41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
This book provides an overview of the story of the Bible, not the text itself, but how it was written, how the canon was selected and how it has been interpreted and used over the centuries. Spanning the millennia from the writing to the present, it gives a view of the place of the Bible in the world that is often missing when reading about a particular book or thene of the Scriptures.
Author Karen Armstrong introduces, or reminds, the reader, about the sources of the Old and New Testament, the multiple authors of Isaiah and the way the Bible shaped the Jewish self-image. As it progresses, she cites comments by many writers, Christian and Jewish, including Sts. Augustine and Jerome, Martin Luther and many others.
I have read a fair amount about the Bible (see my Listmania, "Thinking of God") but I learned things I had not previously known. From my perspective, telling the story in a continuum is the most helpful aspect of this book. For one who has studied the Bible less deeply, it will provide a good introduction.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 30 April 2009
Karen Armstrong's 'biography' of the Bible is part of the 'Books that Shook the World' series. The Bible, of course, is not simply one book, but many books gathered together in a canon, or rather canons, since the Jewish tradition obviously excludes the New Testament, and even within Christianity there is disagreement about the status of the so-called Apocryphal books of the Old Testament. Then again, the story of the Bible is not complete without consideration of the books that didn't make it into the canon, such as the various 'gnostic' gospels that proliferated in the first and second centuries CE.
Armstrong expertly navigates this complex history in a lively and authoritative manner, simplifying for a non-academic readership the broad consensus of modern Biblical scholarship without dumbing down. The book could function as a primer for anyone who wants to get into more serious Scripture study, or as an eye opener for the general reader who may not be aware of the labyrinthine story of how we came to have the Bible in its established form, and, just as importantly, how we have developed our understanding of what it has to say to us. In this latter regard, Armstrong very deftly demonstrates that questions of interpretation have by no means remained static down the centuries, and that controversies about how various texts are to be understood are nothing new. Giving equal consideration to both Judaism and Christianity, Armstrong explains how Scripture has been interpreted and applied in both traditions, and how that process has always been informed by internal dialogue between believers and external dialogue with the wider culture.
This entertaining but informative book also packs a punch, as Armstrong strongly critiques literalist fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical texts that distort centuries' old understandings of the richer allegorical, mythical and spiritual dimensions of Scripture. She argues that religious fundamentalism seems to replicate our misguided contemporary faith in science as the only template for discovering 'truth', with the concomitant loss of any apprehension of ontological truths that cannot be expressed in the form of empirically verifiable facts. For Armstrong, both Biblical and secular, scientistic fundamentalisms are inherently misguided about the true nature of religion and its texts. She argues instead, and with Augustine, for a rule of interpretation grounded in charity. The 'golden rule' must anchor our attempts to understand and apply the Scriptures in our own lives, even if this leads to the creation of a 'canon within the canon' where certain Biblical books come to be privileged over others, which in effect has been the case from the beginning anyway. This seems both a sound and an urgent plea that demands to be heard, and I cannot recommend this little book highly enough.
87 of 94 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2008
This book has attracted predictable criticism from religious conservatives, evident in some of the reviews here. One suspects the author would be entirely unperturbed by this - avoiding the ills of higher criticism is the concern only of fundamentalists. Their criticism that Armstrong's tone of scholarly detachment fails when she addresses twentieth-century fundamentalism is easily answered - this brand of Christianity has nothing to do with detached scholarship, they parted company a long time ago. The argument over Arianism is just one case in point. As just about any serious scholar who has studied early Christianity will tell you, early Christians were not Trinitarians.
On a more general level, Armstrong shows an ability to draw together an impressive amount of material into an accessible synthesis, and she has few peers in this regard. Her treatment of the twentieth century is, as noted by others, sketchy. More seriously perhaps, her knowledge of early modern history is inadequate. Whilst generalisations are unavoidable in a work of this kind, her treatment of the early modern period is simplistic and often misleading. Deism was not a 'new religion' (p.185), nor was it espoused by John Locke, author of a Paraphrase of the Epistles of St Paul. To say that Isaac Newton 'scarcely mentioned the Bible in his copious writings' (p.184) is utter nonsense. Had Armstrong read Newton's copious unpublished manuscripts on scripture, or any of the published works analysing these manuscripts in the last twenty years, she would know that Newton spent at least as much time buried in scripture and prophecies about the end of days as he did thinking about the laws of gravity. Armstrong's understanding of the Enlightenment is simply out of date, historians have realised that the so-called "age of reason" was a far more complex time in European history than this author realises.
Whilst Armstrong is to be congratulated on opening up the history of the Bible to a wider audience in such an engaging manner, her analysis should be treated with caution, not taken as gospel.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 19 May 2011
Karen Armstrong's work styles itself "a biography" that attempts to examine the views and agendas of those who have contributed to both the actual text of the Bible, and to our present-day understanding of it. As such it lives up to its billing, and does so with a dogged thoroughness, but there is also a subtext at work here, in which Armstrong paints the scriptures as a work in progress throughout much of history, and as a "living document" subject to re-interpretation. While this inarguably true to some extent, insofar as interpretation will always be necessary where the underlying meaning, not to mention the spirituality expressed therein, of a document whose history extends back over three millennia, the underlying danger that "evolving standards" can quickly become no standards at all goes largely unaddressed. With regard to readability, the only criticisms I had of this book were, first, that it is occasionally difficult to tell whether a particular viewpoint being put forth is that of the exegete under discussion, that of Biblical scholars in general, or Armstrong's own. Secondly, the initial chapters are rather disorganized with respect to temporal sequence, and a simple diagram illustrating the timeline of the various contributions made by the "E", "J", and "P" narratives to the Old Testament would have been most helpful.
One expects, because Armstrong is, after all, an academician, that Political Correctness will eventually raise its ugly head, and in this regard the reader will not be disappointed, although she does manage to keep the impulse in check throughout the majority of her work. It is only when she begins discussing modern-day Christian fundamentalism that she cannot quite contain her disdain. True, there is the perfunctory swipe at "secular fundamentalism", the exact definition of which is left to the reader's imagination, but one gets the feeling that the single sentence or two to this effect - following a couple of pages of railing against the evils of "literalism" - were added more to give the appearance of balance than for any heartfelt desire to achieve actual balance. Still, if one takes into account that Armstrong, like every author, simply has her own agendas to pursue, for those interested in a scholarly history of Judeo-Christian thought, there is much to be learned from this volume.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 9 September 2009
In many ways this is an abridged version of Armstrong's "A history of God". In that book monotheism was discussed through the evolution of the writings and practises of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was an amazing book, with more information in 1 edition than 10 lesser tomes. That was also its weakness. It was intimidatingly dense and wrapped up in Karen Armstrong's insistence for rather dry writing.
So what we have here is the Jewish and Christian story slightly pared down and without the further complexities of the Islamic narrative. This actually makes the whole story more absorbable and reader friendly. Once again the plethora of research areas are huge and the voice of the book is authoritative and as always it is a statement of the facts in that are no way spiced by bias or opinion.
So here it is a historical story highlighting the context of one of the most important books ever written, free of bias and fable- in short a must read.
If you liked this there's more historical debate and fun at @HistoryGems on Facebook and Twitter
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 11 April 2008
The hopes and fears of all my years of Bible study have been met in this book!
Mostly it gave me a new appreciation for the strong influence of the Jewish faith and its practices of scriptural interpretation (exegesis and midrash) on the creation of the New Testament. It cleared up misconceptions I have long held (as a by-product of the commonly held Christian belief in the New Testament as fulfilment of the Old Testament, which indeed was the initial mindset of the New Testament authors) that the Jews have always been looking for a Messiah. According to Armstrong, this was only a minor theme in the Jewish scriptures until the period just before the advent of Jesus.
She also points out that the catalyst for writing of the New Testament was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. That Zionism was originally a secular movement. And alerted me to the extremes American Christian fundamentalism is taking. Scary. But the book is well balanced by the hopes of many thoughtful religious scholars.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
This book has an excellent contents, index, endnotes, sciptural references and glossary of key terms which make it accessible pretty much to anyone and a great writing style and pace besides. Chapters are about the right length and engaging throughout as they are informative and detailed.
The contents break down as Torah; Scripture; Midrash; Gospel; Charity; Lectio Divina; Sola Scriptura; Modernity and Epilogue and deal with both the old and new testaments in evolution in both Jewish and Christian history and faith communities.
The book provides a good short overview of the literary course of the bible, its origins in a oral tradition, evolution into scripture, the role of scripture as the preserve of an elite and then its fortunes, misfortunes and the consequences of it as a popular text. In this respect I felt that in some ways Armstrong was strongest earlier in the book and on the jewish history, although this could be a result of my being more familiar with christian and anglo-european history and feeling that some points where examined in less bredth than I would have appreciated (although this would have made for a volumous and infinitely longer book).
I really would have liked more broad comparisons with rival sources of knowledge, testament or literature, some more critical examination of its role in history and especially more examination or background of the who, the what and the wherefore of the selection or deselection (especially by reformed churches) of books considered canonical or non-canonical. I also felt that he final epilogue was weak, with a message primarily for believers and theists which didnt really speak to the bible as historically important to even a secular society's self-understanding. There was not much in the way of the value that non-believers or secularists had placed upon the bible, such as Jefferson's suggestion that it warranted a reading but to read it like philosophy.
Minor criticisms though in an otherwise good read which I finished in two days from the point of beginning it since it was able to engage me so well with the subject. I do believe I will read more Karen Armstrong as a result and other books in the Books That Shook The World series.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 10 April 2008
Armstrong has produced a cogent and necessary book. She demonstrates immense skill in absorbing a mass of complex historical information and presenting a concise and erudite exposition. The book is a truly absorbing read. The reason I haven't given the book full marks is due to the ending. Here, for the first time, she puts forward an explicit agenda - that there should be greater religious tolerance (based on the knowledge that interpretation of religious texts is at best an inexact science). This 'call to action' is unnecessary and weakens the overal force of the book. Armstrong needed to allow her work to speak for itself; it is good enough not to need her explicit intervention.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 20 January 2011
Most interesting. I don't know anything about the history of the bible, I am not a churchgoer, and I found out loads of amazing things about the ancient world and the characters who actually wrote what we call 'the Bible'. It is interesting as history, even if you are not involved in religion, because the early history of the bible goes back to a time before modern religious distinctions like Jewish, Christian, Moslem. I enjoyed it and would read it again to get more out of it. (I bow to the greater knowledge of some of the other reviews.) It is not an *easy* read, in fact I dont think it is specially well written. At the beginning, I was at a bit of a loss to understand what kind of book it was. But it's worth persevering.
on 1 October 2012
Such a remarkable read. Armstrong has managed to achieve the impossible, by her outstanding capability to put religion in context. No easy feat - she succeeds where others stumble and fall short. A true giant of academic research combined with an insight born of personal experience and enthusiasm for her subject. Streets ahead of the rest in her field, I have found this book explains and clarifies the true nature and origins of the writings of the Old and New Testaments that make the Bibles. Armstrong writes in a style that informs yet which is non-polemic, never arguing one way or the other for a particular faith stance. She does not insult one's sense of intelligence, nor does she dumb anything down. I am bit of a spiritual searcher and I am very grateful that Karen Armstrong is here to help me understand what is a very layered and historically obscured subject, i.e. the Bible.I will certainly aim to read more of her books on Christianity and on other religions. If only Christians and Muslims read her books on the respective religions, then the world would surely be a more peaceful and enlightened place. They challenge belief systems with knowledge and so are not for the fainthearted who have a fear of truth.