A History of outlet online sale the Bible: The Book and lowest Its Faiths outlet sale

A History of outlet online sale the Bible: The Book and lowest Its Faiths outlet sale

A History of outlet online sale the Bible: The Book and lowest Its Faiths outlet sale

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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.

Review

Winner of the Pol Roger Duff Cooper Award for 2019
Chosen as a Best Book of 2019 by The Guardian

Praise for A History of the Bible:

“In addition to laying out the historical contexts in which the Old and the New Testaments were created, this stimulating study considers how they have been read, taught, and lived by believers…[Barton] proposes a nuanced approach that seeks to give the Bible its due without asking too much of it.” -- The New Yorker

A History of the Bible is a lucidly written distillation of a vast array of scholarship.” -- Wall Street Journal

"A supple and intelligent recap of the Holy Scriptures, their origins and contexts, [and] their meaning in a broad historical sense" --Lit Hub

“Immensely impressive… A HISTORY OF THE BIBLE is a confident, distinctly courteous performance, wary of overstatement and sure of its intellectual footing. No work of literature has a more fascinating life story than the Bible, and Barton has told it with a precision and insight that will make this the definitive account of the century." --  Christian Science Monitor

"John Barton has written a wise and eminently sane book about a book which has inspired both insanity and wisdom. It is a landmark in the field, and it will do great good." -- Diarmaid MacCulloch

"John Barton’s new book gives a superb overview... condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist ... even for those deeply familiar with the Bible there is much here to be learnt." -- Bart D Ehrman, author of  The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

"With emotional and psychological insight, Barton unlocks this sleeping giant of our culture for the untrained but curious general reader... He has produced a masterpiece." -- Peter Stanford, Sunday Times

"This strikingly accessible yet wonderfully erudite volume will be welcomed by many … a tour de force." -- BBC History Magazine

“Barton is extremely good at untangling what is actually known from what can be reasonably inferred from what has been lost to time...his book will have much to tell both curious secular readers and the faithful about the patchwork process by which a compilation that is so often treated monolithically came to exist.” -- Harper''s Magazine


“Barton’s rigorous, accessible history will appeal to academics and general readers alike." -- Publishers Weekly, starred review

About the Author

John Barton is a theologian who served as the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford in England for twenty-three years, and has been an ordained and serving priest in the Church of England since 1973. He has studied and taught the Bible throughout his academic career, and has written many books on it, including Ethics in Ancient Israel and The Bible: The Basics. He is the editor in chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. He lives in Abingdon, United Kingdom.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1
Ancient Israel: History and Language

The Bible comes to us from the world of the eastern Mediterranean.
Much of what Christians call the Old Testament was written in what is
now Israel/Palestine, the majority probably in Jerusalem. Some may
come from Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq), to which many Jews were
exiled in the sixth century BCE, and some perhaps from Egypt, where a
substantial Jewish community lived from the same period onwards. It is
conceivable that there are passages in the Old Testament as old as the
tenth or eleventh centuries BCE, but modern scholars tend to think that
the eighth century – possibly the age also of Homer – is the earliest
likely period; the latest Old Testament book (Daniel) comes from the
second century BCE.
There may already be some surprises here. It is widely believed that
large parts of the Bible are much older than this implies, with the stories
about characters such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the book of Genesis
going back into the second millennium BCE. The story the Bible
tells does indeed span a very long period; but the books that describe it
almost certainly do not date back in written form to such remote antiquity
themselves. For the early stories in Genesis, and even the accounts
of the activity of Moses in Exodus, we probably have a written version
of tales that originally circulated by word of mouth in a mostly illiterate
culture, though some biblical scholars think they are deliberate fiction.
(It is noticeable that Moses and his predecessors are scarcely mentioned
again until literature that we are sure derives from the sixth century
BCE, notably Isaiah 40– 55.) The story of the origins of Israel, then, is
at best folk-memory, which is unlikely to be accurate in any detail across
more than a generation or so. This means that we have little access to
the history of Israel in the times covered by the opening books of the
Bible, the Pentateuch (Greek for ‘five scrolls’, and meaning Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
At the other end of the chronology, it is also not generally known that
there are Old Testament books more recent than Greek tragedies or the
works of Plato and Aristotle. This is partly because later books tend to
claim an older ancestry: Ecclesiastes (Qohelet in Hebrew) seems to claim
to be by Solomon, who lived in the tenth century BCE, and Daniel claims
to be a near- contemporary of Jeremiah, living in the time of the exile in
the sixth century BCE. But the general consensus now is that both books
are the product of a much later period, and in the case of Daniel a time
as late as the age of the Maccabees, Jewish freedom fighters in the second
century BCE who went on to found a dynasty. Thus the Old Testament
does not derive from a single period in the history of Israel, but from a
wide range of dates as well as a variety of places. It is the national literature
of a small nation: Israel is about the same size as Wales, or the state
of Maine. Before modern times, Israel had a genuinely independent
existence for only a few centuries, from perhaps the tenth to the seventh
century BCE, and was otherwise subject to the main regional powers –
Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia or the Hellenistic kingdoms that controlled
the Middle East after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.
Israel was itself a geopolitically unimportant state, but it lay at the heart
of various trade routes in the Middle East and so was open to influences
from its larger and more significant neighbours.
If we are to understand the development of its national literature, it
is necessary to have in mind an outline history of Israel within the wider
ancient Near Eastern world. But the history as reconstructed by modern
historians differs markedly from the story the Old Testament itself tells.
We begin by sketching this story, and then proceed to the modern
reconstructions.
The Old Testament gives the impression that the origins of the people of
Israel do indeed go back well into the second millennium BCE. Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph and his eleven brothers, live well
before the time of Moses, which in turn is long before the first Kings of
Israel, Saul, David and Solomon. In Genesis, the ancestors migrate from
Mesopotamia to the Promised Land but continue to have connections
with their relatives to the east. They then move to Egypt in a time of
famine, Joseph having gone ahead of them as a slave who becomes a
major Egyptian official. Chronological notes in the Old Testament
suggest that we are meant to think of this as happening in perhaps the
fourteenth century BCE. The people return to the Land, this time from
the west, from Egypt, under the leadership of Moses; after wandering
in the desert for forty years and receiving the Ten Commandments and
the other laws, they finally enter the Land with Joshua at their head. By
the eleventh century or so they have settled down in the Land under the
people the Old Testament calls the ‘judges’, tribal leaders who rose to
rule the whole of Israel. They face opposition from other local peoples
such as the Midianites. It is the Philistines, however, incomers who have
settled in the west of the Land (where the Gaza Strip is now), who present
the first major challenge; a local leader called Saul rises to the
occasion, repels the Philistines and becomes the first king of all the
tribes in the north of the Land, excluding the southern tribe of Judah.
David, a Judahite from Bethlehem, takes over from Saul when Saul is
killed in battle with the Philistines, and unites Judah and Israel to make
a single kingdom with its capital at Jerusalem. The union is unstable,
and always a source of tension. Under David and his son Solomon,
Israel then expands to dominate the surrounding small nations such as
Moab, Ammon, Edom and even Aram (now Syria), and we can speak of
an Israelite empire. Solomon also constructs a royal temple in Jerusalem
as a centre for the worship of God.
This is the high point of the history of Israel as the Old Testament sees
it. After the death of Solomon the old north- south divide reasserts itself,
and there are two kingdoms, Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel,
sometimes referred to as Ephraim after the name of the main tribe that
had settled in the area it covered. It is Judah that really interests the Old
Testament writers, who (we may surmise) lived mostly in Jerusalem. Still
there are stories of the north too, such as the tales of the prophets Elijah
and Elisha, who work under various northern kings in the ninth century,
including the notorious Ahab and his queen, Jezebel – regarded by the
Old Testament’s second book of Kings as apostates from the true Israelite
religion and worshippers of the god Baal. Israel is continually at war
with Aram, inconclusively so, throughout the century, but in the eighth
century the rising power of Assyria, with its capital at Nineveh (near
modern Mosul), snuffs out the northern kingdom.
The king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three
years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured
Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. (2 Kings 17: 5– 6)
Judah survives, the Bible tells us, as a tiny independent state until the
beginning of the sixth century when it in turn falls to the Babylonians,
who have by now supplanted Assyria. The Temple is destroyed, and the
land devastated. So begins the Jewish exile, with all the leadership either
executed or transported to Babylonia, and only ‘the poorest of the people
of the land’ (2 Kings 25:12) left behind.
The Old Testament speaks of a number of important figures from the
exilic age, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but tells us little of what the
exiles in general did or suffered. Later in the sixth century the conquest
of Babylon under its last king, Nabonidus, by the Persian monarch
Cyrus the Great leads to a different imperial policy, under which exiled
peoples are allowed to return to their homelands.
‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given
me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a
house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his
people – may their God be with them! – are now permitted to go up to
Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel.’
(Ezra 1: 2– 3)
Accordingly a number of Jews return to Judah and begin to rebuild
the Temple (known usually as the Second Temple, to distinguish it from
the original built by Solomon). We read of some of their activities in the
books of Ezra and Nehemiah, who are presented as regulating Jewish
life under the Torah – the great law book given by God, which we are
probably meant to understand as the Pentateuch. After Nehemiah we
learn little more of the Persian period, and the Old Testament gives the
impression that the significant history of Israel, guided by its God, is
more or less over. Only the book of Esther purports to tell of Jewish
life under the Persians.
Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great (at the end of the
fourth century, in 333 BCE, at the Battle of Issus), and there is more
information about Jewish life in the Land under his successors in the
books of Maccabees.* From them we learn that one successor of Alexander,
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, tried to stamp out Judaism in the early
second century BCE, but was resisted by Judah Maccabee and his
brothers. From the Jewish historian Josephus we gather that their
descendants established a new royal dynasty in Jerusalem, the first time
since the exile that the Jews had been ruled by a Jewish king. But this
information does not come from the Old Testament itself, where the
story of Israel peters out in the Persian age.
There is probably not a single episode in the history of Israel as told by
the Old Testament on which modern scholars are in agreement. Some
take a conservative position, treating the Old Testament narrative as
likely to be accurate unless there is proof to the contrary, and tend to
regard even the stories of early Israel (before the monarchy) as broadly
true. Others, commonly referred to as minimalists, think that the story
is mostly fiction; some even believe that little of it was written before the
age of Alexander and his successors, in the fourth or early third century.
 Most Old Testament scholars fall between these two extremes.
Dating biblical material is extraordinarily difficult, and we have no
manuscripts that go back into biblical times: the earliest are the Dead
Sea Scrolls, from the second century BCE at the earliest, so dating can
only be based on the contents of the biblical books, their style and their
vocabulary – not on hard evidence such as the date of actual scrolls. So
it is impossible to establish a complete consensus, and hard to avoid the
impression that much reconstruction of the history of Israel depends on
the temperaments of the scholars involved, whether sceptical or credulous,
and often also on their religious stance – committed, indifferent, or
hostile to the Bible as Scripture, that is, as a sacred text with the characteristics
summarized above. We might despair of knowing anything
worthwhile about the history, and hence (which is what concerns us
here) of having a solid historical framework within which to decide
when the various books of the Bible are likely to have been written. If
there is no agreed history of the nation, then the history of its national
literature cannot be written either.
This is unduly pessimistic. In fact the history of Israel can be reconstructed
in some periods, and we can often tell when the biblical narrative
approaches fiction and when it has roots in historical reality. The early
history – that is, the period before the rise of the monarchy – is genuinely
sketchy. The Bible presents the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his
twelve sons) and the generation led by Moses as successive: Abraham
comes to the Land, his descendants go to Egypt, then they return
again under Moses. But we might detect here underlying, alternative traditions. Some of Israel’s ancestors came from the east, from Mesopotamia
or Syria, while others came from the west, from Egypt. Some
scholars suggest that the Bible has arranged the traditions so as to give
an impression that a single people had both experiences, but behind the
unified story there lie two different stories belonging to two different
groups. Common to both groups is the belief that the Israelites were not
native to Palestine, but were incomers from elsewhere, and this seems to
be firmly fixed in the traditions behind the Pentateuch. But the stories
reflect the experiences and folk memories of people settling in the Land
in the period we associate with the judges, the time just before the monarchy,
rather than telling us much about the second millennium BCE.
There is one reference to ‘Israel’ on a stele (victory inscription) found in
Thebes in Egypt in 1896, belonging to the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah
and probably dated to about 1215 BCE, which indicates that a people
calling itself by that name was already in Palestine in the thirteenth century,
at that time under Egyptian rule. But we are told nothing more
about them, and Israel is never mentioned again in any ancient Egyptian
texts.
In the twentieth century some biblical archaeologists developed the
theory that the stories of the patriarchs reflected customs known from
second- millennium BCE texts – Mesopotamian documents, from the
cities of Mari and Nuzu – rather than those current in later times in
Israel. Hence, they argued, the stories must be genuine, or at least rest
on traditions from that period. For example, there are three stories in
Genesis where one of the patriarchs passes his wife off as his sister,
which results in her being taken into the harem of a foreign ruler, to
avoid his being killed (Genesis 12, 20, and 26):
When he [Abram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I
know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the
Egyptians see you they will say, “This is his wife”; then they will kill me,
but let you live. Say that you are my sister, so that it may go well with me
because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.’
(Genesis 12: 11– 13)
It was argued that in Mari marriage between brother and sister did in
fact occur, whereas in later times in Israel it was regarded as incestuous.
Thus these stories would have to be ‘pre-historic’, and that would mean
that we do have some information about the earliest ancestors of the
Israelites. More recently, however, this line of reasoning has been generally
abandoned. In this particular case, the whole point of the story is
that the woman in question is not the patriarch’s sister: describing her
as such is a ruse to protect him rather than a statement of fact, and
hence presupposes that sisters could not also be wives – just as in historical
times. We may still think that the patriarchal stories preserve
some kind of folk-memory of earlier times, and indeed their names are
notably not of a kind found later in Israel, suggesting that they are
genuinely pre- monarchic. But exactly how old they are we cannot tell.6
Similarly, the names associated with the exodus from Egypt are in
several cases unmistakably Egyptian. Moses occurs as an element in
well-known Egyptian names such as Tut-mosis, and Aaron and Phinehas,
other characters in the story, also bear Egyptian names. The exodus
tradition must also preserve some kind of folk-memory that the Israelite
ancestors spent time in Egypt; but these were not necessarily descendants
of the patriarchal group that had originally come from the east,
from Mesopotamia. Thus, as suggested above, we might be dealing with
two parallel memories. It is not even clear which story is older than the
other: if Merneptah’s stele refers to a group that had settled under
Moses’ successor Joshua, while the patriarchal stories concern people
settling under the leaders we call the judges, then the traditions in Exodus
could actually be older than those in Genesis. The tribes ruled over
by the judges bear the names of the twelve sons of Jacob, so the Genesis
stories about these characters could easily reflect folk tradition from the
judges period. This is, however, speculative; it is possible that the narrative
sequence the Bible offers us is correct.
All this may be felt to leave the biblical story of early Israel in tatters:
what remains is the sense that the ancestors of the Israelites were not
native to Palestine, but came in from elsewhere – much as did the Philistines
in about the same period, probably from Crete. Recent
archaeological work, however, has called even this in question. Whereas
the book of Joshua gives the impression that the Israelites conquered
the Promised Land through a series of battles against the native Canaanites,
excavations of early Israelite settlements reveal no break in
population in the relevant periods: the population expanded, but there
is no evidence of widespread destruction, and the crucial markers of
identity such as pottery types continue uninterrupted. From this it seems
that any incomers were probably few and far between. Unless some
Israelites genuinely did owe their ancestry to people outside the Land, it
is hard to see why such traditions should have developed, for it is hardly
advantageous in most societies to present oneself as the child of
immigrants.
But the archaeological evidence, combined with an analysis of the
biblical narratives and what is known of how folk memories are created,
suggests that most later ‘Israelites’ were in fact Canaanites, that is,
descendants of native inhabitants of the Land. The theological or ideological
belief that all derived from those who had once come out of
Egypt with Moses was the belief of a few, but was internalized by the
nation at large in later times. So all Israel later celebrated the Passover
and rejoiced in the deliverance from Egypt that Passover commemorates,
even though many were the offspring of people who had never
actually been there. Nation- building often involves the extension to all
of folk memories that originally affected only a few – much as Americans
celebrate Thanksgiving, even though the majority are not the
descendants of those who first did so, and indeed the historical background
of most Americans follows a different trajectory.
Even when we come into the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE, the
age of the first kings, it is not easy to be sure we have firm ground under
our feet. Excavations in Jerusalem suggest that it was not a major city
in this period, even though it had been important as an administrative
centre when Egypt ruled Canaan in the late second millennium BCE,
the age of Merneptah’s monument. The Bible’s presentation of David
and Solomon as emperors, subjugating all the surrounding nations and
building on a lavish scale, therefore seems almost certain to be an exaggeration.
The Old Testament contains copious stories about these two
kings, as also about their predecessor Saul, but modern historians tend
to think that the stories are quite novelistic in character, even though
probably resting on some genuine historical information.
It is really only for the ninth and eighth centuries that we have information
in the Bible that can be substantiated from external records.
Here the evidence shows the biblical account to be biased, but probably
in touch with historical reality. The Assyrians record their relations with
the northern kingdom of Israel, which they refer to as the ‘house of
Omri’. According to 1 Kings 16, Omri was a relatively unimportant
king whose reign of twelve years was characterized chiefly by his disobedience
to the God of Israel and his worship of foreign gods – a
standard accusation against the kings of the north. But the Assyrian
annals show that Omri was an important and powerful ruler: even into
the eighth century the title ‘house of Omri’ continues as the name for
Israel, and Jehu, a king who according to 2 Kings 9 actually overthrew
Omri’s dynasty, is identified as ‘son of Omri’ on the monument called
the Black Obelisk (now in the British Museum in London), where he is
shown doing homage to the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III. The northern
kingdom under Omri and his dynasty was prosperous and
independent, and probably considerably more powerful than Judah, its
poorer southern neighbour.
The eighth century BCE is the moment when we have clear historical
evidence for both kingdoms, and a majority of biblical specialists think
that it is in this period that there were first significant writings. The
stories of the earlier kings, as well as the folk memories from the premonarchic
age, were probably collected and edited around this time.
From the eighth century too we have the words of prophets such as
Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Micah, however much their words have been
overlaid with later additions, as we shall see in Chapter 4. It was a time
when both kingdoms enjoyed a short respite from inervention by other
powers. The Aramaeans, who had been so troublesome in the previous
century, provided little opposition, while the Assyrians were preoccupied
for some years with battles on other fronts, especially to their north
where the state of Urartu was giving trouble. For a few decades, from
about 760 to the 730s, Israel and Judah were free to enjoy peace and
relative prosperity. The prophets, more far- sighted than others, already
sensed that this prosperity would be short- lived; and so it proved. In
745 the Assyrian throne came to be occupied by Tiglath-pileser III, who
had expansionist plans and began to push westwards; and by the end of
the century the northern kingdom, always harder to rule than Judah
and with no well- established dynasty, had been extinguished and turned
into an Assyrian province. Judah (the size of an English county) remained
as the only viable part of the ‘people of Israel’, as the Judaeans continued
to call themselves.
In the seventh century we learn about the fortunes of Judah from the
later chapters of 2 Kings, and also from extensive narrative sections of
the book of Jeremiah, if these are reliable sources, as many Old Testament
scholars think they are; certainly they tally well with Assyrian and
Babylonian records. Assyria was conquered by Babylonia in 612 BCE
(a victory reflected on in the biblical book of Nahum), but from the
Judaean perspective this only made things worse. The last kings of
Judah, before the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar finally annihilated
it in the early years of the sixth century, seem to have believed they
could avoid coming under the Babylonian yoke. Jeremiah, who prophesied
during the last years of Judah, persistently told the leadership to
accept Babylonian hegemony and not attempt foolhardy schemes to
reassert their independence, but this was to no avail. In 598 BCE the
Babylonians invaded and took away the king, Jehoiachin, from Jerusalem,
with many of his courtiers and officials.
At that time the servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up to
Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon
came to the city, while his servants were besieging it. King Jehoiachin of
Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his
servants, his officers, and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took
him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign. (2 Kings 24: 10– 12)
Eleven years later the king they set up in Jehoiachin’s stead, his uncle
Zedekiah, rebelled openly, egged on by unrealistic advisers, and this
time the Babylonian army laid waste to Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple,
and took Zedekiah away, blinding him after he had seen his sons
executed. Judah ceased to exist as a state, though many people naturally
remained in the Land, with a civil servant, Gedaliah, ruling over them
from the city of Mizpah, north of the devastated Jerusalem. After only
a few years Gedaliah was assassinated by a claimant to the throne, and
after that we know no more of events in the homeland.
The exile in Babylonia probably involved only a fraction of the preexilic
population of Judah, so there may be works in the Bible that
derive from those who remained behind, such as the book of Lamentations
(which is probably not by Jeremiah, as traditionally believed, but
not far from his spirit). A leader of the exiled community seems to have
been the prophet Ezekiel, and (as we shall see) significant literary work
probably went on among the exiles. They were not imprisoned or punished,
but were able to establish settlements: from then on there was
always a Jewish presence in Babylonia. Jehoiachin was apparently still
regarded as the legitimate king, and a cuneiform tablet (the Weidner
Chronicle) records that provisions were allocated to him, confirming
the account in 2 Kings 25: 27– 30:
In the thirty- seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the
twelfth month, on the twenty- seventh day of the month, King Evilmerodach
of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, released King
Jehoiachin of Judah from prison; he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a
seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. So
Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes. Every day of his life he dined regularly
in the king’s presence. For his allowance, a regular allowance was
given him by the king, a portion every day, as long as he lived.
From the next century we learn from the Murashu tablets (found in
what is now southern Iraq) that the Jewish community had established
businesses and even a bank, following Jeremiah’s advice to settle down
and acclimatize to the Babylonian environment (see Jeremiah 29).
How far there was communication with those left in Judah is unclear,
though Ezekiel (exiled in 598) speaks of a messenger coming to him
from Jerusalem when it fell in 587 (Ezekiel 33: 21– 2). But what is certain
is that when Cyrus, king of Persia, defeated the last Babylonian
king, Nabonidus, in 539, some Judaean exiles returned to the Land to
re- establish national life there and even rebuild the Temple. The book of
Ezra preserves what purport to be versions of a decree by Cyrus authorizing
this, though many historians are sceptical about their authenticity.
At any rate, the Persian authorities evidently did not obstruct the initiative,
and we learn from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah that by
about 520 BCE the foundations of the new Temple were laid, and that
the people were governed by a descendant of Jehoiachin called Zerubbabel
and by a high priest called Joshua or Jeshua. From then on Jewish
life had two foci: one in the diaspora – in Babylonia and other places,
such as Egypt, to which Judaeans had fled after the fall of Jerusalem –
and the other back in the homeland.
Of what happened during the long years of Persian rule over Israel
we are badly informed. Various books of the Bible probably come from
that time, including Job, Chronicles, probably indeed the whole Pentateuch
in its finished form (many parts of it, as we shall see, are earlier in
origin). But none reflects on the historical events of the period. Even the
cataclysmic shift in power in the ancient Near East brought about by
the rise of Alexander the Great is not commented on in the Bible, and it
is only under his successors that we discover a palpable effect on the
Jewish community. After Alexander died in 323 BCE, his empire was
divided up among his generals. Palestine initially fell under the Ptolemaic
rulers of Egypt, who appear to have governed the Jewish
community benignly for all we can judge from the biblical evidence,
scant as it is. But in the early second century BCE they were dislodged
from their hegemony over the area by the Seleucid dynasty ruling in
Syria.
In the 160s a ruler called Antiochus IV, who surnamed himself
Epiphanes (‘God made manifest’), decided that the hellenization of the
Jews – that is, their assimilation to Greek customs and ways of living –
had not developed far enough, and began to enforce observance of
practices that many Jews abhorred. Parents were forcibly prevented
from circumcising their sons, the consumption of pork became mandatory
as a test of loyalty to the empire, and Sabbath observance was
forbidden. By now many Jews had assimilated and did not oppose these
moves, but a group of zealots, led by a family known as the Maccabees
or ‘hammers’, took up arms against Antiochus. They rededicated
the Temple, in which he had installed an image of Zeus, and for a time
ruled over the Jewish state, which was thus independent for the first
time in many centuries. Their dynasty was soon entangled in political
wrangles, with the high- priesthood up for sale, and in any case Jewish
independence did not outlast the advent of the Romans in the Levant.
Palestine became part of the Roman Empire, divided up under various
local rulers all more or less vassals of the Roman power, until in 70 CE
Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman army under Pompey and the Jews
no longer had a national state at all – just as had happened in the sixth
century.
When in this complicated history were the books of the Old Testament
written? A rough consensus has arisen among specialists that
biblical books are unlikely to go back much before the ninth or eighth
century, the age of Omri, Elijah, Amos and Isaiah. As we have seen,
before then ‘Israel’ was a vague entity with little centralized power:
David and Solomon, who are said to have established a huge empire,
have left almost no traces that archaeologists can examine, and receive
no mention in the records of other nations in the region. Only in the
ninth century do the Assyrians begin to speak of the ‘house of Omri’. It
seems improbable that Israel or Judah before then had the kind of royal
administration that needed, and could train, scribes adept enough to
write the biblical books.13 Writing had indeed begun in Sumeria (southern
Iraq) in the third millennium BC, and around the same time in
Egypt, so there is no reason in principle why even very early peoples
should not have included those who could write. But writing in such
societies was always the preserve of a specialized class of scribes: both
cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing are too complex for widespread
literacy to be plausible. The early Hebrew alphabet, by contrast, is quite
simple, consisting of just twenty- two letters; yet still there is little evidence
that literacy was widespread in ancient Israel before the seventh
century BCE. (Almost our only earlier evidence is provided by the Gezer
calendar, a brief text mentioning the seasons for various farming activities,
discovered some twenty miles west of Jerusalem and generally
dated to the tenth century BCE; but this does not demonstrate widespread
literacy in this period.)
There is a lively scholarly debate about the importance of writing in
ancient Israel, and of the possibility that scribal schools existed, as they
certainly did in Mesopotamia and Egypt.14 The books of the Old Testament
are almost certainly the product of an urban elite, based in
Jerusalem and perhaps other major cities such as Samaria, rather than
folk literature. They may well rest on earlier legends preserved orally
and not only on earlier written documents such as state archives of the
kind referred to in the books of Kings (‘the book of the deeds of the
kings of Israel/Judah’). Teasing out the development from oral tradition
to written text is one of the most difficult tasks in biblical scholarship,
and the results are at best tentative. As with any study of the classical
world, we have no independent access to any oral traditions that may
underlie the texts. Though it is fascinating to speculate on these, so far
as the Bible as a book is concerned it is improbable that anything was
written before the ninth century.
The books of what is now the Old Testament thus probably came
into existence between the ninth and the second centuries BCE. This
does not necessarily mean that the records of earlier ages are pure fiction,
but it makes it hard to press their details as solid historical evidence.
Many readers of the Bible would recognize that the stories of the early
history of the world – Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel – are mythical or
legendary, but it may be more challenging to think that the stories of
Abraham or Jacob or Moses are also essentially legends, even though
people bearing those names may well have existed. No one is in a position
to say they are definitely untrue, but there is no reasonable evidence
that would substantiate them. This is also the case with the early kings,
Saul, David and Solomon, though the stories about them do make sense
within a period (the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE) about which we
know something, from the archaeological record. With the later, eighthand
seventh- century kings (for example, Hezekiah and Jehoiachin)
there is definite corroboration from Assyrian and Babylonian records,
and we are less in the dark. But even some of the stories of life after the
exile, in the Persian period, may be fictional: most biblical scholars
think that the book of Esther, for example, is a kind of novella rather
than a piece of historical writing. A later date does not of itself mean
that a given book is more likely to be accurate: much depends on its
genre, as we shall see in the next chapter.
The biblical books thus probably span a period of about eight centuries,
though they may incorporate older written material – ancient
poems, for example – and may in some cases rest on older, orally
transmitted folk memories. But the bulk of written records in ancient
Israel seem to come from a core period of the sixth and fifth centuries
BCE, with heavy concentrations in some particular ages: most think, for
example, that the period of the exile was particularly rich in generating
written texts, as was perhaps the early Persian age, even though we know
so little about the political events of the time. The flowering of Israelite
literature thus came a couple of centuries earlier than the classical age in
Greece. The Old Testament, taken by and large, is thus older than much
Greek literature, but not enormously so. Compared with the literature of
ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt, however, Israelite texts are a late arrival.
I have been referring to the body of texts in question here as ‘the Old
Testament’, but the term is problematic. This is how Christians refer to
it, by contrast with the New Testament (a term that goes back as far as
Bishop Melito of Sardis [d. c.180 CE]). For Jews the New Testament is
of course not part of their Scriptures at all, and so they tend to refer to
the Old Testament as simply ‘the Bible’, or sometimes ‘the Tanakh’ (or
Tenakh or Tanak), which is an acronym taken from the initial letters of
the three sections into which the Bible is divided according to Jewish
tradition: the Law ( torah ), Prophets ( nevi’im ), and Writings ( ketuvim ),
including Psalms, Proverbs, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles–. In the
world of academic biblical study there is much debate as to which term
it is best to use. The problem with ‘Old Testament’ is that the word ‘old’
can be construed as negative or pejorative – ‘these are the old scriptures,
but in the New Testament we now have some better ones’. This fits in
with a long Christian tradition of what is known as supersessionism,
the belief that Christianity has improved on and so supplanted Judaism,
a view that is arguably implied in the New Testament Letter to the
Hebrews, which describes Jesus as the ‘mediator of a new covenant’
(Hebrews 9:15) – testamentum is simply the Latin for covenant.
The solution in recent academic writing has tended to be to use the
expression ‘the Hebrew Bible’ or ‘the Hebrew Scriptures’. This has the
advantage of not being a religious usage at all – it was coined, and is
used, almost entirely within the academic world. It does leave the
expression ‘New Testament’ somewhat stranded, since there is then
nothing with which the word ‘new’ contrasts, but this is generally felt to
be a price worth paying for a term that does not imply an adverse
judgement on Judaism. As we shall see, it is inexact, because not everything
in the Hebrew Bible is in fact in Hebrew. But it is a fair approximation
to the truth. ‘Old Testament’, however, remains the normal term in popular
usage, and within most Christian churches, and is the norm in
printed Christian Bibles. This means that there is merit in continuing to
use it, provided it is taken neutrally and without any implication of
supersessionism; and there are Jewish scholars who are content to use it
in that way. In this book ‘Old Testament’ and ‘Hebrew Bible’ are used
more or less interchangeably, the former somewhat more in contexts in
which these books are being seen as part of a larger Christian Bible, and
the latter more when Jewish, or purely academic, perspectives are to the
fore. But my own conviction is that ‘Old Testament’ is not tainted to the
extent that it is unusable, and sometimes I treat it as the default term,
given that this is what the majority of people in western culture have
usually called these books.
The word ‘Hebrew’, however, reminds us that most of these books were
originally written in what is often called Biblical (sometimes Classical)
Hebrew. Hebrew belongs to the Semitic language family, unrelated to
European languages.* Semitic languages were spoken all over the
ancient Near East, and this continues to be the case. The most important
modern example is Arabic, which has developed into a major world
language and, in its classical form, is known by many non- Semitic
speakers because it is the language of the Qur’an. Hebrew belongs to
the north- west branch of Semitic, along with other local languages of
the southern Levant such as the now- defunct Ugaritic, Phoenician and
Moabite. There are other branches: among East Semitic languages is
Akkadian, the language of Assyria and the lingua franca of the whole
Middle East until well into the first millennium BCE – Egyptians and
Assyrians corresponded in Akkadian. (Sumerian, an earlier language in
what is now Iraq, is not Semitic, and is not related to any other known
language.) The ancient and modern languages of Ethiopia belong, like
Arabic, to the South Semitic branch.
Another North-West Semitic language is Aramaic. There is sometimes
a misapprehension that Aramaic derives from, or even is a late
version of, Hebrew. In fact the languages are quite distinct though
closely related, about as close as German and Dutch, or Spanish and
Portuguese: clearly similar though not mutually comprehensible. But
Aramaic is by far the more important in historical terms. It may have
arisen in Syria (ancient Aram), but it too became a lingua franca across
the Middle East, and in the first millennium even the Persians (whose
own language was Indo- European) used it in correspondence and
administration: this version is accordingly sometimes referred to as
Imperial Aramaic. By the time of the New Testament it had replaced
Hebrew as the language of everyday speech, and Jewish communities
had begun to develop translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic –
these are known as targums (see Chapter 18). It is clear that Jesus and
his followers would have spoken Aramaic, though they also knew the
Bible in Hebrew. Aramaic survives as the liturgical language of the
Assyrian Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church, and in
the form called Syriac16 it is represented by a wide Christian literature,
little known in the west but including much poetry and hymnology of
high quality.
Knowledge of Hebrew never died out. It morphed into a form known as
Mishnaic Hebrew, the language of the Mishnah, a collection of discussions
of finer points of the Jewish Law or Torah that was codified in the second
century CE. There continued to be people able to speak and write Hebrew
down to the twentieth century, when it was revived and developed in the
form of Modern Hebrew, with many new words and constructions, as the
national language of the state of Israel after 1947. In ancient times Hebrew
was simply the local language of Israel and Judah, with no wider significance:
it was the Bible that propelled it onto a larger stage.
The ability of many Jews in the first millennium to read both Hebrew
and Aramaic is strikingly illustrated in the Bible itself, because there are
two biblical books that in their earliest extant states have passages in both
languages: Ezra and Daniel (both among the later books of the Hebrew
Bible). In Daniel 2:4, the shift from Hebrew to Aramaic actually occurs
in the middle of the verse, and the book then continues in Aramaic to the
end of Chapter 7. There are various theories about why this should have
happened, but it seems to indicate that the writer and readers could switch
effortlessly from one language to the other, perhaps scarcely noticing the
change, as multilingual people are known sometimes to begin a sentence
in one language and finish it in another. Strictly speaking this means that
the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ is a misnomer because the Bible is not exclusively
in Hebrew, but it is an acceptable approximation to the truth.
As already mentioned, written Hebrew has only twenty- two letters,
and these all principally indicate consonants. In ancient times, as also in
modern Israeli Hebrew, vowels were not indicated. This might seem to
make the language hard to read, but the vowels of Hebrew words are
predictable more often than those in English ones, and in many sentences
there is no more difficulty in reading a purely consonantal text
than there would be in understanding an English sentence such as ‘Hbrw
wrtng ds nt hv vwls’, especially when (as here) the context helps us to
decipher it. Even so, from quite ancient times a custom arose of using a
few of the letters to indicate vowels as well as consonants. Thus, for
example, the letter yodh, which normally indicates the consonant y,
could also stand for the vowels e or i, much as in English y can be either
a consonant (as in yellow ) or a vowel (as in easy ). This practice became
more common in later texts, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, originating in
many cases from the first century BCE or so, make more use of these
fuller spellings than does the Hebrew Bible in its now traditional form.
Modern Hebrew continues this custom.
Well into the Christian era, Hebrew scribes began to develop a
sophisticated system of marking vowels through dots and dashes over
and under the letters (‘vowel points’), which also happens in Arabic.
This means that the Bible as we have it now does contain a full phonetic
transcription of all the words. The fact that the system is much later
than the texts it is used to write does not mean that it is unreliable: the
pronunciation of the words was transmitted in the tradition of reading
the Bible aloud, and what the Masoretes – the scribes who devised the
system of vowel points – recorded was not invented by them. Modern
biblical scholars tend to think that the vocalization, as it is known, is
sometimes wrong, but overwhelmingly more often it is almost certainly
right. The Masoretes, working in the sixth to tenth centuries CE in both
Tiberias and Jerusalem in Palestine, and in Babylonia, developed techniques
for making sure that their vocalization would be accurately
transmitted by subsequent generations, with many marginal notes calling
attention to anything surprising that scribes might be tempted to
change. These notes are known as the Masorah.
Modern printed Bibles usually depend on a particular Masoretic
manuscript, the Leningrad or St Petersburg Codex (referred to in biblical
studies as L), from about 1008 CE. This is the oldest complete
manuscript we possess, but much older fragments of many biblical
books have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls – in the case of the
book of Isaiah, more or less the entire book was found there, and in
more than one manuscript. These manuscripts, a good thousand years
earlier than L, often differ in important ways from the texts familiar to
us, though taken by and large they confirm that the transmission is
remarkably accurate – we are clearly dealing with the same books, even
if the wording is different in places or some passages are longer or
shorter than in L. In two cases, Jeremiah and Psalms, there are really
significant differences in the order and sometimes even the content of
chapters, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Even the Dead
Sea material is several centuries later than the original texts; as with
writings from the world of Greece and Rome, so with the Hebrew Bible
we do not have ‘autographs’, that is, texts from the hand of the original
writers, but only later manuscripts. That is why there can be such controversy
over the date of the original texts: they must be older than the
Dead Sea Scrolls, but by how much is a matter for debate in each case.
Very little of what is set out in this chapter is controversial among
biblical specialists. Some are much more optimistic about the reliability
of the stories of early Israel in the Bible, but the general trend is towards
scepticism about the accuracy of the narrative books of the Old Testament
before the age of Amos and Isaiah, the eighth century BCE. What
I have said about the Hebrew language, and the manuscript tradition, is
not controversial at all. But the overall implications for the theme of
this book are far-reaching, because the origins of the Bible, and particularly
the Hebrew Bible, are thus rather obscure. Like any other collection
of books from the ancient world, the Bible derives from many different
periods and circumstances. Where it tells a historical story, it is not
always accurate – partly because it contains legends, and partly because
its account of history is governed by a commitment to various interests.
The idea that the kingdom of Judah was more important than the kingdom
of Israel, for example, is a theological or ideological rather than a
historical judgement. The Hebrew Bible is not a book produced at one
time, but an anthology of books, and, as we shall see, some of those
books are themselves anthologies. Religious believers tend to think that
it does have an overall coherence, as we saw in the Introduction, but
this is hard to show empirically. When we dig back into the history of
the Bible, what strikes us first is diversity and complexity.

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4.5 out of 54.5 out of 5
574 global ratings

Top reviews from the United States

Mary
4.0 out of 5 stars
Widening the view
Reviewed in the United States on May 7, 2019
This comprehensive and, often, complex history expands understanding of the biblical text and the way we perceive what’s there. From a characteristically Christian perspective, for instance, the Bible shows the ongoing relationship between deity and humankind. i.e., Again... See more
This comprehensive and, often, complex history expands understanding of the biblical text and the way we perceive what’s there. From a characteristically Christian perspective, for instance, the Bible shows the ongoing relationship between deity and humankind. i.e., Again and again, we mess up, and each time, God redeems. From a Jewish perspective, however, the Bible reveals providential guidance while instructing God’s people on how to live a life of faith.

How the old and new come together – or not – takes a whole book to discuss, but that’s what the former Oxford professor and Anglican priest John Barton has done in A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths published by Penguin Books, who kindly sent me a copy of this highly researched book to review.
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R. Haley
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Affirms Ability to Both Question AND Have Faith
Reviewed in the United States on July 2, 2019
John Barton IS a Christian. I don’t know him, but I can read a book flap! I’ve lived most of my life in Bible Belt Texas, and I love the Southern Baptist foundation I grew up with. That said, my first questions about unsettling Bible passages started when I was seven, and... See more
John Barton IS a Christian. I don’t know him, but I can read a book flap! I’ve lived most of my life in Bible Belt Texas, and I love the Southern Baptist foundation I grew up with. That said, my first questions about unsettling Bible passages started when I was seven, and I’ve been reading Biblical scholarship for thirty years now. I love this book and don’t give it five stars because its high academic writing level is not for everyone. If possible, for a greater audience, I’d like to see an abridged version someday with a more eye-catching cover for greater mass appeal.
In this book, Barton shows both Christians and Jews on a spectrum of current belief/understanding/practice in relation to the Bible...AND all the other texts that have influenced religious thinking in different ways through the centuries. The Bible is full of words and stories that show God’s power in our lives. John Barton affirms that in many places throughout the book. And for readers who want to understand more - the how’s and the why’s of parts that don’t always make sense - this book is most valuable. It’s huge, so I started with the introduction and conclusion first. Now I’m reading chapters in any order I wish, and I’m currently learning about scrolls vs. codices as the Gospels first circulated. Yep, that matters.
Each of us has our own relationship with God and/or Bible academia. Questioning and doubt are valid parts of sincere spiritual growth. Yes, FAITH is respectfully addressed in this book. John Barton’s point is that we can balance what we thought we knew with what we can learn more about. God, Jesus, love, faith - all are big enough for a book like this. Our brains understand what we do, each of us accordingly. Our souls are the mystery with God, Jesus, love, and faith. John Barton knows that too, but that''s a different book for another author. If you can join him here for balance in Christian or Jewish understanding, this is an excellent book indeed.
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Ventura D
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
An Excellent Starting Point
Reviewed in the United States on July 4, 2019
Barton’s "A History of the Bible" is much more than just a history. He also addresses critical methods and specific content of some of the books of the Bible. The breadth of coverage is impressive, yet some topics are covered in considerable depth. Examples are his... See more
Barton’s "A History of the Bible" is much more than just a history. He also addresses critical methods and specific content of some of the books of the Bible. The breadth of coverage is impressive, yet some topics are covered in considerable depth. Examples are his discussion of the structure of Isaiah and his discussion of Paul. If you have read Patzia’s “Making of the New Testament” it may seem to you that Barton should have provided more detail on New Testament canon formation. And of course Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible” provides much more detail about both Jewish and Christian interpretation of specific books from both a traditional perspective and the perspective of modern scholarship. I thought that Barton’s best chapters were those on biblical interpretation in Part Four of the book. There he discusses Christian and Jewish modes of interpretation, and also how Christian interpretations changed from the times of the early church fathers like Origen up to the present. His insight is that the actual text of the Bible doesn’t map perfectly onto either Christianity or Judaism.

It seems to me that Barton’s thinking sits about halfway between that of N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman. Barton seems to operate within the framework of modern scholarship while being sensitive to traditional conclusions (see his discussion of Q for example). Persons who are irrevocably committed to the idea of biblical inerrancy won’t like this book. This is a book for those willing to step outside their comfort zone and to be open to new perspectives.

The writing and language are lucid and easily accessible to persons with ordinary reading skills at or above high-school/junior college level. The index is excellent, and the book also has a list of biblical references and the chapter footnotes at the back. A bibliography and suggested further readings are provided.

This is one of those books that will pull you back to re-read various chapters.
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Amazon Customer
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
This author does not believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God
Reviewed in the United States on June 15, 2019
It neglects the most critical aspect of the Bible, what indeed makes it the most influential book in history. This book is for intellectuals who wish to hold themselves above faith. I wish the non-Christian world view of the author would have been made clear before I... See more
It neglects the most critical aspect of the Bible, what indeed makes it the most influential book in history. This book is for intellectuals who wish to hold themselves above faith. I wish the non-Christian world view of the author would have been made clear before I purchased the volume. My mistake for not investigating the author.
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Adam Gonnerman
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Must-Read For Former Evangelicals Who Are Deconstructing
Reviewed in the United States on July 30, 2019
The author of ''A History of The Bible'' nicely summarized what he was trying to do with this work: "This book has not dwelled on the idea of divine inspiration in relation to the Bible. This is partly because my main purpose has been to explain how the Bible came... See more
The author of ''A History of The Bible'' nicely summarized what he was trying to do with this work:

"This book has not dwelled on the idea of divine inspiration in relation to the Bible. This is partly because my main purpose has been to explain how the Bible came into existence and how it has been understood through the ages, and how we might think about its elements today."

In my opinion, he did a fantastic job.

As someone with an undergraduate degree in ministry and who was engaged in various forms of church work for over 20 years, I really thought I knew the Bible. Hearing a phrase from it was usually enough for me to figure out where to find those words in the Bible. I read, studied, and taught Bible through those more than two decades. And yet, only since I''ve deconverted have I really been able to understand where the Bible comes from.

In my conservative Christian liberal arts education I was only told that higher critics were full of beans, and in my ''How We Got The Bible'' class no more than 10 minutes were spent on the Hebrew Scriptures. We were told we wouldn''t dwell on it, because we inherited it from the Jewish people. The New Testament portion of the class was all about affirming traditional authorship and dates. It wasn''t very substantive.

''A History of The Bible'' is a full education on the origins of the Bible for anyone who is already pretty familiar with its contents. Someone who really doesn''t know much about the Bible might find it a challenge, but a former evangelical minister will find it eye-opening. Despite its imposing page count and dimensions, I found it to be very readable, with technical terms only used with good explanations as to their meanings. The writer, Rev John Barton, really took his time to make certain that the reader would be able to follow along.

What this book does not do is attempt to provide any justification for any aspect of how the Bible came together, its many contradictions and narrative flaws, or anything of the sort. Despite the fact that the writer is an Anglican priest, it reads as though it were written by a secular biblical scholar who really enjoys the research.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for evangelicals looking for the exit, and for those already well along in the process of deconstruction.
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John D. CofieldTop Contributor: Fantasy Books
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Erudite Yet Accessible
Reviewed in the United States on July 3, 2019
Most practicing Jews and Christians, as well as a very large segment of the population at large, have a fairly clear image that comes to mind when "The Bible" is mentioned. As John Barton makes clear in this monumental history, that image varies significantly from person... See more
Most practicing Jews and Christians, as well as a very large segment of the population at large, have a fairly clear image that comes to mind when "The Bible" is mentioned. As John Barton makes clear in this monumental history, that image varies significantly from person to person and faith to faith, not only in the twenty-first century but throughout the long ages since the books that form the Bible were first written. Barton is a theologian who taught at Oxford University and has served as a priest in the Church of England for over forty years. At nearly 500 pages of text, plus copious notes, suggestions for further reading, an extensive bibliography, and a thorough list of Biblical references cited in the text, Barton has created a massive tome which may intimidate some readers. Passing this by, however, would be a mistake. Barton writes in a scholarly manner, but his discussions and explanations are friendly and approachable. His sermons must be a delight to hear and learn from.

Barton''s approach is chronological, beginning with the early history of Israel and progressing through the development of what many call the Old Testament, then moving to the New Testament and the growth of Christianity while continuing to chronicle the changes in Jewish understandings of the Scriptures. He continues with examinations of the medieval Church, the Reformation, and on into the modern era and the challenges faced by Judaism and Christianity today. The book requires its readers to be involved and focused, and those who meet the challenge will be richly rewarded.
21 people found this helpful
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Linda W.
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Well researched, well balanced.
Reviewed in the United States on July 15, 2019
I think it interesting that the majority of negative reviews state their reason for doing so is the author’s historic treatment of the Bible (which is, after all, even included in the title) ; Apparently, tracing the Bible’s historic roots conflict with their belief system.... See more
I think it interesting that the majority of negative reviews state their reason for doing so is the author’s historic treatment of the Bible (which is, after all, even included in the title) ; Apparently, tracing the Bible’s historic roots conflict with their belief system. It does the author a disservice that such reviews bring down the ratings of this densely packed and well- researched tome.
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Rich Leonardi
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Very putdownable
Reviewed in the United States on July 12, 2019
I had high hopes for this history, having read a glowing review in the usually reliable magazine the Catholic Herald by a priest of the usually reliable Dominican order, who called it "unputdownable." Let it suffice to say that it''s very putdownable, as Barton recycles the... See more
I had high hopes for this history, having read a glowing review in the usually reliable magazine the Catholic Herald by a priest of the usually reliable Dominican order, who called it "unputdownable." Let it suffice to say that it''s very putdownable, as Barton recycles the tired, conventional, and, for at least the past fifteen years, debunked excesses of historical-critical scholarship. In 2019, no serious -- and certainly no orthodox -- Biblical scholar believes that the synoptic Gospels were written in the second century. (In fact, there is a good deal of scholarship indicating that even John''s Gospel was written in the first, albeit near the end.) Yet Barton asserts it matter-of-factly. Likewise, he rehashes conventional and largely discredited views about Pauline authorship, all but saying that several of the letters are aesthetically pleasing forgeries. I could continue, but you''re probably getting Barton''s drift. Moreover, "unputdownable" books usually have an enthralling, singular narrative, yet here we have a series of somewhat self-contained essays. Again, putdownable -- and sad.
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Top reviews from other countries

robert mackenzie
1.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
STILL don’ t buy this. Deeply disappointing.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 28, 2019
My original one star review seems to have been wiped out, presumably at the request of Barton’s publishers or even him himself. What it said was that in spite of the fulsome reviews (which, alas, persuaded me to buy it without having browzed through it) alleging that it is...See more
My original one star review seems to have been wiped out, presumably at the request of Barton’s publishers or even him himself. What it said was that in spite of the fulsome reviews (which, alas, persuaded me to buy it without having browzed through it) alleging that it is a “brilliant work of scholarship” and “essential reading” etc. it isn’t: it adds nothing to what a reasonably well educated schoolchild would have known by the age of sixteen thirty or so years ago. Despite footnote after laborious footnote stretching to over a quarter of the book, it seems to me to lack any original thought whatsoever. And Barton’s use of BCE and CE instead of AD and BC presumably in the desire to make him appear ‘right on” is for me anyway just deeply irritating - but unsurprising given how banal the book is. Furthermore, as another reviewer points out, the last few decades of groundbreaking Biblical textual scholarship particularly regarding the New Testament, has simply passed him by, seemingly unnoticed. Indeed, my local (Oxford educated) priest thought he had retired years ago.
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J. Ward
5.0 out of 5 starsVine Customer Review of Free Product
The long overdue, perfect companion for any student of the Bible.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 3, 2019
John Barton is one of the world’s leading Biblical scholars. He is a former Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford University, who then became an Emeritus Fellow of Oriel College, and presently is a Senior Research Fellow of Campion...See more
John Barton is one of the world’s leading Biblical scholars. He is a former Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford University, who then became an Emeritus Fellow of Oriel College, and presently is a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, which is a Catholic Jesuit Private Academic Research Institution. In his extensive, wide-ranging and immensely thorough, 600 page book, Barton takes us through the many stages of the Bible’s composition and evolution. This is essentially an erudite, academic, but easy to read and understand, history book. Barton explains how the Bible is a synthetic amalgam of various stories, myths, folktales, historical tracts, laws and other quasi-legal texts, aphorisms and proverbs, prophecies, futuristic metaphysical speculations as well as futuristic prosaic speculations, poems, songs, conversations, speeches and personal letters… all of which have their own individual and divergent character, their own differing styles and aims, as well as each originating in widely different historical circumstances and contexts. Without knowing the historical context, one is unlikely to understand the content of the text. Barton carefully explains by whom these fragments of texts were written, the factual circumstances in which they were created, and also the reasons behind their composition. Barton then explains the process of how they came to be canonized, the bitter struggles for doctrinal supremacy, the reasons why so many texts were rejected, and the gradual assembly of the complete package that came to be known and revered as the Bible. Barton goes on to describe how these Bible texts have come to be variously interpreted in different parts of the theological world, and the consequences of such divergent, and sometimes antagonistic beliefs, throughout the world. Barton’s analysis of the Bible makes it difficult for anyone with an objective, impartial, analytical intellect, to continue with the belief that the Bible is a fixed, non-revisionist, non-negotiable, authority which is irrevocably the absolute, complete and final word, direct from God himself. Even the concept of its holiness comes under review. Fundamentalist views concerning the Bible, which have prevailed in Western Civilisations for centuries, are now demonstrated to be understandably poignant but archaic. Barton reveals that although the Bible has been the source of basic Christian teaching for many centuries, its cursory and literal readers have probably failed to discover its true variety, depth and metaphysical abundance. Barton advocates the Bible should not be used as the final and static prescription for any fixed religious system, since there is more in living Christianity than is currently to be found in the confines and limitations of the biblical text itself. I studied Religious Education in my youth and, over the years, listened to many bible texts being quoted during all manner of services and ceremonies, but I now realise that, without knowing the context in which they were written and for whom they were written, I was struggling to really appreciate their message and its relevance in my own life, or indeed to anyone’s life. I whole heartedly recommend this book. I’ll certainly buy a copy in April/May when it is published in the UK, as this ‘advanced reading/review copy’ does not have any of the maps, illustration plates, index or selected bibliography. I anticipate gaining so much more by referring to the maps and historical documents. In due course, I can also follow up on the extensive reference notes for each chapter, the suggested further reading for each section and a comprehensive ‘Selected Bibliography’ that has 19 pages allocated to it at the moment. I wish there was a book like this when I was first introduced to the bible decades ago, as I now realise that, without seeing and understanding a particular biblical text in its true context, I came to many wrong conclusions. Having said that, perhaps one also needs a good measure of life’s experience to be able to put all this historical information into context too.
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David Harper
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Well-written, full of detail, and accessible to the non-specialist and the non-believer
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 11, 2019
I''m an atheist, but I find the world''s religions and their history fascinating, especially the early history of Christianity. Professor Barton''s new book is a valuable addition to my library on the subject. He provides a well-written and detailed history of both the Hebrew...See more
I''m an atheist, but I find the world''s religions and their history fascinating, especially the early history of Christianity. Professor Barton''s new book is a valuable addition to my library on the subject. He provides a well-written and detailed history of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, their origins, development, and how they have shaped, and been shaped by, the Jewish and Christian faith communities over the centuries. The book doesn''t use obscure theological jargon to make its points. It is written in clear, plain English which can be easily understood by any interested layperson, whether a religious believer who wants to gain a deeper understanding of his/her faith''s central text, or an atheist like myself, who regards the Bible as worthy of study because it has shaped the world we live in. I strongly recommend this book.
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Paul Nelson
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A genial and brilliant history of the Bible
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 27, 2019
This is a thrilling book, academically kosher and simultaneously a page-turner! The author writes with astonishing knowledge and also with genial good humour. He summarises present informed opinions as to the composition of the Hebrew and NT books, gently swatting as he...See more
This is a thrilling book, academically kosher and simultaneously a page-turner! The author writes with astonishing knowledge and also with genial good humour. He summarises present informed opinions as to the composition of the Hebrew and NT books, gently swatting as he goes conspiracy theories about "what the Church suppressed." The second half of the book is about how these inspiring, baffling texts have been translated, published, interpreted and struggled with down to the present. Underlying Barton''s whole story is a view of neither Judaism nor Christianity as a "perfect fit" with their scriptures, and yet of such awkwardness being life-giving. There are, on all 400+ pages of this sympathetically written history, facts, opinions, insights, suggestions that will keep you wanting to read the next bit, if you''re anything like me. Whether you are yourself a religious or spiritually inclined person, or whether your interest in the Bible is more historical or cultural or aesthetic, I think you will find this an absorbing and very enjoyable read.
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Darkstar
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Eminently clear book for the non-specialist
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 7, 2019
The reviewer who gave this one star and claimed that it contains material with which a 16 year old would be familiar has i) never had any contact with sixteen year olds and/or ii) was a teenage prodigy with impossibly high standards. The fact is that what Professor Barton...See more
The reviewer who gave this one star and claimed that it contains material with which a 16 year old would be familiar has i) never had any contact with sixteen year olds and/or ii) was a teenage prodigy with impossibly high standards. The fact is that what Professor Barton offers is a magisterial and measured survey of the contexts in which the books making up the Bible were written. The book is very readable, often witty, always genial, and is a mine of information. I was particularly impressed by the sections on the Medieval and Reformation understandings of the Bible and the contextualising of the Pauline faith/works debate was for this particular non-specialist reader revelatory in relation to Lutheranism. I also feel I understand much more clearly the different ways in which Jews and Christians read the Old Testament since Professor Barton dispenses with the cliché that these two faiths share at least one book. I am aware that Professor Barton is a an ordained priest but it is a register of his even-handedness as a writer that anyone unconvinced by Christianity will find a number more reasons to remain so having read it. For the record, CE and BCE are entirely appropriate scholarly terms and avoid the dogmatic position in which AD and BC would involve the scholar. It would merit comment only if these older terms had been employed. The work is to be recommended without reservation.
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