2001 – James L. Kugel

It might come as a shock to learn how many things the Bible doesn’t actually say. Do we suppose that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was “Satan,” or that Adam and Eve’s sin marked humanity’s “fall?” Then why, when we search the pages of the Bible, can we not find a clear word on these and a host of other taken-for-granted interpretations?

In “The Bible As It Was,” published in 1997 by Harvard University Press, James L. Kugel turns to the earliest interpreters of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) for answers. His efforts have won for Kugel the 2001 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a $200,000 prize presented by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville.

Kugel demonstrates that certain understandings of the biblical texts were remarkably widespread among early Jewish and Christian readers. Some of these interpretations will strike the modern reader as whimsical or arbitrary, but Kugel shows how they were actually borne of painstaking attention to the texts’ most minute details. By early in the Common Era, Kugel demonstrates, these understandings had become so deeply rooted in Jewish and Christian cultural consciousness that they were as well known as any words on the page. In many cases, the ancient interpretations live on today.

The Grawemeyer Award in Religion recognizes outstanding and creative works that promote understanding of the relationship between human beings and the divine. For centuries, study of the divine-human interaction in Scripture has focused on only one set of human beings, its inspired authors. Kugel suggests that greater consideration be given to the genius of those who first wrestled with Scripture’s meaning and understanding, and who thereby generated what are today regarded as some of the Bible’s most characteristic teachings.

A major achievement in Kugel’s work is in demonstrating that Christians and Jews share more than just the written text of the Hebrew Bible. Kugel writes, “What I wish to show is thatÉ rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged out of a common mentality including, prominently, a common set of beliefs about the Bible.” In other words, both groups “received the same set of attitudes about how the Bible ought to be read and explained, what it was meant for and how it was to be used.”

About the winner

James L. Kugel is recognized as one of America’s foremost biblical scholars, an authority on issues from translation to historical interpretation.

Kugel is Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University. An Orthodex Jew, he is also director of the Harvard Center for Jewish Studies, a member of Harvard’s Divinity School and visiting professor of Bible at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

Kugel’s vocational journey did not begin with an early interest in biblical studies. As an undergraduate at Yale University, he studied European poetry, then worked briefly in journalism, including a stint as poetry editor for “Harper’s Magazine.” In 1972, he joined Harvard’s Society of Fellows and has focused on biblical studies since.

He has taught at Harvard since 1982, following three years as assistant professor of religious studies and comparative literature at Yale. His course, “The Bible and Its Interpreters,” is one of the most popular at Harvard, with an enrollment of 900 to 1,000 students.

A specialist in the history of biblical interpretation, Kugel is the author of some 40 research articles and eight books, including “In Potiphar’s House,” “On Being a Jew” and “The Great Poems of the Bible.” The Grawemeyer-winning book, “The Bible as It Was,” also ranked as a finalist in the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. Kugel has worked extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls and is currently co-editing a new edition of them.

“The Bible As It Was” has been published in two editions. The shorter version, written largely without footnotes and concentrating only on major interpretive motifs, is intended for the general reader as well as for use in introductory classes in universities and seminaries. The longer version, “Traditions of the Bible,” is more than 1,000 pages long and presents a far more complete survey of materials as well as extensive notes. This version was honored with a special session at the 1999 Society of Biblical Literature convention.