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  • Martin B. Davie

John Barton’s A History of the Bible – A review.

Below is a summary of the review Martin Davie published in his blog regarding John Barton's 'A history of the Bible'. (Penguin 2020)

Professor John Barton is one of Britain’s leading academic biblical scholars. His book A History of the Bible, which was first published in hardback by Allen Lane in 2019 and then in paperback by Penguin in 2020 has attracted a host of positive reviews from both academic, and non-academic, religious, and secular reviewers. The book is divided into four main parts and a concluding chapter.


Part one is entitled ‘The Old Testament.’ It consists of five chapters which look at the history and language of ancient Israel, and the six main literary genres contained in the Old Testament, narrative, law, wisdom, prophecy, poetry and psalmody.


Part two is entitled ‘The New Testament.’ It consists of an account of the historical context out of which the New Testament emerged followed by an introduction to the New Testament letters and the four Gospels.


Part three is entitled ‘The Bible and Its Texts.’ It consists of explanation of how and when the Old and New Testament Canons came to be formed and defined, why certain books were exclude from the New Testament, and the manuscript tradition that underlies the biblical text as we know it today.


Part four is entitled ‘The Meaning of the Bible.’ It consists of a review of how Jewish and Christian scholars have interpreted the Old and New Testaments from the second century to the present day and how the Bible has been translated from the time of the Septuagint onwards.


The concluding chapter, ‘The Bible and the Faith’ considers the relationship between the Bible and the faith of the Christian and Jewish communities. Barton’s book is not only an account of the nature of the Bible and the history of its interpretation . It also a theological manifesto which makes four main points:


First, that the best approach to understanding the Bible is the historical critical approach rather than a confessional approach based on Christian (or Jewish) theological tradition, or a ‘final form’ approach which ignores the history of the text in favour of reading it from a political, social scientific, or post-modern perspective.


Secondly, that the historical critical approach shows us that the Bible is a complex, internally inconsistent and historically inaccurate corpus of writings. It does not have a single overall theme or message and all attempts to read it as if it did involve imposing an interpretative scheme on the biblical material, an interpretative scheme that will never properly correspond to what the Bible itself says.


Thirdly, that although the Bible is theologically indispensable to both Christianity and Judaism, neither religion directly reflects what the Bible teaches in either its faith or its practice. To use Barton’s image, there is an overlap between the circle of Jewish or Christian belief and practice and the circle consisting of what is in the Bible, but the overlap is only ever a partial one.


Fourthly, that Christians in particular need to understand that even key elements of the Christian tradition, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the traditional three-fold pattern of ordained ministry, cannot be found within the Bible itself.


Taken to their logical conclusion these four points make traditional Christian theology untenable. However, the good news is that we do not have to accept any of these four points. There is a better approach to the Bible which can be summarised in terms of the following eight points.


First, we have an extremely reliable biblical text. In both the Old and New Testaments we can know with a very high degree of confidence what the text originally said.

Secondly, what we learn by looking at Jesus’ teaching and practice and the history of the early church is that that the traditional Protestant Old and New Testament canons contain the books God intended to be canonical.


Thirdly, we learn from Jesus’ teaching and practice that the these, books individually and together, carry God’s own authority. What these texts say, God says.


Fourthly, as Christian interpreters have always said, what we find in these texts is a massive story arc running from Genesis to Revelation which tells how God acted in Jesus Christ to rescue humanity and the whole created order from the ravages of sin and death.


Fifthly, because these texts are intended to fit together by God as a whole, an ultimately unharmonious reading of the biblical text is a bad reading of the text. Just as you know you are not doing a jigsaw right if a piece doesn’t fit in with the other pieces, so you are not reading the Bible right if you are not reading it in such a way that all the pieces fit together.


Sixthly, what the Bible itself says, and what we know from other fields of study, both lead us to believe the biblical material is historically accurate. The Bible is not a coherent but fictional text like The Lord of the Rings. It is a coherent text that declares what really took place, even if this is sometimes depicted in symbolic fashion.


Seventhly, the doctrine of the Trinity arises necessarily out of the biblical text as an accurate description of the identity of the God who reveals himself in this story arc and the Bible also tells us that a threefold pattern of ministry involving bishops, presbyters and deacons goes back to the time of the apostles.


Eighthly, a good way of seeing the Bible is as a script for a drama. Some acts have already been performed and we know what the overall ending will be, but we as individuals and collectively as the Church of God have to improvise our parts in the light of the earlier acts and under the guidance of the Spirit as our director. We don’t always do this well (which is the element of truth in Barton’s claim that the circles of the Bible and the Church’s teaching and practice are not identical), but we are called to always try to do better so that the circles overlap more and more.


To read the full review click here

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Martin Davie is a Latimer Trust research fellow. He produces books, articles and regular book reviews which are published by Latimer Trust and by other bodies, in particular the Church of England Evangelical Council for which he is the theological consultant . The current focus of his work is on the debate about human sexuality, bishops and episcopal jurisdiction and the Athanasian Creed. He has a blog with lots of interesting articles mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com

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