Posts Tagged ‘New Testament’

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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People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

People of the Book (1)

August 20, 2016

Quite a few years ago I came across the lovely concept of ‘the people of the book’, which is a term Muslims use to identify a commonality between themselves, Jews and Christians: we all share a belief in a single God and have communication from that God in scriptural writings which form a central place in our religions; furthermore, those scriptures share many stories and events. This would not be difficult, given that those faiths all arose and developed in the same area of the world. But the concept is an important one, and it has affected the ways in which Islam has responded to, and treated its ‘fellow religions’.

Islam seems generally, in the past, to have been pretty tolerant to the two other faiths. Clearly they weren’t regarded as equal to Islam, and Christians and Jews in Muslim territory were usually subject to various regulations and restrictions, and had to pay an extra tax, but were then allowed to get on with their lives and practise their faith relatively undisturbed. Christians do not ever seem to have been that tolerant, behaving rather with the belief that anyone who didn’t adhere to a particular flavour of it was damned, and needed forcibly to be converted so they could be ‘saved’, whatever that might mean…

A consequence of the Catholic reconquista of Spain in 1492 – the final re-conquest of all the territory from Muslims who had ruled large tracts of Spain for the previous seven centuries – was the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the newly recovered country. In my lifetime, as a young Catholic, prayers were regularly said ‘for the conversion of the Jews’…

I have been interested in the Qur’an as scripture sacred to a faith for many years. When I was a child, a workmate of my father’s, a recent immigrant from Pakistan, visited us and brought his copy to our house to show us; I was fascinated by the veneration with which he treated the holy book, and its physical beauty. In my later years I have read an English version of it – I found it difficult, because of the repetitive style. I’ve also listened to a recording of an English version a couple of times, which was much easier and more interesting – it is a book designed to be recited, after all.

Many of the stories we are perhaps familiar with from the Bible are also to be found in the Qur’an: the emphasis or the details may be slightly different as may the names, but they are shared, as they would be, coming from the same part of the world and the same peoples. Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned far more times here than in the New Testament.

It is a very repetitive book, as one might expect from a book intended to be memorised and recited; it is very exhortatory, the voice of God telling his people to do this or do that or else face the consequences, and those consequences are often dire. In my recollection it’s no more or less violent than the Old Testament, and I did have the strong impression that the strictness and the threats were tempered with mercy offered to anyone who sought or deserved it: Allah is the Beneficent and the Merciful. And just as so much of the Christian scripture is open to multiple interpretation, it’s clear from the modern Muslim world that their scripture is just as open…

For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet to be revered along with other prophets; he died but did not come back to life. And Muhammad is the last in the line of the prophets, and his revelation, revealed from God, is on a par with that of the other prophets, but perhaps has added significance because it is the last one.

Wisdom & Spiritual Texts

September 30, 2014

I haven’t written about my response to spiritual writings before, as it’s quite a challenge. But they are a part of literature, alongside anything else that people may feel them to be…

I’ve read the Bible at least three times through, and have found myself liking it less and less each time. It’s a vital part of our Western cultural heritage, and underpins many of our values. I have always liked the old, familiar Old Testament stories, and have felt saddened that today’s children are unlikely to be familiar with them – as a teacher I found myself having to explain an awful lot of references in literature. I find a great deal of the Old Testament to be full of violence and warfare and cruelty. Some of the psalms I find beautiful, many repetitive. And yes, I know about that style of writing. I am most drawn to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament (those which Protestants assign to the Apocrypha) – Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom, and the like; these texts most resemble the calmer thoughts of Eastern spiritual texts. But the language is often quite sexist, and demeaning to women. So the texts are of their time, and some sects choose to rephrase them in ‘inclusive’ language; I’m not sure about doing that to any text…

I like the gospels for their familiar stories, and for the ideas in them, Jesus as a teacher with a new and challenging message in his times, and ideas which can still have relevance for us today. I’m also interested in the very different agendas the different evangelists have when telling their stories. Paul’s epistles I have always found hectoring, dull and sexist; they are of their time. Recently I have been interested in the epistle of James. And the Revelation I have always found deeply disturbing and disturbed.

Overall, I think that if a God had meant this collection of texts to rule all aspects of our lives, then s/he would have made a rather better and more coherent job of it.

The Qur’an I have become more interested in recently. It’s hard to read, though I’ve managed once; as I understand it, it is meant to be recited, and I have found it much more accessible through a recording (librivox again, if you are interested). I’m also aware that the Qur’an is in Arabic, and that in any other language it’s actually only a ‘version’. I’m astonished at how much overlap there is between stories and characters in the Bible and the Qur’an, although that is perhaps not so surprising when I recollect where in the world both texts originated. Like the Old Testament, it’s full of threats, warnings and dire punishments for those who stray from the right path, but to me it has also a stronger emphasis on a God who cares for and about his people. I have to admit that my knowledge and understanding of it is very limited, but I can see why it is venerated and respected by its followers, in ways in which the Bible does not seem to be.

I have also read the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, The Analects of Confucius, and Marcus AureliusMeditations, which I include under the heading of ‘wisdom and spiritual texts’, although their status seems rather different. To me they are focused on what I would call ‘right living’, which I think is very important, maybe paramount; they focus on suggestion rather than command, and they do not threaten dire consequences if one does not follow them: maybe they presume intelligence and benevolence in their readers as a starting-point? They are enigmatic; they demand slow and close reading and re-reading. They certainly do not suggest that to live well, or contentedly, is an easy and straightforward task, although they do think it is something for the wise to strive for. as I have grown older, this approach is one that I have gradually come to agree with.

I hope I have not offended anyone with my musings, but this is my blog and these are my thoughts.

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