Was Something Lost?

How to Read the Bible
A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
James L. Kugel
Free Press, $35, 848 pp.

James Kugel’s elegantly written How to Read the Bible tries to be at least two things at once. On one level, it is an introductory textbook. On another, it is a meditation on “the larger question of what a modern reader ought to make of” the Bible. The book’s unusual character, on either level, lies in Kugel’s juxtaposition of two kinds of interpretation: that of the earliest Jewish and Christian interpreters, which he has already covered at length in The Bible as It Was and The Traditions of the Bible, and that of modern biblical scholars. It is clear that Kugel’s heart is with the traditional interpreters, but he also appreciates the intellectual achievement of modern scholarship.

Viewed purely as an introduction, the book suffers from some imbalance. Genesis receives 146 pages; the entire prophetic corpus (excluding the “Former Prophets” or historical books) gets less than a hundred. About half the book deals with the Pentateuch. In part, that discrepancy is due to the wealth of early interpretations of the Pentateuch, but it also reflects a theological priority. The distinctive character of the book as an introduction lies in the fact that it gives traditional interpretation-that of the earliest Jewish and Christian interpreters-equal time with modern scholarship. In some cases, modern scholarship gets short shrift. The theory that the story of Adam and Eve is a reflection on the discovery of agriculture...

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About the Author

John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University.