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: >>>> NOTES >>>> (and scroll to about midway)