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About scripture and what is ‘true’  

17 June 2016

Henry Wansbrough admires a religious-studies introduction


Bible Matters
Peter and Charlotte Vardy

SCM Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

THIS well-known husband-and-wife team of educationists has conspired to write a series of books on religious studies, including God Matters and Ethics Matters. The number of topics covered is striking.

In Part One, the story-telling in the Bible is assessed. There follow an introduction to textual criticism and the varied translations of the Bible into English, and a brilliant and witty potted history of the Hebrews-Israelites-Jews. This is both balanced and neutral, though it does concentrate on the “bubbling cauldron of unrest and political intrigue” which was Palestine at the time of the “explosive” teaching of Jesus.

Gems in Part Two (the Bible and historical truth) are a philosophical approach to truth since the Enlight­enment, followed by a succinct survey of the archaeological contri­bution to biblical knowledge and a list of biblical archaeologists and their achievements. These are com­bined into a survey of historical criticism, and especially revisionist views of Old Testament history and the Quest for the Historical Jesus in the 20th century. Particular atten­tion is paid to the effect of Nazism on German scholarship in the mid-century.

Part Three, on the use and inter­pretation of the Bible, surveys the subject from Jesus’s use of and atti­tude to the Bible (Rabbi Hillel comes later in the book), through the Fathers of the Church, medieval per­secutions for misunderstandings, and Luther’s interpretation of sola scriptura, right down to the modern position of Radical Orthodoxy, as well as a variety of Anglican approaches.

The contribution of Jewish bib­lical scholarship (both ancient and modern) is given unusually serious consideration. Study of the use of the Bible in ethics is understandably curtailed — with references to the authors’ own work elsewhere. This gives way to the varied use of the Bible in both feminist and political theology.

Perhaps the most exciting chap­ters are those at the end: “Another Perspective” and “Why does it really matter?” They discuss the attitude that the whole Bible is a parable or myth of the relationship of human beings and creation to God: it is true if it enables us better to understand our position in the world. “The truth of the Bible does not depend on the extent to which details in it are true but on the extent to which the story as a whole speaks to readers today.”

Throughout the book, the explanations are clear, informative, and objective. It might be possible to discern that both authors are Christians in the Catholic tradition, but, in the mode of religious studies, their presentation is acceptable also to atheists, Jews, and any reflective reader — topped up by an informa­tive glossary and a generous index.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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