A History of the Bible by John Barton

Such is the relentless commercialisation of Christmas as a winter festival that the tinsel and all other orgiastic necessities have been appearing for sale since September. By this measure we’re bounding close to the day of Christ’s Mass.

‘Tis the season in which neither Amazon’s little helpers nor their billions of gratified gift recipients have time to consider the Bible. Purchasing, wrapping, consuming, entertaining the children, feasting and looking one’s best for the carol service are exhausting enough.

Where, though, did the Christmas story come from? The answer to this and 640 pages of information about the Bible can be found in a new book by John Barton – A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. To have no interest in The Bible is, frankly, a confession of ignorance. Even those for whom it holds no authority, it has a commanding status. It is one of the great works of world literature, woven to an unparalleled degree into our language and thought. Its influence upon English Literature is so profound that most of the great classics cannot be fully appreciated without reference to it. Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, the Romantic poets and the great C19 novelists were all steeped in the Bible.

Barton explains that the history of the Bible is notoriously complex to unravel. Only in the 13th century did the Latin word ‘biblia’ come to signify a single book. Prior to that, in Greek as well as Latin, it had always been a plural: ‘books’. The Bible is, in fact, an anthology. It’s a collection of texts written in various periods, by various authors, with various aims. In the 2nd century AD, when Christian intellectuals first began to promote a fixed canon of scripture, they were attempting something new. Some Christians claimed that only a select number of texts deriving from the first generation of the Church provided an adequate testament; but most, citing books inherited from the Jews, insisted that there was also an ‘Old Testament’. This latter opinion was the one that, by the end of the 2nd century, prevailed. Christians joined Jews in seeing themselves as heirs to the great inheritance of Hebrew scripture. This is why the story of the Bible, the foundational document of the modern West, reaches back ultimately to the myths and folk memories of the ancient Near East.

Professor John Barton’s (https://www.theology.ox.ac.uk/people/john-barton) expertise in the Bible, and in the Old Testament in particular, has been manifest over the decades in a series of books that combine learning with humanity, and admir­ation for its moral insights with an alertness to the disarray that can so often characterise its study.

The author cautions the reader as follows: “There is probably not a single episode in the history of Israel as told by the Old Testament,” he warns, “on which modern scholars are in agreement.” The Gospels, too, “remain an enigma, and those who revere them should be aware of how much we do not know about their composition”. His phrases such as “a series of guesses” and “hypotheses intricate to the point of self-defeat” show the cautious hesitation of this scholar. Barton holds an admirable middle course between apologists for Christianity and atheists contemptuous of its claims. This via media has long been a specialisation of the Church of England, and Barton’s achievement is in the finest tradition of Anglicanism: learned, mild-mannered and quietly anxious about the challenges of reconciling scepticism with faith. Moderate in its opinions, it is also moderate in its style.

The history of the Bible, though, cannot just be the preserve of dons and intellectuals. Its impact is global precisely because it was felt by housewives, derelicts, soldiers, students, and mediocrities. Billions of humans everywhere, indeed, craving a grand narrative to help shape their lives. It is a book that has, over the millennia, inspired revolts and grandiose schemes of revolution and wars and pogroms and expeditions to distant continents. There is no need to have read it, nor even to know anything about it, to be stamped by The Bible. Today, as for the past millennium, to live in any Judaic/Christian culture is to be shaped inescapably by its influence. Whether acknowledged or not.

What better book to read on the run up to Christmas, or to receive as a gift on the day? Let John Barton be your guide.


The plaudits for Barton’s book are many and varied:

“In addition to laying out the historical contexts in which the Old and the New Testaments were created, this stimulating study considers how they have been read, taught, and lived by believers…[Barton] proposes a nuanced approach that seeks to give the Bible its due without asking too much of it.” —The New Yorker

“A History of the Bible is a lucidly written distillation of a vast array of scholarship.” —Wall Street Journal

“A supple and intelligent recap of the Holy Scriptures, their origins and contexts, [and] their meaning in a broad historical sense” —Lit Hub

“Immensely impressive…A HISTORY OF THE BIBLE is a confident, distinctly courteous performance, wary of overstatement and sure of its intellectual footing. No work of literature has a more fascinating life story than the Bible, and Barton has told it with a precision and insight that will make this the definitive account of the century.” — Christian Science Monitor

“John Barton has written a wise and eminently sane book about a book which has inspired both insanity and wisdom. It is a landmark in the field, and it will do great good.” — Diarmaid MacCulloch

“John Barton’s new book gives a superb overview… condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist … even for those deeply familiar with the Bible there is much here to be learnt.” — Bart D Ehrman, author of The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

“With emotional and psychological insight, Barton unlocks this sleeping giant of our culture for the untrained but curious general reader… He has produced a masterpiece.” — Peter Stanford, Sunday Times

“This strikingly accessible yet wonderfully erudite volume will be welcomed by many … a tour de force.” — BBC History Magazine

“Barton’s rigorous, accessible history will appeal to academics and general readers alike.” — Publishers Weekly

Barton (Emeritus, Interpretation of Holy Scripture/Univ. of Oxford; The Theology of the Book of Amos, 2012, etc.), an ordained and serving priest in the Church of England for more than 40 years, provides an exhaustive look at the creation of today’s Bible. He takes a largely thematic approach to his work; rather than a linear history of the Scriptures, he offers a collection of essays exploring facets of the book’s story. The author always looks at the Bible with a critical eye, and he questions larger concepts that are too often taken for granted. For instance, he dismisses the well-worn belief that the New Testament canon was formed slowly and deliberately through church councils that took the time to exclude numerous other texts. Instead, he argues that the Christian Bible books coalesced organically and there was little conscious debate over what was or was not “official” Scripture. Though the author respects the role of the Bible in the Jewish and Christian faiths, he examines the texts more as cultural literature than as works strictly tied to the holy or supernatural. For instance, he bluntly concludes, “the prophets were not helpful people, and their books are not helpful texts.” One benefit of Barton’s aloofness from the Scriptures is his ability to thoroughly delineate the different ways in which the Hebrew Bible is viewed and valued by Jews and Christians. In fact, he carefully notes throughout that there is an inherent difficulty in viewing the Bible as a “book” with a single history or theme, given that it is instead a compendium of works representing different eras, languages, cultures, genres, and faiths. Barton’s work is accessible to lay readers, but many readers of faith may not receive it enthusiastically, as the author’s tone about the Bible, though not hostile, skews toward the secular and is occasionally sceptical. A useful religious history that is critical in approach and wide in scope. Kirkus Reviews

Anglican priest and biblical scholar Barton (Univ. of Oxford; The Bible: The Basics) offers a lucid account of the history of the Bible, considering the origin of the various books, the process of canonization (i.e., how the choice was made as to which writings to include), the history of biblical translation and editions and of biblical interpretation, and how these differing analyses were influenced by doctrine. Although the Bible in part is claimed by Jews and Christians, there are significant differences to consider if one is to avoid superficial comparisons. Barton adeptly accounts for the structure of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is different from the Christian Old Testament, even though they comprise basically the same books. He argues convincingly against the idea that the non-canonical Gospels were suppressed by the church. While accepting the Bible as a source of religious teaching, Barton shows that a full understanding must include a knowledge of the circumstances under which it was composed and handed on from scribe to scribe. A scholarly yet accessible history of the Bible as a work of literature and a sacred text that, while shared by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, means something different for each.—Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ

Check if this superb work of scholarship for the general reader is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue here at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

640 pages in Allen Lane

First published 04 April 2019

ISBN-13: 978-0241003916

Professor John Barton
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