Arts & Books Books

A biblical guide for experts and novices alike

This study of the Good Book is unputdownable, says Fr Richard Ounsworth OP

A History of the Bible
By John Barton, Allen Lane
640pp, £25/$35

When I was a novice, one of my fellow novices encouraged me to read a book called The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986. From the first page I was hooked, and the course of my life, to some extent, was set from that moment.

I mention that book simply because, if it was gripping to me, then John Barton’s new History of the Bible is utterly unputdownable. This may strike the sceptical reader as hyperbole, but I can promise that if you have even the slightest interest in the Scriptures, and the remotest hint of intellectual curiosity, then this is a book to delight and enthral, to awaken the imagination and compel the deepest engagement with difficult but fascinating questions. What is the Bible? Who wrote all these different books, when and why? What is the relationship between the New Testament and the Old – and should we even be saying “Old”? What does it mean for a Catholic, a Protestant or an Orthodox Jew to say that the Bible is authoritative or inspired?

Barton retired a few years ago from the role of Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford, in which capacity he gave many of the core lectures in the Old Testament for theology undergraduates. I was fortunate enough to attend these, and can attest to the excellence of his teaching. Without rhetorical show, never putting forward outlandish theories of his own, he communicated with absolute clarity what it was that these undergraduates needed to understand. His clear explanation of a huge range of material left us also with a clear sense of what we did not know. Biblical studies remain full of unsolved mysteries and unresolved controversies, some of which still bring respectable academics to blows at international conferences.

One cannot, however, imagine John Barton becoming so inflamed. This book is a testament simultaneously to his skill as a teacher, his mastery of his subject, and the serenity of his wisdom. Deeply contentious matters, from theories about the sources of the Pentateuch or the Synoptic Gospels, to the difficulty of dealing with the Book of Joshua’s apparent enthusiasm for ethnic cleansing, are treated with the perfect combination of clarity, generosity and reasonableness.

And, lest I have not emphasised this sufficiently, it is done in a manner so readable that one cannot fail to follow his arguments and want to read on. Having taught both Old and New Testament studies now for a good many years, I can honestly say that I have never until now had quite such a firm grasp of – to take just a couple of examples – the different literary styles that sometimes sit rather uncomfortably side by side in the Pentateuch, or the importance of Spinoza in the rise of historical criticism. If I’d had this book to read as a novice, I would have been no less inspired, but a great deal better equipped.

The book is divided into four parts, the first beginning with the background to the Old Testament. Within a few pages we encounter the controversy over the extent to which we can meaningfully speak of “Ancient Israel”. As in every area, Barton gives fair coverage to all reasonable participants, from those who take a conservative line regarding the accuracy of the picture that Genesis presents about Israel’s pre-history, to those who would deny that we can speak of anything historical before the Persian period.

We proceed through the whole of the Old Testament, in the process considering how differently the prophetic books have been read by Jews compared with Christians, the origins of the notion of personified wisdom and the characteristics of Hebrew poetry.

The second part deals with the writing of the New Testament, beginning with a fascinating chapter on the historical background to it. Part three presents material perhaps less familiar, dealing with questions about how the content and order of our present Bibles came to be established, both among Christians and Jews, and in the process debunking many of the conspiracy theories we often come across regarding the “suppression” of various “Gospels” by the Church.

The final part, on “The Meanings of the Bible”, is in many ways the most important, since here Barton engages in matters of theology. He takes us from the earliest rabbis and Church Fathers, through the Middle Ages (with a pleasingly positive portrayal of St Thomas Aquinas) and the Reformation to the present controversies between fundamentalists, mainstream Protestants and Catholics and the many forms of contemporary Judaism.

Barton’s own inclination towards a mildly liberal Anglican position is not hidden, but neither are the difficulties with it. Indeed, it is Barton’s frank willingness to face the practical challenges that the Bible poses to theology, juxtaposed with his manifest and infectious love for the Scriptures, that make this book not just a pleasure to read but also a necessity.