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Nick Spencer reviews ‘A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths’, by John Barton. 24/05/2019
Bookshops today are heaving with Bibles. There’s Leith’s Cookery Bible (now in its third edition), the Garden Design Bible (forty great off–the–peg designs with detailed planting plans), the Poker Player’s Bible (subtitle: “Raise Your Game from Beginner to Winner”), and the Scottish Bothy Bible (your “complete guide to Scotland’s bothies and how to reach them”), to name only a few. Even those tomes that avoid such self–christening can often end up being labelled. Wisden is the cricketer’s Bible, Hansard, the parliamentary bible, and Debrett’s, the bible of etiquette.
Every culture leaves its remains and these are the vestiges of Protestantism. All authority stems ultimately from God via, since the Reformation, his Holy Word. If you want to say something authoritative, unarguable, conclusive – whether about the nature of political order or how to find a bothy – you reach for “bible”. Like its sibling–phrases “gospel truth” and “chapter and verse”, the Something Bible offers the final word on the subject of Somethings. It is the End of the Conversation.
This being so, the central point of John Barton’s fine history of the Bible – that it is probably the most ‘plural’ book you will ever encounter – makes the (actual) Bible one of the least biblical books you could ever read. Sometimes referred to (usually in its Authorised incarnation) as the Book of Books, it is really a library of libraries, an endless fragmenting kaleidoscope of poetry and prose, prophecy and proverb, fact and fiction, law, lament and letter, recalled, revealed, restored, rewritten.
Barton’s book will make uncomfortable reading for many Christians but it is a work of careful scholarship and the tone is nothing other than measured and generous throughout. This is no work of gleeful, polemical debunking. Barton is not interested in as late–dating New Testament books as possible. He gives short shift to the Dan Brownish idea that the New Testament canon was cooked up through the nefarious machinations of Constantine and his episcopal mates. He is concerned, as he says in his Introduction, to “emphasise how little we know in spite of a wealth of theories.”
What we do know, or at least are reasonably confident about, is that the Bible is astonishingly plural. Hebrew narrative shows a number of different styles (and authors, and possibly ‘schools’) – usually known as priestly, Deuteronomistic, Yahwist, Elohist – which are combined and redacted to make up the Pentateuch and, to some extent, later historical books. The longer prophetic books are editions of pithy sayings, rooted firmly in the complex social, economic, political, and religious conditions of the day, and later fused together in some often highly confusing ways. The shorter ones show greater coherence, although not necessarily to the extent of being single author works. The Psalms show less order than your average hymn book, and contain so many different ‘voices’ that one wonders how they all got in.
The New Testament is both simpler and more complex: simpler because, written over a much shorter timeframe, there is less opportunity for redaction; more complex because it is probably the most manuscript–rich text in the ancient world, and there are literally hundreds of papyri, codices, minuscules, and lectionaries, many of which differ from one another, from everything from the spelling of individual words, through the choice of others, the inclusion of specific verses (such as 1 John 5.7), and certain passages (such as John 7.53–8.11 and Mark 16.9–20) through to the inclusion of entire books (such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Epistle of Barnabas; no gospels though: that is a modern fiction) that never made it into the Bible as we know it.
If that all weren’t complex enough, Judaism and various Christian denominations have differed between and within themselves on which books to include in the Hebrew canon and then on how to read those that did get in. Barton dedicates the final section of the book to exploring how rabbis, Church Fathers, medieval theologians, reformers, early modern pioneers, and modern scholars have interpreted the text. By the end, the reader may feel, like Ezekiel and T.S. Eliot, that s/he is left with nothing more than a heap of broken images.
Those who treat the Bible in the colloquial sense with which I began, a single book that speaks univocally, authoritatively, and unanswerably into a situation, are going to be upset by all this. But I wonder – genuine question – how many people do so. Is “the common Protestant perception” really that you can read “doctrine and practice… straightforwardly… from the Bible”? ‘The Bible says…’ is, I would guess, rarely the End of the Conversation these days. Indeed, I doubt whether it ever was, except in so far as Protestants liked to fall out of communion with those who interpreted it differently. All but the most inflexibly and unimaginatively literalistic of believers recognise that there is a creative element of faith involved in reading the good book.
This is what lies behind Barton’s gnomic subtitle, The Book and its Faiths, because his key point is that the Judaism and Christianity, for which the Bible is authoritative, are somewhat more than the sum of their biblical parts. (As an aside, one of the book’s disappointments is its failure to explore the relationship between the Bible and Islam, and in particular how a series of biblical stories made their way into the Qur’an.) Christians, for example, have to do quite a bit of work to get to the doctrine of the Trinity or the Nicene Creed from the Bible, and are effectively chasing a chimera when they try to ground their ecclesiology in the New Testament alone. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t or can’t support such views; it’s that it has to be mixed with a fair amount of careful and creative reasoning.
I would have liked to have heard more from Barton about how believers can legitimately construct an intellectual respectable faith from the scriptural building material. An ordained Anglican, he presumably thinks that such an enterprise is possible, but aside from a few hints of his Lutheran sympathies, we get more destruction than construction from the book.
That should not be taken to mean The History of the Bible is destructive, however. Indeed, you could argue that the historically–rooted, literarily–variegated and bewilderingly plural text with which we are left at the end of this book is, if anything, better suited to the postmodernity of our age than the more monolithic entity our forebears read. The Bible is stranger and more complex than most people, Christians included, realise, but that may be a strength rather than a weakness.
A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths is published by Allen Lane.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Posted 24 May 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.