Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Barton on the Bible

John Barton, Oriel and Laing Emeritus Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, has a new book out titled A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book. (The British subtitle is The Book and Its Faiths.) Barton has written on this before in How the Bible Came to Be (1998) and of course in his many other publications, but this book is more extensive and is aimed at a wide audience. Here’s the publisher’s info:
A literary history of our most influential book of all time, by an Oxford scholar and Anglican priest

In our culture, the Bible is monolithic: It is a collection of books that has been unchanged and unchallenged since the earliest days of the Christian church. The idea of the Bible as “Holy Scripture,” a non-negotiable authority straight from God, has prevailed in Western society for some time. And while it provides a firm foundation for centuries of Christian teaching, it denies the depth, variety, and richness of this fascinating text. In A History of the Bible, John Barton argues that the Bible is not a prescription to a complete, fixed religious system, but rather a product of a long and intriguing process, which has inspired Judaism and Christianity, but still does not describe the whole of either religion. Barton shows how the Bible is indeed an important source of religious insight for Jews and Christians alike, yet argues that it must be read in its historical context—from its beginnings in myth and folklore to its many interpretations throughout the centuries.

It is a book full of narratives, laws, proverbs, prophecies, poems, and letters, each with their own character and origin stories. Barton explains how and by whom these disparate pieces were written, how they were canonized (and which ones weren’t), and how they were assembled, disseminated, and interpreted around the world—and, importantly, to what effect. Ultimately, A History of the Bible argues that a thorough understanding of the history and context of its writing encourages religious communities to move away from the Bible’s literal wording—which is impossible to determine—and focus instead on the broader meanings of scripture.
Here is a clip chosen not at random from the section on NT textual criticism that I plucked from Amazon:
There are several thousand New Testament manuscripts from the first few centuries CE [!], from early papyrus fragments to the great elaborate fourth-century manuscripts such as Codex Sinaiticus. As well as manuscripts in Greek, the original language of the New Testament writers, there are many of translations into other languages, including even languages of northern Europe such as Gothic (see Chapter 18). The work of New Testament textual critics is painstaking and difficult, and earlier attempts to establish ‘the original text’ of any book have now largely been set aside in favour of tracing the history of different manuscript ‘families’, and so establishing various parallel traditions as to what, in detail, the books contain.

Thus there is not, and never can be, a text of ‘the New Testament’ as it left the hands of Paul, Luke or John: we have only variants. The implications of this for theories of the inspiration and authority of the New Testament have scarcely begun to be worked out. Where the words of Jesus are concerned, for example, we often know only roughly what he is supposed to have said (and whether he really said it is of course yet a further question). (pp. 285–286)
The British cover
From this you probably get a good sense of where Barton is coming from. I’ve had our library order a copy. But until then I’ll leave you with two more quotes from reviews of quite opposite persuasion. The first is from Julian Coman in the Guardian who is quite taken with the book and closes with this:
Along with the evident conviction that this marvellous “melee of materials” deserved fresh treatment beyond the absurdities of Da Vinci Code-style fantasies (conspiracy theories about the Bible’s compilation are well and truly laid to rest), it is this desire to free the Bible from overzealous interpreters that sums up Barton’s intellectual project. Asserting a perfect fit between scripture and the faiths of either Judaism or Christianity means doing violence to a set of texts that are open, mutually contradictory, historically situated, utterly diverse in genre and all the more suggestive for that.

Fundamentalists will not be queuing up to up to buy A History of the Bible: the Book and its Faiths. But for believers of a more open disposition, and non-believing lovers of great literature, reading it will be a revelation and a delight.
The second review is by another Barton, Barton Swaim in today’s Wall St. Journal, which closes with this:
Like many biblical scholars of a more “liberal” disposition, Mr. Barton wants to find a path between revering the Bible as in some sense a genuine revelation of God and dismissing it as a collection of ancient delusions. The evidence makes that middle path a hard one to travel. … John Barton’s reluctant, lukewarm “admiration” for the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures will impress some readers as perfectly respectable. But surely the Bible—a book that has outraged, captivated and upended greater minds than his—demands a more decided response.


  1. Nobody needs this book; where New Testament textual criticism is discussed, it just has one basic mistake after another, covered in a generous blanket of liberal skepticism.

  2. You can read my view of Barton's book, focusing on the parts that touch on New Testament textual criticism, at .