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The Bible – The Biography by Karen Armstrong

Marcus Wheeler reads a Bible story by Karen Armstrong.

The Bible, like many other works of ‘holy scripture’, differs from most secular literature in being both descriptive and prescriptive. Believers look into it not only to learn about, for example, the historical circumstances in which Christianity developed out of Judaism, but to seek guidance about such issues as the priesthood of women or homosexuality. Given the use made of their sacred books by Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, it is not surprising that Karen Armstrong introduces her study with the comment that today “scripture has a bad name.”

Armstrong traces the history of the composition and exegesis of the Jewish and Christian scriptures from the 6th Century BCE, when the Persian Emperor Cyrus permitted the refugees returning to Jerusalem from Babylon to bring with them nine scrolls covering the Old Testament books (as Gentiles know them) from Genesis to Kings.

Armstrong argues a connection between the political divisions in the land of Israel and the absence from the Bible of a ‘single message’. It is this multiplicity, we read, which made exegesis [explanation of the text] so necessary, both before Christ and after, through the church’s patristic, mediaeval, post-Reformation and modern periods. Summarising the author’s summary, one may say that the exegetes fall into two broad categories: those who have applied the ‘principle of charity’ to obscure or contentious Biblical passages, and those who, with the aim of providing authoritative support for their own prejudices/heresies, have read into the Bible more than is there to be taken out. Jesus, who is introduced in perhaps deliberately low-key fashion as “a Galilean healer and exorcist,” was a teacher rather than an exegete and presumably for this reason receives curiously little attention – although he constantly referred to his own life as “fulfilling the Scriptures.” By contrast, the ‘Jesus movement’ is described at length.

The important Chapter 3 (‘Gospel’) expounds in some detail the history of the composition of the New Testament, including an example of the author’s quickness to spot significant linguistic nuances. The evangelist Matthew’s story of the ‘virgin birth’ of Jesus is traced to Isaiah’s prophecy. In this prophecy however, Armstrong tells us, the Septuagint [Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures common in Matthew’s time] has parthenos (‘virgin’) for the original Hebrew almah (‘young woman’). The moral here seems to be that questionable translation can make for questionable theology.

During the period following the establishment of a definitive list of books comprising the New Testament, the authority of the Bible fluctuated. For example, Athanasius of Alexandria, in formulating the creed which bears his name, introduced the term ‘consubstantial’ to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. This has no scriptural authority. By the same token, many Christian theologians in the Middle Ages were also philosophers, whose often-ridiculed scholastic disputes about such concepts as ‘being’ or ‘substance’ were similarly not resolvable by appeal to the Bible. The Reformation changed all this, asserting Biblical primacy, invoking the Bible against papal dogma, promoting translation of it into vernacular languages and encouraging the rulers of independent states to defy the secular authority claimed by the Vatican or the (so-called) Holy Roman Empire.

The book follows the development of Jewish religious thought side by side with the Christian Biblical story. There’s no grand break comparable with the Reformation, though the mystical Kabbalah tendency and the later Hasidic movement stemming from Eastern Europe represent important deviations from mainstream Judaism. But a clear parallel is perceived between Jewish and Christian fundamentalism and their respective present-day social and political expressions.

In her Introduction, the author suggests a little surprisingly that literal interpretation of the Bible “is a recent development” dating from the 19th century. In the short Epilogue she amplifies this in asserting that “the fundamentalist emphasis on the literal reflects the modern ethos but is a breach with tradition…” This appears at odds with her earlier claim (on p.168) that the problems faced by Galileo and Copernicus were due to “the increasing emphasis on the literal meaning of scripture.” However, this book is otherwise exemplary in its clarity, objectivity and responsibly condensed scholarship. The author, who has established herself as a historian of religious faiths, appears to have a command of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. She appends a ‘Glossary of Key Terms’, most of which are derived from one or other of these languages. A particularly helpful feature of the book is the series of vignettes of religious thinkers, including Origen, Augustine, Abelard and Calvin. The last-named appears much less blinkered and bleakly forbidding than he is often depicted.

In sum, this book can be commended unreservedly to all who are interested in the history of ideas, whether believers or non-believers. There is no reason in principle why discriminating readers in both categories should not accept the Epilogue’s judgment: “There are good things and bad things in the Bible.” The Epilogue also contains a powerful plea for a return to the ‘principle of charity’. To this plea for replacement of confrontation by constructive dialogue, Armstrong might have added a warning against stereotyped labelling: not all religious ‘conservatives’ are uncharitable, and not all ‘liberals’ charitable.

© Marcus Wheeler 2008

Marcus Wheeler was Professor of Slavonic Studies at The Queen’s University Belfast, 1968-92. He studied Philosophy and Classics for his first degree.

• Karen Armstrong, The Bible – The Biography, Atlantic Books, London, 2007. pp.302. ISBN 978 2 84354 396 1. £16.99.

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