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Open for Interpretation

By Margaret Black

The Bible: A Biography

By Karen Armstrong Atlantic Monthly Press, 302 pages, $21.95

Karen Armstrong writes with such sanity, sympathy, and clarity about a subject fraught with polemical hysteria that you almost ignore her substance because you’re appreciating her form. No wonder she is admired by members of all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam)—she discusses their commonalities and differences with such palpable good will, all the while applying sense and strict analysis to the discussion at hand.

In The Bible: A Biography, Armstrong does just what the title asserts, she tells the life story (to date) of the collection of writings which came to be called the Old and the New Testament. Not content with simply outlining the production and collation of the diverse works that make up the Bible, she carries the story forward to the present day, sketching how the Bible was read, regarded, used, and interpreted through the Middle Ages, past the Enlightenment, into the present day. Here lies the most serious problem with the book. Written to accommodate the requirements of the series for which it was written—Books That Changed the World—the volume is simply too short for the scope covered, especially since it is written for a general audience. Nevertheless, it has certain great strengths.

Armstrong emphasizes an important point for contemporary readers, that scripture, the written sacred documents of Judaism and Christianity, had long oral beginnings, and that in both these faiths, “even after they were committed to writing, there was a bias toward the spoken word. . . . From the very beginning, people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty.” Alas, that has repeatedly been so.

Our author’s account begins during the “Babylonian captivity” of the Jews in the sixth century bce. It was then that the hand of God proffered a scroll to the young priest Ezekiel, saying “Eat this scroll.” Armstrong calls it a prophetic moment for “the time would come when Israelites would make contact with their God in sacred writings, rather than a shrine.” In Babylon, priests began reviewing and editing the many scrolls they had brought with them from Jerusalem, hoping that this collection would help their people remain a coherent nation. They “did not regard these writings as sacrosanct and felt free to add new passages, altering them to fit their changed circumstances. They had as yet no notion of a sacred text.” Eventually three collections developed: the Torah (the teachings of God), the Prophets, and the “writings” (a lot of “other” texts, many of which came to be known as “Wisdom”).

Armstrong artfully brings the influence of Hellenistic thought into the deliberations of various commentators and locates the visionary book of Daniel (joined at the hip, nowadays, with the Apocalypse of St. John) squarely in the midst of a political crisis, the Maccabean war. From there she moves to the various radical Jewish sects at the turn of the millennium, and the story of a new Jewish sect that transforms into Christianity.

Here begins what is one of Armstrong’s greatest strengths in this little book. She interweaves discussions of Christians coming to grips with their faith and the developing scriptures of the New Testament with analysis of similar processes occurring in Judaism, which simultaneously experienced a great efflorescence of intellectual activity and the development of midrash, or scriptural exegesis. This process of midrash was important because “the meaning of the text was not self-evident. The exegete had to go in search of it, because every time a Jew confronted the Word of God in scripture, it signified something different. Scripture was inexhaustible.” Most readers will at best be familiar with one history or the other, but not with both.

Nor will many readers know how profoundly each story was shaped by the political, economic, and social circumstances of each succeeding era. With Christianity, we need only think of the radical shift from a persecuted faith to legalization and shortly thereafter to establishment as the state religion.

Doubtless in part because her space was limited, Armstrong’s story from here on analyzes only Latin Christianity and European Judaism. During the early Middle Ages, some Christian scholars saw the need to learn Hebrew and understand what the texts of the Old Testament meant to Jews, while during the same period, Jews living peaceably in the Muslim world were applying the rational approaches of the Greek philosophers to an understanding of their scriptures. One characteristic of the Protestant reformation was its reliance on the Bible as the sole source of religious authority.

As Armstrong points out, however, “Sola scriptura had been a noble, if controversial ideal. But in practice it meant that everybody had a God-given right to interpret these extremely complex documents as they chose.” With the expansion of scientific rationalism in the eighteenth century, both Jewish and Christian scholars began looking at their documents afresh, but at the same time, especially in the besieged world of Jewry, there was an upsurge of mysticism, which eschewed such an approach to the divine altogether. Armstrong races us through to the present day, where she points out that an “emphasis on the literal reflects the modern ethos, but is a breach with tradition, which usually preferred some kind of figurative or innovative interpretation.”

Armstrong fears for the life of her subject, fears that the Bible is in danger of becoming a dead letter or "a toxic arsenal that fuels hatred and sterile polemic." She seeks "the development of a more compassionate hermeneutics," one that "could provide an important counter-narrative in our discordant world." Amen to that.


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