It's hard to imagine the Bible as a hot intellectual commodity among Harvard undergrads. But for years, more than 900 students flocked to James Kugel's introductory Bible course—a close second to Economics 10. “The fellow who taught that and I had a kind of rivalry,” Kugel says.

Recently retired as the Starr professor of Hebrew literature, Kugel finally outdrew his competitor, and the Crimson trumpeted the news: “God Beats Mammon.”

Kugel's editor at the Free Press, Bruce Nichols, kept encouraging him to write a book based on his popular course, and the result is How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, which will publish in September. It's an attempt to address what Kugel calls “the crisis that confronts a lot of Bible readers today.” Is the Hebrew Bible the word of God, as its ancient interpreters—and many traditional Jews and Christians today—believe? Or is it, as many modern scholars posit, a mélange of texts by several human authors with different political and religious motives.

Slight and softspoken, Kugel's puckish sense of humor (“Stop me if I'm going on... my wife says I tend to speak in units of 50 minutes apiece”) masks the intellectual courage of his project. Kugel is himself an Orthodox Jew who cannot escape the questions modern scholars raise about the Bible's origins. In How to Read the Bible he writes, “I feel that it was dishonest, and ultimately... impossible, to hide from [this book's] central question”—that is, how, indeed, to read the Bible?

The book juxtaposes the ancient and modern interpretations, presenting a bifocal view of a sacred text: “Each of [these interpretations] in some way could be said to have created their own Bible, but the two Bibles are completely different.”

Kugel doesn't expect everyone to be grateful for his efforts. “Evangelical Christians in particular,” he says, find that “ideas that come out of modern biblical scholarship are very problematic.” And he acknowledges that even among his fellow Orthodox Jews, “I'm not sure I'm going to be acclaimed as the saint who's squared the great circle.”

In 1968, Kugel was living in a converted chicken coop as a Yale undergraduate literature major. While awaiting graduation, he brought some Jewish studies books to his “crude but... wonderful” off-campus retreat, and started reading. “After about a day or two,” he says, “I had this sinking feeling that I'd spent the last four years studying the wrong thing. I walked through graduation like a ghost.”

Kugel wrote to Harvard, where he had been accepted for graduate work in comp lit, to say he was changing his field to Jewish studies. This turns out to have been Kugel's calling: his CV lists dozens of articles, 11 books, and 13 awards and prizes, including the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award in Religion for The Bible as It Was (Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), based on his research into the earliest of biblical interpreters. That work was prompted by Kugel's feeling in graduate school that the modern biblical approach couldn't answer an important question: “It occurred to me, where did all these other ideas come from—the idea that Abraham was the first monotheist, for example. Everyone in graduate school said, that's nonsense, monotheism didn't start until centuries after his time.”

“I started looking at these ancient interpreters,” he continues, “people who lived in the closing centuries before the Common Era [C.E., or what is generally called A.D.]. Their writings are the earliest place that we find these ideas—that Abraham was a monotheist, that Adam and Eve lived a sinless existence in the Garden of Eden.” The Bible as It Was offers samplings of these rich sources.

Kugel now lives with his family in Jerusalem and teaches at the Orthodox Bar-Ilan University. “Harvard it isn't,” he says, not disparagingly but emphasizing the large cultural differences between American and Israeli students.

“I know a lot of the Bible by heart, and at Harvard I passed for a kind of genius. But at Bar-Ilan, a lot of people know a lot of the Bible by heart. But they don't have as good a general education as Americans do.”

Kugel hopes his new book will reach people “who have never opened the Bible before, recent Bosnian or Latino immigrants, Major League Baseball fans, liberal Muslin clerics, people like that.” If his Harvard course is any indication, he may well succeed.