by Anna Bratulic
Harvard scholar and author James Kugel put a spin on biblical interpretation recently at Concordia's Liberal Arts College.
In a talk called "Reading the Bible: Are the Words Enough?," Kugel said that a literal reading of the text does not support our widely held notions of it. "Some of the most important things 'in the Bible' really are not in the Bible itself, not in the words," Kugel said.
These are ideas and concepts that are so ingrained that we assume there are actual textual references for them. Instead, they may be the inventions of biblical interpreters.
For example, the story of Adam and Eve is widely held to be an account of the inherent sinfulness of humankind.
However, upon careful reading, questions arise. While Adam and Eve started their carefree, privileged life in the Garden of Eden, there is no mention in the Book of Genesis that they had to live without sin. Adam, whom God says will die the very day he breaks the rules, goes on to live for 930 years.
Nor is there any mention of the apple Eve is supposed to have picked from the Tree of Knowledge, eaten, and shared with Adam. Eve was not even created when God gave Adam the order not to eat from the forbidden tree; nor did Adam inform her of this restriction -- yet Eve has become a prototype of frivolous, devious Woman who cheated Man of paradise.
The ancient biblical scholars wrestled with such inconsistencies. Kugel has studied some of the earliest interpretive texts dating back to the third century BC and written in ancient languages, such as Aramaic.
"Who these people were, we'll probably never know," he said, because they often wrote anonymously or signed other names to their work. They retold and rewrote the biblical stories, threading their ideas into the fabric of the original text, answering their own questions as they went along."
The answer to Adam's unexpected longevity may lie, according to these interpreters, in a verse of the Book of Psalms that says, "A day of the Lord is 1,000 years." Taken literally, the "day" God meant when punishing Adam might have been such a 1,000-year divine day. "So if God says to Adam, 'On the day you eat of it [the forbidden fruit], you will die,' he was being technically quite correct."
Over time, the Bible came to be seen less as literal truth and more as a cryptic document, open to interpretation. For Kugel, reading between the lines is essential to understanding the text of the most important book in Judeo-Christian culture.