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The Bible by Karen Armstrong

The full title is The Bible: The Biography, which at least clears up any possible implication that Karen Armstrong might be claiming authorship for the actual Bible.

I finished this last week sometime, but I’ve been putting off writing about it, mainly because reading a book by someone who knows vastly more about the subject than I do and then arguing with it seems like bad intellectual karma.

It traces the history of the Bible; both the accumulation and arrangement of the contents and the different ways people have read it. For these purposes ‘the Bible’ includes the Jewish version as well as the Christian one.

For me the most interesting part of it was the process by which the Bible was written and arranged; the various early religious traditions in Judah and Israel, the theological impact of the destruction of Temple first by Nebuchadnezzar and then later by the Romans, the religious and social context of the early Christian church and the various movements within early Chistianity. I did find it slightly unnerving, though, that Armstrong never gives any hint about how we come to know any of this stuff about what happened up to three thousand years ago. Obviously to explain every detail thoroughly would make the book much much less approachable, but a few examples of the kinds of sources being drawn on would have been interesting.

I suspect she was focussed on producing a popular account of what I imagine is a pretty dry field, and I can’t say I wanted to wade through too much in the way of textual criticism of obscure Assyrian chronicles, or whatever, but for me she whizzes through almost too quickly. The whole book is only just over 200 pages, which isn’t much for three millennia of history and theology (especially since it’s set in large, generously leaded type; unattractively large for my taste). So it’s a useful introduction to the subject but it’s hard to engage with properly. I suppose if I really wanted to know more I could check out the sources and biblical references listed in the endnotes, but I’d rather have a little more content in the actual text.

Once it gets to the point where the Bible is finalised and the book is concerned with the different ways people have read it, I found it less interesting. Partially that’s because I knew a little more about the subject already; not a huge amount more, but I’ve encountered the medieval exegetical tradition before, and I’ve read a certain amount about the Reformation. And to be honest, I tend to feel that when you’ve encountered a few different ways of finding ‘deeper’ significance in a text—Freudian analysis, various flavours of critical theory, different kinds of exegesis—they all start seeming rather similar.

But what made me uncomfortable was when she got onto modern practice. For most of the book she has presented an apparently detached, descriptive account. But once we get onto the nineteenth and twentieth centuries she starts making an argument, and it becomes apparent that there is an agenda to the whole book. The argument, basically, is that literal readings of scripture are a modern development, that in the past the Bible was always read as figurative, allegorical, and read in an open-ended way in search of spiritual, rather than literal, truth. And she goes so far as to recommend a return to these traditions.

Well, this is where my bad intellectual karma comes in, because despite my basic ignorance on the subject, I find myself deeply sceptical about her presentation of the tradition. Exegetical, allegorical, spiritual readings of scripture have obviously always existed and have always been part of the mainstream. It’s worth pointing out that the deeper spiritual truths found by exegesis can co-exist with a literal reading, but still, it’s clearly true, and a point well worth making, that most serious readings of the Bible throughout the tradition have been aimed at finding other kinds of truth than historical accuracy. Higher truths, deeper truths; pick your own spatial metaphor.

But still, I don’t believe that literal readings are new. It’s too obvious, simple and clear an idea. I just don’t believe that it never occurred to anyone to think “maybe this holy text is true”. My niggling suspicions aren’t quieted by the way Armstrong talks about modern life. Here’s the example which stuck out for me. I’ll quote at some length in an attempt to be fair:

Throughout this biography, we have considered the ways in which Jews and Christians have tried to cultivate a receptive, intuitive approach to scripture. This is difficult for us today. We are a talkative and opinionated society and not always good at listening. The discourse of politics, media and academe is essentially adversarial. While this is undoubtedly important in a democracy, it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint. It is often apparent during a parliamentary debate or a panel discussion on television that while their opponents are speaking, participants are simply thinking up the next clever thing they are going to say. Biblical discourse is often conducted in the same confrontational spirit, very different from the ‘listening ear’ proposed by the Hasidic leader, Dov Ber. We also expect immediate answers to complex questions. The soundbite is all. In biblical times,some people feared that a written scripture encouraged a slick, superficial ‘knowing’. This is surely an even greater danger in the electronic age, when people are used to finding truth at the click of a mouse.

Now it must be true that, for various reasons, religion has changed in the past few hundred years. The intellectual, social and political context has changed, after all. But whenever people start claiming that modern society is uniquely awful in some way, I get suspicious, and this seems a classic example of why. Armstrong says that because we are a certain kind of society, ‘it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint.’ With the implication that at some point in the past there was a moment when people were receptive to an opposing viewpoint. And that all theological debates in the past were conducted with a ‘listening ear’, something which would come as a surprise to those people burnt to death for heresy.

Or to give another example, when talking about American Rapture theology—the idea that the end of the world predicted in Revelations is coming soon—she writes

In line with the modern spirit, Darby’s theory was literal and democratic. There was no hidden truth, accessible only to a learned elite. The Bible meant exactly what it said.

Well, of course, the specific details of Rapture theology, like the association of the Antichrist with the United Nations, are modern and contingent. But the idea that the end of the world is nigh is not new. Millenarian heresies (i.e. people who believed that the Millennium, the thousand years of Christ’s rule on Earth, was coming soon) turned up pretty regularly in the medieval period. And this is part of my sense of unease with Armstrong’s presentation of modern theology as uniquely misguided; over the two thousand years of Christianity, the same ideas tended to pop up again and again. The key ideas of Protestantism, for example, were not new at the time of the Reformation; they had turned up periodically around Europe and the Catholic church had managed to crush them as heretical.

Anyway. It’s a pretty interesting book, but the fact that she’s clearly set out to make a particular case just makes it hard for me to take what she says at face value.

2 replies on “The Bible by Karen Armstrong”

I’ve read probably more about the Bible and the history of Biblical criticism than is entirely healthy, and I’d have to say, though I haven’t read her book, that A) I agree that the sort of literalism modern fundamentalism thrives upon was never as dominant in the past as it has been since the so-called Great Awakening; and B) I agree with your instinct to react to this thesis with caution. Then again, we should probably react to EVERY sweeping generalization with caution.

To me, the literalism of today is only slightly more objectionable than the allegorical styles of interpretation that held sway in Christian circles 1000 years ago. I do think there was probably more tolerance of divergent points of view back then – in Jewish and Muslim communities. Not in Roman Catholic ones.

Anyway, what I really wanted to say is that my favorite general introduction to the Bible for skeptical non-specialists is by a historian, Donald Harmon Akenson: Surpassing Wonder, The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. He makes some good, albeit startling points, such as that the Jewish Temple was itself an idol by Biblical definition, and that the Book of Q probably never existed. I suspect his book might better satisfy your curiosity about how Biblical scholars say they know the things they do. It has 413 pages of text, and an additional 200 pages of very readable notes and appendices. Best of all, Akenson has a good sense of humor.

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