I’ve recently finished The Bible : A Biography by Karen Armstrong. I don’t often do book reviews – partly because I read embarrassingly few books each year but also because few motivate me to express an opinion online. People who read this blog are highly likely to already be aware of my opinions of organised religion. However, I was given this book as a present and was looking forward to learning more about how such an important book came together over time. Sadly I instead found myself frequently sitting on the train on the way home from work detailing listing things that annoyed me about this book both in style and subject…

Before I start to discuss the Bible itself I feel beholden to first discuss the flaws in this book and the manner in which it was written. Karen Armstrong does not come over as someone who expresses a strong training as a historical writer. The first thing that leapt out at me was the constant use of references from the Bible to justify the historical placement of certain early passages in the Bible. For example passages that discuss the rulings of certain kings are assumed to have been written during the period in history that the king in question ruled. Any historical document should not be used as a reference for itself.

The authorial voice in the book has far from a neutral point of view. For example the book of Revelations is described memorably as "toxic" in one passage. Although a significant time is given over to discussion of Luther barely a line or two is mentioned about Nicaea and certainly nothing about the details of the numerous potential books of the Bible that were consciously left out as they challenged the current orthodoxy of that time. There is barely a mention of the multiple simultaneous Popes caused by the Western Schism and perhaps most worrying was Ms Armstrong’s opinions on the Inquisition that they were just doing a hard job in difficult times…

That out of the way I’ll move onto comments on how the Bible came together. These are formed from thoughts jotted down during different points of reading so please excuse any repetition or inconsistencies (which in turn may be due to different opinions of historical biblical commenters).

  • To start with there is the flip-flopping between whether the stories of the Bible are literal, alligorical or a mixture of the two (with no authority on which is which naturally)
  • The Bible texts have been deliberately made difficult to understand as a challenge from God
  • The text of the Bible contains literally "everything" so which sufficient study any premise can be proved
  • The text of the Bible is "balbative" (li. ‘baby-talk’) i.e. God trying to talk down to our level
  • One must look beyond the meaning of the original writers of any part of the Bible as they often did not understand the text God was scribing through them
  • The Bible can only be understood by those who "reign in their mental powers"
  • To achieve biblical understanding a student must go into "the darkness beyond intellect"
  • Bible study must take place in isolation / meditation in order to achieve mystic understanding (as opposed to science which is inherently a group-discussed activity)
  • The Bible contains a non-understandable mystery – accepting that is the point
  • The Bible has been deliberately left difficult to understand for individual students to find meaning (like the emperor’s new clothes perhaps)
  • Many of the early-to-mid passages of the Bible were written by ‘mystics’ who achieved ‘revelation’ by sticking their heads between their legs for hours on end…

In the last section the book covers the Bible in modernity:

  • Robert Elsmere – "growing sense that the truths of religion ‘must be factual’"
  • Higher Criticism
  • Bible extensively used to justify American use of slaves
  • Bible used by both KKK and Black Panthers
  • Literal re-translations from source languages show previous interpretations no longer work
  • Literary analysis shows Pentutech has as least four authors
  • Rise of fundamentalism –  1881 Archibald a Hodge "Every biblical statement on any subject is ‘true to the facts’"
  • Warfield and Hodge start cult of Biblical inerrancy
  • The Schofield Reference Bible (1909) explains every stage of revaluations which is now always within the readers lifetime
  • Christians increasing taught to feel persecuted
  • Introduction of Yeshiva / Madrash / Bible colleges to ‘keep the faith’

Alternative review in The Guardian.