Biblical scholar James Kugel will be familiar to careful readers who checked the footnotes of Elder Jefferey R. Holland’s October 2007 general conference talk, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent.” In describing the nature of God, Elder Holland cited Kugel, an orthodox Jew—who presumably has nothing to gain by supporting Latter-day Saint doctrines—in contending that the earliest writers of Genesis understood God to have a body like a person and that he interacted with the patriarchs literally face to face. In The God of Old, Kugel claims that later interpretive modes still dominating Jewish and Christian thought today—the beginnings of which can be seen in the Bible itself—were used to render these straightforward descriptions as figurative.
This finding is just one of several that Latter-day Saints might find interesting. Kugel’s The Bible As It Was contends that the Bible cannot be grasped without understanding the ancient interpretive assumptions that shaped how the book was written and assembled, which assumptions continued to operate well into the Christian era, influencing New Testament writers as well. Some of those assumptions are still with us; most of them, however, have been eclipsed by new interpretive modes of fundamentalism and modern scholarship.