With consummate skill, he sets about distilling what feels like a lifetime of study and scholarly conversations on the subject into a single, open-minded, lucid guide to the Bible. As eminently readable as the best of travelogues, it floods with light a subject too often regarded by many as a closed book. For those like me who have ventured, unguided, through the Bible’s various sections, it is all too easy to be defeated by its dizzying array of styles in texts that switch in the blink of an eye between biography, elegant morality tales akin to Greek myths, evangelistic/political polemics of a particular epoch, and a form of poetry that seeks to put words and images to a spiritual reality that is intangible and ineffable. And then there are all those “extra-canonical” books, excluded from the Bible’s covers, or relegated to appendices, that the likes of Dan Brown have turned into a profitable publishing sub-genre. With emotional and psychological insight, Barton unlocks this sleeping giant of our culture for the untrained but curious general reader. In the process, he has produced a masterpiece.
While A History of the Bible is certainly a readable book, it is rarely a thrilling one. Moderate in its opinions, it is also moderate in its style. As a great teacher himself, Barton has a natural sympathy for those who, over the centuries, have studied and mediated the Bible as a literary artefact: the scribes and rabbis and church fathers and philosophes.
John Barton’s new book, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths, gives a superb overview of the answers to these questions, condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist, no previous knowledge required.
The professor gives us a history of the Bible in terms of the source material, the historical context, editions and translations (it seems the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, may be based on older versions of the texts than the Hebrew one), the ways in which it has been interpreted and how, and if, it can be described as inspired. It’s fascinating.
In this careful study of the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, John Barton, former Oriel and Laing professor of the interpretation of holy scripture at Oxford University, tells us that the OUP sells a quarter of a million Bibles in the King James or Authorised version every year. He doubts if many of them are actually read by the people who buy them or receive them as presents, with the possible exception of one important group. In Britain and the US the churches that are bucking the trend of decline are usually those that take a conservative approach to the interpretation of the Bible; and for many of them the King James is the version they use.