A sweeping examination of the development of the Bible.
Barton (Emeritus, Interpretation of Holy Scripture/Univ. of Oxford; The Theology of the Book of Amos, 2012, etc.), an ordained and serving priest in the Church of England for more than 40 years, provides an exhaustive look at the creation of today’s Bible. He takes a largely thematic approach to his work; rather than a linear history of the Scriptures, he offers a collection of essays exploring facets of the book’s story. The author always looks at the Bible with a critical eye, and he questions larger concepts that are too often taken for granted. For instance, he dismisses the well-worn belief that the New Testament canon was formed slowly and deliberately through church councils that took the time to exclude numerous other texts. Instead, he argues that the Christian Bible books coalesced organically and there was little conscious debate over what was or was not “official” Scripture. Though the author respects the role of the Bible in the Jewish and Christian faiths, he examines the texts more as cultural literature than as works strictly tied to the holy or supernatural. For instance, he bluntly concludes, “the prophets were not helpful people, and their books are not helpful texts.” One benefit of Barton’s aloofness from the Scriptures is his ability to thoroughly delineate the different ways in which the Hebrew Bible is viewed and valued by Jews and Christians. In fact, he carefully notes throughout that there is an inherent difficulty in viewing the Bible as a “book” with a single history or theme, given that it is instead a compendium of works representing different eras, languages, cultures, genres, and faiths. Barton’s work is accessible to lay readers, but many readers of faith may not receive it enthusiastically, as the author’s tone about the Bible, though not hostile, skews toward the secular and is occasionally skeptical.
A useful religious history that is critical in approach and wide in scope.