Kugel, James L.

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KUGEL, JAMES L. (1945– ), U.S. scholar of biblical studies and comparative literature. Kugel was born in New York City. He earned his B.A. degree in European poetry at Yale University in 1968 and his Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center's Comparative Literature Program in 1977. He worked as translator, journalist, and poetry editor at Harper's magazine (1973–75). Following three years as assistant professor of religious studies and comparative literature at Yale University, he joined the faculty at Harvard University (1982–2004). During his tenure, he was Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Jewish and Hebrew Literature, professor of Comparative Literature, director of the Center for Jewish Studies, and a member of the Divinity School. He later became professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Kugel's significant contributions to biblical scholarship are his studies on ancient Bible interpretation and its role in shaping text-based religious communities. In The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and its History (1981, 1998), he coined the term "omnisignificance" to describe rabbinic exegesis of scriptures. The volume offers a new approach to biblical poetry and prose that is less dependent on the Greek model and more in concert with the rabbinic framework of thinking. Kugel also wrote The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader's Companion with New Translations (1999) and In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts in Early Judaism and Christianity (1990; 1994).

Kugel's most important work on the earliest interpretations of the Torah is his The Bible As It Was: Biblical Traditions of Late Antiquity (1997), for which he was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in religion in 2001. Focusing primarily on well-known Torah narratives, he postulates that four basic assumptions governed the earliest exegesis: Scripture requires trained interpreters, the interpretation is harmonious in all its parts and meaningful in all its details, the insights gained are deeply relevant to people's lives, and the interpretive process is divinely inspired. A complementary volume, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era (1998), provides additional interpretive material, more detailed explanation of motifs, and a survey of relevant scholarship for each motif.

Kugel's other books include The Ladder of Jacob: Biblical Interpretation in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (2004), The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children (2006), and several edited volumes that encompass studies in poetry and prophecy. His venture into theology and religion are reflected in The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (2003), and in On Being a Jew (1990, 1998), a self-revealing advocacy for traditionalist Judaism, told in an engaging dialogue between a Syrian Jewish banker and an American graduate school student. The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel (2004) honors Kugel's influence and accomplishments to the branch of Bible studies suggested by the title.

[Zev Garber (2nd ed.)]