Irreconcilable Biblical Interpretations

My wife often gets my mail to me late or never at all. It’s usually alright. She writes the bills and handles important stuff. And caring for eight children, who can blame her for not always getting me my latest Biblical Archaeology Review, right?

So it is that I’m just getting around to reading my January/February 2008 issue of BAR right now. And right off I discover an interesting tidbit on the cover, an article about “irreconcilable Biblical interpretations.”

It turns out to be by James Kugel, an Orthodox Jewish scholar whose book On Being a Jew I read last year for a class in Jewish spiritual practices. I like this guy. He is sharp.

Kugel has a more recent book called How to Read the Bible: A Guide to the Scripture Then and Now. BAR features an article by Richard Elliott Friedman called “Ancient Biblical Interpreters vs. Archaeology and Modern Scholars.” Here is what the cover meant by “irreconcilable Biblical interpretations.”

I’m certainly familiar with this kind of rhetoric. I experienced it firsthand in grad school. An archaeology professor, whom I highly respect, called me in to his office to chat. He said I was a promising student. I smiled. He then went on to say that he noticed I was quite the believer in the Bible. He told me how he once had felt the same as I did, until years of scholarship raised too many problems for him to continue that faith. At the time we met in his office, he shared with me how he was moving now into yet another paradigm shift, from modernist-critic of the Bible to postmodern-appreciater of the Bible as a spiritual text.

I thanked him, and I still do. I told him only time could tell if he was right about my impending change of faith paradigms. Thirteen years later, I still am a believer in the truth of the Bible.

To be sure, a few things have changed. I see that I was far to certain of the meaning of certain texts back then. I see that there are inexplicable things in the Bible. I accept now that the chain of transmission in the Bible is not as error-free as I once thought (especially regarding certain numerical values). I am more aware now of variant readings that I used to be. I’m also aware that archaeology cannot confirm certain things.

But this does not even begin to crumble the walls of Biblical truth. I’ve actually learned in this process that God is not nearly as concerned with perfect consistency in the transmission of the text as some scholars are. I learn from the New Testament, for example, that quoting the Septuagint is just fine, even when it differs significantly from the Hebrew text. God is not wringing his hands over Paul’s quotation of Psalm 68:18 (19 in Hebrew) in Ephesians 4. The heavens will not fall because Paul said “gave gifts” instead of “received gifts.”

Similarly, archaeologists famously cannot comfirm (or disprove) the account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Definitely old-fashioned, naïve interpretations of Joshua marching in a leveling the whole country are out. But then Joshua and Judges both indicate that the conquest was gradual. The question is how gradual. So in reality, the Bible and archaeology are not at odds here. There is a lot of room for interpretation of both the text and the stones and bones.

Now, to be sure, Kugel’s book and Friedman’s article deserve more than this cursory review I am making. The problems of Biblical interpretation deserve an unending body of scholarship.

And though modern may seem better, ancient has some serious advantages too.

My best advice:

#1: Don’t believe anything you hear about the Bible or religion on a television documentary.

#2: If you read a book like Kugel’s, it helps to be a student of the Bible and modern interpretation.

#3: Don’t assume the Bible or its ancient interpreters are automatically wrong.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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