The Bible: A Biography Paperback – Jul 14 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Of all the Books That Changed the World-the recently launched series to which this book belongs-surely the Bible is among the most important. And of all contemporary popularizers of religious history, surely Armstrong is among the bestselling. Who better, then, to recount the history of the Bible in eight short chapters than this former nun and literature professor who relishes huge topics (The History of God) and panoramic descriptions (The Great Transformation)? Armstrong not only describes how, when and by whom the Bible was written, she also examines some 2,000 years of biblical interpretation by bishops and rabbis, scholars and mystics, pietists and critics, thus opening up a myriad of exegetical approaches and dispelling any fundamentalist notion that only one view can be correct. Readers unfamiliar with ecclesiastical history may feel overwhelmed by dense chapters that read more like annotated lists than narrative-a hazard of trying to cover so much in so little space. (A glossary helps to anchor the bewildered.) At her best when she pauses long enough to expand on a topic, Armstrong offers intriguing insights on, for example, the allegorical method developed by Origen in the third century and the mystical midrash of the Kabbalists in medieval Spain and Provence. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
For the Books That Changed the World series of brief "biographies" of momentous books, Armstrong accepted the arguably most daunting assignment. What other book has as long a history of influence as the Bible, or has affected more people and societies? The author of the sweeping histories of religion The Great Transformation (2006) and A History of God (1993) is, of course, up to the task and provides an excellent précis of the writing and compiling of the Bible and the ensuing centuries of biblical interpretation. Armstrong traces the Bible's transformation from a miscellany of texts into scripture, to which the Jesus movement added the Gospel and the other New Testament texts pretty much in tandem with the development of midrash and the Talmud by non-Christian Jews after the 70 CE destruction of the third temple in Jerusalem. She shows both Christian and rabbinic traditions of interpretation subsequently converging upon charity or love as the essence of God. The subjects of the last three chaptersthe medieval monastic practice of reading the Bible called lectio divina, Martin Luther's doctrine of sola scriptura, and intellectual modernityare each considered for the ways they gave rise to interpretive movements that affected Christianity directly and spurred reactions in Judaism. This is one terrific little book. Olson, Ray --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Author Karen Armstrong introduces, or reminds, the reader, about the sources of the Old and New Testament, the multiple authors of Isaiah and the way the Bible shaped the Jewish self-image. As it progresses, she cites comments by many writers, Christian and Jewish, including Sts. Augustine and Jerome, Martin Luther and many others.
I have read a fair amount about the Bible (see my Listmania, "Thinking of God") but I learned things I had not previously known. From my perspective, telling the story in a continuum is the most helpful aspect of this book. For one who has studied the Bible less deeply, it will provide a good introduction.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I once took the time to read the Bible from cover to cover. Weary of being battered by Campus Crusaders (an oddly apt name), I went to the source (in English, I don't read Greek or Hebrew), and read every word, including the begats, including the many, many proscriptions for capital punishment, including the incredibly bloody and genocidal behavior of those who were supposed to be God's Chosen People, including funky dietary directions. My conclusion was that taking the Bible as the literal word of God can only be done by descending to a level of intellectual and emotional dishonesty that I could not personally access. If the Bible WAS the literal Logos (word of God), then, to paraphrase Ricky Ricardo talking to Lucy: God, you have some serious 'splainin' to do.
What then to do with this amazing collection of texts that has been somewhat haphazardly and arbitrarily lumped together and called The Bible? Answer: read Armstrong's remarkable, pithy, eye and mind opening book. The rich tradition of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) springs into a Joseph's Multi-Colored Coat dazzler: Violence, religious ecstasy, profound desire for knowledge of God, sex, political manipulation, ego, faith, hope, love, and raw lust for power swirl through this kaleidoscopic, richly layered, many textured book called The Bible.
By tracing the Abrahamic roots of biblical religions, tracking the gradual coalescence of religious writings that would eventually become the Bible, and giving a thorough AND thrilling history of the way Western faithful have reacted to Sacred Scripture, Armstrong made me, and might make you, want to again pick up a book that seems more often used for hitting people over their theological or political heads than inspiring compassion and cohesion. Armstrong's closing comments strongly belie the negative reviewer comments about her "attacking the Bible". Armstrong does nothing of the sort. She breathes life and hope into a book that has more often been used, of late, as a theological/political, anti-scientific football than a source of spiritual enrichment and growth. Read with a spirit of inquiry, Armstrong's The Bible, A Biography, is a resurrection, a healthy dose of CPR, for a Good Book that is dusty, unoriginal, dated, and often brutal when taken literally (except for the sexy parts, of which there are more than a few). Armstrong's book can't make The Bible into Chicken Soup for the Atheist, but it does make The Bible rich and enticing, even to those who are more concerned about freedom FROM religion than freedom OF Religion. Doubt me? Give it a whirl, we'll chat afterwards.
With other books one can get pieces of this perspective but only in highly related and academically correlated subject areas. This means that for instance one can find books from a leading scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls from the esteemed Dr. Lawrence Schiffman but one can't find a book where Dr. Schiffman addresses the entirety of what is known relative to the Bible and related ancient writings. This is what is unique about Karen Armstrong. I wrote Dr. Schiffman and asked him where to find a book like this and he referred me to the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. In those reference books scholars have annotated what is commonly agreed to in terms of biblical scholarship. The problem with that approach is that it is not a complete linear overview. It comes in pieces and does not address the end to end to approach that Armstrong delivers with this book. What Armstrong is doing in her works, and this book in particular, will be understood later in history as having been on the same footing as what Guttenberg did with the printing press for the bible or what Martin Luther did when he translated the good book into his native language for all of his countryman to read. The importance of making this historical information available to all of us, the common everyday people can not possibly be under rated.
Armstrong writes so powerfully and with such care and precision that one also wonders whether or not she is creating new insight for the many which might someday either be incorporated or by itself seen as having the majesty of the Vedas, Psalms, Koran and several other seminal spiritual texts. Given the current state of spirituality in the world this may seem far fetched but from the perspective of where new spirituality is headed it is conceivable, more so than one might initially suspect.
The scope of this book is so large that Armstrong can not go into the level of detail equally for each subject area. However what she does for us this time is to leave markers with individual names and dates so that one could delve further into an area which further interests them. I personally am such a fan that I could read 10,000 page offering from Armstrong on this subject and still be left wanting for more. I am hopeful that she may construct future writings in such a way where we will be able to bolt them together for the production of detailed grand view of agricultural eras contributions in spirituality to our world. On a personal note, I would dearly love to see and read Armstrong take on the all of it. From the hunter-gatherer era, through the agricultural era up into the current industrial era. She has touched on the inherited structures from the hunter-gatherer world views in previous works spanning the Fareast and Near East. She also touched on the industrial eras main focus for the leading edge thinkers when she briefly discusses Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach in this book (the rise of social governmental systems). Therefore I have no doubt that she clearly sees the direction that all of this is headed from a future facing perspective. The implications in understanding the direction for humanities evolving world views requires no further qualification on import for us today. However even without such a book, Armstrong's legacy is in helping us construct an understanding for the trajectory of humanities spirituality. We hope she continues her work well into the future!!!!!
One good test of a non-fiction work is to examine the dating of the source material quoted by the author. For the first part of the book, which deals with the Hebrew version of biblical accounts, her references tend to be from 20-25 years ago and are not in tune with latest scholarship. For instance she gets the dating of Abraham, and the Exodus wrong, talks about Palestine in the time of the Greeks, and says the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1942! Current thinking puts the Exodus around 1200 BCE and the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. Armstrong clearly has a limited knowledge of the Qumran Community and so-called Essenes, indicated by her thinking that they did not have a coherent vision of beliefs, and continued to worship at the Temple. That is quite wrong. Their corpus of sectarian texts has a commonality of style and purpose and repeated cross referencing. They hated the Temple in Jerusalem and kept away from it.
As she moves into the Christian era, her scholarship becomes stronger, as one would expect from a former Catholic nun. One has to admire her breadth of knowledge of the New Testament texts and Christian history. If only she would refrain from being so dogmatic in some of her assertions, and admit of the lack of certainty on so many issues she seems to take as gospel. As the book progresses we drift more and more away from a Biography of the Bible into a highly knowledgeable, and often interesting dissertation, on commentary from outside sources. There are diversions into, what can only be described as backwaters of Bible evolution, like Kabbalah, which she, in my view, gives far too much prominence to. The Bible has certainly been an evolving creation, and she rightly comments that Talmudic studies continue this evolutionary process. I would contend that the Koran is an evolutionary development of the Bible and as such should have been a major consideration in assessing the Hebrew-Christian texts. From someone who has done so much valuable work in Muslim areas, in helping to bring ideas and people together this is an even more surprising omission.
Books by well-known authors tend to be viewed automatically as being as good as their predecessor. They should be viewed on their own merits, and this book is lacking in comparison to her previous works. It also reflects poorly on the editors of Atlantic Books as well as the back cover reviewers; Hugh MacDonald, of the Glasgow Herald; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Sunday Times; Edward Norman, Literary Review. They are clearly not experts in this field, although one could equally blame their editors for asking them to review such a complex work. Would you ask a gereralist to review a book on gardening? Better to ask the gardening columnist, or if there isn't one, bring in an expert from outside.
Unlike many scholars of the Bible, Armstrong doesn't try to give you the Final Word. For example, as I was reading her book, the doorbell rang and I was offered this book: "What the Bible REALLY Teaches."
Nevertheless, orthodox "believers" have not wanted to imagine how the Bible came into being over time. Nor how the Bible has been interpreted differently through the ages. Nor the nature of the book as it exists today. Too threatening to our "beliefs"; we want absolutes, written in stone.
Ironically, these fears result in many believers treating the Bible more like a set of Tarot cards. This is not necessarily bad if you know this is what you're doing. According to Armstrong, this is a time-honored way of approaching the Bible. Many church fathers (for example, Origin) and Midrash fathers (perhaps some mothers too) stared so long at each word that depth upon depth upon depth of meaning expanded out exponentially.
The Bible is best approached as a humble and trusting seeker, not a believer. It offers you a time-tested spiritual practice, an invitation to embrace the human-divine nexus with all its messiness. But in the modern age of materialistic science, believers have reacted in a narrow literal way. Hence, instead of "seeing" through the Bible, they get stuck in the Bible. The Bible becomes a legal document a "believer" must sign onto, without eyes to see, or ears to hear, deadening.
Armstrong's vision could be a wake up call. She is a prophet, whether she defines herself as a Christian or not. "Don't be afraid; Trust," she seems to say. "And enjoy the ride." I will return to this book again and again.