Book Review: The Bible – A Biography

Generally speaking, your typical Conservative Christian doesn’t think of Karen Armstrong when seeking a picture of modern biblical scholarship.  Interestingly enough, they probably should.  Your most Conservative Christians interested in any form of scholarship are Calvinists, and, according to Karen Armstrong,

Calvin was convinced that the Bible had been written for simple, unlettered people and had been stolen from them by the scholars.  But he realized that they would need guidance.  Preachers must be well read in rabbinical and patristic exegesis and acquainted with contemporary scholarship. They must always see a biblical passage in its original context but at the same time they must make the Bible relevant to the daily needs of their congregations.
(Karen Armstrong.  The Bible: A Biography.  New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.  2007.  165-166. Emphasis mine.)

Karen Armstrong is definitely familiar with contemporary biblical scholarship, and this is one of the things that makes The Bible: A Biography such an interesting and useful read, especially for the conservative Christian.

Unlike the authors of The Birth of Satan, who state themselves that they treat the Bible like it is any other ancient document, Armstrong takes the Bible seriously.  From the outset of her work, she treats the Bible as though it is a spiritual text.  In doing so, she responds to its history in a manner that elevates it to a revered status.  From the time when the Law was passed on orally to its first appearance as a written text, she never ceases to emphasize the spiritual and religious significance of its words.

She begins her biography discussing the beginnings of the Torah, or Law and then follows the evolution of the Law into a written code of ethics.  In the process, she emphasizes the fact that, for the ancient Jews, “Scripture” was not a closed work.  Because God was infinite, His revelations were infinite as well.  Two people could come up with two vastly different interpretations of a law and both be right.

The interesting thing here is that, unlike other works of Higher Criticism, she takes the Bible’s side when it comes to the influence of other cultures on the Biblical text.  She views this influence as reactionary in a way.  The Jewish people were seeking to articulate their story and show the supremacy of their God.  To cite an example from the book:

In the ancient Near East, gods usually created the cosmos after a series of violent, terrifying battles; indeed, the Israelites told stories of Yahweh slaying divine sea-monsters at the beginning of time.  But [the Torah’s] creation myth was non-violent.  God simply spoke a word of command and one by one the components of our world came into being.
(Armstrong, 28)

This shows the supreme power of Yahweh in that this god doesn’t have to kill a whole bunch of bad guys who get in the way to free himself to be able to create.  This God can simply speak, and the elements obey.

She then discusses the place of Scripture in the lives of Jews at the time of the destruction of the temple.  The majority of the Law could not be literally obeyed without the presence of a priesthood and temple, so a radical reinterpretation of what it means to obey the Law took place.  After the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., the religious leaders spoke of the household as a temple and of the men of the house as the priest.  Each home was the place of religious instruction and ritual fulfillment.

Then comes Jesus.  At this point, her writing diverges along two separate and yet strangely similar stories.  While the Christians are creating their own Scripture in the form of the Gospels and epistles, the Jews are doing the same thing.  In the place of the Gospels, the Jews were writing two works, the Mishnah and a later commentary on it.  Unlike Christians, though, whose Scriptures quote from the Torah and the Writings, the Mishnah does so much less, if at all.  For the Jews of this time, God was still revealing Himself to them.  His revelation was ongoing.  For Christians, on the other hand, Jesus was viewed as the culmination of God’s revelation of Himself to humankind.

She then moves into a discussion of midrash, or exegesis, of the Scriptural text.  Both Christians and Jews had their own, distinct exegeses of the text.  But, interestingly enough, there was a common lens through which to interpret Scripture: love.  Armstrong quotes Augustine on the matter:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.
(Armstrong, 124)

She also points out that Jews at the time had a similar way of viewing Scripture.  The prevailing interpretive lens for them was compassion.  No matter what law or what story, everything must be read in such a way as to point to the underlying theme of compassion for others.

She then discusses Lectio Divina and how both Jews and Christians had their own forms of this.  For the Jews, they sought to internalize the Law, for Christians, they sought to internalize the Gospel message.  For both Jews and Christians, this was primarily done in the context of something like a monastery.

She then discusses the era of Sola Scriptura.  Both Jews and Christians also had their own forms of this.  In response to a growing body of people questioning commonly held ideas, whether right or wrong, the religious felt that they needed some certainty.  Scripture gave them that certainty.

She then briefly discusses Scripture in the 18 and 1900’s.

She ends by asking a question: What are we to do with this information?  After her brief, yet detailed, discussion of the history of the Bible and the way it has been read, she brings us to an application.  Like Calvin, she calls us to both be familiar with Higher Criticism and also make these ancient, sometimes contradictory, texts relevant again.

For the more Conservative reader, this book will cause much stress.  She refers to various Biblical stories as “myths,” which, for the literalist, is simply a no-no.  She seems to call into question the exclusivity of Christianity by comparing the similarities in the developments of, for example, mystical Christianity and Kabbalah.

These interpretive issues aside, this book presents in a reverent and beautifully-written manner the prevailing thought among adherents of Higher Criticism.  It gives us the information about the formation of the Bible without leaving us divorced from the religion of it.  In fact, she states, in so many words, that Higher Criticism, for all it has given us, has left us without a religion at all.  For all it has done for our understanding of where the Bible came from, she says, it has left us without something that is vitally important to our humanity.  But, unlike the majority of Higher Criticism adherents, she doesn’t want us left without our religion.  And in this work, she doesn’t leave us wanting.

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