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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 November 2008
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.
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on 25 January 2011
Ms Armstrong is a former nun whose first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, I've enjoyed reading (twice). I've been rather wary of reading her other books as she no longer identifies herself as a Christian and I know my weaknesses. I'm easily led, especially by a persuasive piece of writing. Curiosity won on this occasion and I'm very glad it did.

The Bible is not an easy read. I read the Kindle version and was very glad to have the integrated dictionary to help me. Even so, I had to re-read some parts, look words up more than once, and still accept there were bits and pieces flying over my head. I don't see this as a failing on the author's part, however - she's writing for a scholarly audience and pitches her vocabulary and argument to suit.

Ms Armstrong traces the development of what we know as `The Bible' right through history, piggy-backing her narrative on the history of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Throughout the book, she shows how the Bible has shaped these faith and, indeed, how they have shaped it. She finishes with a stinging criticism of modern-day fundamentalism to which she offers a sane-sounding alternative: The Bible should be read with those of other faiths and, most importantly, with charity.
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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.
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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.
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on 8 October 2012
As a regular buyer of audiobooks and downloads I was very much looking forward to listening to this substantial work. However, I am sorely disappointed in the quality of the reading. It is far too fast for a text of this nature and also unbearably robotic. In fact it is quite like a poor text-to-speech wordprocessed document. It is not recommended and I would suggest buying the actual book. Overall, a great let down in this format.
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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
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 June 2010
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.
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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.
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on 21 February 2013
The Bible is with us to stay. This fascinating book describes the creation of the biblical texts from 1000 BC to 100 AD (approx) and the subsequent interpretations that religiously inclined people have put upon it since that time up to the present day. As far as I can tell this is a well informed/erudite book, aimed at a popular audience. I will recommend it to anyone interested in the Bible although it may offend some.
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