Forget about Jesus walking on water - the Bible is far more than that
There's no point pretending the Bible is something it is not. A new warts-and-all book tells its real story
The Bible is still the most commonly purchased, widely read and deeply revered book in the English-speaking world, important not only as Scripture for communities of faith, but also as a cultural artefact for anyone interested in the literature, art, music, philosophy and history of the West.
It is also an undeniably mysterious book, widely misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused. So where does one go to learn what this book actually means, where it came from, and how it has been read, both by Jews and by Christians?
John Barton’s new book, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths, gives a superb overview of the answers to these questions, condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist, no previous knowledge required.
Barton, who was the Oriel and Laing professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford from 1991 to 2014, wears his erudition lightly, but even for those deeply familiar with the Bible there is much here to be learnt. Barton begins by alerting a potentially unwary reader: “The description of the Bible (warts and all) which follows will necessarily make disconcerting reading for those who idealise it.”
It is not that Barton, himself an ordained Anglican priest, is iconoclastic or polemical. On the contrary, his discussions are judicious and sensitive. But he is also upfront: much of the Bible can offend modern readers, for example, in its apparent sanction of genocide, acceptance of slavery and treatment of women – and those are just the more visible minefields.
The many authors of its 66 books wrote at various times, in different contexts, and for a variety of reasons. As a result, they sometimes present disparate views on matters of real historical and theological significance (including Gospel accounts that can’t be reconciled with each other, or with the writings of Paul). And it is very difficult indeed for linguists to translate these ancient Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) texts into accurate and readable English.
Apart from these general problems, the particular findings of scholarship can also prove disconcerting to the unsuspecting. We know little or nothing about an actual Moses, let alone his patriarchal forebears, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – none of whom is substantiated in any extra-biblical evidence.
There is little reason to think the Israelites entered into and conquered the promised land, and considerable archaeological evidence to suggest they did not.
A side-by-side comparison of the Gospels reveals they are not straightforward historical accounts of what happened in the life of Jesus, and a careful reading of the letters of Paul shows that the book of Acts is far from reliable in portraying his life and teachings. We don’t know who wrote the “Pentateuch”, the first five books of the Old Testament traditionally ascribed to Moses. They evidently come from a variety of sources produced over long period of time, centuries after Moses reputedly lived.
Even the Ten Commandments – which presuppose a settled agricultural community – cannot be traced back to Moses’s time, when the Israelites were allegedly nomads in the wilderness.
David did not write most of the Psalms, or Solomon the books ascribed to him. The New Testament contains a number of pseudonymous books, produced by authors intentionally but falsely claiming to be apostles – including some of the letters of Paul and the books whose authors claim to be James, Peter, John and Jude.
Yet Barton’s book is not a simple register of such negative findings of scholarship. At much greater length, it presents a very positive and clear-headed overview of what experts have come to learn about the Bible.
Part One discusses the Old Testament, its narratives, wisdom writings, laws, prophets and poetry, explaining where its various books came from and in what circumstances, sketching their literary character and exploring their historical value.
Part Two does the same for the New Testament, presenting the world of Jesus and his apostles and then providing helpful overviews of its various writings, starting with the letters, especially Paul’s, and moving on to the later Gospels.
This survey of the Bible’s history and meaning is not the whole story – and for Barton it is not even half of it.
In Part Three, he takes up questions connected with the formation of the canon of Scripture. Who decided which books would be in both testaments? What were their grounds for thinking so? When did they decide? At what point did Christians come to view their “New” Testament as Scripture along with the Old Testament? And what can we say about the books not included in the Old Testament, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the New, like the “Gnostic Gospels”?
Part Four provides a stimulating and challenging overview of how the Bible has been read over the ages. At first blush, the topic may seem less interesting to the average reader, but in fact it matters a lot – in no small part because Barton shows how Jews and Christians have read the same texts (the Hebrew Bible) very differently.
Christians almost always – without even thinking about it – read the Old Testament as a book of sin and redemption. It begins with the “fall” of Adam and Eve, then narrates the terrible effects of sin in the world, and finally prophesies the coming of a saviour.
Jews have never read it this way. For them the Scriptures describe God’s guiding hand throughout the history of his chosen people, as he assists them in their struggles. The emblematic figure is not Adam (who is never mentioned after Genesis 3) but Abraham, the one called by God to be the father of the chosen ones. Thus, for Jews, the Hebrew Bible is not a forward-looking book, hoping for a future redemption through the coming of a messiah. It is a foundational document that reveals God’s loving assistance to his chosen people.
Barton goes on to describe the ways the Bible was read by later rabbis and church fathers, and then in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and after the Enlightenment. Based on these readings, in his conclusion, Barton reflects on how people of faith might deal with the historical findings about the Bible.
For Barton, even Jews and Christians who are committed to the Bible need to acknowledge its problems. There is no point pretending the Bible is something it is not. At the same time, for Barton, it would be foolish to conclude that the Bible cannot exercise some kind of authority for people of faith. The Bible’s authority does not reside in a fundamentalist claim that it is literally inspired by God and inerrant, but in its inestimable value for the faithful. It stands at the bedrock of the ever-living and developing Jewish and Christian traditions, and is in constant dialectical relationship with them.
The Bible can help committed readers reflect on the beliefs and keen insights of the ancient generations in their tradition, authors who, thousands of years ago, thought deeply on issues of life and death. In that way, Scripture helps people understand themselves in relation to their lives, their world, and the divine being whom they believe stands above it.The Bible should be a guide, not a dictator.Even though I am an outsider to these communities of faith, I find this view eminently sensible. It is how we deal with all great literature that shapes our reflections on the important questions of our existence, and the ethical concerns we constantly confront.
The massive, well-documented problems of the Bible in fact have no bearing on whether its various authors can help guide the moral lives of Jews and Christians, or even on the ultimate theological questions of whether there is a divine power in the universe, and whether that power has been – and still is – active in the world, and involved in the lives of those who believe in him.
I personally don’t think so. But whether the world was really created in six days, or Moses actually lived, or Jesus was truly born to a virgin or walked on water has nothing to do with it – except for fundamentalists who insist that, if something is written in this particular book, it must be literally and unquestionably true. The Bible is more complicated than that. And surely faith in the modern world needs to be as well.
• Bart D Ehrman’s latest book is The Triumph of Christianity.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)