Reviews — From the November 2019 issue

How to Read the Bible

The gospel according to John (and Karen)

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Discussed in this essay:

A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book, by John Barton. Viking. 640 pages. $35.

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, by Karen Armstrong. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

“The Holy Bible (1950),” by Doug Keyes © The artist. Courtesy Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

“The Holy Bible (1950),” by Doug Keyes © The artist. Courtesy Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, New York

What is the Bible for?

In his new history of “the world’s most influential book,” the Anglican theologian John Barton argues that neither Christianity nor Judaism is an essentially “scriptural” religion, a notion that might surprise some contemporary readers. Barton contrasts both traditions with Islam, which he calls “perhaps . . . the ideal type of book religion.” While Muslims recognize a historical relationship between God and humanity that preceded the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed—one whose contours roughly match Jewish and Christian narratives—the Qur’an fundamentally alters this relationship, bringing Islam as such into being. Furthermore, Mohammed’s recitation of God’s word (qur’an means “recitation”) serves as proof of his status as the last and greatest prophet, so belief in the Qur’an as the word of Allah is among the central tenets of the faith. As both a theological and a historical matter, there could be no Islam without a Qur’an.

Muslims view Jews and Christians as fellow “people of the book,” but neither has quite this relationship to scripture. Judaism has a kind of mythological founding moment that bears some resemblance to Mohammed’s recitation—the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai—but the actual text believed to be transmitted there makes up a tiny fraction of the Hebrew Bible, which in its canonical form comprises twenty-four books arranged into three major sections—the Torah (teaching), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—giving the collection its acronymic name, Tanakh. It was probably during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century b.c., some seven hundred years after Moses is supposed to have lived, that various competing strands of historical, mythological, and legal writing, many already centuries old, were combined into the Torah, which was long the primary Hebrew scripture. The latest work included in the Ketuvim, the Book of Daniel, was written around 150 b.c. All of which is to say that there were Jews for more than a thousand years before there was anything like the Jewish Bible we know today. Indeed, the ongoing relationship between the God of the Israelites and his people is the chief subject of these books.

As for Christianity, its centerpiece is the life, death, and (presumed) resurrection of the historical Jesus, a man who left behind no written record of his teachings—nor did any of his immediate followers, most of whom were likely illiterate. Jesus had been dead for decades when Paul, an educated, hellenized Jewish convert, wrote the letters that would become the New Testament’s earliest works. These letters were addressed to Christian communities that Paul had founded, and they were written in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the Hellenic world, which Jesus himself would not have understood. They were, Barton notes, occasional writings, composed to address local controversies. They rarely quote Jesus directly, and they refer to very few details from his life. (Perhaps such details did not need to be included because they had been transmitted orally at the time of each church’s respective founding.) At least another generation passed before various collections of Jesus’ sayings and accounts of his life coalesced into the three “synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and probably another generation after that before the fourth Gospel (John) was composed.

Barton makes a helpful distinction between “scripture” and “canon,” and applies the first term to a “potentially open-ended collection of texts.” To call something scriptural is to give it a kind of authority, and most books that ever achieve such authority do so soon after their initial appearance. At a time when writing “was a complex and expensive task performed by professional scribes,” the mere copying and preservation of a text implied a certain status, so a work that survived for centuries did not need to be “recognized” as scripture after the fact. Canonization, as Barton uses the term, is a process of exclusion; it involves saying, “These books and only these books have scriptural authority.” The closing of the canon in this way was a much later phenomenon for Christians and Jews alike.

In fact, though Christians often treat Jesus’ life and death as “fulfilling” or “completing” various elements of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish canon was still not settled in Jesus’ own era, which is why some books in the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testament are not included in the Tanakh. At a moment when scripture was far more fluid, different Jewish communities may have kept different scrolls, though all would have had the Torah, the Psalms, and Isaiah. Jesus usually quotes from this “basic core,” and Barton speculates that the synagogue at Nazareth may not actually have possessed a “full set” of the Hebrew Scriptures. Barton cites the scholar James Barr: “In what we call ‘biblical times’ . . . there was as yet no Bible.”

The long, complex, and overlapping processes by which the various biblical works came into existence, gained the status of scripture, and got fixed into a canon occupies about half of Barton’s book. There is a flourishing branch of biblical studies that seeks to trace the various threads—some from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, some from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, some clearly coming from the priestly castes surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem—that were edited or “redacted” into the Torah during the exilic or early postexilic period. Though the Gospels were composed centuries later, their origins, Barton tells us, are “even more perplexing” than those of the Torah.

Barton is extremely good at untangling what is actually known from what can be reasonably inferred from what has been lost to time. He provides a clear overview of differing scholarly views on biblical history, and 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. The point that shows through most clearly in these pages is that the Bible we have today emerged from Jewish and Christian traditions, rather than the other way around.

If it isn’t right to think of the Bible as the founding document of either faith, might we instead say that it codified in some way the content of these already existing traditions, that it can tell us what their adherents are supposed to think and do? Not really, as it turns out: Barton argues that “the Bible does not ‘map’ directly onto religious faith and practice.” Nor could it, since it is “a melee of materials, few of which directly address the question of what is to be believed.”

Here again the contrast with the Qur’an is instructive. Composed by (or revealed to) a single person over the course of twenty years, the Qur’an is internally coherent and remarkably consistent in tone and intention; while it does have some narrative elements, it is first and foremost “a guidance to the God-fearing,” as an early sura puts it. By comparison, one of the most striking features of the Hebrew Bible is its variation. It contains verse and prose, legal writing and storytelling. Mythological accounts of prehistoric times share space with passages that clearly aim to meet the standards of documentary historiography, at least as it was understood in the ancient world. Some books are what we might now consider short novels, fairly realistic and coherent narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends, recounting incidents from the lives of obviously imagined characters with little in the way of divine intervention. The Song of Songs is an anthology of erotic poetry that makes no mention of God and would surely be treated as thoroughly secular in any other context. The Book of Job and Qoheleth (known to Christians as Ecclesiastes) advance worldviews sharply divergent from the mainstream of Jewish and Christian belief. All of this is perhaps to be expected from a collection of works written over the course of a thousand years, but in some places, particularly in books that are the product of redaction, inconsistencies crop up from verse to verse. This feature of the Bible is apparent from the very beginning: the first and second chapters of Genesis provide two differing accounts of the creation.

Modern skeptics point to these moments to undermine the Bible’s authority, though all they really undermine is a particular and relatively recent way of reading the Bible: as an inerrant work of historical truth. Clearly the Torah’s earliest editors were aware of its discrepancies, which must not have been a cause of great embarrassment, or else they would have been corrected at a time when the “official” version of these texts was still unsettled. Far from cleaning up such problems, these scribes actually introduced them in the process of combining competing narratives. To Barton, this suggests that the Torah was meant as a kind of archive, designed “to ensure that no piece of tradition got lost.” Adding a narrative thread to the scroll was the only reliable way to preserve it, and there was no reason that it had to be perfectly reconciled with any other thread. (Similarly, the literary critic and biblical translator Robert Alter has suggested that the primary criterion for the canonization of such heterodox books as Job and Qoheleth must have been their literary quality.)

The New Testament does not have the same kind of glaring inconsistencies as the Hebrew Bible, though it’s striking that four separate and sometimes differing accounts of Jesus’ life are preserved. But there is another, and possibly deeper, challenge to treating the Christian Bible as the container of Christian truth, which is that many of the faith’s core tenets do not appear in its pages.

The most comprehensive and widely shared statement of Christian orthodoxy is found in the creed first adopted at an ecumenical council convened by Constantine in the city of Nicaea in 325 a.d. The major disagreement addressed at this council was between those who believed that God was a single being comprising three persons, and the followers of a priest named Arius, who believed that Jesus was one of God’s creations, divine in some sense but distinct from God the Father. This is not a subtlety addressed anywhere in the Bible. In a single verse of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the apostles to baptize followers “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but this is widely viewed as a later interpolation, and in any case it does not speak to the nature of these entities. Nonetheless, at the council the Trinitarians won decisively, Arianism was condemned as heresy, and the Nicene Creed attested that Jesus was “begotten, not made” and “one in being” (homooúsios) with God the Father.

While some effort was made to find biblical support for such views, it was understood that the Bible could not provide definitive answers to every theological controversy. Since the Church itself predated the New Testament (and even the Old, in some sense), Church tradition naturally played an important role in such determinations. It would be another twelve hundred years before Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura attempted to establish the Bible as the single authority for Christian orthodoxy. (Luther did not give up on the Trinity, however, and Lutherans still recite the Nicene Creed today.)

In many ways, the more interesting question is not why biblical narratives sometimes conflict with one another or with Jewish and Christian belief, but why so much of the Bible is narrative in the first place. The stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Isaac, or Samson and Delilah are certainly more compelling to modern readers than the many pages of legislation, dietary regulation, and instructions for ritual purity that appear beside them, but it is much clearer how the latter are to be put into practice. “How can narrative books be religiously important?” Barton asks:

They may well have functioned to draw people in and engage them in a narrative world that leads to no definitive conclusions but illuminates the human condition obliquely. If so, this is very far from how they have been read in some strands of later Judaism and Christianity, where they have often been simply reduced to a source for ethical guidance and instruction.

The second half of Barton’s book is dedicated to the various ways the Bible has been read by different communities of believers who sought to find meaning within it, from the rabbinical tradition that would eventually produce the Mishnah and Talmud to the early church fathers, especially Augustine and Origen, who attempted to reconcile scripture with speculative philosophy and empirical knowledge, to modern readers who treat the Bible not just as the final authority on all matters of ethics and belief but as a literal account of the natural history of the world. If there is a bête noire in this admirably evenhanded work, it is the fundamentalism that “idolizes the Bible yet largely misunderstands it.”

Barton concludes with the inspiring idea that the “very difference” between what is actually in the Bible and “what Jews or Christians instinctively believe or do” might be a source of nourishment: the Bible’s narrative portions, he writes,

do not tell their story in such a way as to direct us as to what we should believe, but set up a world into which we can enter imaginatively and have our perceptions changed.

First Council of Nicaea © Heritage Images/Fine Art Images/akg-images

First Council of Nicaea © Heritage Images/Fine Art Images/akg-images

The religious historian Karen Armstrong makes a similar case in The Lost Art of Scripture. Armstrong’s book has a more polemical thrust than Barton’s does: it bears the subtitle “Rescuing the Sacred Texts,” and it is precisely from modern fundamentalists of all stripes that Armstrong means to rescue them.

Her book is also much more wide ranging, which has costs and benefits. The challenge Armstrong sets for herself—to “trace the chronological development of major scriptural canons in India and China, as well as in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” while arranging this history into a coherent argument about the nature of scripture as an artistic genre—may simply be impossible. As in Armstrong’s many previous works of popular religious-historical synthesis, the breadth of knowledge on display is formidable, and there are moments throughout when the sheer volume of information overwhelms.

Yet there is also much value to placing the history of the Bible alongside the history of the Indian Vedas and the Chinese Classics. The first thing that emerges from this syncretic view, Armstrong argues, is that for most of human history scripture was “nearly always acted out in the drama of ritual.” In an age before widespread literacy, this was true as a matter of necessity. Early holy texts were composed and transmitted orally, memorized by way of chant and song. In the extreme case of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, often called the world’s longest poem, reading it on the page from beginning to end “is probably an impossible task (one attempted only by Western scholars).” Written manuscripts were “heavy, unwieldy and almost illegible,” not meant to provide a first reading but as an aide-mémoire, “like a musical score for a performer who already knows the piece.” Armstrong returns repeatedly to the analogy of the musical score or libretto, writing that is given its full meaning in performance and can only be incompletely understood on the page. Sometimes she puts this in stronger terms: “A sacred text is always embedded in ritual.”

There is much to be said for this view, but it has its limits. As Barton demonstrates, it’s a mistake to insist that there is just one way that scripture is always meant to be read. Paul’s Epistles, for example, were clearly not intended for ritual performance but to settle fairly concrete disputes—such as whether Jesus’ message was universal or intended only for his fellow Jews. Still, it is true that the Christian ritual of the Eucharist predated the Christian scriptures, just as the sacrificial rituals of the Jewish Temple predated Jewish scriptures, and that much in both does not make sense when ripped from this context. Armstrong makes a good case that ritual remains at least as important as scripture in most traditions outside the “Protestant West.”

And what meaning emerges when we return it to this context? Like Barton, Armstrong argues that “scripture does not always yield clear, unequivocal teaching, but often leaves us puzzled and unmoored.” In fact, she goes a step further, suggesting that it might be a kind of category error to expect scripture to “mean” something in the narrow sense. For Armstrong, religion is an art form, and like all art it exists to “make sense of the terror, wonder and mystery” of human existence.

A chief source of this terror, wonder, and mystery is the fact of human finitude, meaning not just that we all must die but that while we are alive there are sharp limits to what we can know about the world in which we find ourselves:

We have only perspectives that come to us through the intricate circuits of our nervous system, so that we all—scientists as well as mystics—know only representations of reality, not reality itself.

We live amid appearances, haunted by the intuition that something ultimately real stands behind them: “in all cultures until the modern period, it was taken for granted that the world was pervaded by and found its explanation in a reality that exceeded the reach of the intellect.” Men and women have sought to “live in genuine relation” with the unknowable, and a chief means of doing so has been the mythos of art and religion, which stands in contrast to the logos of rational thought.

In a paradoxically logocentric move, Armstrong attributes logical thinking to the left hemisphere of the brain and mythological thinking to the right, a pop psychology shibboleth that may or may not be physiologically justified but in any case doesn’t tell us as much as Armstrong seems to think, and certainly doesn’t need to be referenced on every third page, in often jarring and sometimes unintentionally comical ways. (“The hymns of the Rig Veda seem to reflect a right-brain vision of the numinous interconnection of the disparate parts of the cosmos”; “A former soldier, [St. Ignatius of Loyola] was also a man of the left hemisphere.”)

This tic is unfortunate mostly because it distracts from the real wisdom in Armstrong’s approach. She is extremely tough on the doctrine of sola scriptura, which makes two great mistakes: first removing scripture from the performative context of ritual, and then removing it from the world of myth to place it squarely in the world of logic. But she is equally tough on the competing Enlightenment ideal of sola ratio, the deism of Newton, Voltaire, and the American Founders, which “sought to bring religion under the mantle of reason.”

Beginning with Descartes and Kant, one of the Enlightenment’s chief aims was tracing the limits of human reason, but this element of the Enlightenment project has been largely abandoned by the movement’s self-described heirs. Armstrong ends her book with the worry that we are “losing the art of scripture in the modern world.” A culture that believes that ultimate truths can be apprehended through rational thought won’t have much time for mythos—or for art more generally:

Too many believers and non-believers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality.

The result is “the unhealthy literalism of fundamentalism” on one side and “widespread scepticism” on the other.

Many readers won’t accept these two developments as equivalent evils, but the fact remains that much of what modern secular society rightly holds dear has no basis in human reason. As Armstrong notes, “we have never found a purely rational justification for human rights.” And “science can say nothing about what we should do or why we should do it.” Moral action requires something more than rational problem-solving. Here is where art—including the art of scripture—has its use.

Like Barton, Armstrong treats scripture as open-ended, a status conferred on certain texts rather than a fixed list of canonical works. “Our moral universe,” she writes, is “shaped by King Lear, Middlemarch and War and Peace as well as by the Bible.” To cut ourselves off from scripture because of the way that some literalists abuse it would entail at least as great a cultural—and spiritual—loss as cutting ourselves off from these other works.

There is something almost poignant in the hope, expressed in different ways by Barton and Armstrong alike, that we learn to treat scripture more like imaginative literature, since contemporary culture doesn’t seem to have much idea what to do with literature, either. “Many people dismiss scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue,’ ” Armstrong laments early on, “but they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insights by means of fiction.”

But these days, who turns to a novel not just for entertainment—or to have her values confirmed—but for profound and valuable insights? How many people’s moral universe is actually shaped by Lear or Middlemarch? How many people still read to be transformed? One would first have to believe that transformation is possible.

Armstrong’s description of the wrongheaded manner in which modern-day readers approach the Bible—either looking to find their beliefs confirmed or looking to dismiss the text for conflicting with those beliefs—fairly describes so much cultural engagement these days. Before we can learn how to read scripture like literature, we may have to relearn how to read literature like scripture.

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is the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine. His new novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, will be published next year by Tin House Books.

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