Saturday, April 26, 2014

James Kugel

MOMENT MAGAZINE: James Kugel: Professor of Disbelief. Excerpt:
After completing his graduate studies, Kugel taught at CUNY and Yale before returning to Harvard in 1982 to teach Hebrew literature. It was at Harvard that he began to make his mark on the world of biblical scholarship. Prior to Kugel’s work, the discipline generally focused on the nuts and bolts of the Bible: how it was written, when it was conceived and what early historical periods it reflected. Kugel offered a different approach in two of his early books, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts in Early Judaism and Christianity (1990) and The Bible As It Was (1997), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Kugel published two versions of this book, one for a popular audience and another, re-titled Traditions of the Bible, for an academic one.) In them he argues that much of what is considered the Bible today is based on interpretations developed between 200 BCE and 100 CE. These interpretations came primarily from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha—or as Kugel calls them in Hebrew, sefarim achi kitzonim, the Outside Books—texts preserved by the Christian tradition and not considered part of the Jewish canon, such as the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Judith and the Book of Enoch.

“Even more importantly, Kugel demonstrates that those early interpreters are the real authors of the Bible as it came to function in Judaism and Christianity,” says Benjamin Sommer, a Hebrew Bible professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. By dint of his encyclopedic knowledge, Kugel was able to put pieces together from sources as diverse as obscure midrashim and the writings of early Church fathers. “There’s a gap between the last pages of the Tanakh [Bible] and the first texts of our rabbis,” Kugel explains. “So much of what we think about the Bible is really dependent not on the Bible but what these ancient interpreters said. I tried to highlight that they were as important to Jews as they were to Christians.”

His emphasis on the importance of scripture to early Christians and Jews was well received by Jewish and Christian scholars alike. “It’s hard to overstate what Kugel’s work has brought about,” says Gary Anderson, the Hesburgh professor of Catholic theology at Notre Dame. “His deeper point is not always appreciated but bears repeating: The very notion of sacred scripture arises in this environment of early interpretation.” Anderson continues, “This is an argument that will wear well over time; it constitutes a lasting legacy to Kugel’s oeuvre.”
Kugel was one of my teachers during my PhD program at Harvard and I was a teaching fellow for his famous undergraduate course The Bible and Its Interpreters. I continue to introduce my students to his books at every opportunity.

More on James Kugel here and links, as well as here and here.