The History of The Bible
John Barton, Allen Lane, 2020, 622 pages, £9.99
Western civilization is inconceivable without The Bible. Its assumptions, language and metaphors resound through our activities and imaginations, even if we think we have rejected religion as superstition. But how did the Bible develop from folkloric Near Eastern origins to today’s omnipresence? John Barton shows us ‘the’ book as being really many smaller books thrown together often uneasily, with contents lists that can change according to denomination, period, politics, taste, and vagaries of translation.
Barton, an Anglican priest, reminds us there still exists a Biblical studies field, possessing a redolent vocabulary, whose apparently abstruse arguments have huge real-world significance. Biblical analysts have often been seen as subversive, yet these allegorists, editors and ‘harmonizers’, even when erring, were acknowledging the Bible’s sacredness by taking such trouble. Even a forensically examined Bible can remain a source of inspiration, if read with this kind of subtle understanding.
There was an approximate early consensus about what books should be Biblical, but this built in countless problems to captivate or torment scholars. Readers noticed glaring discrepancies between the Gospels, and Church Fathers pored in puzzlement over the Prophets. Scholars agonised about the contrast between the smiting, tribal God of the Old Testament and the forgiving, universal God of the New. Apocrypha like The Wisdom of Solomon were read alongside the Testaments, and in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions made the editorial cut. The Trinity is hardly mentioned in the New Testament (which never had an authoritative text anyway). The Ten Commandments, with their strictures about coveting property, clash with the notion of a nation wandering in the wilderness. Even commas have caused conflict.
But always when the smoke clears there remains the Bible, foundational, un-ignorable. Believers and non-believers alike should read this to plumb the premises of their faith, and find a deeply human history of holiness.
This review first appeared in The Lady, and is reproduced with permission