Kugel, James L. 1945-

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Kugel, James L. 1945-


Born August 22, 1945, in New York, NY; son of John Hans and Adelaide Kugel; married Rachel B. Epstein, March 18, 1975; children: Jotham. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1968; Harvard University, graduate study, 1973-76; City University of New York, Ph.D., 1977. Religion: Jewish.


Home—Jerusalem, Israel.


U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, interpreter, 1969; Dispatch News Service, Washington, Boston correspondent, 1970-71; Boston Phoenix, Boston, MA, editor, 1971-72; Harper's, New York, NY, poetry editor, 1973-75; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Harry Starr professor of classical, modern Jewish, and Hebrew literature; Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, professor of Bible and director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible.


Phi Beta Kappa.


Woodrow Wilson, Danforth, and Fulbright fellowships; Grawemeyer Award in Religion, 2001, and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, both for The Bible as It Was.


Issues of Educational Reform, privately printed, 1968.

The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1971.

The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1981.

(With Rowan A. Greer) Early Biblical Interpretation, Westminster Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1986.

In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1990.

On Being a Jew: A Brief Presentation of Jewish Practices and Belief, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1990.

(Editor) Poetry and Prophecy: The Beginnings of a Literary Tradition, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1990.

The Bible as It Was, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.

Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1998.

The Greatest Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations, Free Press (New York, NY), 1999.

(Editor) Studies in Ancient Midrash, Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies (Cambridge, MA), 2000.

The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible, Free Press (New York, NY), 2003.

The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2006.

(Editor) Prayers That Cite Scripture, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

Contributor to Poetry, Harper's, Rolling Stone, New York Quarterly, Antioch Review, Midstream, and Response.


James L. Kugel's The Bible as It Was examines how the first five books of the Bible—which make up the Pentateuch—were interpreted from about 200 B.C. to A.D. 100. He finds a large body of tradition behind the interpretations produced in this era and notes that there were similarities in how Jews and Christians explained these Scriptures. These readings of the Pentateuch, he contends, formed the basis for the way Jews and Christians in subsequent centuries thought about the Bible.

The early Biblical commentators took for granted that Scripture was the inspired and inerrant word of God, and that it carried messages that were pertinent to the lives and times of the interpreters, Kugel notes. They also assumed that these messages were often hidden. So they devoted themselves to finding the reasons behind God's preference for Abel over his brother Cain, God's selection of Abraham to be the father of the Israelites, and numerous other unexplained happenings detailed in the Bible.

"Using a staggering number of sources, Mr. Kugel evokes the manner in which the Bible was understood at the time of these interpreters; he also traces the origins of many of the explanations that have remained standard over the millennia," comments Richard Bernstein in the New York Times, adding that the book is a "fascinating piece of Biblical detective work." Christian Century contributor Mark Reasoner praises Kugel's ecumenical approach. "Kugel is refreshingly open, straightforward and undefensive about Christian interpretations—for example, that Melchizedek and his bread and wine foreshadow Christ and the Eucharist, or that Abraham's offering of Isaac foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus," Reasoner writes. Also, he says, Kugel shows that in some cases New Testament writers picked up on common Jewish explanations of circumstances not made explicit in Biblical text: "For example, there is no evidence in the Old Testament that Abel was especially righteous, though the New Testament says he was."

Kugel's work may pave the way for scholarship concerning the interpretation of the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament, asserts Fred L. Moriarty in Theological Studies. Moriarty expresses gratitude to Kugel for "the new avenues of research [he] has opened up" but voices one reservation about the book: "There may be some exaggeration in K.'s chastening remarks about the price paid for the failure of modern scholarship to reckon sufficiently with the crucial role played by the ancient interpreter." Just the same, though, The Bible as It Was "compels us to look with fresh eyes" at ancient interpretations, Moriarty notes. Commentary critic Hillel Halkin remarks that Kugel has made clear the importance of these early readings of the Bible. "No matter how we rebel against received interpretation, we are also its creatures and heirs," Halkin states. "None of us has Adamic eyes; all are caught in tradition's web. The Bible as It Was guides us deftly through a web that turns out to be far more extensive and ecumenical than most of us would have thought."

In The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible, Kugel offers "a masterful survey of the way ancient Israelites understood God," observed a Publishers Weekly critic. The author contends that Biblical texts written around the time of late Judaism portray God as a remote and omniscient deity. "But a distinctly different God is discerned, Kugel says, in presumably early biblical passages in which human beings by turns imagine God as absent—so truly absent that he needs to be informed of what has gone on while he was away—and experience him as present, so truly present that he can be seen and touched as easily as the man he typically appears to be in such moments," observed New York Times Book Review contributor Jack Miles. Through an examination of those passages, Kugel asserts, readers "can glean new insights into the Israelites' earliest concepts of God and what he meant to them—and to us today," wrote Library Journal critic Charlie Murray. According to Walter Brueggemann, writing in Interpretation, "Kugel's ultimate concern is not historical but contemporary. His book, in a rich variety of offerings, makes the case that the contemporary world, like the ancient world attested by the text, is indeed visited, haunted, and ultimately defined by the reality of God who is palpably, even if hiddenly, alive and effective in the world."

Kugel explores such texts as the Testament of Simeon, the Book of Jubilees, and the Book of Judith in The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children. Instead of relying on modern interpretations of the narratives, Kugel offers readings of the ancient sources, "explaining the way an ancient audience might have understood them," noted Library Journal reviewer Wesley A. Mills. In the words of a Publishers Weekly critic: "Kugel helpfully guides us through the marvelous world of ancient biblical interpretation."



Najman, Hindy, and Judith H. Newman, editors, The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel, Brill (Boston, MA), 2004.


Booklist, February 15, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible, p. 1021.

Christian Century, April 22, 1998, Mark Reasoner, review of The Bible As It Was, p. 451.

Commentary, April, 1998, Hillel Halkin, review of The Bible as It Was, p. 54; January, 2000, Algis Valiuna, review of The Greatest Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations, p. 68.

Interpretation, January, 2005, Walter Brueggemann, review of The God of Old, p. 64.

Library Journal, April 15, 2003, Charlie Murray, review of The God of Old, p. 93; March 15, 2006, Wesley A. Mills, review of The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children, p. 76.

New York Times, December 8, 1997, Richard Bernstein, review of The Bible as It Was.

New York Times Book Review, May 11, 2003, Jack Miles, "You Won't Believe Who I Just Saw!," review of The God of Old, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly, January 27, 2003, review of The God of Old, p. 254; February 27, 2006, review of The Ladder of Jacob, p. 58.

Shofar, summer, 2004, Charlotte Fonrobert, review of Studies in Ancient Midrash, p. 159; fall, 2004, Serge Frolov, review of The God of Old, p. 166.

Theological Studies, March, 1998, Fred L. Moriarty, review of The Bible as It Was, p. 136; March, 2006, Stephen D. Ryan, review of The Idea of Biblical Interpretation, p. 178.