CG A History of the Bible, by John Barton Book Review by Anthony Campbell: About the Reviews | New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects | Personal Choice

John Barton

A History of the Bible

The Book and Its Faiths

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
The Bible is probably the best-selling book of all time, although not necessarily the most read, certainly today. It has probably also been subject to more varied interpretations than any other book. For John Barton, the right way to approach it is historically: to use all the resources of modern scholarship to try to establish who wrote it, when and where they wrote, and what they thought they were doing in writing. To a modern reader this may seem an eminently sensible approach but it is not universally accepted even today. Some still think that we should simply accept the text as we have it now, regardless of any changes that have occurred over time, and this view can even extend to regarding the King James version as the definitive source.

Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford and is also a priest in the Church of England. With this background one might think that his book would have little interest for any readers who are not committed Christians, but this is far from the case. Barton is writing for the non-religious quite as much as for fellow-Christians.

... I do not assume that readers are themselves religious, only that they find the place of the Bible in religious faith worthy of their attention.

Barton covers both Old and New Testaments. These are clearly very different books, or collections of books, not only in their contents but also in their physical formats: the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was preserved as manuscript scrolls, while the New Testament was recorded in codices (a codex is made up of separate sheets bound together like a modern book). The Christian Bible therefore unites two sets of documents that arose in different ways and were written with different aims and at very different periods.

Jews and Christians use the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in quite different ways. At least since the rise of rabbinic commentary beginning in the second century CE the Jewish focus has been on detailed textual commentary of a special kind which is not easy for those outside the tradition to understand. Christians in contrast have mined the texts, especially the prophetic books, for apparent predictions of Christ and their own theological beliefs about him. Barton finds this enterprise to be mistaken.

The history of Christian use of the Old Testament is a history of attempts of varying dexterity to get the text to say things that it doesn't, to try to get it to conform to the new ideas in the New Testament and in subsequent Church teaching.
Emphasis on the Bible characterised the Reformation in the sixteenth century and this is still true of Protestantism today, but although Barton is quite sympathetic to Martin Luther he is critical of the view that nothing can be done or said that is not explicitly endorsed in the Bible.
This, I believe, is an abuse of these texts, which are deeply important for the Christian faith but cannot possibly bear the weight that is sometimes loaded upon them. Judaism has a more subtle approach to the Bible: while venerating it just as much as many Christians do, it does not claim that everything in the religion as actually practised is biblically derived, and recognizes developments in new directions.
The passage I have just quoted encapsulates what seems to be the central message of this book. The Bible is important but it doesn't contain everything that matters for the religions that are said to be based on it. For example, there is practically nothing in it about the Trinity, and the New Testament view of Jesus puts him at lower status than God the Father. 'This is at odds with the later doctrine of the Trinity, in which Father and Son (and the Holy Spirit) are of equal status.'

There is an extraordinary wealth of information in this book—far more than I can convey in a review. Barton has succeeded remarkably well in writing a book that is thoroughly scholarly and also enjoyable to read. As he points out, much of what he says will be unfamiliar to Christians in the pews. But it will also interest and sometimes amuse the non-religious. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins has deplored the present widespread ignorance of the Bible and has advocated the teaching of comparative religion in schools. I think that anyone, whether religiously inclined or not, will enjoy this book and get a lot of useful information from it.


%T A History of the Bible
%S The Book and Its Faiths
%A Barton, John
%I Penguin Books
%C London
%D 2019
%P xvii + 613pp
%K religion
%O notes, illustrations, maps, index
%O kindle version, downloaded from Amazon 2021
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