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'A History of the Bible' review: John Barton takes 'historical-critical' approach to world's bestselling book

John Barton, author of "A History of the

John Barton, author of "A History of the Bible" (Viking, June 2019) Credit: John Barton

A HISTORY OF THE BIBLE: The Story of the World's Most Influential Book, by John Barton. Viking, 613 pp., $35.

The Bible sits on the shelf like any other book. Open it up, though, and it immediately becomes strange. In the first chapter of Genesis God creates human beings — so far, so good. Then, in the second chapter, God creates them … again. Why are there two creation stories? What is going on?

Here to help is John Barton, a priest in the Church of England and professor of Holy Scripture at Oxford University. He promises to “dispel the image of the Bible as a sacred monolith between two black-leather covers, recapture the sense of it as the product of a long and intriguing process.” Barton’s main target is Biblical literalism. “The Bible,” he insists, “does not ‘map’ directly onto religious faith and practice.” At the same time, he also considers what the Bible might mean to a modern believer like him.

The books of the Old Testament were probably written in the 8th century BCE, though the stories must have circulated earlier as “folk-memory.” When a scribe sat down to write, “he wanted to ensure that no piece of tradition got lost.” If there were two stories about how God created humanity, he kept them both. “He did not see the finished text as a consistent work, as we do with novels or historical accounts,” argues Barton, “but as something more like an archive.”

The books of the New Testament were all written several decades after Jesus’ death. The Gospels are “the distillation of traditions about Jesus, and as such were also naturally highly regarded,” writes Barton, “but they were not seen by the first Christians as verbally exact.” Jesus’ character is a little different in each. In Luke he blesses the poor, full stop. In Matthew he blesses “the poor in spirit.” As for the letters, Paul addressed particular communities and their problems, so “using his writings as the basis for well-defined doctrines is very fragile.”

By the end of the second century CE, writes Barton, “almost everything that it is in our present New Testament was accepted as having authority for the Christian Church.” But authoritative doesn’t mean easy to understand.

Broadly speaking, Barton tracks two main reading strategies through history. In one, readers adopt a “rule of faith,” or summary of essential beliefs, and then use it as a "key for interpreting the Bible.” Martin Luther understood the entire Bible through the lens of his theology: Humanity was condemned under the law of the Old Testament but saved by the grace of God in the New Testament. A rule of faith need not be a "complete distortion of biblical ideas,” Barton concedes, but it will inevitably be “selective.”

Barton prefers the so-called “historical-critical” approach. It looks for incongruities like the two creation stories and then investigates their origins and puzzles over their purposes. Read this way, Barton admits, the Bible “presents a range of ideas about Jesus and about God that cannot be systematized.”

The historical approach is often thought to be incompatible with faith. Baruch Spinoza, one of its Jewish pioneers, was expelled from his synagogue. Barton believes otherwise. “We could conceive of the Christian faith and the Bible as two intersecting circles,” he suggests. There are some essentials in the middle, but there are many more “matters of faith and practice on which reasonable people, even when properly informed by the Bible, may reasonably differ.” 

A word of warning. Barton has packed decades of study into a single volume. Sometimes he dwells on minutia. On the plus side, anyone who wants to reach Barton’s surprising conclusions about what is (and isn’t) essential to Christian faith will learn a tremendous amount along the way.

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