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A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths, by John Barton 

05 April 2019

Anthony Phillips reads about scripture and its status and purpose

IN THIS hugely important work, John Barton sets out to show how the Bible came into being, developed, and was used and interpreted from its remote beginnings to the present day, in both Christianity and Judaism. It deserves the closest attention.

Barton begins by sketching the story of Israel as set out in scripture, and then attempts to reconstruct what occurred, holding that it is improbable that any of the writings go back beyond the ninth century.

He restricts the sources of the Pentateuch to three — the Deuteronomic, Priestly, and non-Priestly — and sees the text as an archive in which all pieces of tradition had to be preserved. On wisdom and law, Barton concludes that both are firmly rooted in the institutional life of ancient Israel, so making “direct application of biblical teaching difficult”. Nor does the original harshness of the prophetic oracles fit easily into the religious systems that claim them as part of scripture.

Concerning the New Testament, Barton outlines its political, cultural, and religious background, pointing out that its thought-world is thoroughly Hellenistic.

He shows how Paul’s handling of both the resurrection of Jesus and his status as Son of God differs considerably from what later became Christian orthodoxy. Barton also notes “The New Perspective on Paul”, which holds that “justification by faith” was not concerned with how people were saved, but Gentile admission to the Christian body.

Turning to the Gospels, Barton points to the fragility of scholarly hypotheses in their discussion of dating, authorship, origin, and dependence on one another, let alone in attributing material to Jesus. Next, Barton explains how the Hebrew scriptures became authorised for both Jews and Christians. He then explores “the winding route that leads to a clearly defined New Testament”, which resulted in the books’ no longer being seen as informal documents important for stories about Jesus and his sayings, but as scriptural texts like the Old Testament. This led to “the parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity.

There follows a discussion of material excluded from the New Testament, as well as an exploration of textual criticism in both the New and the Old Testament. Attention is paid to both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. What, though, is clear is that textual variation rules out any appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings.

In the final section of the book, Barton shows how scripture was understood from the earliest days to our own times. Initially, he contrasts Jewish interpretation with Christian. For the former, the Old Testament was interpreted as instruction for living a good and observant life, while for Christians it is prophecy predicting the Messiah. While Judaism has no doctrine of Original Sin, Christians saw their scriptures as a drama of redemption.

Next, Barton examines how the rabbis and the church Fathers understood the Bible, and notes the importance of allegory, before turning to the Middle Ages, when both Christians and Jews developed methods of interpreting the text to support their thought and practice. But the resultant lack of a fit between the Bible and faith inevitably did violence to the biblical text. While Christian readings focused on theological meanings, Jewish were concerned with practical applications.

It was the Reformers who introduced the idea that the Church’s teaching could be criticised by what the Bible appeared to be saying. Barton, who admits to “a great affinity to Lutheran theology”, draws out the implications of Luther’s commitment to “justification by grace through faith alone”, contrasting his teaching with Calvin’s and their descendants’.

But it was Spinoza who was first prepared to declare the Bible mistaken, distinguishing between the meaning of the text and theological truth. Barton spells out his importance, and then traces the evolution of biblical criticism to the present, which confirms his thesis of the Bible’s lack of fit with the traditional understanding of Christianity. A valuable and extremely detailed chapter on translating the Bible from earliest times, and the problems involved, follows.

This very readable and judicious work, with its ample notes and full bibliography, should be a must for preachers, teachers, and all who are serious about the Bible’s place in their religion.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

A History of the Bible: The book and its faiths
John Barton
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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