The Things That You’re Liable to Read in the Bible


How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L. Kugel – I actually saw this book recommended on Unreasonable Faith recently, so I decided to check it out. I have to say I definitely recommend it as well, regardless of what your own religious affiliation is. Kugel works his way through the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, explaining how various stories were traditionally interpreted, how interpretations changed over time (including how Christians turned them into allegories of Jesus), and what modern biblical scholars think they might have originally meant. The author, as a practicing Jew, admits to having somewhat of a bias toward the traditional interpretations, but he presents the other viewpoints quite fairly and thoroughly. He concludes in the final chapter that modern scholarship essentially undermines the notion of the Bible, seeing it instead as a collection of unrelated stories that were eventually cobbled together. In Judaism, the basis of the religion is not merely scripture itself, but also the rabbinical interpretations of scripture, as seen in the idea that the Oral Torah is just as important as the written one. It’s somewhat different in Christianity, particularly with the rise of the Protestant desire to base their teachings entirely on scripture as written. Anyway, I found the book quite engaging and even-handed, and even amusing in spots.

One thing Kugel mentions is that, while much of modern biblical scholarship was initially the work of believers who wanted to get down to the purest form of their holy book, it’s difficult to really get into such studies without taking a largely secular view. Even with this knowledge, however, a lot of them still retain their faith. And why not? If your faith is shaken by the concept that the book of Isaiah could have more than one author, was it really all that strong to begin with? Yet it seems like many pastors, especially of the more fundamentalist forms of Christianity, learned these things in seminary but refuse to tell them to their congregations, which strikes me as a rather elitist attitude. “Sure, I can be aware that the Bible isn’t 100% accurate and still believe in God, but I don’t think you can handle it!” This is a topic Bart Ehrman talks about in another book I read recently, Jesus, Interrupted. Beth, who thinks it’s funny to make me listen to and watch annoying stuff, will often turn the car radio to the Calvary Chapel radio station, and it’s amazing how indignant some of the pastors will get over the idea that the Bible might not be literally true. One of them insisted that Isaiah must have only had one author, because Jesus spoke as if it did, and how can we say we know more than Jesus? If you asked one of these preachers how they know Jesus is divine, though, they’ll likely point to the Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah. So if it turns out there was some forgery involved in that book, where does that leave them? Going around in circles, I suppose. Also, I’ve come to find that the idea of sola scriptura is rather hypocritical anyway. If the Bible is their guidebook for everything, why does it seem like the main concerns of the modern fundamentalist movement are abortion, drugs, and gay marriage? Where does it address any of these things in the Bible? Oh, sure, you can pull out some verses and say that’s what they mean, but that’s due to how their forbears interpreted those verses. So even people who SAY they take the Bible literally generally don’t. A lot of them haven’t even read it, which makes me wonder how they know their religious leaders aren’t just inventing stuff that isn’t really in there.

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14 Responses to The Things That You’re Liable to Read in the Bible

  1. Julie says:

    A dangerous thing Tag Surfing is… I have already purchased two books for my Kindle today based upon reviews. I added this one to my Amazon wishlist; they didn’t have a Kindle version and I have spent enough money on books today. Thanks for your review ~

  2. I’m echoing Julie’s thoughts. Dammit, I just took out 15,000 in student loans. I can’t afford non-school related books…yet here I go, buying more.

    • Nathan says:

      Well, here’s one way to look at it: the books aren’t costing anywhere near as much as your student loans, so they’re a bargain!

      You might want to check local libraries. That’s where I found a copy of this one.

      • That is a very good point…I’ve already spent so much on school, a few books are inconsequential.

        With books like these I prefer to have my own copy. I usually write notes in the margin.

      • Nathan says:

        I don’t usually write in books. That’s not to say that I’m always very careful with them, but I don’t write in them even when I own them.

  3. If your faith is shaken by the concept that the book of Isaiah could have more than one author, was it really all that strong to begin with? Yet it seems like many pastors, especially of the more fundamentalist forms of Christianity, learned these things in seminary but refuse to tell them to their congregations, which strikes me as a rather elitist attitude.

    Elitist AND hypocritical (and certainly regular Bible-readers are aware of how much time Jesus spends dissing hypocrites? He never says a thing about gays). When people feel they need to be DISHONEST to get people to believe what they believe? How does that follow? Sometimes I feel like a total heretic– well, I guess I AM a bit of a heretic– but then I realize that at least I don’t have to lie to anyone– or to myself– to defend my faith.

    • Nathan says:

      It kind of reminds me of what I heard about Galileo, with the Church saying he was right, but punishing him anyway because they didn’t think the common people were ready for his findings.

      • ozaline says:

        It was also that he made a big show of it, upset some influential people.. Including the Pope who had been his ally

        Earlier, Pope Urban VIII had personally asked Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, and to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism. He made another request, that his own views on the matter be included in Galileo’s book. Only the latter of those requests was fulfilled by Galileo. Whether unknowingly or deliberately, Simplicio, the defender of the Aristotelian Geocentric view in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was often caught in his own errors and sometimes came across as a fool. Indeed, although Galileo states in the preface of his book that the character is named after a famous Aristotelian philosopher (Simplicius in Latin, Simplicio in Italian), the name “Simplicio” in Italian also has the connotation of “simpleton”.[48] This portrayal of Simplicio made Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems appear as an advocacy book: an attack on Aristotelian geocentrism and defence of the Copernican theory. Unfortunately for his relationship with the Pope, Galileo put the words of Urban VIII into the mouth of Simplicio. Most historians agree Galileo did not act out of malice and felt blindsided by the reaction to his book.[49] However, the Pope did not take the suspected public ridicule lightly, nor the Copernican advocacy. Galileo had alienated one of his biggest and most powerful supporters, the Pope, and was called to Rome to defend his writings.

  4. ozaline says:

    Paul strikes me as homophobic… but omit Paul and one line in Leviticus and the bible says jack all about gay people… and nothing about trans people (and yes Transgendered priestess did exist in the roman empire and they did have estrogen treatments).

    So yes why all the time and energy? It’s for this reason among others that I abandoned mainstream christianity.

    • Nathan says:

      I think there are actual two lines in Leviticus condemning homosexuality, but to compare Canaanite temple practices to modern homosexual relationships is ridiculous, to say the least. And some people think Paul might have been in the closet.

  5. Julie says:

    I don’t feel like I truly own a book until I have communicated with the author by writing my thought in the margins.

    I recently read Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. It offered a very nice history of Galileo’s struggles with the church and was told like a story rather than a dry history text. Loved it.

  6. Pingback: The Simple Life | VoVatia

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