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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.

Thanks so much for that introduction, I intend to try to squeeze in to 15 minutes or so the field that I’ve been working on for the last 30 years which is actually a fairly obscure field, ancient Biblical interpretation. We study ancient Biblical interpretation as it appears in books that most people have never heard of; The Apocalypse of Abraham, The First Book of Enoch, The Book of Jubilees, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. These books, for the most part, were written in the closing centuries before the Common Era, the second and first century in particular. And they give us a good example of the way people towards the end of the biblical period were interpreting the Torah and other books. Why is this all important? I think people underestimate the influence that these interpreters had, they imparted a whole way of thinking about biblical texts that has been with us ever since and they also gave us some specific interpretations that have also been with us forever. I like to use the example of the story of Adam and Eve because most people have heard of that. It comes at the very beginning of the Torah and everybody knows that this is the story of the fall of man. Adam and Eve were put in this wonderful garden, all their needs were supplied and they were to live there in a sinless existence forever and ever. But then the devil in the form of a snake caused Eve to eat from the apple and they were kicked out the garden and ever since human beings have been mortal and sinful. Well, that is the way the story is understood for the most part today but actually none of the things that I have mentioned in the story in Genesis, the story never uses the expression; ‘the fall of man’ or the fall of anything really and it doesn’t say anything about a sinless existence in Eden. There isn’t a devil in the story, the snake there is just a snake and she doesn’t eat an apple, it’s just called “the fruit”. So, all these details were actually created by these ancient interpreters of scripture, in fact we can follow the career of that story and the way it was interpreted going back to at least the second century. Anyway, a question always occurred to me about the work of these ancient interpreters, the way of interpreting scripture was so wilful and often twists the text away from what it seemed originally to be saying. How dare they? Why can you take a perfectly good story and suddenly spin it in such a way that it’s quite different from what the actual words of the text say? And I think the answer, at least for me, lies in the examination of what’s certainly the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century, maybe just the greatest find ever and that is the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea scrolls, if you don’t know, they’re a collection of writings by Jews that were found along the shores of the Dead Sea in some caves starting in the winter of 1946/47. The writings are quite varied; they seem to include something like 800 different manuscripts, although most of them are highly fragmentary. About a quarter of those manuscripts seem to be parts of our bible. So they have texts of the Torah and Jeremiah and Isaiah and so forth. The other three quarters are quite interesting but I’m just speaking tonight about that collection of Biblical texts. The thing that was extraordinary about these texts is that they were the, by far the oldest biblical texts anyone had ever seen in Hebrew, about a thousand years older than the oldest biblical texts in Hebrew that we had before they were found. People always ask about these texts; are they the same as the books that we have now? And the answer, you know this is the academics favourite answer is; yes and no. Yes, some of them are strikingly the same books that we have in our Bible, I mean word for word even sometimes in terms of spelling they’re quite the same. So, in some ways that’s very reassuring but no; some of them are very different from the books that we have. Apparently people felt fairly free to introduce changes into biblical books back in those days. So, for example, The Book of Jeremiah that we have in our bible turns out to be one of two editions of Jeremiah that circulated freely at the same time. Ours is the longer edition, the shorter edition is, actually ten chapters less than the one that we have and the chapters are arranged somewhat differently. Scholars aren’t absolutely clear about how this came about but I think most people agree that the shorter version preceded the longer version, that somebody added in these ten chapters and rearranged the chapters so as to accommodate this addition.  So this is really my question tonight; how dare you? I mean somebody gives you a biblical manuscript, these are God’s words that he spoke to Jeremiah and you say; “Oh yeah, that’s ok but there are ten things, ten chapters, I think I’d like to add in.” I mean, who are you?  So, in a way that’s the same question I asked about our ancient interpreter. And the Book of Jeremiah is hardly the only case; in fact I would say surveying all the biblical manuscripts there is scarcely a one that does not embody some sort of change. Sometimes scribes, apparently would substitute a more easily understood word for a hard word in the biblical text and so in that way it changed it. But sometimes the changes were as far reaching as the one in Jerimiah that I mentioned. The Torah was certainly, as it is today, our most sacred text and the one that changed the least, that had the least modifications but there’s one text from Qumran that is, Qumran being the site where they found these scrolls, there’s one text that is particularly puzzling in this regard; it’s basically part of The Book of Exodus and it sounds very much like The Book of Exodus, word for word. It gets to the part that’s now chapter 15 in our bibles; the Israelites have just crossed the Red Sea and they sing a Hymn of Thanksgiving to God. Moses leads the Israelites in singing and the hymn is printed in its entirety and then it says after that; that Miriam was the sister of Aaron and Moses. Miriam led the chorus of women in singing and then it repeats the first line of Moses’ song. So apparently, the women sang the same song as the men, perhaps in chorus with the men or perhaps afterwards, that’s not clear. In this particular text it doesn’t go like that at all. It has the song of Moses and then it says that Miriam came to sing with the women and then it has an entirely different song. Nobody ever heard of this song before. Apparently some scribe, perhaps a proto feminist of some sort, took the text and said; “well, you know, why should she sing the same thing? We’ll give her a different song.” It’s very fragmentary but we know that it’s quite different, it does seem to be talking about the same event; the crossing of the Red Sea. Well, you know this really poses that question; how dare you? This is our most sacred text, how can you stick in a song of your own composition or maybe it was somebody else’s? And for me this has to do with the very idea of scripture, people did dare. Apparently it didn’t bother them to have that sort of change introduced in to what was universally recognised as a sacred text. And frankly we should have figured this out long before The Dead Sea Scrolls were found because biblical scholars, people who do this in universities for a living, have known for at least 150—200 years that these sorts of changes occurred with our Biblical books way back when. The recognition of this fact goes back to the great Jewish biblical interpreter Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th Century in Spain and then travelled around a bit. He already recognised that the last 27 chapters of The Book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, couldn’t have been written by the original Prophet Isaiah, it must have been written by somebody else. And here again you have that situation, somebody says to this scribe or prophet or whoever he was; “This is The Book of Isaiah” and he says; “well, I have about 27 chapters I’d like to add to this book”. And he does it and apparently it was accepted. So, that is the basic idea of the scripture in ancient times and it’s very hard, I must say, for me to get my head around it. I should say though, there is a pretty clear development in scripture. One might think of it as a narrowing funnel, way back in the 8th century or the 6th Century apparently you could add in lots of stuff. There’s hardly a book in the Bible that scholars don’t think suffered that sort of augmentation. But as time went on the funnel got narrower until you get to the Dead Sea Scrolls and really the changes are relatively minor for the most part. You could, I guess, go so far as to stick in a song of Miriam that didn’t belong there but for the most part the changes are really pretty slight, a word here, a word there. And then you come to the bottom of the funnel and no more changes are possible. Well, I’m coming to the really only original idea in this talk which is that that’s a fiction, that funnel really doesn’t exist. It’s true that alternations in the actual wording of the text cease at a certain point but that doesn’t mean that the text is thereafter static. What happens is even before we get to the bottom of that funnel these ancient biblical interpreters come along and they all say the same thing, the text seems to mean this but it actually means that, it says this about Adam and Eve but this is the real meaning of this story, so ancient biblical interpretation was nothing less than an ongoing process of rewriting of the text without changing a single word in it. I have to say these ancient biblical interpreters, I always have to explain this, they were not hapless academics of really no significance, these were people who were figures in the community and what they said went. When they said the text means this that’s exactly what it meant from then on. They continued this process of modifying scripture long after the texts themselves came to be established. This is not just a minor point I think it really has to do with the whole idea of scripture. In the beginning, one might say, God created the malleability. It is only long after that biblical texts came to be more and more fixed and even after that a state of fixity was reached and even after that people continued to modify what scripture was saying, perhaps one might say, perfecting scriptures’ message, not through modifying the texts but through modifying the interpretation. So, in a sense, our whole notion of a fixed, unchangeable scripture began to emerge much, much later. This, I think, is the great lesson about the very idea of scripture that the Dead Sea Scrolls embody.  I have to say, for me anyway, it’s a somewhat disturbing idea, maybe even frightening but there are no two ways of getting around it, they simply believed that scripture was a pretty malleable thing really all the way through the period of the ancient biblical interpreters and after that. Thank you very much.


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