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‘The Bible is not a paper Pope’

26 April 2019

Katharine Dell interviews her Ph.D. supervisor, John Barton, about the Church’s wrestling with scripture

BY ITS publication date, John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths was already in its third printing, such was the volume of pre-orders. It was a bestseller even before it hit the bookshops, sped on its way by enthusiastic reviews (Books, 5 April). The Sunday Times reviewer reported that it was the first book that he had ever read that made it seem possible that the Bible might “chime once more in a sceptical age”.

This is Professor Barton’s first “trade book”, the culmination of a lifetime’s thinking about the Bible. Having taught in Oxford for more than 40 years, holding the post of Oriel-Laing Professor for 20 of those, and retiring four years ago, he was the obvious choice for such an ambitious project.

He has written many books on the Bible as a whole, as well as specialist books on the Old Testament, Amos, the prophets, the canon, and ethics. But, as the Master of Campion Hall said when introducing him at the book’s launch, “he wears his scholarship lightly.” Such writing is, for Barton, a vocation rather than a job.

I ask him how he even approached the thought of writing the Bible’s history — not only how it came to be, but how it was received over many centuries in Jewish and Christian circles.

“I decided it would have to have four components,” he says. “How the Bible was written, how the books were collected and became canonical, how it has been interpreted and translated, and how it relates to the two faiths that accept it as scripture. All seemed to me essential. When I was able to break each component into parts.”

At the launch, he explained that his thesis in the book was that “the relation of religion to book is not direct. Problems arise when this is ignored, as the history of interpretation of the Bible so often illustrates.”

Later, he goes further: “Neither Jews nor Catholics see Judaism or Christianity as simply coterminous with scripture: both recognise that the relation between religion and book is oblique.

“Protestants tend to have more problems with this, but an ability to compare the contents of the Bible with definitions of faith, and then feel a need to adjust one or the other to improve the match, is common among Protestants, too, and explicitly so for Lutherans and some Anglicans. . .

“I have used the image of interlocking circles — a kind of Venn diagram, in which the Bible and faith massively overlap but are not identical,” he says. “Central Christian doctrines such as the Trinity scarcely appear in the Bible; whilst important features in the Bible, such as the teachings and miracles of Jesus, simply don’t appear in the creeds.”


I HAVE known John for some years: he was both my undergraduate tutor and my graduate supervisor in Oxford. I ask him whether opinions from students over the years have informed his own ideas and views.

Frequently, he says. “I learned particularly from a succession of about 40 doctoral students, who naturally studied parts and aspects of the Old Testament in some depth, and so kept me in touch with areas outside my own particular specialisms. Even where I did not change my ideas, having to explain them to students in tutorials and lectures, and getting feedback from them, was immensely helpful.”

Barton joked at the launch that his book contains “all sorts of information you didn’t realise you wanted to know”. This is very much his style — he seems effortlessly to be able to put across complex ideas in a readable and engaging way, with the odd quip thrown in.

This was the case in his lectures, as Diarmaid MacCulloch, who also spoke at the launch party, mentioned. He remembered Barton’s Oxford lectures on the prophet Amos as a model of the art: the two-minute break half-way through an inspired way of regaining students’ attention, just in case they were to drift off.

I ask Barton how far he regards the Bible as “literature”, comparable, perhaps, to a Collected Works of William Shakespeare.

“It is certainly not less than literature, and I welcome the growth of an interest in its literary features,” he says. “But I am inclined to think that it is, at least in some places, more than literature. However, at a purely human level it is not unlike the works of Shakespeare in being much more variegated than its inclusion in a single volume might lead readers to expect, though also in containing much wisdom.”

He continues: “The Bible survives as a cultural icon today even for many who do not read it and hardly know what is in it.” Furthermore, “people still swear ‘on the Bible’ in court, and some brides carry white Bibles even if they are not committed Christians. Similarly, reading a section of the Torah at a bar-mitvah remains important even for some secular Jews.”

He says, with a wry smile, “Many people can recognise biblical style — meaning the style of the King James Version — and show this by producing sentences including ‘thou’ forms and third-person singulars ending in ‘-eth’ when they want to sound solemn, or mock-solemn.”


BARTON is a Church of England priest as well as a prominent academic. I ask him how he sees the relationship between the Bible and the modern Church.

He explains that he sees the Bible “as a resource for the Church, but not a ‘paper Pope’ to answer all our questions. When it speaks, we must listen, but need not agree.”

He continues: “In this respect I wish more hardline biblicists in the Church of England would accept Luther’s principle that what is authoritative in the Bible is ‘what promotes Christ’ (was Christum treibet; quod Christum urget), which allows us to criticise, as he did, even books that are in the canon.”

He claims as one of his own heroes Richard Hooker, “the nearest the Church of England has to a ‘founding’ Reformer, which he wasn’t,” who warned against claiming too much for the Bible.

Barton fears that the Church is not currently using the Bible very well. “It is either brought in to provide ‘proof-texts’ for positions adopted on other grounds, or it is treated as historical background along with other past texts.

“Few ecclesial documents really take the biblical witness seriously. The Church’s inability to know what to do with the Bible can be clearly seen in debates about homosexuality and abortion.” The hope is that this book will redress some of these shortcomings.

“How does the Bible inform your own faith?” I ask. His answer is unexpected: “I believe the Bible contains and imparts a great deal of wisdom, but I tend not to think of it as ‘inspired’, preferring the idea that ‘the Bible tells us what we cannot tell ourselves’, as Lutherans tend to put it — insights we would have been at least very unlikely to arrive at unaided.”

I press him for examples: “Monotheism is one clear example of this; another is the crucial significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus; a third is the idea that God has a relationship with the human race focused through Jews and Christians, but implicitly including all peoples and individuals.”

Had the Bible been part of his early home life?

“We were a church-going family, and it was assumed that I would read the Bible; and at school in the 1950s and 1960s the Bible was a fixed part of the RE curriculum, so I drew maps of St Paul’s missionary journeys like everyone else,” he recalls.

But it was only when he decided to read theology at Oxford that he became hooked — and, even then, not immediately: “What really interested me was the philosophy of religion, and it was only when I studied the Bible, which I initially saw as a slightly unwelcome part of the syllabus, that I became hooked on it. John Austin Baker and Austin Farrer were my biblical tutors, and I owe it to them that I became a biblical specialist.”

Barton was a linguist at school, and admits: “It was the Greek and Hebrew aspects that attracted me first — in a sense, a linguistic and then a literary interest.” But it progressed from there, even if by a slightly circuitous route: “I decided to concentrate on Hebrew, and thus slid into Old Testament studies. Even so, I was to have studied philosophy of religion with Farrer in 1969, but when he died in December 1968 I pursued additional Hebrew instead.”

He might never have ended up as an Old Testament specialist. “But I’m glad I did,” he says. “I don’t think I’d have made a good philosopher.”

A History of the Bible took him three years to write. I ask how he relaxes from his writing, and he tells me that he loves classical music, especially Baroque composers, such as Bach and Handel, and concert-going. He tried his hand at the viola many years back, but, like philosophy, it didn’t work out.

How do we get people to read the Bible and engage with it seriously? I ask at the end. “Well”, he says, “I think I personally have the best chance of helping this cause by writing a book such as this one!”

Dr Katharine Dell is Reader in Old Testament Literature and Theology at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of St Catharine’s College.

A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths by John Barton is published by Allen Lane £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50).

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