Pressed by odd and oftentimes seemingly inexplicable passages, modern Bible readers are often left asking, “but what does it mean?” Any attempted explanation naturally reflects the end of a long process of interpretation, a process that stretches back to the original authors and editors of the Bible. Modern interpretation is thus founded on a long tradition of biblical exegesis. In fact, exegesis in any era is based to a great extent on what previous generations thought the biblical texts meant. Jewish and Christian theology has always been, naturally, based on the Bible, but this biblical foundation was always mediated through the many traditional interpretations that had attached themselves to the texts. Professors of biblical literature in college-level courses face the problem regularly. When trying to explain any given biblical text, a student will comment that that is not what she/he had learned from their minister, priest, rabbi. Moreover, the more informed students can also add that “that is not what the rabbis have/church has traditionally taught!”
Kugel, Harry Starr Professor of Classical, Modern Jewish, and Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, has cobbled together a vast array of early Jewish and Christian texts that comment on, expand, or rewrite biblical passages with the goal of explicating the interpretive trajectories these texts have taken. This book focuses on the interpretation of passages from the Torah/Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, from the third century bce to the second century ce. The book, however, is more than a compendium of quotations from a host of sources that comment on Torah passages. Kugel also traces how and why later biblical interpreters crafted their interpretations as they did by identifying the details in the texts—ambiguities, syntactical details, unusual or awkward vocabulary, repetitions, etc.—that gave rise to various interpretations. He shows, in other words, both what the later interpreters produced and how their exegetical imaginations worked. This analysis of the interpretive process and its results provides insight into the social, intellectual, and religious lives of the interpreters and the communities they served.
For example, Kugel’s treatment of how the ancient interpreters understood the tale about how God instructed Moses to build the tabernacle (Deut 30:11–14) is typical of the presentations in this book. Kugel quotes the passage and then points out the questions that arise from the text or that the text leaves unanswered. He then explores how several texts understood the idea that Torah (God’s instructions) are not to be found in heaven (Deut 30:12). Baruch 3:29–4:1 notes that apart from Torah, divine wisdom is not available. Targum Neophyti (Deut 30:12) and b. Baba Metzia 59b take this text to mean that Torah is no longer secreted away but has been given to humans and they now have the responsibility of learning, doing, and teaching its precepts. Kugel then turns to the New Testament, Romans 10:6–8, to show how Paul perhaps alludes to these verses from Deuteronomy and turns them on their head, making them refer to Christian interests in knowing what is the true basis of faith. Kugel’s explication of just this pericope (Deut 30:11–14) indicates the considerable learning behind this collection of biblical interpretations. The Jewish and Christian texts exploited by Kugel range from the ancient biblical translations to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament and early Church Fathers, the Targumim, and “early” rabbinic literature.
This is not Kugel’s first journey into these exegetical traditions. For those interested in the techniques and process of biblical exegesis, readers are advised to consult Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation, Library of Early Christianity 3 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986). In fact, The Bible as It Was fits nicely the period between biblical exegesis covered in Kugel and Greer (see also Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985]) and classical Jewish midrash (see also Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology [Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1998]).
Each of the 25 chapters in The Bible as It Was begins with a synopsis of the biblical passage or story that brings the reader into the story. Kugel then explains how the passage or story was understood in antiquity by quoting from the ancient texts themselves. Kugel’s narrative and the quotations highlight how these texts were understood in antiquity. Oftentimes the ancients’ interpretations are decidedly at odds with traditional and popular interpretations known to modern audiences. Kugel thus highlights how different understandings of the texts have evolved. Each chapter ends with a summary that highlights these differences. Footnotes are kept to a bare minimum, a feature that certainly adds to the book’s readability. A most helpful element is the glossary of “Terms and Sources” used in the book. Here one finds definitions of terms, descriptions of texts, and references to English translations of the various ancient documents quoted in the book. Since many of the terms, texts, and traditions will be familiar only to specialists in the field, this glossary will be most helpful, enabling readers to make sense out a dazzling array of material. Kugel claims that had he continued his work through the entire Hebrew Bible, this project would have grown into a vast, multi-volume work. In fact, many readers will hope that Kugel will continue the task or assemble a team for such an endeavor. Were he to do so, Kugel would produce a modern version of Louis Ginzberg’s multi-volume classic The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909–38). Although Kugel’s mastery of the myriad texts and his deft interpretive skills are always in evidence, the book is a delightful read and will certainly please both scholarly and popular audiences. Eusebius, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C. F. Cruse trans.