The Bible Revisited

Karen Armstrong charts the trajectory of evolving Jewish and Christian ideas of the Bible over three millennia



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, December 24, 2007


In the beginning were the words: a small, beleaguered people’s tales of collective origins, national tribulations and stormy relations with its tribal deity. Over time the narratives were written down, expanded, revised and collated. Then, inspired by the death of a charismatic teacher, new texts were composed and grafted onto the ancient chronicles, lamentations, prophesies and hymns.

Illustration: Avi Katz, the Jerusalem Report


Two millennia later, the Bible remains as influential as ever — the most cited, quoted, referenced and minutely scrutinized book of all time. For many believers, it’s the be-all-and-end-all of meaning and existence, its words trumping the wisdom of all other books combined. How the literary efforts of mostly anonymous authors belonging to a small, powerless nation at the much-trampled crossroads of the ancient world gained such authority is a large part of the story of Western civilization itself. Tackling such a monumental subject in a short, intelligible account is a daunting task.


Karen Armstrong, a bestselling historian of religion, rises to the challenge. “The Bible: A Biography” (published by Atlantic Monthly Press in its “Books that Changed the World” series) is a handy, erudite primer on the Holy Books. It’s accessible to the general reader, though preferably one with at least a passing familiarity with Biblical history and scholarship. Armstrong, an erstwhile Roman Catholic nun who once taught at London’s Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, charts the trajectory of evolving Jewish and Christian ideas of the Bible over three millennia with acumen and flair. In this era of resurgent Biblical literalism with demagogues claiming scriptural authority for their knee-jerk reactionism, her biography of the Good Book (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament), written in an engaging and empathetic style, is a helpful reminder of what the Bible is — or isn’t.


For starters, it isn’t the literal Word of God — unless we presume that the Creator was unsure how He’d created the world, given that Genesis offers two contradictory Creation stories (Genesis 1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-3:24). Early exegetes explained away the discrepancy by arguing the stories were complementary, but modern scholars posit another explanation: Faced with variants of the same story, ancient editors decided to salvage both by inserting them in different parts of their reworked narrative. Similar considerations led to other duplicates, such as the story of David’s slaying of Goliath and contradictory accounts of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels.


In other words, the Bible isn’t a coherent whole. It’s a sprawling patchwork of anonymous literary fragments and complete works collated, worked and reworked endlessly by authors and editors with various religious insights and political agendas over almost a millennium. Accordingly, its texts reflect a gradual but monumental shift from Iron Age beliefs to those of classical antiquity: the irascible, anthropomorphic deity who walks with Adam in the Garden of Eden becomes the ineffable, transcendent divinity of later scriptural compositions.


Only with time did monotheism, too, become a hallmark of Israelite religion. Armstrong supports the scholarly view that Yahweh was initially a tribal god of war (hence his belligerence) who took centuries to win his supreme place first as the head of a pantheon of lesser gods, then as the one and only God (around the time of the Babylonian Exile) by incorporating other Near Eastern deities’ traditional attributes. This shift, she argues, was ignited by subversive, iconoclastic prophets like Hosea and Amos, who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of cultic polytheism.


The Bible as we know it was born of calamity and existential threat. Rather than despair and abandon hope in Yahweh following the destruction of His temple in Jerusalem, ancient Israelites responded by seeking “healing and harmony in the documents that would become the Bible,” Armstrong says. The fall of the two temples, far from crippling the Yahwist religion’s authority, actually intensified it, thanks to religious visionaries who adapted its core tenets to new realities. The loss of the first temple transformed a parochial cult into a religion with wider significance as the dynamics of contemporary geopolitics came to be seen as a reflection of Israel’s tumultuous relationship with its own god. The loss of the second launched the Pharisees on their momentous quest to reclaim Judaism for a post-temple era. For the first time in history, not cultic practices but the study of written texts became the highest form of worship.


Scripture, Armstrong says, would become a sanctuary and a shrine — or rather, a Holy of Holies within mounting, ever-layered exegetical masonry in such extra-Biblical texts as the Talmud. Implicit in that development was the nascent idea of scriptural orthodoxy. Words on parchment became sacred. 

The Jewish rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza blazed the trail for modern biblical scholarship by casting doubt on the biblical texts' divine origins


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Religions reflect the ecosystems that give rise to them. Thus the Bible, the product of a sparse, semiarid landscape bordered by hostile desert, is stamped indelibly with the stern austerity of stone and sand. It’s reflected even in its theological counterpoints — the Promised Land of “milk and honey” or Jesus’ earthy agricultural parables. What then makes its contents so universally revered from the verdant glades of Ireland to the luxuriant tropical jungles of the Philippines?


Forged from the sorrows, hopes and dreams of a small nation, the Bible has sustained its enduring appeal in the settings of myriad cultures through its potent, inspiring and ultimately egalitarian message: that God loves His Creation; that individual lives have a purpose; that there’s hope in adversity; that righteousness will in the end be rewarded; and that redemption lies within everyone’s grasp. And if doctrinal specifics fare poorly in the face of increased knowledge, cultural change or technological progress, there’s always commentary.


It’s through the medium of commentary that scripture becomes a self-rejuvenating fount of new meaning as old tales and homilies are invested with new meaning by further layers of exegeses -- often at the expense of originally intended meanings. Exegetes, Armstrong argues, have “held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their time [but] they were not usually interested in discovering the original meaning of a biblical passage.”


And so interpretations of the Bible have influenced religious ideas as often as they have been influenced by them. From Constantine to the Reformation and beyond, the history of Christianity is littered with fierce dogmatic schisms over doctrinal disagreements that seem arcane, bizarre or even farcical in hindsight. Numerous Christian offshoots continue to claim allegiance to the same scriptures while seeing them in wholly different ways. That’s because scripture’s every word is presumed to be imbued with profound meaning. Early Christians from Paul, “the first Christian,” onwards scoured ancient Hebrew texts (and their Greek Septuagint version) for insights into Jesus’ true identity, left ambiguous by the Gospels. Reading the import of Jesus’ deeds, sayings and death back into older Jewish texts, they detected in his person the universal fulfillment of all that went before.


Simultaneously, by tapping its texts’ rich subterranean veins of recurrent themes and scriptural analogies for cross-referenced exegetical discovery, the early rabbis began to view God as actively present in His living words in the Torah — an idea now central to Judaism. Philo of Alexandria, the 1st century Jewish philosopher, was the first, Armstrong says, to introduce the Greek method of allegorical reading of venerated texts for spiritual insight. Soon, the initiators in Yavneh of the midrashic tradition, which culminated in the Mishnah, would posit that each segment of scripture supported millions of legitimate readings (3,015,000, to be precise, according to the 9th century compilers of the Pesikta Rabbati commentaries on the Torah). “As events unfolded on earth,” Armstrong writes, rabbinic exegetes argued that “even God had to keep studying his own Torah to discover its full significance.” At the heart of endless commentary, however, she points out, citing widespread endorsement by early rabbis of Hillel’s Golden Rule, was a simple imperative: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”


Modern historical criticism of the Bible was in turn pioneered by innovative rabbis and Christian rationalists in the 11th and 12th centuries. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak), Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Judeophile scholar Andrew of St. Victor ditched traditional allegorical readings in favor of unencumbered literal exposition. They highlighted the many discrepancies in the “inviolate” Word of God (how could Moses, presumed author of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, for instance, describe his own death?). Their nonconformist scholarship blazed the trail for iconoclasts like Baruch Spinoza, who insisted the Bible was entirely manmade, and culminated in the revolutionary insights of the 18th- and 19th-century German textual analysts of the Higher Criticism movement who pioneered modern Biblical scholarship.


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By relishing and pondering the timeless tales and poetic images of the Bible, believers have tried to rise above their mundane existence for a glimpse of some ultimate, numinous reality. Yet as with any sacred scripture, the danger with the Bible is that, far from broadening minds to the mysteries of the universe, it imprisons them in an antiquated, hand-me-down worldview. The notion is still prevalent that the Bible encapsulates all knowledge; common sense reasoning and scientific empirical evidence are “rebutted” with scriptural “proof texts.” “[E]nthusiasm for scripture,” Armstrong notes, can “foster an exclusive, divisive and potentially cruel orthodoxy.”


Today’s Creationism and Intelligent Design movements (a hopelessly literalist and a pseudoscientific approach, respectively) hark back in spirit to the ancient Hebrew doctrine of hokhmah (“wisdom”), which saw God’s inscrutable plan reflected in every facet of life, down to the last ripple in a pond. The corollary is that evil, too, is of God’s making. Inevitably then, some ultra-Orthodox Jews have explained the Holocaust as God’s punishment of wayward European Jews for their godless, liberal ways.


Certain works of the Biblical canon have also been a curse on history. Take the Book of Revelation. Included in the Christian Bible grudgingly by early Church Fathers, Revelation is an eschatological nightmare that has provided a bloody blueprint for militant Christians, End-of-Days cultists and crackpot dictators ever since. If millions of evangelical Christians would rejoice at the destruction of Israel as heralding the Second Coming of Christ, we have one John of Patmos, the alleged (probably Jewish) author of this hallucinogenic text, to thank.


“A thread of hatred runs through the New Testament,” Armstrong notes. In their eagerness to reach out to gentiles and threatened by the learned Pharisees’ critiques of their claims about Jesus, the Gospels’ Jewish authors turned their own people into scapegoats for Jesus’ death. The word “Pharisee” became a byword for hypocrisy and treachery. Their Gospels (“Good News”) would inspire, Armstrong says, “the pogroms that made anti-Semitism an incurable disease in Europe.” In other words, millions of Jews would die — and the lives of countless others would be blighted — because of words by anonymous writers who once didn’t see eye to eye with their coreligionists about the importance of a Galilean preacher.


Such divisive “revealed [read, unverifiable] truths” continue to haunt us. So where Armstrong’s history of the Bible comes up short is in her treatment of the Bible as actual history. Ultimately, the doctrinal mainstays of normative Judaism and Christianity (and, by extension, Islam) are predicated on the historical veracity of the Bible (increasingly undermined by textual analysis, archaeology and historical research). Either, the Bible provides a reliable account of God’s intervention in human history as regards His special and enduring relationship to His Chosen (be they Jews or Christians), or it doesn’t, in which case the Bible can be seen as just a glorified depository of inspirational ancient myths and folktales on a par with, say, the Iliad.


Decrying exegetical literalism as a modern phenomenon, Armstrong advocates an allegorical reading of the Good Book for its “intuitive,” not factual truths. Religious traditions, she has argued in previous books, flourish not because they’re empirically verifiable (or even sensible), but because they “work” for believers by answering their deepest spiritual and psychological needs. No doubt, in that process the Bible remains beyond par. Yet what we should never do, as Armstrong’s insightful account reminds us, is bind ourselves — and others — in blind bondage to it.


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