John Barton’s book arrived some weeks back And it’s FANTASTIC.
And while it isn’t my custom to review books that I buy, I’m going to this time. First, because Barton’s work is worth the time. And second, because a volume like this is needed at a time like this.
The publisher writes
The volume is comprised of four large sections:
- The Old Testament
- The New Testament
- The Bible and its Texts
- The Meanings of the Bible
Each of these large sections are divided into smaller segments which are themselves divided into smaller bits. A dozen or so illustrations are found within its pages as well as copious endnotes (I wish they were footnotes, but that’s always a publisher’s decision), a ‘Further Reading’ section, a bibliography that is quite extensive, and indices.
In the author’s own words ‘This book tells the story of the Bible from its remote beginnings in folklore and myth to its reception and interpretation in the present day’ (p.1.). If that sounds like a large project, it most certainly is such. There are 489 pages of text and 40 pages of endnotes. And they are all packed with detail.
‘A further purpose is to distil the current state of biblical scholarship’ (p. 2). Accordingly, in constant dialogue with culture and society as well as the history of the Bible, Barton describes forcefully and insightfully the books now called the Bible. Where it came from, what it is, what it means, and how it is used by people of faith and people without faith.
Barton accomplishes his goal by taking readers through the history and language of Ancient Israel, and then its narrative literature, legal and wisdom literature, prophetic literature, and poetic literature. Having written what amounts to an introduction to the Old Testament, Barton then does the same for the New, describing in ingenious prose the beginning of Christianity and its early letters and Gospels.
Once the Bible is ‘introduced’ (in a way that is not remotely boring or uninteresting, which is itself quite a feat), Barton turns to consider how the books of the Bible were transformed into Scripture and how Christians and Jews both came to cherish their collections of texts in a way that was processional rather than procedural. He even manages to discuss the niceties of textual criticism without provoking so much as a single yawn. Barton writes, for example, of the ‘canonical process’-
‘The books had assembled themselves without debates or rulings being necessary. The New Testament writers, like the rabbis who put together the Mishnah, took them for granted as holy texts. No one ever canonized them, in the sense of taking a positive decision that they should be regarded as authoritative, still less insisted on this against opposition. They were simply accepted’ (p. 221).
The fourth and final section of the book offers readers a chance to think deeply about the meaning of these sacred texts. What is the Bible’s theme? What role did the Fathers and Rabbis play? How was the Bible utilized and interpreted in the Middle Ages? The Reformation? Since the Enlightenment? And today?
The conclusion of the book is called ‘The Bible and Faith’.
What Professor Barton has managed to produce here is a volume which is the ideal work for students of the Bible. It is perfect for courses on the Bible whether undergraduate or graduate and it is also ideal for those laypeople who wish to understand the Bible. I will be requiring it for both my Old and New Testament courses along with the much shorter but equally helpful work by Philip Davies’ ‘The Bible for the Curious’.
If you are looking for a volume which opens up the Bible and explains its various genres, themes, and historical development, then this is the work you have awaited.
One of the Proverbs famously declares
“Many daughters have done valiantly,
but you surpass them all!”
Mutatis mutandis, the same can be said of this volume, and its author:
“Many authors have done valiantly,
but you surpass them all!”