THE BIBLE AS IT WAS by James L. Kugel


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 An extraordinary, pathbreaking scholarly achievement: an annotated anthology of interpretations of ancient (mostly 100 b.c.300 a.d.) interpretations of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) culled from hundreds of sources. ``Interpretation'' here often refers to the homiletical expansion of a biblical narrative--known in the Jewish tradition as midrash--particularly to fill in narrative gaps and vague allusions, or to resolve morally problematic passages. Kugel, a professor of Hebrew literature and the Bible at Harvard and Israel's Bar-Ilan University, notes in a penetrating opening essay that his focus is on ``exegetical motifs.'' He notes basic principles that underlie ancient biblical interpretation, including a view of the Scriptures as ``omnisignificant,'' that is, containing meaning in even the smallest details. Jewish and Christian exegetes also expanded the prosaic to lend greater resonance to seemingly minor matters. For example, Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai interpreted Deuteronomy 27:17, ``Cursed be he who displaces his neighbor's boundary-mark,'' and Proverbs 22:28, ``Do not displace that boundary mark of old set by your father,'' by adding, ``If you see a custom of your forefathers observed, do not reject it.'' Thus, a law whose literal focus was on property was homiletically expanded to emphasize the ``boundary'' of religious tradition. Kugel's great achievement is to demonstrate again and again, with hundreds of fascinating examples, how the integrity of the text was both respected and reinterpreted by authors as varied as those of the apocrypha, the earliest midrashim, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the early Church fathers. His own interpretive comments are consistently clear and engaging. This volume, which will be savored by both Jewish and Christian lovers of Scripture, richly illustrates Kugel's point that what we know as ``the Bible'' is really a series of texts filtered through the imaginative perceptions of its ancient exegetes. (24 illustrations, not seen) (History Book Club main selection)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-674-06940-4
Page count: 700pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1997


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