Scholar digs into Bible's past

Theology | How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James Kugel, Free Press, $35, 848 pages

Behind the preachy title of this masterful opus one hears the rumble of scholarly thunderbolts poised to reawaken the pagan in us all.

In his newest book, James Kugel, professor emeritus of Hebrew literature at Harvard University, surveys the Old Testament from the dual perspective of ancient commentary and modern scholarly research.

Kugel offers a grand tour of the Hebrew Bible as a sprawling anthology of fables, treaties, propaganda and fabrications stitched together over 10 centuries by scattered sects and feuding factions, who borrowed freely from neighboring tribes and pillaged here and there from crumbling empires, to create the central text of Western Civilization.

Kugel brings impeccable religious bona fides to his task: A devout Orthodox Jew, Kugel forsook his Harvard post to dedicate himself to teaching and studying the Bible in Jerusalem. Yet this observant Jew stands in awe of the diligent biblical sleuthing by modern linguists, archaeologists, anthropologists and historians who have so effectively demolished cherished beliefs about God and the Bible. Indeed, Kugel proclaims this dazzling scholarship to be on par with the intellectual achievements of Albert Einstein.

And that's the point of Kugel's study: That to give the Bible its due, one must come to terms with the scholarship that tells us that the authors of the Old Testament weren't Moses, David, Solomon and Isaiah; that a mass exodus of Jews out of Egypt never happened; that the ancient Israelites were Canaanites who worshipped pagan idols. Intellectual honesty obligates us to acknowledge that pretty much the entire Bible as it has been understood for the past two millennia is the product of elucidations, wishful thinking and, at times, wild fancy that would have seemed strange to the original Canaanite storytellers.

Still, Kugel warns, the early Jewish and Christian interpreters of Scripture can't be laughed off today as pious frauds. Kugel contends that we moderns cannot begin to comprehend the Bible if we disregard the achievements of the ancient scribes and sages who -- several centuries before and after Jesus -- edited, revised and interpreted a coherent Bible out of a loose assortment of scrolls, legal codices and oral traditions that were circulating throughout the ancient Near East. For their way of reading the Bible -- as divine, flawless and deeply relevant to the here and now -- is in essence what the Bible has become, despite its own history.

"The original meaning of these texts disappeared," Kugel writes. "In a sense, ancient interpreters rewrote every one of them, even though they did not change a word."

During the past 150 years, scholars have labored to reveal the palimpsest of the original Bible by cross-referencing the text against other ancient religions, legal codes and archaeological sites that predate the rise of Judaism. Some of the evidence is lying about the Bible, if only we had eyes to see.

For instance: According to the custom of the times, the ancient Israelites for centuries worshipped multiple gods. As the Israelite theology gradually coalesced into monotheism, a remarkable transformation ensued. El, the thundering commander-in-chief of the Canaanite pantheon, was fused into a single God with the clan god YHWH (or Yahweh), a deity with very humanoid characteristics, like arms and fingers. Both divine names have been retained in the Bible, preserving the two traditions.

The language we know as Hebrew curiously never goes by that name in the Hebrew Bible. Instead it's called "Judean" or "Canaanite." The Hebrew people themselves appear to be none other than the "apiru" or "habiru" mentioned in ancient Egyptian, Akkadian and Sumerian records, a term of opprobrium used to describe the underclass rebels among the Canaanites who threw off the yoke of Egyptian hegemony in the region.

"The future Israelites are in every sense Canaanites themselves, massing just outside the walled cities -- peasants, brigands, and apiru," Kugel writes.

What readers will find so perplexing about Kugel's analysis is that he is the first to admit that the methodologies of the ancients and the moderns he so extols are utterly incompatible. Can the flood story function as an allegory about obedience and righteousness, and at the same time be analyzed as a rewriting of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic? Are the Ten Commandments God's own golden rule, or are they adaptations of ancient Near East vassal treaties? Was Cain the son of Satan forever condemned to wander the Earth, as the ancients believed? Or is this an etiological tale about the Qayin, a fierce nomadic tribe that worshipped the same God as the Israelites? Yes and yes. In Kugel's mind, the two traditions are now as inseparable as El and YHWH.

Still, Kugel feels no affinity for present-day literalists. He notes the irony that fundamentalism and modern scholarship sprang from the same well-intentioned Protestant impulse: to strip Scripture from centuries of cultural and ideological baggage: to confront the text directly. "By Scripture alone" was their rallying cry.

But the quest has led the literalists to a theological dead end, Kugel wryly notes. Fundamentalism, he says, "might well be described as a form of fetishism or idolatry, that is, a mistaking of the message for its Sender and the turning of its words into idols of wood and stone."