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Scholars from different fields have joined forces to reexamine every aspect of the Hebrew Bible. Their research, carried out in universities and seminaries in Europe and America, has revolutionized our understanding of almost every chapter and verse. But have they killed the Bible in the process?

In How to Read the Bible, Harvard professor James Kugel leads the reader chapter by chapter through the "quiet revolution" of recent biblical scholarship, showing time and again how radically the interpretations of today's researchers differ from what people have always thought. The story of Adam and Eve, it turns out, was not originally about the "Fall of Man," but about the move from a primitive, hunter-gatherer society to a settled, agricultural one. As for the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Esau, these narratives were not, at their origin, about individual people at all but, rather, explanations of some feature of Israelite society as it existed centuries after these figures were said to have lived. Dinah was never raped -- her story was created by an editor to solve a certain problem in Genesis. In the earliest version of the Exodus story, Moses probably did not divide the Red Sea in half; instead, the Egyptians perished in a storm at sea. Whatever the original Ten Commandments might have been, scholars are quite sure they were different from the ones we have today. What's more, the people long supposed to have written various books of the Bible were not, in the current consensus, their real authors: David did not write the Psalms, Solomon did not write Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; indeed, there is scarcely a book in the Bible that is not the product of different, anonymous authors and editors working in different periods.

Such findings pose a serious problem for adherents of traditional, Bible-based faiths. Hiding from the discoveries of modern scholars seems dishonest, but accepting them means undermining much of the Bible's reliability and authority as the word of God. What to do? In his search for a solution, Kugel leads the reader back to a group of ancient biblical interpreters who flourished at the end of the biblical period. Far from naïve, these interpreters consciously set out to depart from the original meaning of the Bible's various stories, laws, and prophecies -- and they, Kugel argues, hold the key to solving the dilemma of reading the Bible today.

How to Read the Bible is, quite simply, the best, most original book about the Bible in decades. It offers an unflinching, insider's look at the work of today's scholars, together with a sustained consideration of what the Bible was for most of its history -- before the rise of modern scholarship. Readable, clear, often funny but deeply serious in its purpose, this is a book for Christians and Jews, believers and secularists alike. It offers nothing less than a whole new way of thinking about sacred Scripture.
Published: Free Press on May 1, 2012
ISBN: 9781451689099
List price: $16.99
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This book is quite a tome, but Kugel is an excellent writer. His point is that, yes, modern Biblical scholarship is probably correct in many or most statements, but that this misses the point: The Bible was put together to advance certain viewpoints and when you read the Bible you need to understand the assumptions that go into reading it in a certain way. So in addition to the words of the Bible you need to understand why the ancient interpreters actually interpreted it this way. This interpretation makes the Bible what it is. So things like 'Original Sin' are really not supported by the Bible text per se, but are rather part of the what the Ancient Interpreters wanted the Bible to mean.Very well researched and interesting. I agree with what he writes, except that he seems to think that somehow the words of the Bible plus the ancient interpretations make it into a holy book. I cannot follow that. Instead his detailed analysis suggests to me that the Bible was written and put together from several sources to advance certain viewpoints, but it is completely up to the reader to accept or reject these viewpoints. They are not supported by the text of the Bible. In addition, in re-reading some of the stories of the old testament (after a long time not looking at them), they appear even more fantastical and some instances ridiculous. And the ancient interpreters really went through some mental gymnastics to make some of characters appear better than they really were.But these are personal conclusions, and a believer may come to different ones. However, Kugel clearly points out that the modern scholarship on the Bible and the usual interpretations (based on the ancient interpreters) are irreconcilable. So, if you want to believe in the Bible you need to read as a book of 'how to serve God' and on some level make a leap of faith. This will work for some believers and he does his best to make both the stance of the believer and the skeptic intellectually respectable.Kugel has a very refreshing writing style and he will never push his viewpoint or insult the readers intelligence, so although Kugel clearly is a believer, this book is an enjoyable read for both believers and skeptics.read more
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I used this as a text in a home-school course for my high-school senior on "The Bible as Literature". It served very well for that, combining respect for the text, respect for scholarship and a sense of humour that resulted in a finely balanced gravitas that set just the right tone.Any disappointment I had was due to my wish that the author had considered other or additional passages--I never found shortcomings in the passages he did treat.And my favorite part: Describing the Garden of Eden story, Kugel describes how Christianity came to treat the serpent in the garden as Satan, but in the text, Kugel reminds us, "he's just another talking snake."read more
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I enjoyed this book immensely. Tells you what the bible says and provides historical context along with the various ways each story has been interpreted. Allowed me to understand how and why people continue to place such importance on something that archeologists, historians and biblical scholars have shown to be full of inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies. Author is an orthodox Jew, but presents material in a very balanced way even when it challenges his own beliefs. Drags at some points, but for the most part very interesting.read more
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This book is quite a tome, but Kugel is an excellent writer. His point is that, yes, modern Biblical scholarship is probably correct in many or most statements, but that this misses the point: The Bible was put together to advance certain viewpoints and when you read the Bible you need to understand the assumptions that go into reading it in a certain way. So in addition to the words of the Bible you need to understand why the ancient interpreters actually interpreted it this way. This interpretation makes the Bible what it is. So things like 'Original Sin' are really not supported by the Bible text per se, but are rather part of the what the Ancient Interpreters wanted the Bible to mean.Very well researched and interesting. I agree with what he writes, except that he seems to think that somehow the words of the Bible plus the ancient interpretations make it into a holy book. I cannot follow that. Instead his detailed analysis suggests to me that the Bible was written and put together from several sources to advance certain viewpoints, but it is completely up to the reader to accept or reject these viewpoints. They are not supported by the text of the Bible. In addition, in re-reading some of the stories of the old testament (after a long time not looking at them), they appear even more fantastical and some instances ridiculous. And the ancient interpreters really went through some mental gymnastics to make some of characters appear better than they really were.But these are personal conclusions, and a believer may come to different ones. However, Kugel clearly points out that the modern scholarship on the Bible and the usual interpretations (based on the ancient interpreters) are irreconcilable. So, if you want to believe in the Bible you need to read as a book of 'how to serve God' and on some level make a leap of faith. This will work for some believers and he does his best to make both the stance of the believer and the skeptic intellectually respectable.Kugel has a very refreshing writing style and he will never push his viewpoint or insult the readers intelligence, so although Kugel clearly is a believer, this book is an enjoyable read for both believers and skeptics.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I used this as a text in a home-school course for my high-school senior on "The Bible as Literature". It served very well for that, combining respect for the text, respect for scholarship and a sense of humour that resulted in a finely balanced gravitas that set just the right tone.Any disappointment I had was due to my wish that the author had considered other or additional passages--I never found shortcomings in the passages he did treat.And my favorite part: Describing the Garden of Eden story, Kugel describes how Christianity came to treat the serpent in the garden as Satan, but in the text, Kugel reminds us, "he's just another talking snake."
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Tells you what the bible says and provides historical context along with the various ways each story has been interpreted. Allowed me to understand how and why people continue to place such importance on something that archeologists, historians and biblical scholars have shown to be full of inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies. Author is an orthodox Jew, but presents material in a very balanced way even when it challenges his own beliefs. Drags at some points, but for the most part very interesting.
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How to Read the Bible sort of straddles the line between books written for a general audience, and those of a more scholarly bent. Kugel explores the Hebrew Bible, looking both at the traditional rabbinic interpretations that were largely formulated around the first and second century BCE, and also at the modern scholars textual criticism, which asks who wrote this portion of the Bible, why did they write it, what happened to the text after it was first written, what sort of archeological support does it have, etc. It is not a comfortable book to read. For one who loves the Exodus story, and the popular image of King David (to mention just two examples) it is disheartening to read a book, with plenty of evidence to support its thesis, that most likely the whole Exodus story is fictional, and that King David was most likely a small time tribal warlord. We end up with about five possible ways to read the Bible, and while the words may be the same, it is a different book depending on how one reads it. There is the Fundamentalist reading, which says that the Bible is a book of facts, and that nothing in it may be questioned. If scientific evidence, history, archeology, logic, etc contradict the Bible, then obviously science, history, archeology and logic are wrong, because the Bible can't be. There is the Rabbinic reading which says that everything in the Bible is sacred and conveys truth, but that truth is often concealed. The Bible is always true, but is not necessarily factual. There is the Textual Criticism view, which says the Bible is a fascinating book, written by dozens if not hundreds of different people over a period of around a thousand years, for many different audiences, with many different intents. The Bible is a book to be fascinated by, but not necessarily one we learn much from in regards to how we live our lives today. There is the Literary viewpoint, which accepts the textual criticism as valid, but is more interested in finding meaning in the Bible as we have it today, without regard to what the original authors intended, or what the ancient rabbis interpreted. And finally is Fictional view of the modern atheist. The Bible is just a bunch of meaningless ancient stories with no more meaning to them than the stories of the Greek gods.Which of these views you have before reading this book will greatly affect how you react to it. I suspect those with the fundamentalist view would simply find this book blasphemous and offensive in the extreme, while those with the fictional view would not have the interest to read it in the first place. If you start with one of the other three viewpoints, then you should get something worthwhile from this text.(Note: Although Kugel is an Orthodox Jew, he quite fairly points out throughout this book places where Christian interpretations are different from Jewish interpretations. It seems to me he conveys these extreme differences in interpretation in a fair and balanced manner. Only in the final chapter as he wraps things up does he lay out where he stands, and why, giving the arguments specifically for his own religious viewpoint.)
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James L. Kugel, a Harvard professor of religion and an Orthodox Jew, has written an exceptionally lucid analysis of the Hebrew Bible itself (the "Old Testamtent," as it was taught to me) as well analyses of modern biblical research and the interpretations given to it by the ancient interpreters of the 3rd through 1st centuries B.C.E.Modern research has shown that the current text of the Bible is the result of much changing and editing of the orginal stories, which editing took place primarily during that same 3rd through 1st centruies B.C.E. Moreover, the original stories were even less literally believable to a modern reader than their current redacted form.Kugel urges the reader to read the Bible not as it was originally written, but how it came to be. Most of the major changes in the meaning of the Bible took place without actually changing the original words, but by changing the meaning given to them. Thus the Song of Songs was originally an erotic hymn to a human lover, but it was recast (without changing the words themselves) to a description of God's relationship with his chosen people. Some interesting conclusions of modern scholarship: The ancient Israelites were monolatrists, not monotheists. That is, they believed in the existence of other gods, like Baal, but they thought they were to worship only their tribal god, YHWH. There is no archeological evidence of a conquest of Canaan; rather it seem that the Israelites may have won a few battles with the indigenous people of Palestine, but absorbed them rather than thoroughy vanquishing them. Not only is the flood story borrowed from earlier Mesopotamian myths, but even the language of the story seems copied from earlier sources. Even David and Saul (let alone Abraham and the earliest Biblical figures) may not have been real people. The story of the Covenant on Mount Sinai borrows its form and structure from earlier Assyrian vassal treaties, with God assuming the role of the suzerain. Despite being aware that little in the Bible is "true," Kugel argues that it may still be taken seriously. The Bible became the manual of behavior for the Jewish people, and one can believe (if one needs to) that at least some (but probably not all) was divinely inspired. Nevertheless, Kugel concludes that "modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable." He chooses to read the Bible as what it came to mean during the editing process, irrespective of how it got to be that way. I think Kugel's perspective may be the only way to read the Bible and keep religious faith. I prefer the modern scholarship approach, finding it to be a very human document with many inconsistacies, absurdities, and down right evil examples of behavior described as ordered by God. Also the idea of the Jews as the chosen people of a transcendent God (as opposed to their original tribal god) seems patently silly. I thank Kugel for a wonderful book, one that should be required reading in every Baptist seminary.(JAB)
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