In the beginning were the Words

Anthony Freeman on the histories, myths and exegesis that grew into Judaeo-Christian Scriptures.

February 7, 2008

Karen Armstrong sprang to prominence in the 1990s with her "biography" of God. Now a celebrity in her own right, she attempts a similar exercise on God's Word. She notes that Scripture has become "an explosive issue" because certain Christian and Jewish groups (some with influence on national governments including those of Israel and the US) justify extreme political and military policies by quoting biblical texts. In such a situation, Armstrong says, "it is important to be clear what (Scripture) is and what it is not".

Armstrong sets about clarifying the nature of the Bible by telling its story. More precisely, she describes a series of historical situations, mainly within the Jewish and Christian traditions, out of which the Bible as we know it grew. As a narrator she is non-judgmental. The reader is shown how catastrophic events such as exile and occupation shaped religious development and gave a special prominence to written texts, but such developments are not labelled as good or bad.

In the same way, we learn how changes in culture, philosophy and science encourage various aspects of scriptural meaning - literal, moral, mystical - to be emphasised at different periods, but these shifts are presented neutrally rather than as advances or regressions.

With a less gifted writer, this approach could have resulted in a somewhat dull catalogue, lacking a strong driving theme, but Armstrong skilfully keeps the pages turning. Her interweaving of the Jewish and Christian understanding of Scripture - not forgetting the role of Islam in bringing back to medieval Europe the Aristotelian tradition lost in the Dark Ages - is effective in keeping the narrative moving.

The destruction of Solomon's Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC was followed by the exile in Babylon of the Jewish ruling classes. Some decades later, an edict of Cyrus, the Persian conqueror of Babylon, allowed a religiously inspired group of exiles to return to Jerusalem.

These events together are presented as the catalyst that transformed "a medley of texts into Scripture". The collection of writings, some already centuries old, others still being composed, brought together myths, legends, cultic rituals, criminal justice, idealised history and public health regulations into a single entity, Torah, the law of Moses. In their handling of the Torah, the leaders of the returned exiles, typified in the iconic figure of Ezra the priest, established the abiding character of Scripture: a unique source of divinely revealed truths constantly to be reinterpreted and authoritatively applied in the present.

The destruction of a later Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in AD70 was another creative watershed in the Bible's story. The Jewish community, dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, bereft of its cultic centre and priestly sacrifice, turned to Scripture, above all to the Torah, for comfort and guidance. Applying the technique called Midrash, the learned scribes "drew out" of the sacred texts hidden and unsuspected meanings. Amid the contradictory and fiercely argued interpretations rabbinic Judaism was born, and with it new official writings, the Mishnah and Talmud.

Meanwhile, in a parallel and sometimes clashing development, the young Christian Church also quarried the Jewish Scriptures for an understanding of its own inexplicable arrival as a religious and ultimately political force in the Roman Empire. Using the Pesher method of exegesis, alongside the rabbinic Midrash, Christians found in the prophetic writings and, above all, in the psalms of David a foretelling of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah or Christ. Thus the books of the "New Testament" added the Church's official interpretation of the Jewish "Old Testament" Scripture.

Armstrong's biography of the Bible now becomes the history of two competing siblings, Judaism and Christianity (a rivalry foreshadowed in biblical pairs such as Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau). Her demonstration of the similar patterns of emerging and conflicting biblical interpretation within both traditions, right through to the present day, is one of the best features of this excellent book.

It is in the final chapter, titled "Modernity", that the author most clearly allows her own viewpoint to show through. It becomes evident that her studied neutrality in recording the historically diverse approaches to Scripture has not in fact been neutral at all. For her, what "Scripture is not" is a single divine voice; rather, it is the multiple and contradictory meanings and understandings of the Bible that are its glory, provided always that, as for the Jewish Akiba and the Christian Augustine, charity and loving kindness remain the touchstones of true interpretation.

The Bible: The Biography

By Karen Armstrong
Atlantic Books
320pp
£16.99
ISBN 9781843543961
Published 8 October 2007

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