Book: The Bible The Biography by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s book is a potted history of the Bible and its interpretation, starting around the time of the Babylonian exile and continuing up to the present day. Armstrong’s writing is succinct: the book is short (229 pages in the main text of my copy) and easy to read.

Armstrong sees both the Christian Gospel writers and the Judaism of the first and second centuries CE as profoundly influenced by the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Their conflicting ideas on the future of Judaism can be seen in the attitude of the Gospel writers to the Pharisees as it became clear that the future of Judaism did not lie in a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, but in a revitalised Judaism which the party of the Pharisees would lead.

The parts of the book which deal with interpretation were most interesting to me. Armstrong interweaves chapters on Christian and Jewish interpretation. Later texts start out as reactions to earlier texts, drawing on them to find something useful in the writers’ times. The later texts may eventually come to be seen as scriptures themselves. Armstrong applies this idea to the Christian New Testament and to the Jewish Mishnah, as well as to modern commentaries like the Scofield Reference Bible, the source of much of fundamentalist Christian theology on the End Times.

Armstrong discussion how later commentators draw out meanings which they believe are hidden within the text, a process which she describes as pesher, referring to the commentaries produced by the Essenes. The methods of interpretation are often quite strange to modern readers, but reflect the belief that scripture was infinite, containing a variety of meanings. Sometimes passages are re-interpreted in the light of the Golden Rule, as in the case of Rabbinic punning on scripture to show God’s compassion, or Augustine’s statement:

“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.”

Some Christians, such as Origen, viewed the Old Testament as a commentary on the New, rather than vice versa, and produced detailed allegorical interpretations of OT events, which were taken to refer to Christ or the church (a tradition they could claim was started by the apostle Paul, in letters like Galatians).

The book contains some uncomfortable facts for someone in the modern evangelical wing of Christianity (as I once was). If evangelicals insist their approach is the only correct one, they must conclude that the church has been doing it wrong for most of its history. Worse yet, for evangelicals who claim to use only scripture to interpret scripture, is realisation that the New Testament writers would be seen as terrible exegetes by modern evangelical standards.

As I said, these are not comforting thoughts for evangelicals. While I was writing this, I found an interesting review of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns. Enns has written a book which, if the review is anything to go by, talks about these exegetical problems and tries to address them, still remaining within a reformed Christian theology. Enns does this by drawing an analogy between the humanity of Jesus and that of the Bible. For this, he is well on the way to being drummed out of the seminary where he holds a professorship.

Back to Armstrong. As her story moves closer to the present day, she writes about modern scriptural interpretation with dissatisfaction, albeit tempered with some sympathy for fundamentalists who feel threatened by, well, practically everything that’s happened since about 1800. In the book’s epilogue, she calls for a return to Augustine’s principle of charity as the means of interpretation, arguing that “hurling texts around polemically is a sterile pursuit”, and that rather, the entire Bible should be interpreted as a commentary on the Golden Rule. She rejects criticism of the Bible by “secular fundamentalists”, presumably in the knowledge that in the past both Christians and Jews have seen the violent or otherwise “difficult” passages as an invitation to look deeper rather than as an invitation to imitate God or Israel’s bad behaviour.

I’m a little sceptical, because I think the horse has bolted, at least as far as Christianity is concerned (I’d be interested to hear what Jewish people think). Since Luther, the authority of the church to interpret the Bible has diminished. Everyone is their own pope, vigorously defending their interpretation and eager to anathematise the people closest to them (as Enns’s case illustrates), even more so as believers feel threatened by modern developments and batten down the hatches. I’d like it if Armstrong’s vision became reality, but I’m not sure how she intends to bring it about. More people reading her book might help. I recommend it.

7 Comments on "Book: The Bible The Biography by Karen Armstrong"

  1. I’m more than a little sceptical. The people who will read “The Bible: The Biography” are the kind of people who are open to reading it as a text. i.e. not the people that really could do with its message…


    1. You suppose, in saying this, that the purpose is to convince rather than to inform; there is merit in a book written to provide insight and scholarship for people who broadly agree rather than to convert those who disagree.


      1. I was referring to PW’s “I’m a little sceptical” in the last paragraph, and replying to that.

        I have nothing against the existence of the book in and of itself :->


    2. I agree. The challenge is to remind all Christians that the phrase “the Bible” or “Scripture” is a contentious political statement that was formed through the arguments of the early church. If one can persuade that this is true, one can then begin to argue that the methods for interpretation of this particular set of texts are diverse.


  2. Subject: Hmmm…
    But surely there are generic limits to the pesher? To take the most obvious example, the bulk of the NT consists of letters to churches. I seriously doubt that the people receiving instructions, rebukes and encouragements in those listened to them thinking, “Hmm, I wonder how I can get infinite meanings from this bit about food sacrificed to idols?”

    I’m not saying you’re saying they were; I mention it because I’m hoping for some clarification of the whole “there’s all this non-literal stuff going on” line of argument. Which brings me on to a second question: in among the many readings offered, is there not a primary one beneath them all? Take Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:15). Matthew is reading into Hosea’s words a meaning which in all probability was not in the prophet’s mind. But does that mean that Matthew didn’t believe in the Exodus, which was? Is Hosea 11:1 not still about the Exodus? Would Matthew have permitted himself a secondary reading of this which contradicted the primary?


    1. Subject: Re: Hmmm…
      I doubt that you can get much allegorical stuff out of epistles (although I don’t know for sure, because I haven’t seen any of the original documents from the Christians who liked to interpret things allegorically). Armstrong cites the example of Paul’s letters as places which used a pesher interpretation of the Old Testament (e.g. the Galatians 4 passage I linked), rather than as the source of new stories to be allegorised. I’d bet a small amount that there have been allegorical understandings of the gospel stories. Plus there’s the wealth of things that have been read into Revelation over the years (hence the claim that the Scofield Reference Bible is practically scripture to some Americans, or at least, a highly respected gloss on the Bible of the sort you also find produced by Jewish commentators on the OT). Reading stuff into Revelation might be less controversial to moderns as the whole thing is framed as a vision rather than plain history.

      I don’t think anyone’s claiming that Matthew didn’t believe in the Exodus, rather, Matthew doesn’t contradict the original meaning so much as, er, embracing and extending it. He’s layered another meaning on top in a way which (as people like Enns observe) would probably not be permitted if Matthew were learning Biblical exposition at a modern evangelical seminary. What Matthew’s doing sounds closer to Jewish midrash: I had an interesting exchange with livredor about the next verses in Matthew, where he quotes Jeremiah, back in 2004 (unfortunately her link to the English version of the midrash she’s talking about in that entry is now dead, but ISTR there was a reference to the Jeremiah passage, hence my question).

      One way around this is to claim, as one of my evangelical friends did when I mentioned Armstrong’s book to him, that the Biblical authors were uniquely inspired and so had the authority to do this sort of thing in a way which does not extend to Christians today. I suppose that leads to the usual Catholic vs Protestant debates about when the church stopped having that authority.

      My point is that the way evangelicals read the Bible is a relatively recent innovation; not in that no one ever attempted to read it the evangelical way in the past, but in that evangelicals seem to rule out other ways of reading it which were used in the past. The exclusion of other readings is hard to line up with the Biblical precedents, as Enns seems to argue.


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