Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ancient Interpreters & Biblical Criticism

One of the benefits of studying at a top university like Wisconsin-Madison is the opportunity to hear guest lectures by world-class scholars. Two weeks ago I had the chance to hear James Kugel, a scholar whom I would regard as one of the leading experts on early biblical interpretation. His talk eloquently made the study of biblical interpretation immediately relevant for both readers in religious communities and scholars of biblical studies by highlighting the fundamental assumptions about the Bible shared between the ancient interpreters who preserved the text and the traditionally-minded modern reader.

Ancient interpretation is preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha (and even in the Bible itself – though Kugel didn’t emphasize it) -- basically, in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period, the early part of which should be considered the end of the “biblical” period. The interpretation preserved in this literature reflects the agenda of these interpreters. It provides a window into their program of interpretation. Today, we might call it the “spin” they put on the reading of the text. Their “spin” focuses on the relevance they believed the Bible had for their own day. It was prophecy, not history.

This program of interpretation accompanied a change in assumptions about the Bible. Kugel said this change probably came about by at least 500 BCE or earlier (but I know of no way to date it firmly). These assumptions provide a framework in which interpretation happens: 1) The Bible is a cryptic document; 2) The Bible is a book of lessons for us today; 3) All parts of the Bible are perfectly consistent; and 4) The texts are divinely inspired or have some sort of divine approval.

With these assumptions in place, interpretation becomes essential as problems in the text challenge the assumptions. For example, all parts of the Bible don’t appear on the surface to be perfectly consistent. Some parts of the Bible must have a secret meaning because they can’t be saying what the surface meaning seems to imply (e.g., Song of Songs).

Eventually, exegesis provides an overlay of tradition that transforms the biblical characters until the tradition bears little explicit resemblance to the original. For example, tradition has turned Abraham into the first monotheist and David into a prophet. Biblical law is transformed until “an eye for an eye” (Lev 24:17-21) is weakened to a monetary fine as compensation. Prophecy is transformed from a parenetic pronouncement to an original audience to either a timeless ethical teaching or an eschatological prediction.

The relevance of studying these ancient interpreters comes in the realization that their assumptions continue to live on and many religious readers approach the biblical text with similar methods.

Kugel continued describing the rise of modern biblical criticism and the move toward examining the Bible as a historical and literary artifact. Exegesis to the modern critic is figuring out what the text meant to its original audience. But the text was not immutable and its meaning was never inherent. Meaning is created out of the interaction between text and reader. The tradents preserving the biblical text passed it along with a set of assumptions shaping how it should be read. The result is that theology motivated conscious changes to the meaning of the text by affecting the active assumptions of the reader, not through direct textual tampering.

Since we would never have had a Bible without the work of these interpreters, it is this “book of changed meanings” that was the original Bible. Therefore, the Bible of modern scholarship is a Bible that never was. Rather, it is the raw material used to create the Bible. Investigation of the Bible chapter by chapter and book by book needs to look at what the Bible came to mean, not just what the text originally meant. And that is why studying early biblical interpretation is so important.


  1. Doug, I appreciate your approach in this blog. I happened onto it by accident while trying to contextualize the biblical claims of child sacrifice. Your comments on studying Scripture are refreshing.

    I have come to see that above all else, the historical figure of Jesus was unconventional, which is a far cry from the Jesus of mainline evangelicalism which claims that his function was to forgive us our sins and assure us a place in Heaven after our death and divine judegement.

    I agree with the characterization that Jesus is an icon who was subversively iconoclastic.

    His authentic parables point to a revolutionary state of faith which I see as overturning the proverbial wisdom of the Hebrew Bible--although many of his general themes do have parallels in the Old Testament traditon (for example, the prophets).

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about approaching the texts of the Bile. I like to know what was actually meant by the authors of biblical verses as well as what that verse may (or can) mean to us now.

    Again, I am impressed by your overall approach. Although I consider myself a Christian, I still strive to see my faith in a more meaningful context than much of the dogma promoted by the churches.

  2. thanks for the feedback, james. To be fair, this post mainly represents what James Kugel said on the subject but I have to admit I agree with him in large part and have promoted a similar approach in other posts.