How the Biblical texts became Holy Scripture

After reading Bible scholar James Kugel’s great book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now I was thrilled to find his lecture Can The Torah Make Its Peace With Modern Biblical Scholarship? (website). Kugel was formally a star lecturer at Harvard where his courses were routinely packed, and he now teaches at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

From his many jokes and clever asides, it is easy to understand why he was such a popular lecturer.

In this lecture Kugel is speaking at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical seminary of the American conservative movement, so there is some jargon, and a few in-jokes that may be opaque to the general listener. Thus you might want to skip the first 13 minutes, and jump in when Kugel asserts that while he is a believing, practicing Jew, he does not believe that modern biblical scholarship in traditional Judaism are reconcilable. (You could also insert traditional Christianity into that statement.)

He goes on to show how the early rabbis and commentators, writing in the centuries when Judaism and Christianity were taking shape, radically reinterpreted the biblical texts so that they took on new meanings never intended by the original authors. For example, he explains how biblical interpretations re-created the holiday Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In the Bible the holiday is referred to as a day of shofar (trumpet) blasts, but there is no mention of its current role in Judaism as the introduction to the 10 days of repentance which end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

He also uses the example of the biblical book, Song of Songs which, in the plain meaning of the text, is erotic love poetry. However biblical interpreters saw the text as the story of love between God and his people, and thus it entered the biblical canon.

If this lecture leaves you wanting more, you can also find some written lectures by Kugel here and here. And Kugel’s home page has some interesting material, including a reply to some of his critics.

(Technical note: you can download this lecture using a program like DownloadHelper. See: How to download streaming audio and video/ Part 1)

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