Saturday, 10 November 2007

Kugel's Critique of Christian Confessionalism

As if by some mysterious working of divine providence, Emerging from Babel has decided to post on James Kugel, exactly the day before I decided to do the same. The content is different, as Stephen focuses on Kugel's suggestions on the essence of Judaism, and how that helps him cope with the challenge of historical criticism. The 'substance' of Judaism, as Kugel sees it, lies in the ongoing attempt to work out the implications of a single command: that Israel must serve the LORD. Everything else would seem to be peripheral, such that whatever the Bible actually says or whatever historical criticism throws at us is not relevant to the pragmatic task of obedience. The essence of Jewish faith preserves it from attacks from the outside.

This provides a nice bridge to my post. On an online forum recently, a commenter cited Kugel's critique of Christian attempts to come to terms with historical criticism. My aim today is simply to post what he said (with permission). I'd love to know how others respond to what Kugel has to say. On Monday I'll post what I wrote it response. Here it is:

I haven't seen much comment on biblioblogs about the online appendix to James Kugel's new book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, which is entitled:"Apologetics and `Biblical Criticism Lite'"

But I think it's well worth some responses. Hopefully this post will stimulate some.

Kugel notes that people have grown used to the idea that the Bible really wasn't written by those figures long claimed to be its authors, that it is full of contradictions and editorial overlays, etiological narratives and invented history. Notwithstanding the fact that they admit this, most Christian and Jewish biblical scholars tend to immediately turn around and argue that the situation is "not so bad – in fact, it's not bad at all. We embrace the truth about the Bible as we now know it."

But when you scratch a little deeper into this common response by confessional biblical scholars one finds that--instead of genuinely accepting the results of modern biblical scholarship--they have in fact only adopted an apologetic reflex to the findings. They really automatically downplay or minimise the implications. They have adopted a series of qualifications which overrule the findings which they ostensibly affirm. That is, their response is: "Yes, it's true, modern scholars have shown X, BUT ... "

As Kugel's first example: despite the fact that parts of the Bible have been shown to be derived from ancient Mesopotamian texts and are `invented history' (such as the Flood Story)—bible scholars spend endless energy in trying to downplay the implications. In respect of the Flood Story itself, he gives a series of revealing quotations from biblical scholars who are intent on downplaying the many similarities, in order to defend the literary and theological distinctiveness and `superiority' of the biblical version. Why do they do this?

"The answer is obvious. They feel torn between what they would like the Bible to be – an utterly unique, divinely inspired book given to mankind – and what modern scholarship has sought to show about this particular story, that it is essentially copied from a Mesopotamian source (and therefore not, on the face of things, an utterly unique, divinely inspired composition). So there has to be a world of difference between the biblical and Mesopotamian versions despite the obvious similarities. The differences commentators fix on, however, are really not very convincing."

Kugel also has some damning comments about the current trend for viewing the Bible as `great literature'. He rightly observes that this method is often misused by apologists:

"Ultimately, this is just another form of apologetic, an attempt to save something special about Scripture in an unbelieving world. Strange to tell, while many of today's literary critics of the Bible are avowed secularists, their writings sometimes hold a particular appeal for people of rather conservative religious beliefs, Christians or Jews eager to celebrate the Bible's merits. For them, its selling point lies not only in its capacity to push aside modern scholarship, but as well in its attribution to Scripture of a kind of artistry and design bordering on the miraculous, something that only "the great novelist in the Lord" (as Norman Mailer once put it) would be capable of composing. It might seem unfair to compare the appeal of this approach to that of a truly crackpot domain, the discovery of secret "codes" in the Bible that are held to have predicted various historical events. What both have in common, however, is their ability to convince ordinary readers, at least those eager to be convinced, that there still is something special, indeed, something deeply hidden or infinitely complicated about the Bible that fully reflects its divine origins."

The rest of this provocative essay is here:
So, what do people think of that?


stc said...

Taking Kugel's example of the flood narrative —
I would see the scholarly defence of the text as:

theologically justified (to point out where Israel's presentation of a widespread myth differs from a pagan presentation of that myth); and

• justified from a pastoral perspective. Ultimately the Bible is used by people as a source of spiritual insight and encouragement. It is entirely appropriate for scholars to move from a critical analysis to an analysis that is serviceable for such pastoral objectives.

If Kugel was criticizing Christians for claiming superiority to Judaism, I would be sympathetic. But since these scholars are defending a text that is common to Jews and Christians, I don't really understand his objection.

Phil Sumpter said...

I haven't read the whole of Kugel's article, only what the commentator on the forum posted above. The context of the forum is extremely historical critical, and I think the commentator wanted to have a jab at confessional approaches as well. I think Kugel's point, as presented here, is that claiming that the Biblical flood narrative differs from the pagan versions is just a confessional attempt to avoid the radical impact of the non-uniqueness of the Bible. My response is: 1) I find it hard to see that the narrative really is no different, i.e. this isn't just a figment of confessional scholars' imagination; 2) the theological authority of the Bible lies not in its 'uniqueness' or
'superiority', but rather in its ultimate author: God. If God gave us a story which reproduces what the Babylonians said, then so be it. I just don't happen to think that he did. Claiming that the Bible isn't unique or isn't great literature and so therefore can't be the word of God demonstrates a weak grasp of the nature of the biblical God.

That's my take anyway. I'm happy to be contradicted.