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The Song of Miriam and the Very Idea of Scripture

James KugelFilmed at Hebrew University

My talk is about what I believe to be the most interesting thing that we have learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls. They seem to show that, back in the first or second century BCE, people had a very different idea of what sacred Scripture was and what you could do with it. Somehow, they didn’t hesitate to add new material to the writings of ancient prophets and sages or change the order of things within individual books. Their whole notion of the biblical text seems to have been decidedly more flexible than ours. This idea of Scripture’s fundamental malleability was passed on to the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud as well as to the earliest Christians—but in a different form. By their time, the texts themselves were indeed fixed and virtually inalterable, but their meaning could still be changed by authoritative interpreters, namely, by these same Rabbis and by the Church Fathers. This was indeed done—sometimes in the most far-reaching and imaginative ways, as any student of ancient biblical interpretation knows. What the Dead Sea Scrolls have thus shown us that a single mentality, and a single idea of Scripture, underlies both phenomena, text alteration and text interpretation; the latter simply came to replace the former as the words themselves could no longer be changed.

Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University from 1982 to 2003, James Kugel retired from Harvard to become Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he also served as chairman of the Department of Bible.

A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kugel is the author of more than seventy research articles and thirteen books, including The Bible As It Was (winner of the Grawemeyer Prize in Religion in 2001), How to Read the Bible (awarded the National Jewish Book Award for the best book of 2007), and In the Valley of the Shadow (2011).  He is also the Editor in chief of Jewish Studies: an Internet Journal.

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