Historians and translators have gathered a great deal of new information about the Bible in the past several centuries, and it’s this wealth of knowledge that Barton’s 640-page tome surveys and considers at length.
“Here’s my Bible. Hold it. Make you feel good,” says Texas Ranger Reverend Samuel Clayton to the injured Nesby near the beginning of the iconic 1956 Western The Searchers. The dialogue nicely sums up attitudes towards the Bible for many people of faith, who tend to see it as a magical, ineffable collection that encourages readers to find the righteous path and continue on it. John Barton’s A History of the Bible is well aware that such attitudes remain strong. In response, he expresses some degree of dissatisfaction.
Historians and translators have gathered a great deal of new information about the Bible in the past several centuries, and it’s this wealth of knowledge that Barton’s 640-page tome surveys and considers at length. While this organizational, synthesizing process is sometimes rather dry and gets bogged down in miniscule details, it can also help readers—believers and atheists alike—unsettle their surface-level conceptions of the Bible’s history, meanings and (potential) holiness. To this end, Barton positions his book to inspire Holy Bible haters and Scripture stans alike to recognize new possibilities for an ancient work.
A History of the Bible consists of four main sections: The Old Testament, The New Testament, The Bible and Its Texts and The Meanings of the Bible. In each, Barton helpfully gives the impression of unending debate and theories that have moved in and out of fashion with the changing times. While he endorses some of these theories as decidedly plausible and dismisses others as extremely unlikely, he mostly concludes that there is very little we can know with finality.
Take, for example, his chapter on the Gospels. He points out, first of all, a key distinction between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which are older texts, and John, which arrives later. While the Synoptic Gospels focus on Jesus’ stories and sayings, John foregrounds the identity of Jesus and is more directly theological in nature. But a number of questions remain about the actual processes involved in writing these books. Barton describes the Q hypothesis, which posits that Matthew and Luke draw their shared information from an earlier (non-Marcan) source, only to conclude that there’s no definitive evidence to support it. In fact, he notes, it’s entirely conceivable that Matthew and Luke were making shit up—there’s just not conclusive evidence either way. For John, there’s a chance that someone named John did not write the book at all or that multiple people compiled it together. But here, too, Barton is careful to use phrases like “most scholars” and “might help” to show that numerous alternatives remain in conversation with one another.
At the same time, all this scriptural scholarship leads to key takeaways that Barton sees as indisputable and central to transforming how people situate the Bible within their own systems of belief. For the Gospels, he contends that each writer allowed himself a great deal of expressive freedom and that this resulted in contradicting accounts that the Church only accepted as component parts of the New Testament because each book already held significance to large groups of early Christians. Another key point is that religious tradition and the Bible are ultimately separate domains, even though there’s significant overlap. As he observes in his conclusion, one couldn’t read the Bible and predict what Christianity would become (in terms of doctrines, liturgy, church order, etc.) or look at Christianity now and, based on its practices, be able to figure out what the Bible actually says. There’s the Bible in all of its chaos on the one hand and religious groups that use the Bible to support their own specific views about God and theology on the other.
If initially this sounds like something to make atheists and doubters dance with jubilation, Barton, an Anglican priest himself, balances his tenets by carefully demonstrating the centrality of the Bible to resistance within the Church and to interpretive practice in general. He clearly loves the Bible and even highlights how future translations might improve on existing ones (by, for example, accentuating writers’ different styles and grammatical insufficiencies), but he refuses to see the Bible as infallible and even doubts that it’s useful to call it inspired, since it is a decidedly human group of texts written—and eventually endorsed—by actual, complicated people.
The approach of A History of the Bible is a fair-minded, pragmatic one. However, Barton is optimistic and perhaps a little naïve to think his arguments will change the minds of fundamentalists and their ilk or that rational thinking can effectively combat decidedly irrational belief. An alternate version of his book might underline the author’s identity as a person of faith and the Bible’s history as deliciously mystical—which is to say illogical in ways that no system or series of citations can contain.