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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with James Kugel about how the assumptions people hold about the Bible affect how it is interpreted as they explore the following questions:

  • Why has the Bible survived for so long? 
  • What assumptions did ancient interpreters make about the Bible?
  • How does the Bible interpret the Bible?
  • Do modern readers of the Bible interpret the Bible like ancient interpreters?
  • How can we live in the tension of being modern people of faith using an ancient book?
  • Did ancient people believe God wrote the Bible?
  • What are our modern assumptions about the Bible?
  • Why is understanding ancient assumptions about the Bible important?
  • How did new ways of interpreting the Bible develop in Christianity?
  • How did the invention of the printing press change how people interpreted the Bible?
  • Should modern readers of the Bible still hold onto the ancient assumptions about the Bible?
  • Do modern Jews and Christians share the same assumptions in biblical interpretation?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from James Kugel you can share. 

  • “The cryptic assumption is for all interpreters a kind of starting point. You don’t assume that these texts are not exactly what they seem to be, then you’re going to have trouble with all the rest.” — James Kugel
  • “Among the 1st century ancient biblical interpreters, is Jesus of Nazareth.” — James Kugel
  • “For Jews, the Bible is already definitively interpreted.” — James Kugel
  • “There are things that we assume about ourselves and our minds that differ very much from the way other human beings elsewhere on the globe assume about themselves.” — James Kugel
  • “What did people in biblical times assume about themselves and can we find evidence of it in scripture?” — James Kugel

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript [Introduction]


Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. Before we get into today’s episode, here’s a sneak peek at the audio version of my new book Love Matters More: How Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. If this is interesting, you want to hear more, you want to read more, I would encourage you go to or wherever you order your books and order a copy of Love Matters More. If that’s not your cup of tea, you can fast forward this part and get into this amazing episode with James Kugel. Thanks everyone, for your support.

[Book excerpt begins]

Jared: Chapter three: “Beware of Falling in Love with Cows”.

One night when I was seventeen, I came home from a night out with friends and went straight to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat. Even though our kitchen was small, it was where we had our washer and dryer and dining table that sat in front of a large window. As I walked into the kitchen from the living room, I could see my mom sitting there working on something. We began talking about the night, which somehow lead to a conversation about Christianity. Well, to be honest, I tried to steer most of my conversations into conversations about Christianity. We were debating the idea of predestination, whether God chooses which people will go to heaven, or whether we have free will. I had recently been introduced to theology and after reading two or three books on the topic, I was clearly an expert and needed to change everyone’s mind to save them from their ignorant ways. “Aha! But you see,” I said to my mom as I pointed a finger in her face, “you’ve just contradicted yourself.” In an instant, she grabbed my throat with one hand and my shirt with the other and slammed me into our back door. Our eyes grew wide as the realization of what just happened sank in. We both began to shake, and tears streamed down our faces as we sat in silence. Finally, my mom apologized as she explained that people pointing fingers at her was a trigger from when she was a girl and her father would name call the children while pointing his finger at them. That’s the night I learned that getting theology right wasn’t all there was to Christian faith.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode. Before we jump in, did want to just mention something really exciting – my book is coming out. It actually should be available now for pre-order and tomorrow for real live order you can get it in your hands, and it’s called Love Matters More: Why Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. So, it’s really relevant as we head into major political season talking about how do we, and frankly, it ties in with our episode today because I talk about how do we interpret the Bible in ways that are more loving.

Pete: Mm hmm. Right.

Jared: And that’s really what it’s about. So you can just go to, it’s there on the front page, or you can go to or and you can grab a copy. Would really appreciate your support and really want to just take this message of how do we read the Bible more lovingly as we move forward, political season and just in our daily life. Today, we’re talking about challenging our assumptions about the Bible with Dr. James Kugel.

Pete: Yeah! Jim is an Emeritus Professor, which is a nice fancy way of saying he doesn’t work anymore. Now, he’s always working but he doesn’t teach, but he taught for many years at Harvard University. He was actually my doctoral advisor and also, for many years now, at Bar Ilan University in Israel. So, he’s been around a little bit, and yeah, I mean this is, to me, this is just so reminiscent for me. Such a reminiscence, I guess that’s the right word, of, you know, talking to my doctor advisor, but his big thing is ancient interpretation and that sounds like a really, meh topic, but, oh no. It’s very relevant and, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, Jared, but it’s, it’s basically, you have to keep remembering the New Testament for Christians is a piece of ancient Jewish literature and there are certain ways of approaching their scripture that are not remotely modern ways of doing it. And that’s, I found, that’s like the biggest hurdle for Christians who want to engage the Bible seriously. That’s a big hurdle, I should say, to get over. And it’s not easy to do and it’s one that you can get in trouble with about when you’re talking about it too much.

Jared: Well that’s, yeah, you get into trouble because it’s not only, I wouldn’t say it’s just relevant for today, I think it’s probably one of the most relevant questions facing us as Christians is what do we, like, when we talk about what do we do with the Bible, you know, what is it –

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: These questions are one of the first order of questions that come up.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Well, how did they, how did Paul deal with the Bible? How did Jesus deal with the Bible?

Pete: Right.

Jared: What did ancient people do with it and what if it’s not compatible with what we think we should be doing with it now?

Pete: Right.

Jared: How do we bridge all that?


Pete: It makes us examine our own assumptions by looking at the assumptions other people were making and how compatible or incompatible our assumptions might be with ancient assumptions and, one thing I want to just point out here because it’s, you know, we talked about it, but I think this is so important to, you know, encapsulate what we talked about, is that how the reason the Bible survived at all is because people got creative quick with the Bible because the Bible itself is written in a time for particular purposes, but as centuries go on, how do you connect with this text, right? You have to, I mean, update its meanings I guess, is one way, we didn’t use that language in the interview, but that’s, and there are assumptions that ancient interpreters made and we’ll get into that in the episode itself, but their assumptions that they made, not conscious assumptions like, let’s make these assumptions, but it just religiously driven assumptions about the text that allowed them to bring this ancient text into a very different context and that’s so anathema, isn’t it Jared, to what we were taught, what I was taught in graduate school, what I was taught in seminary. You don’t do that –

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: You just sort of read the text and it tells you what to do.

Jared: All right.

Pete: If only.

Jared: Well, let’s get with this conversation here with James.

[Music begins]

James: Christians, for centuries, believe that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar because that’s what God had demanded, but this was actually a kind of foreshadowing, foretelling of the story of the crucifixion in which God was willing to sacrifice his only son.

[Music ends]

Pete: Well, Jim, welcome to the podcast!

James: Good to be here.

Pete: Yeah, it’s great to be here even though your “here” is not here.

James: It’s a fiction –


Pete: [Laughter]

You’re quite far away, aren’t you? Right now.

James: In Jerusalem.

Pete: Yes, you’re in Jerusalem, I know. So, and we’re not. We’re in Souderton, Pennsylvania.

James: Uh huh.

Pete: Which is also an important city, I think, so anyway. Nothing’s happening here, so. Well listen, it’s great to have you here and, you know, our topic today is to talk about ancient interpreters of the Bible, which sounds like, maybe for some people, an obscure sort of topic, but nothing could be further from the truth. And I know myself, you know, studying under you and learning about these assumptions and sort of seeing them at work was just a really important thing for me for thinking about, you know, frankly, my own understanding of the Bible, my relationship to the Bible. What is God like? How does the Bible fit into that? All those sorts of questions really came into play for me. And so, let’s talk about those assumptions and their importance and, you know, one of them. Let me just say what they are, because I have them written down in front of me, so. The Bible is fundamentally cryptic. It’s meaning is not obvious. That’s an ancient assumption. Another is that the Bible is like lessons that are relevant for us today whenever that today is, and they’re also, there are no contradictions or mistakes in the Bible. And then the fourth one is that the Bible is somehow divinely given, it’s something that is from God in some sense, and those are four assumptions that just come out again and again reading ancient literature, Jewish or Christian literature, it’s sort of had a profound impact. So, I thought we could talk about each of those and maybe just sort of play them off of modern assumptions about reading the Bible, which can sometimes, like, run into some conflicts and tensions with ancient ways of thinking. How does that sound? 


James: Sounds great. I would say, I didn’t start out with this list of four assumptions. My original interest was just trying to understand the way people in the second or third century BC and going on into the first century of the AD’s, how these people understood Biblical texts. And I had a nice, wide variety of people to read. There were, to begin with, a bunch of Jewish interpreters who wrote books like the Book of Jubilees, which nobody has ever heard of, but was a very important book in the second century before the Common Era. And then, individuals whose name we know, we don’t know who wrote the book of Jubilees, but we know somebody named Ben Sira, who lived again, in the second century, and then other figures who wrote in Greek, Philo and Alexandria and Josephus, they all had written about Biblical texts, and they had very different styles. Philo is an amazing, Greek speaking, Greek writing rhetorician among other things. Josephus, you know, is less great. But we also have his writings, and then we have lots of anonymous rabbinic writings from those same centuries. But what surprised me was that they all seem to subscribe to that list of four assumptions that you just named, or, rather, putting it through my own experience, the more I read these people, the more, and no matter how different they were in their lives and their interests and stuff, but they all seem to assume the same four things about any biblical text or, you know, proto-biblical text. They assume that, you know, a biblical text could be, and usually was somehow cryptic, people, you know, had to read between the lines to understand what it meant. And this, of course, is a kind of counter-intuitive way of reading. Normally, when we read something, we think it’s pretty straightforward. It’s telling what it wants to say, but with biblical texts, it often happens that people say, well, it says “x”, what it really means is “y” –

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: So, you have to kind of look deeply into its words to understand what’s not being said. And the second thing that you mentioned is that these texts are writing about the Bible and so the people who are writing about it, even before there was a fixed cannon or there was something like the Bible was around, and people assume that they were, what they had to say, was somehow relevant to me. You know, wherever the writer of these interpretations was. That wouldn’t be a normal assumption that you bring to any other text, you know, if you’re reading the Laws of Hammurabi, you might say, well, that’s interesting. If you’re a, you know, professor, you might even say I could write an article about this, but basically that was then, this is now, and so, why should I think about, you know, obeying those laws. But of course, in biblical text, people do assume if there are laws, that you know, some of them have to be obeyed today, and indeed this is the word of God. So, in that respect, it is also kind of a counter-intuitive assumption. The third, likewise, to think that the Bible is perfect, that there are no contradictions, there are, ya know, no, of course, factual errors, this isn’t what you would necessarily bring to the reading of any other text, but that’s what these ancient interpreters assumed. And you rightly mentioned the fourth assumption that is these books come from God or somehow were transmitted with God’s intention that we read them. That’s fourth because, not because it’s fourth in importance, but it’s the one that makes itself explicit rather after than the first three. The first three got had very often in the second century or the third century, and this only a little bit later and less consistently.

Jared: Is there a, when I think about this list, it seems like they seem to dovetail off of that last one. Meaning, there’s assumptions about what we can expect from a book if it comes from God. So, it if comes from God, it’s cryptic, it’s relevant for today, there’s no contradictions, so those all kind of flow from that one. Would that be fair?


James: Well, that’s what, you know, a lot of people assume, but it’s striking that it isn’t true. Ya know, people often in the first or second century say, Moses wrote that, and there’s no enabling legislation to say that everything that Moses wrote came from God. The book of Genesis didn’t seem to have an author, and so, ya know, I’m just going to say that this is what it says in Genesis, and here’s how I understand it.

Pete: Yeah. Can we get back to the cryptic notion, because I think, you know, three of those assumptions will make a lot of sense for, you know, I’m thinking of particular people of faith. You know, like today, like yeah, it’s from God. Yeah, I guess the Bible really wouldn’t contradict itself and yeah, it’s relevant for today, but it’s that first one that the Bible is fundamentally cryptic, which is absolutely there, that’s part of the ancient mentality, but can you flesh out a little bit more? Like, where does that assumption, why have an assumption like that?

James: Well, one reason would be that taking the text at its word would often end the interpreters in a place that was very uncomfortable for them. In the meantime, you know, a time when these texts were first written down in the now of the interpreter, all sorts of things that one wanted to believe about the Bible didn’t seem to be consistent with what the words were saying.

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: Moral standards, and you know, all sorts of things were just different. So, it was important to say even though it seems to be saying this, what it really means is that, I think this was probably important for all ancient interpreters, but certainly after Jewish and Christian streams began to separate. It might have been a little easier to be a Christian and, you know, you could say, well, those laws have been superseded, but Jews didn’t have that liberty. So, for them in a somewhat later period when they were split off from Christianity, but for them it was absolutely crucial.

Jared: Well, it seems connected, again, to the other ones in the sense that if it’s going to be relevant for today, x can’t always mean x because x might be irrelevant.

James: You’re right.

Jared: So, x needs to mean y so that I can make it mean something for me today, and the same with contradictions. Well, if I find a contradiction, what do I do with that? Well, I’ve already kind of a priori assumed it can’t have that, so if it’s cryptic, I get a way around that one as well. So, it kind of is, the cryptic one is a justification one, maybe, for the others as well. So, I’m seeing a lot of connections between all four of these.

James: Right. No, you’re quite right, and I would say the cryptic assumption is for all interpreters a kind of starting point. You don’t assume that these texts are not exactly what they seem to be, then you’re going to have trouble with all the rest.

Jared: So, how does that square? Because I think that, you know, we’re talking about ancient interpreters and then we get to the modern era where, you know, in my tradition I would’ve grown up with things like, well, it’s not really cryptic. We have a plain reading, we just have to look at the grammatical, historical context, and we can come up with some, what it meant back then. So, there seems to be in the modern period, a move to not what does it mean for me today, but what did it mean back then, and then somehow, we try to figure out how it means something for us today. But, how does that, you know, because that, I was just thinking in my tradition, these would all still be relevant. Like, these would all still be kind of the forefront of what we would have been taught. But then we have this other thing, which is context, historical criticism, and we’re trying to, it feels like we’re in a cultural moment where we’re trying to fix those two together.

Pete: Mm hmm.


James: Right. I mean, I certainly second that observation. But I think the big, you have to really regard this whole subject historically as well. This way of reading, you know, was amazing. Once it took hold, it was very, very difficult to throw any of this stuff into question, precisely because everybody knew the texts were cryptic and they were talking to us and so forth. So, people, once they had ascribed to this way of reading, it just kind of ballooned in the early Christian centuries, Christian, you know, the very first Christians were Jews, but then these ways parted and Christians developed, eventually, a rather complicated fourfold reading of scripture. They said that, at least potentially, there weren’t too many good examples of this, but potentially, a particular verse, or even a word could have four different meanings in the sacred text. This is quite separate from our four assumptions, but there was a historical or literal meaning and that was, I have to say, the least interesting of all the ones that you were taught. And then, there was the allegorical, the anagogical, and I don’t want to get into these categories, but this was, you know, this meant that if you wanted to read the Bible, well, you weren’t going to. You needed to go to an expert like me –


Pete: [Laughter]

James: To make any sense of this. In fact, if we’re speaking in real terms, most Christians couldn’t read. Why would you, you know, want to know how to read? There were these, you know, people who would explain it to you well into the Middle Ages. You know, there were adept explainers who preached in church or sometimes on the village green and they would tell you exactly what it meant, and it was, you know, the more complicated, the more it seemed that you simply had to trust the respected ancient teachings that had been written down as well as the present, you know, medieval, or whoever exponents of those teachings.

Pete: Yeah. I mean, it seems like those that fourfold, so called fourfold method, it’s not the same as the four assumptions, but they sort of map onto each other a little bit because, yeah, there is that historical, literal meaning, but so what? I mean, that’s not the one that has meaning for you and, you know, the allegorical meaning, which I think, I mean, if I’m right about this, I think it largely became a Christological meaning, like, talking about Jesus somehow and then a moral meaning, like, you know, okay what do I do? And then, sort of more future oriented, where is all this going at the end of the day, you know, the eschaton and things like that, and it seems like that’s still part, that’s very ancient, because it’s all about how does this ancient text continue speaking to us and the way to do it is to interpret it in these various kinds of ways because the original doesn’t help us very much.

James: Right.

Pete: Right, so you have to do something. And you know, that’s, to me, that’s liberating and absolutely fascinating and rather obvious once you start thinking about it a bit, because this book, what it doing there? It has to be brought into your presence somehow.


James: Well, it’s all true. I think the thing that was kind of crucial was the point at which it all came to an end. And wasn’t exactly a point, but as time went on, people came to question whether this great apparatus of ancient biblical interpretation wasn’t just, you know, something that, you know, would lead people astray to take what’s, ya know, maybe a premier example. Christians, for centuries, believed that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar because that’s what God had demanded, but this was actually a kind of foreshadowing, foretelling of the story of the crucifixion, which God was willing to sacrifice his only son and, you know, there were things like that that were absolutely central to Christian faith until, starting, you know, that vague period called the Renaissance, starting in the 14th, 15th century, people begin to wonder is this really what that, maybe it’s just something that happened to this old guy Abraham, that God told him to sacrifice his son, put him to the test but had nothing to do with events of the New Testament.

Pete: Yeah.

James: People were kind of reluctant.

Pete: Yeah, well, I mean, not to get into the weeds too much here, but what, like, what was even prompting that desire to sort of, well, let’s, it’s almost like a modern thing. Like, what actually happened? Or what’s going on back then, this move back to original meaning and things like that. I mean, what might have prompted people to do that? Or is that just too difficult a question to answer? Because we’re living in that now, right? Modern people of faith, we’re heirs to this tradition of saying, yeah, ancient smancient, we have these other kinds of questions that come up. And I think it would help people to understand something about how we got to where we are, you know, and like, what are some of those modern assumptions, I guess is what I’m asking.

James: Well, I think before getting even to modern assumptions, one has to get to the, you know, the events that ushered this new way of thinking in. And certainly one of them was the humble fact that printing press was invented and suddenly you could get a printed Bible, not exactly like the one you have on your bookshelf now, but something that was mass produced and that could be read by anyone who knew how to read. And some of those people were people who wanted to learn Hebrew so that they could read the Hebrew Bible in the original. And the teachers weren’t reluctant to step forward, there were a lot of early grammars of the Hebrew language, vocabularies of Hebrew texts, and so it was, what a thrill to pick up the Bible, I suspect. It’s still a thrill, and suddenly be able to read the words and understand what they’re saying. But that thrill was rather quickly, or over a long period of time, came to have a downside, because up until then, if we’re speaking about Western Europe, people really read the Bible in Latin. It wasn’t uncommon for scholars to know Latin, but now they could read the Bible in Hebrew and compare it to Jerome’s Vulgate, that great translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin, and at first, it just, it was hard to figure out. But somehow, Jerome says this, but the Hebrew words say that.

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: Not a whole lot of big differences, but enough to say this translation was done by a human being. And then, within the next century, people began to say, you know, Jerome was wrong.

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: This is not the right translation. And after that, there developed, actually beginning a little before then, people began translating a Hebrew or Greek into, you know, European languages, French, Italian, English, and so, that opened a whole kind of new vista. Here’s where the common people, if they knew how to read, they could read exactly what the Hebrew text was saying rather than reading Jerome’s translation.


Pete: Mm hmm. So, it’s paying attention to the text and in the original language that really began to get people thinking about, well, maybe the past should be questioned a little bit.

James: Right.

Pete: And that sort of has snowballed, I guess, into the, you know, the modern period. So, can you talk a little bit about the Protestant Reformation?

James: Well exactly, that was the next thing I was –

Pete: Okay. Ah, we’re tracking, as usual. Go ahead.

James: The thing is, another place where the rubber hit the road, so to speak, was the Protestant Reformation because it wasn’t a very peaceful reformation, there were more than angry words on both sides, and the Protestants said, well, you know, you’re asking us to obey the authority of the Pope in Rome, but you know, why should we do that? He already is famous for having, you know, made mistakes and so, we want to just have an unmediated look at the word of God without listening to what the Pope has to say. This was a great way of not only promoting modern biblical scholarship and destroying those four assumptions, but also, and more relevantly, it was what could seriously undermine the authority of the Catholic church. That was number one on the program, you know, those early reforms.

Jared: So, you said something interesting there, you said modern biblical scholarship and destroying these four assumptions. So, not to bring us too forward, too fast, but what is, what would be your opinion on the relationship between a historical, critical study of the Bible in modern biblical scholarship and these four assumptions? Is it tenable to say given all the insights we had from biblical scholarship over the last 200 years, that we can still reasonably hold to these four assumptions? Do they need to shift in order for us to hold those as compatible things? I’m curious, because it seems like this was, you know, the modern reformation 500 years ago, but it seems like a lot of Christians would still hold to these four assumptions, but also want to have modern biblical, you know, critical scholarship as well.

Pete: Historical consciousness, things like that.

James: Right. All this came along, but I think one has to say that what really was weakened was that first, all so powerful assumption that the text was cryptic, that it didn’t necessarily mean what it said. Reformed congregations were certainly happy to hold onto the other three, but we’re reluctant to say, well, this text says x, but it means y if that opened the door to any assumption that anybody wanted to assume. It doesn’t say this, but our church believes in this, that, or the other. That really made it a very questionable assumption, and people started off with the great freedom, applying it, and then little by little, began to back away from it because it left people without any way of establishing limits.


Pete: Yeah, I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but there seems to be a naivete in thinking that, well, if I just had the Hebrew in front of me, I could get back to what the authors originally thought and this is how I sort of live my life, these are the lessons that I take. But that opens you up to, what the very thing that I guess these ancient interpreters were either intuiting or dealing with directly, that this ancient text begins to become somewhat irrelevant and the way to, I mean, this is maybe a little simplistic, but the way to help make it relevant is to see the meaning beneath the meaning to make it cryptic. And, I guess, you know, Jared, the way we were raised, and many of our listeners were raised, that the notion that you can have those three other assumptions, you know, the Bible is relevant for us, there are no contradictions, it’s from God, and matching that with not the first assumption, the Bible is cryptic, but because the Bible is the word of God, it’s plain as day.

James: Right.

Pete: And that’s the prob, I mean, that creates certain tensions because that’s almost the pathology. Again, that’s a really strong word, but I don’t care. I’m in recovery. I’m fine. That’s, you know, the pathology of thinking that you can have this Bible that’s so deeply and inextricably bound to our traditions, you can have this Bible, but you get there through historical analysis. You can get there by removing the cryptic-ness of it, and just getting to the plain sense. And it seems to me, that’s something that I really picked up from reading, again recently, How to Read the Bible. That’s a very meaningful paradox, I think, for a lot of people who, you know, choose to engage it, that the modern way is not going to get you to that place of, let’s say, intimacy with the text and with God. Does that make sense?

James: Yeah. I, not only makes sense, it’s, I think a very important point to make.

Pete: Yeah.

James: One thing that, you know, while I second that emotion, as Smokey Robinson would say –

Pete: [Laughter]

James: I would say it was a kind of two-edged sword, that it seemed like this was going to be a great tool. It was going to get us to, ya know, the real Bible. Actually, I didn’t make up that phrase, it was, you know, late 19th  and early 20th century, biblical scholar, professor, who said if you really, you know, think about it, what we Protestant scholars are doing, because modern biblical scholarship, I have to say, was from beginning almost to the middle of the 20th century, a Protestant endeavor. Just to, you know, read the Bible without any of these old traditions that had been around for centuries and those poor Catholics were still, you know, reading this into the text. But we’re just going to let the facts speak for themselves, and in a sense, we’re all archeologists. We’re digging down into the ground in order to find the real Bible, the Bible before a lot of the stuff that I would regard as nonsense; a lot of those things were identified as such. I’m going to just simply dig down until I’ve restored the real Bible, the words that were spoken from God to the prophet’s ear. And it’s, I guess, somewhat surprising nowadays for scholars to look back and say, well I don’t know, it was only a little more than 100 years ago that someone could talk about excavating the real Bible from the encrustations of the, you know, Midrashic interpretation, you know, Jewish interpretation and early Christian interpretation, and then all sorts of other things that were added and get down to the real text. As this goal was pursued over the last century, what we found out was that wasn’t such an uneasy endeavor. What it would lead to would be time and time again, not the real Bible at all, but something that had, meant something entirely different in its original historical context. Something that, you know, was not enhancing of our faith, but quite the opposite.


Pete: Mm hmm. So, in dismantling, so to speak, those assumptions. I guess, again, this is something, I’m just channeling things that you said, but it’s those ancient interpretive assumptions that actually made the Bible.

James: Yes.

Pete: Right? Talk about that a little bit, just explain what I just said to the people who are listening –

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: So…

James: Well, you have to go back, again, to the 2nd or 1st century to some guy with a long beard who’s a sage and he is going to explicate something that’s, you know, rather troubling and the text. I might take an example –

Pete: Yes, please.

James: I’m full of examples, but this one I think Pete, you might connect to because one of the little geographical complications starts in the book of Exodus. Actually, I remember, it’s chapter sixteen where the Israelites who have just been freed from Egyptian bondage are, you know, off wandering around in the desert and there’s no water to drink. And Moses strikes the rock and water comes flowing out of it, out of the rock, and that’s enough to feed this huge army, crowd, of recently liberated Israelites. If you flash forward forty years they’re still in the desert, though coming to the end of their wanderings in the wilderness, and the same thing happens. There’s no water to drink, and Moses and Aaron go to strike a rock and the water comes out and, you know, this was hard to reconcile. Rocks aren’t usually full of water and what is all this about? And of course, ancient interpreters had an answer to that question. Strange as it may seem, it wasn’t two different rocks but the same rock that followed the Israelites during their forty wanderings in the desert and the striking of the rock was, you know, simply a way of accessing this divinely sent source of water that had followed them all those forty years. After all, why only at the beginning and at the end did they fall short of water?

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: Did that have any afterlife in Christianity, that interpretation?

Pete: You’re asking me? Yeah, because you taught me this and I remember sitting in class when you’d said this, and I said, I’ve got some thinking to do, but Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 refers to the rock that followed them was Christ. He has this rather convoluted typology between the Red Sea and the desert experience and tying it to Jesus and he certainly, taking that story and creatively applying it to a very different time and place and circumstance, and so, tying, you know, Christ to the rock. He doesn’t just say the rock back then was Christ, he says the rock that followed them was Christ.

James: Right.

Pete: So, you’ve got this rock  at the beginning and end of the forty year wilderness period that is actually some sort of mobile source of water, which makes sense, right, because I mean, the food is there, it’s given every day, except for Saturday, right? So, it’s given every day but there’s no indication of where the water came from, so, it must have followed them around like a portable water fountain or something, so.

James: That’s right, yeah.

Pete: But Paul’s just a part of that, and that’s the thing that I’ve talked about in other contexts that really, that made my eyes just open up that Paul’s Jewish, and he’s part of Jewish tradition, and he’s thinking about this like a Jew, and he’s just sort of, almost an unconscious conduit to these interpretive traditions that are rooted in these assumptions that we’re taking about. Like, this has to be relevant for our moment now. Who cares about a water source in Exodus and Numbers? Doesn’t matter.

James: Right.

Pete: It has to mean something now and so, by golly, Paul did it. And you know, to, I guess if we’re going to adopt those modern assumptions, we have to say that what Paul is saying, well, that’s nice, but it’s not what the text says, so Paul is taking the text out of context and that is a place where Jared and I can both attest, you run into some trouble with Protestants because Paul can’t be doing that. There’s nothing cryptic here, right?


James: Right.

Pete: There’s nothing going on like that. So, you just have to sort of somehow justify exegetically that Paul is actually getting this explicitly from something in the Old Testament, which is an active Midrashic interpretation, which is a further irony. That, you know, you have to use Midrashic interpretation to defend the plain meaning of the Bible, which is always sort of bothered me a little bit, but yeah, I just, see that’s the thing with Christianity. We’re in the same boat, you know. This is, we’re no different. Our tradition owes its existence to these kinds of transformations of these ancient stories, not unlike Judaism.

James: Right.

Jared: So, is one of the challenges, then, what you’re saying is, what we’ve deemed in our modern period to be “the right way” to interpret a text doesn’t square with how we see the text interpreting itself. Is that kind of what you’re saying, Pete too, about Paul? We want Paul to be a good, modern biblical scholar and Paul is not.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Paul is an ancient interpreter.

Pete: At least a medieval Protestant.

Jared: Right.

Pete: [Laughter]

He’s not even pulling that off, but ya know?

Jared: Yeah, and that’s a problem for us, right?

Pete: Yeah. Cause if he’s Protestant, at least then conservatives can say we don’t care about historical criticism because this is just a normal part of the Protestant tradition, but even, that’s even a move towards historical criticism, the Protestant, the Reformation Era where you, what’s the original meaning?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: And as soon as you say that, right James, you’re off and running in a direction that is paradoxically not supportive of the tradition itself that brought you to a point where you can talk about the tradition 1500 years later. That’s a nice convoluted way of saying it, but ya know.

James: No, I think, I hope people got it.

Pete: [Laughter]

So do I! My students don’t, but we’ll see.

James: I would just add that, you know, among the 1st century ancient biblical interpreters, is Jesus of Nazareth. He, we can read what it says in the New Testament, and then, well, if you have a copy of any number of compendia of ancient biblical interpretations, let’s start with Genesis, you’ll find, oh, I see, he’s reading this verse as if it’s saying that. Well, that’s just what ancient interpreters do.

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: So, in a sense, in a different world, people would’ve said, wow. How great of our Jewish brethren to show us how texts were read not only by people, but by Jesus. And yet, that didn’t happen.

Pete: [Laughter]

Right. Oh, my. So, okay. Here’s the big question, you know, as we’re sort of winding down here a little bit, and how to live with the tension, I don’t want to say solve the tension –

Jared: Right.

Pete: Because I don’t think this is a tension that can be solved, but how to live with the tension of basically, being modern people of faith, whether Jewish or Christian, and we have this ancient text that does things that we just don’t do in the modern period, and how to sort of bridge those two worlds. That’s a perennial problem, but it’s a very practical problem for people too. So, do you have any thoughts on sort of how to do, do we just have this left brain, right brain thing to keep things separate? Or is there some conversation between them? How does that work?

James: Well, I’ll say here what I perhaps should’ve said half an hour ago, but it looks very different to Jews and to Christians, those are two different, you know, readerships. And you know, I think it’s fair to say that for Jews, those assumptions never stopped. There is this, you know, kind of characteristic way that Jews bring these assumptions to, you know, very practical details of everyday life, which is what Judaism is all about, you know.

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: You have to do this when you get up in the morning, and then you have to pray and use these words and so on, so forth. So, in that respect, for Jews, the Bible is already definitively interpreted. There’s no, ya know, new interpretation need not show its face. If it does, it’s no problem because it’s going to be built on earlier assumptions –


Pete: Mm hmm.

James: Earlier bodies of explanations. I think if you’re a Protestant, it is more problematical because of just what you mentioned, you know, they can’t, you know, turn their backs on, whereas Judaism sometimes can without any problem, turn their backs on what we know of history. And so, but that’s just not relevant. For a modern Protestant, I think that it is. It’s necessarily relevant. I used to be a big fan when I was living in Boston before I moved to Jerusalem, I used to listen to WBUR, the Boston University Radio station which on Sunday mornings would have usually a guest speaker or sermon, either. And it was so interesting to me to see the way a liberal Protestant approach struggled with a particular quandary that you mentioned, and often, not successfully. I noticed that a certain point that some of the invited speakers would say, well, instead of a scripture reading, I want to read a poem by Dylan Thomas.


Pete: Right.


James: I might be wrong, but I still, anyway, for myself, ascribe to a difference between those two sources, but –

Pete: [Laughter]

James: I understand the problem.

Jared: Yeah, well, we’ve been talking quite a bit in our time today around some of the challenges that you talk about in your book How to Read the Bible, but here as we end, do you have other projects that you’re working on or books that just came out? Like, what are the questions that you’re interested in now or, and are putting out into the world?

James: Well, I suppose I should say, first of all, I’ve talked to many people who are not academics and they tend to assume that what a professor does is learn his stuff during four or five years in graduate school and spends the next forty or fifty years repeating it back.

Pete: [Laughter]

James: That really isn’t what it means to be a scholar, your doctorate is really just a driver’s license that you can then carry with you and explore new things. And what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately has nothing to do with the things that we’ve been talking about. It has to do with, I guess, what neuroscience has showed us about the human brain and what that, what light that might shed on biblical texts and I, it’s hard to, you know, say in a few minutes –

Pete: Huh.

James: What that means, but certainly what we understand now is that there is such a thing as the human self and that self is, you know, has some universal characteristics. I think all human beings believe that I am the same person that was speaking fifteen minutes ago or even was going out with that girl forty years ago. There was a kind of assumption of continuity, but I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that any of that is true, but we all do believe that. But there are other things, here we go with assumptions again. There are other things that we assume about ourselves and our minds that differ very much from the way other human beings elsewhere on the globe assume about themselves. So, in that respect, this modern western self is a rather unique creation. I should say, neuroscientists, you know, can’t point to anything in the brain that seems to be the self that we’re trying to figure out what that might be, you know, some time ago. But it’s not in a pineal gland as De Carte believed, it’s not this or that, it seems that the self, I myself, the great recipient of sensory inputs and sorter of memories and so forth, this person inside the person doesn’t exist.

Pete: Mm hmm.

James: So, as a result, peoples own ideas of what I myself am differ from place to place and time to time. Well, that’s all an introductory to the question what did people in biblical times assume about themselves and can we find evidence of it in scripture? And I think, I’m certainly not the only one interested in this, but I just think this is such an exciting question to ask.


Pete: Mmm.

James: Why, what did somebody in the time of Paul or for that matter, in the time of Moses think a human being was and what sorts of things it could or could not do.

Jared: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I think you’ve just doomed yourself to being invited back on at some point to talk about that more.

Pete: Yeah, on that hopeful topic that there is no self.

Jared: [Laughter]

It’s great!

[Continued laughter]

Pete: That wonderful, uplifting –

Jared: Oh, I don’t know about that.

Pete: Dose of reality that we have –

Jared: There’s also freedom to that, right?

Pete: Yeah, there’s a freedom to that.

James: Well, I recently read a book, an essay, which concluded with a comforting observation that the human self may not exist, but a sense of self certainly can even if it’s utterly false.  

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: [Laughter]

That’s right.

Pete: Oh gosh. Oh, my gosh.

Jared: Well, thank you so much, Jim, for taking some time out and calling us in, calling in all the way from Jerusalem to have this conversation. I think it’s going to be really helpful to others, it’s helpful to me. So, I really appreciate you coming on.

James: Well, thanks so much.

Pete: Hope to have you on again.

James: Okay.

Pete: Allrighty.


[Music begins]

Pete: Folks, thanks again for listening to this episode. If you want to find out more about James Kugel, you know, it’s not like he has a Twitter presence, I don’t know, I don’t think he does, but ya know, just read stuff. Do it the old fashioned way, and just a couple of books that’s he’s written, many books on biblical interpretation and the history of interpretation, but the one that started it all off for me is called Early Biblical Interpretation, and that sort of lays out the, you know, ins and outs and wherefores of like, ancient interpreters if you’re interested in that. And I think as, you know, if you’re trying to be Christian in all this, this is a very, very relevant thing to look at. And also, another book that came out ten years ago or so, is called How to Read the Bible, which is, in my opinion, the best book, this is, you know, I’m a little biased, but I’m also right. It’s the best book out there for explaining basically, if you’re interested in the history of just what modern biblical scholarship says about Isaiah or about the Pentateuch or about Daniel, about anything, that, this explains it all and in a way that’s not remotely dry. So, you have that. Then on top of that, layering it with that, the whole issue of like, well, but how do ancient interpreters handle these texts too, and then he has these sections where he talks about navigating these issues, sort of the stuff we talked about today. So, I really can’t recommend that book enough.

Jared: Yes, so please do check those books out, and as always before we go, we want to give a shout out to our team without whom we couldn’t be putting on this podcast at all. So, thanks to Megan Cammack, our producer; Reed Lively, marketing and administration; Dave Gerhart, our audio engineer; Tessa Stoltz, our creative director; and Stephanie Speight, who tirelessly transcribes these podcasts for us each week. Thank you so much.

Pete: And Marmalade, my cat.

Jared: Yes, of course.

Pete: Who is just always there.

Jared: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Marmalade. I hate to forget you.

Pete: I know.

Jared: Forgive me. I will be watching my back.

Pete: She will come pee on your house.

Jared: I will make sure I lock my doors now.

Pete: Yeah, please do that. Yeah, she’ll kill you.

[Angry cat meow]

Jared: All right, see ya later.

[Music ends] [End of recorded material]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.