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Eric Foner Discusses the Accuracy of the Film "Amistad."

Professor of History at Columbia University Eric Foner discusses the new study guide by the producers of the film "Amistad." Though Foner finds the film "interesting historical(ly)" he is critical of the guide because of it's inaccuracies. Foner says the guide "erases the distinction between fact and fabrication," using composite characters instead of real ones, and that the guide misrepresents the significance of the Amistad incident. (Foner's editorial about this appeared on The New York Times Op-Ed page, December 20, 1997)


Other segments from the episode on January 15, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 15, 1998: Interview with Eric Foner; Interview with James Kugel; Commentary on NBC.


Date: JANUARY 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011501np.217
Head: Amistad's History
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's impossible to understand race in America without understanding slavery. How accurate is the history we're getting from the movie "Amistad" and its film study learning kit?

My guest, Eric Foner, is professor of history at Columbia University. We asked him to compare the film with the real events surrounding the story. Foner is the author of several books about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Amistad tells the story of the Africans who seized control of a Cuban slave ship in 1839, but were intercepted by the U.S. Navy and charged with mutiny and murder. They won their freedom in court, but their victory was appealed to the Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams represented them.

Here's a scene from the film, with Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, making a stirring speech in the Supreme Court.


ANTHONY HOPKINS, ACTOR, AS JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: This is the most important case to ever come before the Supreme Court, because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man. The natural state of mankind is freedom -- is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.

GROSS: I asked historian Eric Foner if the Amistad was a turning point in the history of slavery.

ERIC FONER, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: The Amistad case was probably a turning point in the history of the abolitionist movement in America in that it generated a great deal of support for the abolitionists, and they used the case for publicity purposes. But in terms of the legal decision, it was certainly a turning point for those Africans who won their freedom and went back to Africa.

But it really had nothing to do with slavery as an institution in the United States. Not a single American slave was freed because of the Amistad case. The legal edifice of slavery remained untouched. So on that basis, I would have to say no, it really wasn't a turning point.

GROSS: The Amistad case revolved around international slave trading laws, not U.S. laws. What was the difference? What's the distinction?

FONER: Well, the slave trade from Africa -- the transportation of Africans to slavery in the new world which had gone on for hundreds of years, really, starting around 1500 -- was outlawed by international treaty in the first part of the 19th century; 1808, the U.S. and Britain joined up and then Spain joined later.

But that had nothing to do with slavery as it existed in the United States. And indeed, to replace the African slave trade, a very profitable and flourishing slave trade within the country developed. Planters in Virginia and other states were constantly selling slaves to the deep South. That was the slave trade within the United States.

In fact, there were some who said they wanted to end the African slave trade so they could make more profit by selling their own slaves within the United States. Once you cut off the African slave trade, the price of slaves rose -- you know, supply and demand, in effect.

So even though to us today it seems like this is all part of the same system, to people at the time there was a great difference between the African slave trade -- picking people up from their native land and bringing them to the United States -- that seemed, to almost everybody by this time, to be immoral and impolitic.

But slavery in the United States was widely defended. It was entrenched in the Constitution. It was defended by the laws, by the government. And you could condemn the African slave trade and strongly support slavery in the United States.

GROSS: You're saying that the -- the Africans from the Amistad won because of international law, and that their victory didn't necessarily signify a kind of change of sentiment about slavery in the United States.

FONER: That's right. The Supreme Court was one of the greatest bulwarks of slavery all throughout this period. The film Amistad, which has many good qualities, is also very misleading. And one of the ways it's misleading is in the final -- the climactic speech by John Quincy Adams before the Supreme Court. He moves the court by appealing to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the belief in freedom by the founding fathers.

Well first of all, that speech never happened -- at least -- he did -- that's not what he was talking about in his speech to the Supreme Court in real history. He was talking about the law -- maritime law; states rights -- whether it was the law of Connecticut or the federal government that ought to apply to these captives.

But the main sort of misleading element is the notion that the Supreme Court was swayed by his appeal to morality and justice and freedom. The -- I'm sorry to say, but in our history up to the Civil War, the Supreme Court had no interest in morality and justice and freedom when it came to African-Americans. And the Amistad case did not -- did not change that at all. In fact, a majority of those justices were still on the Supreme Court in 1857, when they ruled in the Dred Scott decision that a black person had no rights whatever that a white man was bound to respect.

So, the Amistad case did not awaken or kindle a new recognition of human rights on the part of the justices, as the movie would lead you to believe.

GROSS: You know, in the movie, when John Quincy Adams is appealing on behalf of the Amistad Africans, he says -- he says about Cinque, the leader of the rebellion: "he is the only true hero in this room. If he were white, he wouldn't be standing here fighting for his life. If he were white, songs would be written about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms. Our children would know his name, as well as they know Patrick Henry's."

Did John Quincy Adams say that?

FONER: Absolutely not, and Cinque was not in the room, of course, when the -- when the case was argued. And he didn't go and shake John Quincy Adams' hand in the Supreme Court chambers and all that.

But more to the point, I think -- I mean, this is poetic license and, you know, it's fiction and that's all right in a certain sense. I think more to the point is that Hollywood almost inevitably must focus a film on a hero. There's gotta be a hero and in this case, it's -- Cinque is the hero. And you know, their vision of history is that history moves along because of heroes.

Cinque is a hero, certainly. I would certainly respect him -- a man who's fought for his freedom and gained it et cetera. But, you know, this notion that ordinary men and women can't accomplish anything and it's just the one sterling example who really moves history, I think is fundamentally misguided. It's a product of the nature of the cinema itself, it seems, and Hollywood sensibility, not real history.

GROSS: So -- so John Quincy Adams didn't argue about the greatness of the leader of the rebellion to argue on behalf of...

FONER: Not at all. You know, the Supreme Court was a defender of slavery, but they were also justices and they were interested in the law. John Quincy Adams talking about Cinque as a hero would have no bearing on the judgment of the Supreme Court any more than it would today if a lawyer went into the Supreme Court and said: "well, you can't condemn my -- the defendant here because he's a hero." That has nothing whatsoever to do with the law and no lawyer worth his salt would introduce such a question.

This is Hollywood. It's a fanciful script and, you know, it's part of this notion of the film that the legal system can be changed by this appeal to morality. It would be great if that were true, but unfortunately it wasn't true at all. The Supreme Court was not changed in the slightest, and as I say, they kept ruling in favor of slavery all the way down to the Civil War.

So they were not -- they weren't suddenly awakened to this notion of the rights of mankind.

GROSS: In the movie, the lawyer who first defends the Amistad Africans -- the lawyer played by Matthew McConaghey (ph), Roger Baldwin, he takes the case because he needs the work. He's a property lawyer. But he ends up having a moral conversion and keeping with the case because he's become so committed to the Africans and to trying to end slavery in general.

Is that an accurate rendering of this lawyer?

FONER: Well you know, I hate to be a killjoy because people go and enjoy a movie, and then they go and ask historians: is this accurate? And we always have to say no, it's not really accurate. And I guess that's our role.

No, that's not Roger Baldwin at all. First of all, Roger Baldwin was a very distinguished lawyer. He was not some bumbling incompetent the way he's portrayed in the beginning of the film. He was a very distinguished and accomplished and experienced lawyer all the way through this case.

But I think you've pinpointed another problem with the film, which I think is really a Hollywood problem more than a specific Amistad problem. There's got to be this development of the main character. So in order for Baldwin to end up being sort of an admirable figure, you've got to start him out as a bit of a bumpkin and an idiot.

And what happens in the film -- one of the reasons I -- one of the things I object to in the film -- is that really the moral crux of the film in a certain way is Roger Baldwin's awakening. He realizes that this is not a question of property rights, but human rights. So that the -- the sort of -- the real dramatic tension is -- in the film -- is the awakening of Roger Baldwin.

It makes him, really, the main character, rather than Cinque. In a certain sense, it's very much like the film "Glory" in that respect, where it's the -- the maturation, the development as a man, of the -- of Robert Gould Shaw who commands the black troops -- the Civil War troops in Glory. That's the crux of the movie.

The black troops are there as vehicles, as catalysts for this moral awakening of a white man, and in a certain sense that's also happening in Amistad. The white man comes to realize the immorality of slavery through contact with these blacks. But that makes him the main figure, rather than them.

GROSS: So, did Roger Baldwin oppose slavery?

FONER: Absolutely. He did, and he was a very distinguished lawyer and he didn't -- he realized from the very beginning what this case was. But he also realized you had to fight it on the basis of the law. You had to right it on the basis of maritime law, state law, international law -- not just appeals to, you know, to conscience and human rights, which are not legal questions.

So, I think it may be a little more dull than the movie would suggest, but that's the way the history really worked out.

GROSS: So what was finally the significance of the Amistad case?

FONER: The Amistad case was significant for two reasons. One, as with other forms of slave resistance, whether it was Nat Turner's rebellion or Gabriel Prosser's (ph) conspiracy or other indications of slave resistance, it disproved the very widespread notion that slaves were happy, contented, and really wanted to remain in slavery.

Every instance like this undercut really fundamental -- this fundamental element of the pro-slavery argument, so that it demonstrated the -- the desire of slaves for freedom, which is something we might take for granted, but many people in the 19th century didn't really believe.

Second of all, it was a tremendous boon to the abolitionist movement. And I think one of the real problems in the movie is that -- is the way the abolitionist movement is portrayed. You have Louis Tappan (ph) there, who is shown as a hypocrite. He says: "well, maybe it'd be better for us if the Amistad captives lose their case. We'll get more publicity if they're put back into slavery."

Well, that never happened. That's just a reflection of the cynicism of the moviemakers about sort of social reform movements nowadays. That's a complete misrepresentation of the abolitionist attitude. And in general, the abolitionists are portrayed as kind of eccentrics -- you know, puritan types. Many of them were. Many abolitionists were rather eccentric types, but they were also very dedicated fighters for human rights and for the equality and liberty of black people.

And it was the abolitionist movement that fought this case and won this case, more than anything else. And that was one of the key elements of -- or one of the key elements of importance, of the Amistad case. It gave a lot of attention to the abolitionist movement. It gave them a victory. And it won many new supporters to the movement.

When you have individual slaves in Connecticut -- this is not a question of the South. These people are being held in Connecticut. It galvanized many Northerners to -- to work for the freedom of these people and in so doing, to, you know, to decide to fight against slavery in the South as well.

So in a sense, the larger impact of the case was on the abolitionist movement itself, but since the filmmakers are so cynical about mass movements and popular movements and the possibility of gaining anything through group struggle, not just one hero emerging, they're not going to show that.

GROSS: In some ways, the moral conscience of the movie among the people in America rests with the Morgan Freeman character. He plays an African-American abolitionist. His is a fictional character. What was the role of African-Americans in the abolitionist movement at the time of the Amistad?

FONER: Morgan Freeman is a very fine actor. I think a problem with the movie is he was given very little to do except to stand around and make a few comments now and then.

African-Americans were central to the abolitionist movement. One of the great elements of significance of that movement was it was the first racially integrated political movement in American history. It brought black and white together in this common cause and common struggle.

Black Americans in the North -- in Boston and Philadelphia and New York and other places -- helped to finance the abolitionist movement in its early days. They worked very closely with white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Weld (ph) and others. Blacks were a central part of the abolitionist movement.

Now, there's nothing wrong with making a composite character, but the problem is that that composite character really had very little to do in the movie, which I think is regrettable because blacks were pretty central actors in abolitionism.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Foner. He's a professor of history at Columbia University. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is historian Eric Foner, and we're talking about the movie Amistad.

Have you ever been in a position of feeling that you had to un-teach things that your students were taught by movies?

FONER: All the time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

FONER: Absolutely. Look at -- how about the west? How about the portrayal of the...

GROSS: Sure.

FONER: ... west in American films -- and Indians and cowboys and the westward movement; or the Civil War, very often. Very frequently, people -- kids, students -- get their picture of history not only from movies, but from television; nowadays, I guess, from CD-ROM games as well, you can get that.

So, one has to often be aware of that in order to try to counter it. Absolutely. But it's also true of historical novels. I mean, you could read "Gone With The Wind." You could see the movie. You could also read the novel Gone With The Wind and get a very misleading picture of slavery and the Civil War and the Reconstruction period in the South and the relation of blacks and whites.

But -- so as an educator, you just have to be aware of that and try to use these celluloid images in a positive way to try to raise questions in class and get students thinking about some of those issues.

GROSS: Dreamworks has a study guide to accompany the movie Amistad. And this study guide has been distributed to many teachers of American history, African-American history. As a history professor, I wonder how you feel about the use of movie study guides in history classes?

FONER: I think it -- film can be used in history classes for one or another purpose, but not really for the purpose that this study guide suggests. This study guide suggests you use the film to study the history of slavery.

Unfortunately, it'd be much better to study the history of slavery by reading books and articles about slavery, not by doing it sort of indirectly through a largely fictional account of a real -- of a real incident. It's better to study Frederick Douglass as a black abolitionist, than to study the Morgan Freeman character who never really existed.

So, you know, my feeling -- I use film in class. I show "Birth of a Nation," the D.W. Griffith film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, when I'm teaching that period. But what I use that film to show is not the real history of the Civil War, but the racial attitudes of 1916 when that movie was made. And it's a very graphic, vivid illustration or exemplification of the very deep racism in American society at the time that that movie was made.

So, you know, if I were going to use Amistad in class, I would use it to show something about 1997 and Hollywood's take on race relations, on multiculturalism, on social movements. It's a sort of post-political movie which -- in that, as we said, a hero is needed to sort of get change going, and people who act in concert as a social movement are ridiculed and seen as eccentric and really not accomp -- and hypocrites and not accomplishing anything. I think that's a kind of illustration of a -- as I say, this post-civil rights sensibility at large in the country today.

But I certainly would not use a film like this to learn about the real history of slavery any more than I would suggest that you study Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," for example, to learn the history of ancient Rome. You should study Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as a work of literature and to learn something about Elizabethan attitudes about the ancient world.

GROSS: Have you gotten a lot of response from students of yours who've seen the film and who want to know what was true and what wasn't? Or, who are making certain assumptions that are actually false?

FONER: I have gotten a lot of response. I wrote a little piece about this in the New York Times, criticizing the study guide. I've gotten a tremendous number of letters and e-mails and comments of all kinds.

One of the things I find most interesting is that many black people who've corresponded with me -- and people who are not in the academy, by also some graduate students of mine who are very well-educated -- seem to have adopted a very sort of defensive attitude or strong identification with the movie, and they sort of feel that if you criticize the movie, you're somehow pro-slavery or at least undermining consciousness of slavery. It's sort of like if you criticized "Schindler's List," you're somehow defending the Holocaust or something like that.

I think they feel, and there's merit in this, that this film in some ways gives a very graphic, vivid portrayal of the brutality of slavery. To me, the most compelling scene in it is the one on the Middle Passage -- that is, on the slave ship -- where they really show you in a vivid way the brutality of the conditions in which Africans were placed on the travel for -- the passage from Africa to the New World.

And you know, that's what cinema does very well. It can give you this visceral sense of really being there. You don't need cinema to have people give speeches, which is what most of the film really is. If you want to read John Quincy Adams' real speech, you can easily do that, rather than see a fictional speech in the Supreme Court in the movie.

GROSS: Have you used the movie Amistad to spark discussions in your classes?

FONER: I will. The problem is it came out during intercession, you know...

GROSS: Oh, sure. Right.

FONER: ... in-between terms. It came out when my -- the term was over. But I'm teaching the Civil War next year and I certainly will talk about it and ask students what they think and raise questions about it.

But you know, this -- another interesting thing is that the movie, in an odd sort of way, the movie has been adopted both by many black viewers, but also by conservatives. One of the more interesting things I see -- like George Will had a long column really praising Amistad to the skies; John Leo (ph) in the U.S. News and World Report. Why do they? -- I mean, this gives a fairly brutal picture of American slavery. Why do they like that? They tend to like more celebratory pictures of American history.

Well, what Will says in his article is there are two heroes in the movie. There is Cinque and there is the American legal system. That is, the movie shows how the system works. The ideals of the founding fathers are vindicated at the end of the movie, and the court makes its commitment to human rights.

That's fine, except unfortunately it didn't happen. So, that's a fiction. The court was not committed to human rights until after the Civil War. And -- but in other words, the idea is this will create an uplifting view of American history and the role of slavery within it. Unfortunately, I think the real history of slavery is perhaps a little less uplifting than these columnists perhaps are trying to suggest.

GROSS: Well Eric Foner, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

FONER: My pleasure -- always happy to be here.

GROSS: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of several books about the Civil War and reconstruction.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Eric Foner
High: Professor of history at Columbia University Eric Foner discusses the new study guide by the producers of the film "Amistad." Though Foner finds the film "interesting historically," he is critical of the guide because of its inaccuracies. Foner says the guide "erases the distinction between fact and fabrication," using composite characters instead of real ones, and that the guide misrepresents the significance of the Amistad incident.
Spec: Movie Industry; History; Amistad; Race Relations; Slavery
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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Amistad's History
Date: JANUARY 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011502np.217
Head: The Bible As It Was
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Bible is constantly referred to in today's debates about morality. Of course, not everyone shares the same interpretations of the Bible. My guest James Kugel has gone back to the earliest recorded interpretations of the Bible to see the messages extracted by readers in ancient times.

Kugel's new book, "The Bible As It Was," focuses on the first five books of the Bible as it was interpreted in the three centuries before the birth of Christ and the century after.

Kugel is a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard University. I asked him why he's studying ancient interpretations of the Bible -- how is that relevant to our contemporary understanding?

JAMES KUGEL, PROFESSOR OF HEBREW LITERATURE, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, PROFESSOR OF BIBLE, BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY, ISRAEL, AUTHOR, "THE BIBLE AS IT WAS": Well, the ancient interpreters were -- they flourished during -- we don't really know when they began, but they flourished, say, from about 200 BC and on through the first or second centuries -- the common era.

And they were absolutely crucial. It was because of them and their activity that the Bible really became the central text of Judaism and Christianity. People have known this for a long time, but I thought it would be really interesting to look and try to figure out how they actually interpreted different biblical stories.

GROSS: In what way did these ancient interpreters help make the Bible accessible and the important document that it is?

KUGEL: Well, very often what they did was to try to fill in the gaps in biblical narratives. Sometimes, stories leave out what seem to be important details -- what was the person thinking? Or where was he or she, you know, headed at the time? Why did such and such a thing take place?
And so, they addressed themselves to those questions because these were sort of holes in the biblical narratives.

GROSS: When you talk about the ancient interpreters -- the ancient interpreters who you went back to see what the very early interpretations of the Bible were -- who were they? And, how have their interpretations been preserved?

KUGEL: Well, as to who they were, we don't really know much about most of them at all. But they wrote books, at least that's how their interpretations have survived. And those books, by very circuitous routes, have made it into the hands of, you know, modern scholars. Some of those books -- well, these books were all ultimately excluded from the Jewish canon of scripture. So, Jews pretty much lost sight of them.

But before that happened, a new off-shoot of Judaism, namely Christianity, was established. And some of these early Christian groups considered these other writings, excluded from the Jewish Bible, as sacred nonetheless.

GROSS: So, the ancients who first interpreted the Bible -- were they rabbis? Were they scholars? How much interaction did they actually have with regular people?

KUGEL: Well, I think they weren't rabbis. The term, as best we know, didn't exist yet when our -- most ancient interpreters thrived. But they certainly did have interaction with the people. I think some of them must have been looked up to as great religious leaders.

And I have to say even at this distance over many centuries, some of these -- for example, the author of the book of Jubilees (ph) -- we don't have any idea who wrote this book; we don't know for sure when it was written, but say around 200 or so before the common era -- this was somebody who in my opinion must have been a real community leader.

We know that his book ended up being adopted by the members of the Dead Sea scrolls sect or community -- the community that left us the Dead Sea scrolls. They thought his book was apparently just as sacred as the book of Genesis, and they lived by many of his prescriptions. So, he was certainly a major figure -- somebody who we don't even know his name or her name.

GROSS: Why was it believed, even in ancient times, that the Bible required interpretation, as opposed to a document that could be read a face value? Taken literally?

KUGEL: Well, I think in -- with any document that gets transmitted from generation to generation, after a while, things change. Words don't mean what they had meant before. And so, you need interpreters to explain what this text meant.

But it also is true that circumstances change, and a text that might have made sense to listeners back in the 8th or 10th century BC now suddenly, by the third or second century, didn't. So, you needed people to explain what was going on -- sometimes, as in the case of these interpreters, even to change the apparent meaning of the text to make it fit new circumstances.

GROSS: You say that the ancient interpreters assumed that the Bible was perfect, and perfectly harmonious. There were no mistakes, and yet, there were many contradictions.

KUGEL: Well that's why they had to interpret. Every one of those contradictions was a kind of challenge for an interpreter, and also an opportunity, since what the text seemed to be saying didn't make any sense. And since they assumed that it must make sense and be -- must be perfect, the text seemed to be inviting the interpreter to kind of fill in the blanks and very often do the sort of free-wheeling interpretation that would probably make a modern scholar's hair stand on end. But, this was how they went about it.

GROSS: Give me an example of one of the contradictions that the ancient interpreters tried to resolve.

KUGEL: Well, if you look in -- for example, the very first real story in the Hebrew Bible, it's the story of Adam and Eve. There are a number of things that certainly bothered ancient interpreters about this story. But maybe, and I should say, by the way, my years of teaching at Harvard have taught me that not everybody knows the story of Adam and Eve, and certainly not many of the other stories in the Bible.

But basically, I think people know this is the story of the first two created human beings. And God puts them in this garden called the Garden of Eden. And he says to them: you can eat of any of the -- he says to Adam -- you can eat of any of the fruit of these trees, but don't eat of the fruit of this particular tree because on the day that you will eat it -- eat of it, you will die.

But unfortunately for -- from the interpreter's standpoint, Adam doesn't die. He goes on to live a nice long life of 930 years. So, people really couldn't understand why God would say such a thing. And even if he had said it, as it were, to kind of threaten Adam, why would it have ended up in the Bible? Why would an apparently false threat nevertheless be included?

GROSS: So, what did they come up with to help resolve that contradiction?

KUGEL: Well, they -- there were actually a couple of answers. One answer, which is found at least as early as the second century BC, held that God's days are much longer than human days. There was actually a verse that helped this interpretation. In one of the Psalms, it says a thousand years in your eyes, God, are like a single day.

So people said, well if that's so, then maybe a single day of God's is indeed a thousand years long. And if Adam lived to the age of 930, by God's standards, he died sometime in the late afternoon of one divine day.

That was an answer. But eventually, interpreters got to what I think probably was a better answer. They said: "on the day that you eat of it, you shall die" didn't mean you'll fall over dead, but you shall become a mortal human being.

In other words, before that -- before eating of the fruit -- Adam and Eve were apparently created to live forever. They would always go on living in this garden and enjoying life. But because they transgressed this one commandment, they suddenly, on that day, became mortal and then Adam went on to live a normal human life span, for those days, of 930 years.

GROSS: So, God's injunction "you will die" meant you will become mortal and die eventually.

KUGEL: Right, exactly. That's how they interpreted it, in any case.

GROSS: Now, is that the most common interpretation today?

KUGEL: Well I don't think people think about it much today. I think if you were to ask a modern biblical scholar -- these sort of cynical colleagues of mine that inhabit universities -- they would say, to begin with, the expression "on the day that" in Hebrew and in other ancient Semitic languages, sometimes doesn't mean specifically on the day that, but more like "when." And that would give you a little more room to maneuver with that sentence.

And beyond that, it -- it may indeed, from the standpoint of a modern biblical scholar, might have been a kind of empty threat that was nevertheless left in the text. But, that isn't what our ancient interpreters believed.

And in fact, that interpretation ended up getting a bit expanded. People said, well you know, if Adam and Eve were punished with mortality, that's too bad for them. But, why do I have to die? It raised a kind of moral problem. Just because Adam and Eve ended up being moral doesn't mean that all other human beings ought to be mortal. And so, then they had another question to answer.

GROSS: Now, how did the ancients deal with that question?

KUGEL: Well they came up with the answer that's probably the best known in connection with the story of Adam and Eve. They said that if we all are mortal as well, you could say, well, mortality is hereditary. That wasn't quite their answer. They said if we are mortal, it's because Adam and Eve were deficient products to begin with. They were made with a -- as one ancient interpreter said -- a crooked heart.

And so having sinned, they passed their sinfulness on to all subsequent generations. We all ended up with the same defect as sinful human beings, and therefore we inherited their punishment, too.

GROSS: My guest is Harvard Professor James Kugel, author of The Bible As It Was. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Bible scholar James Kugel, and he's the author of the new book The Bible As It Was, which looks at how our interpretations of the Bible have been shaped by ancient interpretations of the Bible.

Now before we talk about interpretations of the snake in the Adam and Eve story, just refresh our memories for people who don't really study Bible or know the Bible stories well, the role of the snake in the Adam and Eve story.

KUGEL: Well, the snake comes up to Eve at a certain point. The snake is introduced with a sentence that say he was cleverer than any of the other beasts of the field. The snake comes up to Eve and persuades her to eat of the fruit of the tree.

I always have to tell people that the fruit of the tree in the biblical story is not an apple. For some reason, most Americans seem to think that it is an apple. But it's not identified, and ancient interpreters -- this was one of the things that puzzled them, and a lot of them came to the conclusion that it was actually a fig tree. I don't know of any who said it was an apple tree.

In any case, the snake tells -- tells -- suggests that Eve eat of the fruit, and she tries it and likes it, and then passes it on to Adam.

GROSS: Now, most contemporary interpretations see the snake as the agent of the devil, who's tempting Eve and succeeds in the temptation. Was it always understood that the snake was a metaphor for, or the agent of, the devil?

KUGEL: Well, really if you look at the story itself, there is no suggestion that the snake was the devil or the agent of the devil. And one of the things that I was pleased to discover in writing this book is you can sort of chart the career of this snake. He really starts off among the most ancient interpreters as simply a snake. And one can presume that for centuries before we even have written evidence of these interpretations, that's what people thought.

The problem that bothered them is why he was a talking snake. And so, some ancient figures -- Philo of Alexandria and others -- suggest that in those days, all animals could talk and it was only later on that they lost the capacity for speech.

But the fact that they even raised that question suggests that they had no notion that this was in any sense a stand-in for the devil or the devil himself. That idea begins to -- begins to appear in the -- I think, first century before the common era and then thereafter. People thought that maybe, indeed, this was some kind of satanic figure.

At first, at least one interpretation that was put forward, was that snakes don't talk. And so if this one did talk, maybe the devil was somehow using this animal as his vehicle or even was speaking through him through some kind of ventriloquy. But then, eventually the actual being of the snake came to be identified with the devil. And we do have -- and even elsewhere in the New Testament and in text contemporaneous with it -- the representation of the devil as -- in the form of a snake.

GROSS: I think most people today would say the Garden of Eden was in heaven. It was a paradise in heaven -- a heaven from which Adam and Eve were exiled after eating of the apple that was probably a fig.


Right. OK. They wouldn't say a "fig." They'd say "apple." Anyways, so the people assume that Adam and Eve lived in heaven. You're saying that if you look at ancient interpretations and the, you know, just go back to the original biblical documents, not necessarily heaven at all.

KUGEL: Well the text itself says that there were four rivers that came out of the Garden of Eden, and we know some of these rivers. The Euphrates is certainly a river that's somewhere on Earth. So, the Bible itself seems to imply that -- imply? -- state outright that this was a garden somewhere on Earth.

And again, if we look back at our most ancient interpreters, they all seem to assume that it is a garden someplace on Earth. It's true that if you read the Bible in Greek -- it was translated into Greek starting in -- I mean, the Hebrew Bible -- starting in the third century before the common era. If you read the Bible in Greek, it referred to this Garden by the word "paradise."

But "paradise" in Greek in those days just meant a kind of enclosed orchard. It was a very normal word for a kind of, you know, enclosed garden. And so again, everything about the text, whether you were reading it in Hebrew or Greek, would probably suggest that it was an earthly garden.

But at the end, after the story is over, God establishes an angel with a flashing sword at the entrance of the garden to prevent anyone from going into the garden. And I guess interpreters had to wonder why the garden was even kept going at all. If God didn't want anyone to go into it, he probably should have destroyed it.

And so ancient interpreters came to the conclusion that it had some purpose, and that purpose at this point began to kind of coincide with a very old notion that the righteous, after their death, go to some after-life. The garden became the place where the righteous go after they die.

Kind of made sense because in the garden was a tree called the "Tree of Life." And it would seem that if you continued to eat of the fruit of that tree, you would live forever. It was still an earthly garden, but if you watch the ancient interpreters over the period of about two centuries, it slowly moved up towards heaven. There are some interpreters right around the time of Jesus who say -- a little before that -- who say that this garden was actually on top of a very high mountain.

And then after that, we get the notion of a heavenly paradise, not necessarily the -- that the garden in which Adam and Eve were located was in heaven, but that this paradise, which had been on Earth, somehow was now up in heaven and that was where the righteous would go to live out their immortal existence.

GROSS: You've devoted so much of your life to not only trying to understand the contradictions within the Bible, but trying to understand other people's understanding of those contradictions; trying to de-code a very cryptic, in a way, text. What do you think of the fundamentalist approach to reading the Bible? Or, things should be taken at face value?

KUGEL: Well, I -- I actually made the mistake -- I don't think it was a mistake -- of putting my e-mail address in this book, because I wanted to communicate with people who might have questions about, or comments about, what I've written. And a number of people have written to me about -- to ask how I feel about the literal truth of scripture.

And what I've said to them is really that I think that one thing all ancient interpreters would agree on -- Jews and Christians from the earliest period that we have their pronouncements -- is: whatever one can say about the literal truth of scripture, that's not necessarily the only thing scripture has to tell us.

And some of them would be much more emphatic than I've been, and would say that's not what's important about scripture. Philo of Alexandria, an ancient Jewish interpreter, would say, for example, well, there was this person named Abraham and he left his native land to go to the land of Canaan. He really did exist. That's the literal meaning of scripture.

But what's important is what he would have called the "underlying meaning" of scripture, where Abraham is taken -- this is Philo's interpretation -- to represent the human soul. And so, his journey is really every human being's journey in search of God. That's true of later Christians as well. They say, you know, the literal meaning of the text is sometimes altogether trivial.

GROSS: Well James Kugel, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KUGEL: Thank you.

GROSS: James Kugel is the author of The Bible As It Was. He's a professor or Hebrew literature at Harvard.

Coming up: why is NBC willing to pay $13 million an episode for ER?

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: James Kugel
High: Bible Scholar James Kugel is a professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard and Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He's the author of the new book "The Bible As it Was." In it, Kugel reconstructs the Old Testament from ancient times, as it was understood by the first readers, and then traces the interpretations that follow.
Spec: History; Religion; Old Testament; Books; Authors; The Bible As It Was
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Bible As It Was
Date: JANUARY 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011503np.217
Head: $13 Million an Episode for ER
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Yesterday, NBC announced it would pay $13 million an episode for "ER" -- more than seven times the amount it's paying now. And NBC made the deal and the announcement happily.

TV critic David Bianculli takes a whack at explaining why.

DAVID BIANCULLI, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: OK, here's the deal -- and when I say "here's the deal," I mean here's the deal.

In network TV, as in anywhere else in the business world, money talks. But that tactic works only if people listen. Jerry Seinfeld, who already will make an estimated $25 million or more per year from the sale of "Seinfeld" episodes in syndication, doesn't need any more money. So he told NBC he was stopping production of his sitcom at the end of this season. Without money as a bargaining chip, NBC had nothing else to offer, so Seinfeld walked.

That was big news because Seinfeld, all by itself, is responsible for about one-third of NBC's primetime profits. It's also the centerpiece of NBC's Thursday night must-see TV lineup, which also includes "Friends," ER, and a couple of loser sitcoms stuck in-between.

With Seinfeld about to go, ER -- the only show on TV more popular than Seinfeld -- becomes even more crucial to NBC. Take away ER, and you've essentially taken away NBC's Thursday night. Take away NBC's Thursday night, and the network no longer would be rated number one.

Executives at the other networks knew that, and also knew that the ER contract with Warner Brothers, the studio that produces ER for NBC, was up for renewal. NBC had until the end of February to negotiate exclusively with ER. After that, if a deal wasn't struck, the show could go on the open market like a free agent athlete.

So the hunt was on, and so was the pressure. But things got even worse for NBC earlier this week, when the network lost its rights to broadcast major league football. CBS outbid NBC for the rights to broadcast weekend American Football Conference games. So, NBC tried to save face by going after ABC's Monday night football franchise.

But Monday night football, like ER, is a guaranteed top-10 show, so ABC wasn't about to lose out. ABC locked NBC out of football the same way CBS had -- by paying enormously, even outrageously, for the privilege.

So that left NBC this week with no Seinfeld, no football, and with ER still up for grabs. Tomorrow, NBC begins its portion of the semi-annual press tour with TV critics, and didn't want to face the press looking like the Titanic taking on water. That's why NBC went to Warner Brothers and hammered out a deal yesterday giving the studio $13 million an episode for ER, when the current deal is for less than $2 million.

Crazy? -- like a fox. And Fox, like CBS and ABC, would have paid even more. Right now, the 8 1/2 minutes of national ad space on each first-run episode of ER earns NBC almost $10 million. Factor in reduced rates for re-runs, and NBC can still make a profit even under the current prices; and you can be sure that the current prices are going up -- way up -- and that advertisers will pay them.

Does this mean, if ER is worth $13 million an episode, that Friends and "Mad About You" will be pushing for big increases? Of course it does. Is this bad for TV? Only in two respects that I figure out. One, it'll make the networks even less likely to schedule shows owned completely by the studios, rather than co-owned or totally controlled by the networks themselves. Two, it'll make primetime news magazines even more profitable by comparison -- and if there's anything TV doesn't need, it's any more news magazines.

But one thing's for sure: this idea of throwing big money around to steal or keep a hot broadcasting property is nothing new to television. In fact, it pre-dates television. Exactly 50 years ago, CBS raided NBC by giving radio star Jack Benny an offer he couldn't refuse, and one that NBC wouldn't match. At the time, Benny was the ER of his day -- the most popular show on radio's most popular night. He was the centerpiece of NBC's must-hear radio and CBS stole him.

Half a century later, all NBC has done with this massive ER deal is make sure history won't repeat itself.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News and author of "The Dictionary of Tele-Literacy," which has just been published in paperback.

Dateline: David Bianculli, New York; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: TV critic David Bianculli.
Spec: Media; Television; ER; Football; History; Radio
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: $13 Million an Episode for ER
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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