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.
Barton set himself a formidable task, but the result is remarkable. It is a multi-layered work in which he considers the Bible both as a cultural artefact and as a text of religious significance for both Judaism and Christianity. His analysis of the cultural significance of the Bible is certainly engaging. However it is his analysis of the relationship between the text(s) of the Bible and the religious worlds of Christians and Jews through the centuries that provides the greatest illumination... The depth of Barton’s scholarship, the erudition of his analysis and the historical range of his inquiry makes this a work of exceptional merit... Although a weighty tome (it runs to 661 pages), Barton’s A History of the Bible is a joy to read. Generations of students have been formed by his earlier influential works, and with this compelling new work Barton deserves to garner many new readers.
Barton is an Anglican priest and former Oxford professor; he has a talent for clear explanation and analysis of cultural context, with the result that the book reads like an involving set of undergraduate lectures...Barton reminds us just how ignorant it is to dismiss literalist readings of the Bible as “medieval”; the least learned medieval thinker knew that complex layers of interpretation could be teased out of any biblical verse, and that of those layers the literal sense was the easiest and the least important. On this point Judaism is again given an important place in Barton’s analysis, which compares rabbinic methods of interpretation to those of the Greek and Latin fathers; Barton arranges the two currents of engagement with the text in lush and learned counterpoint.
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.