A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths

by John Barton

Hardcover, 2019



Call number



Allen Lane (2019), 512 pages


"A literary history of our most influential book of all time, by an Oxford scholar and Anglican priest In our culture, the Bible is monolithic: It is a collection of books that has been unchanged and unchallenged since the earliest days of the Christian church. The idea of the Bible as "Holy Scripture," a non-negotiable authority straight from God, has prevailed in Western society for some time. And while it provides a firm foundation for centuries of Christian teaching, it denies the depth, variety, and richness of this fascinating text. In A History of the Bible, John Barton argues that the Bible is not a prescription to a complete, fixed religious system, but rather a product of a long and intriguing process, which has inspired Judaism and Christianity, but still does not describe the whole of either religion. Barton shows how the Bible is indeed an important source of religious insight for Jews and Christians alike, yet argues that it must be read in its historical context--from its beginnings in myth and folklore to its many interpretations throughout the centuries. It is a book full of narratives, laws, proverbs, prophecies, poems, and letters, each with their own character and origin stories. Barton explains how and by whom these disparate pieces were written, how they were canonized (and which ones weren't), and how they were assembled, disseminated, and interpreted around the world--and, importantly, to what effect. Ultimately, A History of the Bible argues that a thorough understanding of the history and context of its writing encourages religious communities to move away from the Bible's literal wording--which is impossible to determine--and focus instead on the broader meanings of scripture"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member stillatim
Very broad, very well-written, and very convincing; the kind of thing only an Anglican priest could write without falling into innumerable potholes. Barton somehow blends readability with a great grasp of intricate academic debates. This is at the top of my to re-read pile.
LibraryThing member nbmars
Author John Barton is an Anglican priest and Oxford professor, who shows the influence of both institutions in this long and detailed history of the Bible and how it developed.

He calls the Bible a “melee of materials,” a collection of folk memories, myths, and aphorisms subject to vagaries of
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translation over the years. He avers that “the history of the Bible is the story of the interplay between the religion and the book—neither mapping exactly onto the other.”

For example, there are absolutely central doctrines in Christianity, such as that of the Trinity; the “real presence” (in Catholicism); or the organization of the Church itself, that are almost entirely absent from the New Testament. Barton states, “One of my purposes in this book is to demonstrate that there really are irreconcilables: that the faiths that appeal to the Bible are not totally congruent with it, though they are clearly closely related.”

He points out that all printed versions of the New Testament (and he analyses all the major ones) are based on the comparison of various different ancient manuscripts. Therefore an appeal to the exact wording of the New Testament is fraught with difficulty because of the lack of an agreed text. As Barton says:

"To attribute religious authority to such a document stretches the word ‘authority’ to its limits, and can only be sustained by devising special ways of iinterpreting this book that differ from those in which others are interpreted."

This does not, however, stop religious adherents from claiming doctrines are irrefutable because “the Bible says….”

In addition, Jews and Christians both read their version of the Bible as if it were a single book with a consistent theme, but their respective themes are quite different. The Old Testament is one characterized by the themes of violence and revenge; the New Testament is all about redemption. Christians emphasize the story of “The Fall” in Eden as an event from which mankind must be “redeemed,” and see the suffering and death of Jesus as the mechanism by which the redemption is effected. Moreover they employ some very strained interpretations of Delphic prophesies in the Old Testament as applying to or “prefiguring” events in the life of Jesus. Jews, on the other hand, ascribe little importance to the story of Adam and Eve, and view the Hebrew Bible as a narration of God’s continuing interaction with his chosen people.

Then there is the problem that many passages of the Bible are absurd on their face or at least highly incredible to a modern scientifically educated reader. That is not a new problem for believers. As early as the second century, Christian apologists struggled with some Old Testament passages. Origen was the Christian scholar who came up with the ultimate technique of interpretation that protected the Bible from criticism for its absurdities and inconsistencies. He said that it should always be interpreted allegorically—to him, the literal meaning of the text was relatively unimportant (and thus, it could be outright false) because the real meaning was hidden or stated indirectly.

Indeed, the need for translation and interpretation represents one of the most enduring problems of the Bible. Translators often could not come up with literal meanings to correspond to those in the documents they worked with, and thus individual beliefs, pedagogical orientations, and cultural agendas colored their work.

Translators and interpreters had more barriers than just lacking a Rosetta Stone for their work. For example, scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. This situation led to a large body of work in Judaism (specifically, the Talmud and the Midrash) to interpret the sacred texts. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement. Christian scholars were more oriented towards finding the “essential truth” revealed by the Bible, and thus a great deal of violence has been exercised over the years in the attempt to establish a “definitive” version of religious “truth.”

Another interesting issue in translating the Bible is that the original versions of the various books, having been written by different people, manifest substantially different levels of sophistication and eloquence. For example, the original Greek of Mark is rather rough, whereas Luke and Matthew show a higher level of education. Moreover, Revelation (or the “Apocalypse”) is often ungrammatical. And yet, every English, German, and French translation has chosen to translate every book in a single “voice,” as if it was written by the same person. In fact, the King James Version of the English Bible is often pointed to as a paradigm of excellence in English composition. Barton thinks much could be gained by preserving the variation in diction in the original to the extent practicable.

It should be noted, however, that freedom to interpret in Judaism went only so far; the great Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza, now recognized as one of the founders of biblical criticism, was excommunicated for calling into question a literal interpretation of the Bible, rejecting the idea that the Bible consisted of “inspired truths.” His distinction between knowledge and logic on the one hand, and obedience to faith on the other, did not endear him to religious authorities; in 1656 he was cast out of the Jewish community. He believed the Bible should be read and interpreted just like any other book. He rejected the possibility of miracles and doubted the accepted authorship of some of the Old Testament books, proving for example that Moses could not have written all the books of the Pentateuch. One of his most innovative concepts was that people in biblical times thought differently from modern people, an idea that had not been clearly articulated before.

Spinoza might have been pleased by Barton’s use of comprehensive scholarship in an attempt to right the misconception that the Bible has one definitive meaning. He shows the stories in the Bible are diverse in style and content, contradictory, and reflect different historical needs. He contends that the assertion of a perfect fit between scripture and the faiths of either Judaism or Christianity is totally without justification, given the history that he so ably elucidates.

Evaluation: This book is an excellent and consistently interesting must-read for students of religion. As for Fundamentalists, they wouldn’t like it….

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LibraryThing member CarltonC
I found this too detailed and academic work for my needs and so skim read it, something I have very rarely done, usually just giving up on the book and leaving it unfinished. However, I wanted to follow the broad thrust of the arguments made and so skimmed the book, often reading the first and last
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few paragraphs of each chapter.
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LibraryThing member PhilipJHunt
I’ve spent a whole year reading this book. As one who was nurtured in Methodism and then found comfort in various expressions of Evangelical faith, this easy toil of a few pages a day has been a necessary adjustment (and often, corrective). What you make of this comprehensive and scholarly work,
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may depend on how much your bible has been shaped by your faith.
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LibraryThing member writemoves
I have not read the entire Bible or even a majority of it. What I have read or heard has come mainly through readings and sermons at church services. On occasion, I will also hear or read passages of the Bible from speeches, lectures or other books. I have a curiosity about the Bible. How much of
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it is historically true? How much of it is myth? Specifically does what the Bible tells us about Christ’s life on earth have any legitimacy or merit?

Barton’s book is enormous (489 pages) and covers the Old and New Testaments. I skipped around the book searching for topics that I may have interest or would at least know something about. As the author has indicated "the Bible contains many elements that are problematic for Jewish and Christian faith.”

The Bible is a mishmash of myth, history, poems, narratives, laws, prophecies, propaganda, and conjecture. Barton’s book seems best for Biblical scholars or those with a deep reading of the Bible. Much of the book was way beyond my comprehension or interest. That’s why I chose to pick and choose topics to read.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
Despite Barton being an Anglican priest, there is not a whole lot of difference between his history of the bible and Bart Ehrman's. Barton acknowledges the corruption of biblical texts, the contradictions within the gospels, and makes a good case that no one studying the current beliefs and
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organization of either Christianity or Judaism would be able to find a lot of it in the bible. Nor would someone reading the bible, conceive of Christianity and Judaism as they exist today. Throughout, his writing is clear, and his selections of texts from the bible or from biblical scholars are all excellent. Barton will make you appreciate and want to delve more into the stories in the bible, even if you aren't a believer. Throughout it all, Barton somehow maintains his own belief in the core story of Christianity, the salvation to be received through belief in Jesus Christ. This shows how powerful belief can be, because as I stated at the outset, Barton's analysis of the bible is not one that most Christians would agree with--or even read all the way through! I highly recommend this honest analysis by a person of faith.
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LibraryThing member Tower_Bob
The author states his main purpose as "exploring how the bible came into existence and how we might think about its elements today". This was accomplished, and very well. As an evangelical Christian I would probably have a few theological differences with the author, but as to his stated purpose of
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the book I have nothing but praise.
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Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize (Winner — 2019)
Wolfson History Prize (Shortlist — 2020)

Original language


Physical description

512 p.; 6.38 inches


0241003911 / 9780241003916
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