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Thorough and scholarly, but not without minor faults
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.