Book Review: “How to Read the Bible”

My Tuesday small group spent just over four months reading and discussing James L. Kugel’s incredibly detailed and informative book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. It is a whopping 36 chapters and 771 pages in its paperback edition.

The “Then” in the title refers to how “the ancient interpreters” viewed and interpreted scripture. The “Now” refers mostly to how “modern biblical scholars” view and interpret scripture. In addition, Kugel also discusses how present-day evangelical and fundamentalist view and interpret scripture. While the ancient interpreters approach to scripture is in thorough contrast to that of modern biblical scholars, the approach of evangelicals and fundamentalists is really virtually identical to that of the ancient interpreters, though they probably wouldn’t agree with that conclusion.

According to Kugel, the ancient interpreters of the mid to late Second Temple Period (515 BCE – 70 CE), which would include both Jewish and early Christian interpreters, interpret scripture based on four assumptions:

  1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might really mean B and that B would not be obvious to all (14).
  2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history. It is instruction (15).
  3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious, despite its being an anthology of texts written and edited over a period of a thousand years (15).
  4. Lastly, they believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly to or through His prophets (15).

While there were many factors that led to the emergence of modern biblical scholarship (see pages 24ff.), it was Spinoza’s book, Tractatus Theologo-Politicus (1670), where he “outlined a new proposal for how the Bible was to be read, and this program became the marching orders of biblical scholars for the next three centuries” (31).

Spinoza’s main points were:

  1. Scripture is to be understood by scripture alone (31).
  2. In order to understand Scripture, we must understand all the peculiarities of its language and its world of ideas, and not impose on it our own, later conceptions (31).
  3. We should thus begin by assuming that Scripture means what Scripture says even when it disagrees with our own conceptions (31).
  4. Someone who wishes to inquire into Scripture’s meaning must likewise investigate how the books themselves were put together and the process of their transmission (32).
  5. Finally, in considering the words of prophets, one must recognize that they frequently contradict one another, even on the essentials… (32).

Obviously, Spinoza was calling for a total dismantling of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters. The biblical texts were not cryptic. The biblical texts were “never intended as ‘eternally valid’ but only applied to people living then” (32). Scripture was not “perfectly harmonious” but, in fact, the various texts demonstrate clear and irreconcilable differences, both with one another and with the findings of science and history. Spinoza concluded, thus, that the biblical authors, while they were focused on what is good and right, “were not endowed with a more perfect mind [than other thinkers], but with a more vivid power of imagination” (33).

Spinoza was one of the earliest of a long line of thinkers that introduced the period of Enlightenment, “a period of rationalism’s triumph, a time of untrammeled scientific inquiry and a questioning of all received traditions” (33). This approach to biblical studies has continued to this day. And as Kugel notes, “Modern biblical scholarship started out as a largely Protestant movement; it did not, however, advance unopposed. Indeed, it has played a major role in dividing the Protestant world into its liberal and conservative camps, the latter including various groups usually described as fundamentalist or evangelical” (672).

Christian fundamentalism has its origins in the late 19th century and is largely a reaction to, and repudiation of, the claims of modern biblical scholarship. “The term ‘fundamentalism’ itself derives from a series of volumes called The Fundamentals, published between the years 1910 and 1915 and ultimately distributed in more than 3 million copies” (673). Many “liberal” Protestants found this approach to be muddled and indefensible. However, conservatives embraced its basic stance and hold to it even to this day.

However, in doing so, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have reverted to an approach to scripture that imitates that of the ancient interpreters, whether they would acknowledge their indebtedness or not. As Kugel notes,

Fundamentalists certainly hold that the Bible is perfectly consistent and free of error; that it is addressed to human beings today, speaking about our present and immediate future as well as teaching lessons necessary to salvation; and that it is, in the strictest terms, the word of God. In these respects, indeed, in their whole way of reading Scripture, fundamentalists have much more in common with those ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters than many would likely suspect (673).

While they would deny that “scripture is cryptic” and assert that almost everything that scripture says is literally true, the reality is that in their use of scriptures they obviously do believe that scripture is full of hidden meanings that only correct interpretation can expose and explain. What fundamentalists fail to see or acknowledge is that the ancient interpreters’ view and approach to scripture “is precisely the one that characterizes the numerous interpretations of Old Testament texts by Jesus, Paul, and others in the New Testament, as well as by the succeeding generations of the founders of Christianity” (674).

So, what do we do with this anthology of texts called the Bible? Kugel critiques the “liberal” view of, and approach to, scripture where one retreats from “the idea of the Hebrew Bible as a factual recitation of past events and to see it as something else: a proclamation of faith, a history with a theological message, a text with a ‘fuller meaning’ or ‘more than literal’ sense, and much more” (674). However, he considers this effort to find a compromise between modern biblical scholarship and what liberal biblical commentators want the Bible to be, puts them “in the uncomfortable position of wanting to have their Bible and criticize it too” (671).

So, I again, ask Professor Kugel, “What do we do with this anthology of texts called the Bible?” Here’s what he concludes in regard to Judaism and Modern Biblical Scholarship (671ff), in his own words:

The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation, along the lines of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters—a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah. Read the Bible in this way and you are reading it properly, that is, in keeping with the understanding of those who made and canonized the Bible. Read it any other way and you have drastically misconstrued the intentions of the Bible’s framers (681–82).

Kugel concludes as follows, under the final heading: Harvard Prof Says Bible Research a Mistake.

Beyond all these, this book is about two extraordinary sets of interpreters, and I have made no effort to disguise my admiration for both. Their approaches, however, are quite irreconcilable—this, if some headline is required, is the one I would prefer. Happy the reader who can open the Bible today and still understand it as it was understood by those who first proclaimed it the Bible. For anyone else, I hope that this book may at least offer some help in finding an escape from the box of original meaning and, perhaps as well, some greater appreciation of the way of reading championed by the Bible’s first interpreters…to focus first on the text itself, on its very words, and then quite consciously to allow them to speak as best they can about God and man, heaven and earth, and how it is that these may meet. I certainly have nothing against exploring “what really happened” and how the Bible came to be written, but I would not mistake such things for what is foremost (687–88).

However, I, personally, have no problem with the “liberal” approach that Kugel contends is “the uncomfortable position of wanting to have their Bible and criticize it too” (671). I have no issue with abandoning the approach that is based on believing that the biblical texts exist as the result of verbal plenary inspiration and thus are essentially inerrant. That does not mean I cannot choose to see these texts as a literary divine-human hybrid. Yes, that leaves me in the position of trying to discern what I believe to be a true depiction of God’s nature and/or a true rendering of God’s will from that which is culturally, historically and theologically determined. So be it. I cannot reject the findings of modern biblical scholarship and yet I am not willing to let go of the belief that in some significant ways God has revealed himself and his will through this unique anthology of ancient, diverse and ambiguous texts.


When all is read and said, I highly recommend Kugel’s book (5 stars!). It is written with scholarly integrity, personal honesty, mutual respect and provides a much-needed understanding of the context for Jews–– and their evolution towards Rabbinic Judaism––and for Christians––and the birth of the Jesus’ movement. Bottom line, Christian readers especially will find out that the so-called “silent years” of the “intertestamental period” were not at all silent and are critical to understanding the writings of the New Testament.

[All quotations are taken from Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Free Press. Kindle Edition. The print edition has different pagination.]

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