The Bible: The Biography by Karen Armstrong

I’ve had this on my shelf (in my iTunes library) for ages.  I keep meaning to get to it.  Finally … maybe …  yes (and I finished!)   I’ve read several books by Armstrong and enjoyed them quite a lot.   Her narratives are a bit dry but not dusty-dry and they’re full of great material,  well researched,  well considered,  clearly written.

The Bible:  The Biography
by Karen Armstrong
2007 / 229 pages
read by Josephine Bailey  6h 8m
rating –  9


This book examines the Bible and how its been read and interpreted from its origins in two oral traditions of Jewish stories to modern interpretations of both the Torah and the entire Christian Bible.

It’s about *How We Understand the Bible*  and  how it has been understood over the ages.   It’s not a history of the Bible per se, although there are parts of that,  and its certainly not anything like a literal interpretation or history of the Jewish people,  Jesus,  or anything else.  Rather the focus is the exegesis – how the Bible has been understood,  explained.   The oral words were written down and those documents became Holy Scripture because of the way people started reading them.  And even thought the words were changed over the centuries to clarify the meaning – finding the original literal meaning was not a goal until recently.

Armstrong follows the thread of ancient Jewish history into Roman times and then to more contemporary times.  The writing of the  Old Testament following the first five  books,  the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy, )  is not nearly as complex as the New Testament. The Jewish rabbis just wrote down the oral histories of the country,  the doings of the prophets,  the songs of David, and so on. When there were two versions both  were included in some way over time in the final version.    The emphasis was on spiritual interpretation and understanding rather than on a literal meaning.

Then Christianity came along and some of the same focus was used  because it was an offshoot of  Judaism.    Scripture has a psyche,  a spirit of its own.  The literal meaning comes first,  but that’s just a top coating,  possibly ficiton – beneath the literal is the truth of the moral sense after which comes the truth in a spiritual sense,  and finally,  according to some, there is a mystical truth which comes into play.  According to Armstrong, reading for the literal sense alone didn’t develop until the Age of Reason after which it became paramount to some.

Armstrong traces the history of the composition and understanding of the Jewish and Christian scriptures from the 6th Century BCE, when the Persian Emperor Cyrus permitted the refugees returning to Jerusalem from Babylon to bring with them nine scrolls which became  the Old Testament books (as Christians know them) from Genesis to Kings. These were written and rewritten and studied and considered by the rabbis at the Temple.

The New Testament doesn’t come into play until Chapter 3 after Rome smashed the Temple and rousted the Jews in Jerusalem.  Then in Chapter 4 the two books, the Torah and the Christian Bible are discussed separately but alternating to keep the chronology.

The narrative ends in the 21st century with the fundamentalists  of both Jewish and Christian religions.

Overall it’s a really good book but you have to pay attention because there’s a lot of information in almost every sentence.  But Armstrong writes with enough simplicity to keep the book from feeling too dense.   If you’re interested in how the Bible has been read and  understood over the centuries this is the best because actually,  I can’t think of another book which approaches the subject like this.  (Not saying there isn’t one!)

Here’s a little outline and my notes:

INTRODUCTION  – pretty good – she says what she’s going to say –

1.  TORAH  – origin of first 5 books from 2 basic oral Jewish traditions,  North and South stories plus rewriting in the 7th century BCE.   The Moses out of Egypt story,   who was Yaweah? The cult of Baal and other matters like the account of Isaiah and the Assyrian battles,   Jerusalem’s early history and the Old Testament stories though the prophets and wars and nationalism.   These writings were kept in Judea’s royal archives and at some point put together by scribes and scholars.  Christ’s birth prophesied as a triumph and told in Ezekiel –  verses were added in the 7th century BCE to give Yaweah specific words and Moses clarified.  Josiah in 7th century BC and reformers with specific orthodoxy and adherence to the exact words of the Torah – rewrote history of Israel – both Traditions used and verses added to Samuel and Kings – reservations about written scripture – from oral tradition to written –  with an unrealistic certainty about written matters.   The Holiness Code added by “P”  in  7th Century BCE.   How Yaweah became the only God.

2.  SCRIPTURE –  Ezra’s reform and how the Torah became sacred scripture – through the end of the Old Testament – rewritings and revisions –  through Ben Sirah in the 2nd century BCE – Maccabees –  the Book of Daniel written later – Greek problems.  Jeremiah rewritten to illuminate the future rather than uncover the past. Qumran,  Pharisees-

3.  GOSPEL –  reviews the basics,  no Jesus history,  some Matthew and Luke,  plenty of John because John was a new way of interpreting.   Some Jerusalem history,  Roman Emperors Pompey and Diocletian – early Christian/Jewish  issues – studied old texts new ways –  one rule – “do unto others”  –  looking for prophesies – was the Kindom really “at hand”?   –  Paul of Tarsus – didn’t think he was writing scripture – though Jesus would return shortly – within his lifetime.   First editing of the Gospels and the New Testament – used symbolism in interpreting.  So messiah,  servant and Jesus were the same and inseparable.   Enmeshed in Torah prophesy.  The actual authors were Jewish Christians who lived in the Hellenistic Empire.  – Lots of little tidbits I didn’t know here although I’ve read a bunch of the books from the historical Jesus writers (Pagels,  Ehrman, etc.) John of Patmos and the inclusion of Revelations in the final Bible.

4.  MIDRASH –  after the fall of the Temple –  the Torah was being studied for compassion – History and  commentaries and putting it together.

5.   CHARITY –  How to study  for the message – the message is Charity in both Jewish and Christian holy books.   History of end of Roman empire –  the meaning of scriptures opens up and evolves – no one meaning for all people and all times.  So it was okay to develop new interpretations – in fact it was a tribute to the power of the Word.  The Bible now became entirely about Christ.

6.  LECTIO DIVINA   – post Roman Empire – Augustine was perplexed,   John Cassian now added an additional type of interpretation so there were now the literal,  moral,  allegorical and mystical –  St. Gregory added his   – St. Jerome wrote a translation into Latin – the Vulgate Bible –   Philology – plain meaning of script – meaning of specific words – Rashi –  interpreting Hebrew scriptures –  There was some attempt to use “reason” in Anselm of Canterbury –  and then came others including Jewish Medieval interpretations turned philosophical – Maimonides and others and some Kabbalists who used hermeneutics to study Torah.  Study of Zohar –   strip away all the trappings of the Scriptures – get to the core – the truly wise get to the body and soul of the Torah –  it got pretty esoteric.
7. SOLO SCRIPTURA   Scripture alone.  16th century – earliest scientific and industrial spirit -leading to a kind of revolution.  Martin Luther and Zwingli and  John Calvin – use the Bible alone but make it relevant to the daily life of the people and remove liturgy and songs which aren’t Biblically founded.   But science was there – nature was the original manifestation  of God –  literal reading vs science –    and then who can interpret Biblical meanings –  anyone??? –   Spanish inquisition tried to establish a solid religious base.  Freedom for some – slavery for others.   America was new promised land – New Canaan, Israel,  other Biblical names – one interpretation.  Lazy natives –  City on a Hill,

8.   MODERNITY  –  late 17th century and the Age of Reason –  now come the arguments now truth has to be demonstrated and be in accord with material world.  The Enlightenment – people learned to dissect ideas and the Bible.  Sir Frances Bacon – scientific method was assembling proven facts – 5 senses.  Humanism – Decartes – reason is enough proof of God – Newton – no mention of God in his writings – etc.    Science went on to the Darwinism that allowed for Hitler’s camps.  Fundamentalism sprouted.  etc.   Now what? –

9.  EPILOGUE –  so do the Judeo/Christian scriptures have one meaning for us to determine or is it open to many meanings?  –   I really like thinking it’s open to many meanings – that it’s our job to find our own.