Book Review

The Bible: The Biography by Karen Armstrong

Photo on 2014-07-22 at 11.58 #5

OK, yes, this is the second “history of Christianity” book in a row I’ve read, but it will be the last*, I promise, and it really isn’t the sign of me becoming religious. The only ‘Faith’ I have is multiple recordings of the a-grade George Michael hit. As he says himself, “You’ve got to have ‘Faith'”. In your music collection (I add). Anyway.

Karen Armstrong’s book, The Bible: The Biography offers a history of the construction and interpretation of a text that is key (in different places) to both Christianity and Judaism. This is not a history of a particular version of the text, but instead a history of how the many versions that exist came to do so, why they became important to different people at different times and why contemporary Christians have the attitudes that they have.

What interests me, as I’m sure any regular readers of this blog will know, is desperation, is delusion, is hope, is despair, is trickery, is lying, is selfishness, is exploitation, is greed, and there was a little bit of all of these contained within Armstrong’s 250ish pages. Starting with the writers of the books of Moses, through the creation and the amalgamation of the Old Testament, the surge of creativity during the banishment of the Israelites to Babylon, the surge of creativity following the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, the surge of creativity following the destruction of the Temple in 70CE and the surge of interest in the Bible following the invention of the printing press.

The key idea, introduced at the start of this book, is that writing becomes “scripture” only when it is treated as “scripture”. Only when words are claimed to be divine (directly or by virtue of inspiration), do people start to treat them as so. Armstrong details old scrolls that were suddenly claimed as the word of god, how what was believed changed, and how each change inspired more changes. She talks about the collage-like make-up of the Bible, how its numerous contradictions were deliberately included in order to allow for human error (perhaps) or to encourage a variety of interpretations.

Different cults rose, Christianity created itself as a religion of gentiles and, through this, gained popularity in Palestine over the Jewish sect of the Pharisees, throwing out its gospels over about thirty years in order to keep people interested.

And this, I suppose, is the book’s ultimate message. That the religious return to the Bible (or the Torah) whenever they want reassurance of faith, whenever there is conflict or fear. Because, historically, this is what is always done. But the way the text has been approached has varied dramatically over time.

It was very common, from about 600BCE through to 1600CE, for debate and reinterpretation of scripture to be key. There are almost 800,000 words in the Bible – one can, if willing, find anything in there to support anything, particularly if not reading it with a literally-minded eye. Which most people weren’t. In a beautiful phrase towards the end of the book, Armstrong states that “scripture was not really a text but an activity”, and this sums up what she seems to see as the most positive aspect of holy texts – when they are used to offer a window into ones own belief or spirituality, when they stimulate conversation and consideration. She writes, too, about St. Augustine stating that the Bible’s core message is “Charity”, the old “do unto others” schtick, and if one holds this principle in mind when reading the book, ones interpretations shouldn’t be clouded too much. The idea is also put forward that it is illegitimate, or unethical, to ever interpret the bible as encouraging hatred. But, of course, one can, and many people do.

Christian fundamentalists, the kind there are far more of in America than (to my knowledge) in the UK, rose only in the nineteenth century. It was not until there had been analyses published of the bible as a historical, literary text (Higher Criticism), and until knowledge of evolution had become mainstream, that there was a backlash, a backwards lunge, if you will, towards regarding the words of the bible as literally true. Attitudes arose** that posited if the bible wasn’t literally true, if it was just another ancient text like The Odyssey***, then it had no value at all.**** And, as they thought it clearly did have value because people in the past said it did, it must be literally true.

And this, Armstrong writes, is what leads to the Israel-Palestine conflict, to women being denied abortions, to racism, to violence, to hatred and to all the other things that bad people claim they do in the name of a god.

This is an interesting book that offers insights into the minds of the Judeo-Christian religious from 1000BCE up to the present day, through a keen-eyed look at how they read and treat their “holy” texts.

The Bible can be used for myth-building, self-aggrandising and control at its worst, but at its best it can be a tool to encourage debate and charity and love. Unfortunately, the people that read it the most tend not to approach it with the same kind of detachment as I and the historians I’ve been reading this week do. A pity.

(There’s also some great stuff about the gods of Palestine before Yahweh.)


* Hopefully for a long time. Not because I don’t enjoy them, but because I want to finish my Biblical project and move on. To DISCO!

** The kinds of attitudes that smugly nodded at the world getting what it deserved during the first half of the 20th century…


**** This is completely wrong. Or I’ve just wasted a year of my life.

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