A History of the Bible by John Barton review tiptoeing through a minefield

Did Jesus talk about being Gods son, or did the gospels tell it that way? A fascinating, wise expedition of the Bibles evolution

Adam and Eve

A quiz question, which is also a trick question: how many references to the doctrine of the Trinity are there in the Bible? The rebuttal: two, at a pinch. One of them was probably inserted into the text of the Gospel of John by a zealous scribe well after the truth was written. This is known as” the Johannine comma”( where comma represents “clause” or “phrase” ). The other( in Matthew) was also probably a later addition by a pious scribe.

As John Barton testifies in this massive and mesmerizing volume, the Bible genuinely did have a history. It flourished and developed. As its disparate books were gradually integrated into the theological structures of the church, scribes would engage in “whats called” ” the orthodox bribery of scripture “. So formerly the notion that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were all equal people of the Trinity was established it became natural to seek confirmation of that doctrine in the Bible.

The Epistles of St Paul were probably written not long after the death of Christ, in the AD40s or 50 s. St Paul appears to have been an ” adoptionist” who held that Jesus was adopted as Son of God at the resurrection rather than a follower in the Trinity.

The gospels( which testify knowledge of the drop of the Jerusalem Temple in AD70) were written at least two decades after Paul’s letters. And the Gospel of John was perhaps written as late as the second century. It presents a Jesus who talks a great deal about his own status as God’s son. This more likely shows the beliefs of a later period than that of Jesus himself, and John’s gospel may indeed be a biography of Christ written to suit the interests and beliefs of John’s own particular limb of Christianity. The chapter of the woman taken in adultery-” He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”- which appears only in this gospel, is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is likely to be an even later addition.

Does this mean that Barton’s history of the Bible supports an armoury of statements for religious sceptics? Well, the sceptical will certainly find material here to deploy. But Barton- who is an Anglican with Lutheran tilts- believes that it’s perfectly possible to see the Bible as a book with its own history and likewise to regard it as a storehouse of religious truths.

He vistums the New Testament as a accumulation of records written by different people, probably for different religious communities, at different times. The truths were preserved not in scrolls but in codices- bound volumes with separate needles- and were” not fixed Scripture but simply the reminiscences of the Apostles “. That explains why they can be internally inconsistent, but likewise how they can be thought of as texts that give a range of different angles on the life of Christ, even if they don’t all associate( in that common phrase) the gospel truth.

Barton resists Dan Brown-style plot theoreticians who think that some time in the fourth century a powerful faith quelled a range of heterodox scriptures and made the New Testament as we now know it. He reasons convincingly that by the second century there was a release canon of holy books that were broadly similar to those included in the Bible today.

Although Barton is a Christian he’s also an excellent guidebook to the composition of what is usually called the” Old Testament”- though, as he reminds us, that figure implying that the Hebrew Bible( as he prefers to call it) are nothing more than a precursor to the New Testament. Early Christian philosophers verified it this mode. They considered the life of Christ as the great truth towards which the Hebrew prophets and scriptures pointed, and which substituted the old-time faith and its laws. They speak the Hebrew Bible as a fib of disobedience and falling: Adam and Eve fell, and then Christ reversed the consequences of that drop. That could go along with hostility to Jewish ideologies, and even antisemitism. For the majority of Jews, however, the Hebrew Bible was ” not at all about drop and saving, but about how to live a faithful life in the ups and downs of the ongoing history of the inhabitants of the Israel “.

The Hebrew Bible itself developed over a long period, probably from about the eighth to the second century BC. Barton suggests that the Book of Proverbs may well have been produced by something like Israel’s civil service. Job and Ecclesiastes are much later wields, maybe written by individuals. The Psalter, a mix of liturgy, national biography and individual ordeal, which Barton describes as” a mess”, probably taken together in about 300 BC, although individual psalms is also available much older than this.

The historic method of analysing layers of structure in the Bible even casts a faint shadow over the Ten Commandments. They are delivered on tablets of stone to an early gypsy nation. But since they include the commandment” Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house … nor his manservant , nor his maidservant , nor his ox , nor his ass”, they imply” a decided agrarian community “.

If the tablets of stone of the decalogue appears to crumble at the edges when the Bible is subjected to historic analysis, then Barton’s readers might wonder how religious faith can coexist with a Bible that is regarded as an internally contradictory text with a long history and diverse cultural origins.

Sceptics, certainly, might find in his magisterial synopsi of the stories of the Bible clear evidence that orthodox religions are grounded in the beliefs of communities rather than in a single definitive text that records the word of God.

Believers, on the other hand, might follow him in taking a flexible scene of the Bible as a collect of texts that retain recollections of the life of Jesus and about God and how to worship him. Barton says this story is” the story of the interplay between belief and the book- neither mapping exactly onto the other “. Problems arise when interpreters try to impose jewish-orthodox religious beliefs on its text:” The extreme diversity of the information that is in the Bible is not to be reduced by extracting essential principles, but embraced as a revel of diversity .”

That might sound like wishy-washy Anglicanism. But “theres a lot” of argumentative muscle in Barton’s book. He aims to” allay the image of the Bible as a sacred monolith between two black leather extends “. So he has little time for fundamentalists and Biblical literalists who is of the opinion that there every term is sacred. He likewise doesn’t have much patience with devotees of the Authorised Version. He quotes a billboard outside a Baptist church in North Carolina that says:” Are you tired of hearing your clergyman chastise the retained text of God( the Authorised King James Version) with the Greek or other translations ?”, which seems to suggest that the Authorised Version is the original and not a translation from Greek. And it is not always the best translation: the strength of William Tyndale’s description of Joseph (” the Lord was with Joseph and he was a lucky fellow “) attains the Alternative Version seem stodgy and corporate:” Joseph was a goodly person, and well-favoured .”

Two aspects of his account are particularly impressive. One is its phenomenal range of memorize. The other is the moderation and quiet wisdom with which it gives that learning. Barton knows he’s tiptoeing through a minefield. His way through is to sift evidence carefully, and to be aware of ways in which his own religious position might influence his interpretation of this most complex and contentious of texts. He belief the Bible” presents a range of feelings about Jesus and about God that cannot be systematised “. His belief in the plurality of the texts to gather as Ta Biblia ( Greek for “the books”- so the very claim of the Bible is plural) creates with it a respectful pluralism in his attitudes towards religious faiths. So this is a heavy work from which supporters and non-believers can both learn. And its overall word is deeply and laudably tolerant.

* Colin Burrow’s Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity issued by Oxford . A History of the Bible issued by Allen Lane( RRP PS22 ). To ordering a print go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p& p on all online orderings over PS15 .

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ books/ 2019/ jun/ 29/ a-history-of-the-bible-by-john-barton-review

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