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The History of the Bible by John Barton – Book Review

The Bible is still the best sold book ever. It continues to guide, inspire and influence people every single day. Some people devote their whole lives to the study of this one book. The Bible is an important book, if not one of the most important books in western history. As someone who is trying to understand history, ideas and the world, I had to learn more about this book and its history. Even though I am not a religious person, I did want to learn more about the content of the Bible. This book is not a Bible analysis covering the content. This book is purely about the history of the texts and the interpretation of the texts.

            This book is not for fundamentalists, those who believe that everything that is written in the Bible is true and ultimate. John Barton gives a detailed account of the history of the Bible and points out the many inconsistencies in the book. This being said, this book is for everyone trying to understand how to Bible became the book it is today and the many different interpretations of the book, between the Jewish tradition and Christianity but also throughout the ages. It is for a select audience I believe. This book is for those who are interested in history, like I said, if you’re hoping for a detailed analysis of the content of the Bible, you’ll be disappointed. I would say this book is perfect for those who are interested in the purely historical aspect of the Bible.

            John Barton divides the book in four parts. The first part is about the Old Testament and how it came to be. How the Jewish tradition formed the Old Testament and the history surrounding the Hebrew Bible. The second part is about the New Testament and how it came to be. It shows how the Christians created their Bible and how it responds towards the Jewish tradition, there is also the historic framework in which the New Testament was written. The third part is about the translations of the Bible and how they actually translated the book. The fourth part is about the many interpretations of the Bible throughout the ages. A lot to cover but Barton does it well.

            The Old Testament can be seen as a kind of national history of Israel. You could compare it to the Aeneid of Virgil for example. It is a national story about their land, just like the Aeneid is a national story about the foundation of Rome. According to Barton it is a book on how to live one’s life morally. It’s not a book that the Jewish tradition would follow to the letter. Multiple interpretations are valid. The text is also one which needed nearly 800 years to find its final form. They were constantly reworking it and adding to it. For the Jews it was more of a guideline. Becoming a good person was the way to salvation.

            The New Testament was written in only about 100 years. The Christians were at first a cult and it wasn’t until Emperor Constantine made it the official state religion of the Roman Empire that they actually got a large following. The Christians see the Bible as the disobedience and then salvation of humankind. The New Testament complements the Old Testament, because the prophet which the Old Testament announces comes to be in the New Testament in the body of Jesus Christ. Barton does also acknowledge that there are a lot of inconsistencies in the New Testament, not only towards the Old but also within itself. Where the Old Testament is a ‘national history’ of the Jewish people, the New Testament is a ‘life history’ of Jesus.

            There are many translations of the Bible, but it wasn’t translated in any other way. The Bible was the word of God and it shouldn’t be erroneously translated. Because of this the translators were said to work on words for days. It is said that when the Bible was translated to Greek from Hebrew, 72 Greek translators came out with their translation on the same day and by a gift of God they all of them made the exact same translation. This is just for fun of course, but it shows that translating the Bible also required a godly gift.

            The interpretations of the Bible are vast and numerous. There are as many interpretations as there are people. It also changed throughout the ages immensely. From a more allegorical interpretation, to a true to the letter way of viewing the book. The studies surrounding the Bible have evolved, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment up until this day. The evolution is an interesting one and one where it wasn’t always easy to change the way of interpreting.  

            These are some of the things I got from this book. There is so much more content in this book, but Barton also repeats himself a lot. This can be handy for remembering what he has said, but often it feels repetitious and draggy. Nonetheless it is a book I would recommend to those interested in the biblical literature and its history. You’ll not only come out better informed but also more open minded.

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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