of interpretations of ancient (mostly 100 B.C. 300 A.D.) interpretations of the Torah culled from hundreds of sources...Kugel's great achievement is to demonstrate again and again, with hundreds of fascinating examples, how the integrity of the text was both respected and reinterpreted by authors as varied as those of the apocrypha, the earliest midrashim, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the early Church fathers. His own interpretive comments are consistently clear and engaging...This volume, which will be savored by both Jewish and Christian lovers of Scripture, richly illustrates Kugel's point that what we know as 'the Bible' is really a series of texts filtered through the imaginative perceptions of its ancient exegetes. Kirkus Reviews Kugel has marshaled a great many ancient sources. This important work for intelligent readers should be acquired by all general readership libraries and especially by those intended for theological and sociological research. Library Journal

About the Author

James L. Kugel is a Professor at Bar-Ilan University.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
The author shows how Jews living in the years before and after the birth of Christ interpreted the Pentateuch and why they did so. It is amazing how their "spin" is still the accepted explanation among Christians today. It led me to re-evaluate many of my beliefs.
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good customer's service 27 Nov 2010
Format:Hardcover
I was disappointed first, because the book was not as well preserved as I had imagined - but when I complained the customer's service answered me quickly and gave me a full refund.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
79 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sigh of Relief 7 Nov 2001
By Rivkah Maccaby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
As one who has waded through Genesis Rabbah all the way to Deuteronomy, scratching my head, making marginal notes like Rashi, and looking up almost every word, this book came like a 500 BTU central unit, to a cottage deep in the rain forest.
Dr. Kugel has gathered thousands of lines of commentary from unnumbered sources, but all from a 300 year time period, about 200bce to 100ce-- the same time the gospels and epistles were written, the Mishnah was codified and most of the rabbis of the Pirkei Avot were active.
Kugel quotes standard Jewish commentary, but he also quotes from Christian scriptures, treating them (as Christian scholar Rosemary Reuther suggested many years ago) as midrash upon the Jewish texts. He also uses standard histories of the time, such as Josephus' Antiquities, the works of Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
What makes this extensive work such a relief and a delight are the extensive annotations of the author: accurate citations are always given (I checked); end notes are given, describing all sources, and giving dates, or approximate dates. There is a bibliography of modern sources as well. Most importantly, each time a midrash or other commentary is inserted into the text of the Torah, Kugel gives us a most essential bit of information: he tells us what the problem is with that text that the commentator feels needs explaining.
It is not always obvious to a reader 2,000 years later what a certain rabbi's problem was with a text that prompted him to write the several lines of commentary he left us. The work Kugel has done-- his gift to us, is to climb into the minds of these people in a different place, discover what their concerns were, and deduce what parts of the texts would have caught their attention and for what reason. Since none of his interpretations (at least none I have looked-- and I've looked at most of them) seem forced or overly creative, I believe this is the work of a great scholar. I cherish it, and I thank him much.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A goldmine of information and a pleasure to own 13 Jun 2001
By Timothy Dougal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book would be more accurately titled "The Torah As It Was", but this minor complaint aside, I can only say, "What a book!" The extremely informative introduction lays out the plan: Mr. Kugel is giving us a glimpse into how the Torah, or at least a number of major events in it, were interpreted by a wide variety of authorites during the so-called intertestamental period, from approximately 200BCE-100CE. He takes an event, the Flood, say, and martials an array of quotes regarding one or another aspect of the story from a truly dizzying variety of authors. Extra-biblical interpretive strains are indicated by words or phrases printed in boldface type. It is fascinating to witness the process, as ambiguous texts metamorphose into moral instruction via interpretive discussion. The variety of creative, and sometimes mutually contradictory, uses to which the texts are put is amazing. It's also surprizing how many of these interpretations have stuck with us into the modern age. In addition to over 500 pages of well-presented interpretation, the 50-page listing of Terms and Sources, as well as the 30-page Bibliography, and comprehensive Index of sources cited, make this a truly useful and valuable resource for anyone interested in the Bible or the thought of this pivotal period in history. If all this isn't enough, the book itself (and keep in mind that I'm talking about a paperback here!) is a delight: from cover, to paper, to typeface, to engravings and illustrations, everything about this volume gives me pleasure as a reader and owner. Hats off to Harvard/Belknap. Too bad more publishers don't follow suit.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pure fun for serious Bible readers 7 Aug 2000
By Mark McEntire - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a marvelous book. For readers of the Bible who think seriously about it, questions arise constantly. Some of these are old, well-known problems like "Where did Cain's wife come from?" Others may be less familiar like "Why was the Brazen serpent which Moses made to cure snake-bites in the wilderness not a violation of the commandment against making images?" One of the many wonders which Kugel reveals to those unfamiliar with biblical interpretation in antiquity is that such questions are not new. They were occurring to readers of the Bible more than 2000 years ago. Kugel has selected some of the most mystifying passages from the Torah and has collected ancient attempts to interpret these texts and fill in the gaps they create. Often, ancient interpreters, both Jewish and Chrisitan, were attempting to defend the biblical accounts against difficulties and inconsistencies. Some readers, like myself, may find that the ancients were a bit too eager to resolve all the tensions that arise in the Torah. Nevertheless, Kugel's compendium allows us conveniently to read the Bible along with some of the great Bible readers from the period within a couple of centuries on each side of the turn of the eras, and such an opportunity is a delight.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What did the Bible say before other people's interpretations 23 Mar 2002
By Harold McFarland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The Bible as it was" is a wonderful and exhaustive work regarding scriptural interpretation and the first five books of the Bible. Early Jewish tradition was to fill in interpretive information when necessary to resolve items that were ambiguous or unclear. In addition, notes and commentary were often passed along with the texts and over time tended to become a part of the text. As a result, the Bible of today includes a lot of commentary as well as the original texts.
Kugel's purpose is to try to reconstruct the Bible as it was in its original form as closely as possible. While we all know that no copies of the original Bible exist today, the King James version was based on the Textus Receptus which was a Greek translation of the Bible and considered the oldest reliable source at the time. Since then there have been many archaeological finds of manuscripts from earlier points in time and in the original Hebrew language. Many of these passages differ somewhat from current translations. In theory, the older versions should be closer to the original version. Working from the oldest texts he examines some of the differences in the way passages were interpreted and what that could mean. This gets us closer to an original version without all the intervening thoughts and interpretations that earlier writers had added in an attempt to make it more understandable and applicable to the people of their time.
Dr. Kugel thoroughly documents his work complete with quotes, sources and annotations as appropriate.
A fascinating book that sheds new light onto many passages it should be read by anyone attempting a serious and scholarly study of the Bible.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking, well researched and well argued 30 Jun 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The author shows how Jews living in the years before and after the birth of Christ interpreted the Pentateuch and why they did so. It is amazing how their "spin" is still the accepted explanation among Christians today. It led me to re-evaluate many of my beliefs.
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