John Barton: A History of the Bible

April 27, 2019

A1tPCMSb+DL._AC_UL436_This is a fascinating and seriously academic book; the author is an Anglican priest, but writes from a very open-minded perspective, casting his net very widely. The book is very carefully structured and presented, right from his opening thesis in the introduction, and references and bibliography are excellent. He seeks to cover as much as possible in the history of the scriptures of two major religions of the book, Judaism and Christianity, explaining the complex relationship between the two faiths, as well as the complex interrelationship of their scriptures and how differently Jews and Christians regard and use the Old Testament. This last, coupled with the notion that Jews have no notion of original sin, I found very enlightening. Barton explains clearly, makes helpful connections and draws many quite disparate strands together.

The first eye-opener was the lack of evidence for so much of the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, and the haziness of the existence (or not) of so many of the characters familiar to us. The Old Testament comes across as a veritable mishmash, confusing and confused, not susceptible to unravelling for clarity or veracity: Israel is brought down to the small-sized nation it was, and almost nothing in this apparent ‘history’ can be corroborated from other sources.

Although Barton explains and clarifies as far as possible (not very far!), I must confess to still finding myself mystified by the purpose of much of the Old Testament. I’m drawn to the familiar names and stories I first encountered in my childhood, whether they are truth or legend, and I’m drawn to the wisdom books, though many regard these as apocryphal, but I still find the prophecies and many of the psalms rather empty.

Barton outlines very concisely and clearly the historical context of the New Testament; indeed contextual background and connections are one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. Again, he is clear about the lack of clarity and definitive knowledge about Paul, about the practices, observations and rituals of the early church, and therefore how much may be later accretions. Increasingly as I’ve read more widely about the beginnings of Christianity, I’ve become aware not only of how controversial a character Paul is, but also of recent much more careful interpretations and evaluations of some of his attitudes, especially towards women; it is a caricature to describe him simply as a misogynist, which many tend to do.

Barton’s willingness, as a Christian, to examine and question everything and admit to the absence of so much certainty I find very refreshing: he is not defensive about this, even when considering the balance between what may be true and what has probably been invented in the gospels. But very little emerges with any definiteness. He feels that the teachings of Jesus Christ have been overshadowed by the construction of a religion centred on him.

He surveys the changes in the Christian Bible over time, through Reformation and translation, noting that the more extreme reformers – Calvinists and Puritans – interpret the Bible in a more Jewish way, prescriptive and ritualistic.

It’s an excellent book if you are deeply interested in the subject and along with the writings of Geza Vermes, will probably complete my current reading on the topic for a while. I often found myself astonished when I recalled that it was an Anglican priest writing, until I realised that clearly all his research had not shaken his faith, which is clearly grounded elsewhere than in unquestioning acceptance of the contents of a book, despite the reformers’ insistence on sola scriptura….

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