Barton’s Bible Balancing Act

Review by Paul D. Wheatley

A History of the Bible
The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book
By John Barton
pp. 512. $35

In A History of the Bible, John Barton attempts to account for the writing, compilation and long history of interpretation of the Bible through the present day. Barton is a retired Oxford professor and priest of the Church of England, and while several other books in recent years have covered portions of this biblical-historical task, the genius of this volume is its breadth, depth, clarity, and nuance.

By tracing the Bible’s long history, Barton seeks to demonstrate the diversity, greatness, and even incongruence of some of the Bible’s constituent parts with the faiths that appeal to them. Barton acknowledges this may be “an uncomfortable balancing act”

to some. It requires, he says, a more mature way of reading the Bible that questions religious readings of “an imaginary Bible that exists only in some theoretical realm,” thereby “[doing] justice to the Bible as it actually is.”

Barton opposes religious fundamentalism, defined broadly as the attempt to make everything in the Bible true and the sole foundation for all religious doing. But he also criticizes ‘liberal’ religious disregard of the Bible, which he likens to the unfair critiques of New Atheism. In this he elicits support from 16th century Anglican Theologian Richard Hooker’s warning to “take great heed, lest, in attributing unto Scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,  II.8).

Barton handles this gargantuan task in three main sections. The first section begins with the pre-written oral tradition of the Hebrew people, moves through law, wisdom, prophecy, poetry, and Psalms, then into the world of the first century, and the Gospels and letters comprising the Old and New Testaments. Next he covers the collection, ascription of scriptural and canonical status, and the material transmission of the Bible as manuscript. He finishes by journeying through the themes and history of interpreting the Bible, arriving at the present era’s translations and diverse interpretations, showing how external philosophical, theological, and political agendas lead to distortions of “the Bible-as-it-is.”

In this way, although he deals with similar data, Barton’s approach results in conclusions almost like an inverse of ‘canonical’ biblical scholars such as Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, or Gary Anderson, who allow the Bible-as-it-has-come-to-us its own voice, which readers of the Bible from the first century through the present day have found coherent with, even generative of, Christian faith.

Barton is eminently capable to cover these diverse topics with depth and nuance, drawing on his expertise in the Old Testament through ancient Christian and rabbinic interpretation into Renaissance and modern interpretations of the Bible. Barton presents current scholarly views covering over three thousand years with lucidity and simplicity rarely found in academic works. I am halfway through a PhD in Biblical Studies, and I found genuine insights throughout elucidating or clarifying my understanding. For aspiring scholars of the Bible or its interpretation, few books would provide such an effective introduction.

However, the wide distribution and popular presentation of this work aims at readers beyond clergy and formally trained interpreters of the Bible. While the prose and information are presented as easily digestible to a broad readership, Barton’s ‘uncomfortable balancing act” away from both fundamentalism’s slavish adherence to the text and a wholesale liberal abandonment of the text may be too nuanced for many untrained readers.  

Barton’s presentation of the short-sightedness of a rigid fundamentalism would be largely acceptable to readers who do not fancy themselves to be in that category. However, I wonder whether readers more inclined to disregard the scriptures by their liberal approach would find enough in Barton’s argument to justify their return to the scriptures. Many may well find just enough in Barton’s book to justify their ongoing neglect or outright rejection of the Christian faith and its Bible. To adapt Hooker’s words, is there enough esteem left for what the Scriptures abundantly do have to sustain such a reading? I hope that many inside the church and out would find in books like this reason to revisit both the Bible and the church, with eyes trained to find nourishment for a living and mature faith. 

Paul Wheatley is a doctoral student in New Testament and a priest of the Diocese of Dallas. 


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