Lead book review

How much of the Bible are Christians expected to believe?

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

In this careful study of the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, John Barton, former Oriel and Laing professor of the interpretation of holy scripture at Oxford  University, tells us that the OUP sells a quarter of a million Bibles in the King James or Authorised version every year. He doubts if many of them are actually read by the people who buy them or receive them as presents, with the possible exception of one important group. In Britain and the US the churches that are bucking the trend of decline are usually those that take a conservative approach to the interpretation of the Bible; and for many of them the King James is the version they use.

But not because of the beauty of the language. It is because they believe it is inspired and inerrant to an even greater extent than the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts of which it is a translation. For them it is a case of an already inspired — or God-breathed — text receiving an added burst of divine oxygen. To emphasise the point, Barton cites a notice seen outside a church in Charlotte, North Carolina:.

Are you tired of hearing your pastor correct the preserved word of God (the authorised King James Version) with the Greek or other translations? Are you interested in attending a Bible-believing Baptist church in the Charlotte area?
If so, call 394-8051
Tommy H. Hefner, Pastor
Bible Believers Baptist Church
3608 Dick Road, Charlotte NC 28216#


Though it is an exaggerated example, Pastor Hefner’s belief in the Bible as ‘the preserved word of God’ is prevalent in many sections of the Christian Church, but it is one Barton sets out to challenge in this calm and magisterial work, because it posits a Bible ‘that never existed’. He reminds us that the Bible is ‘not a book produced at one time, but an anthology of books, and some of those books are themselves anthologies’. Discussing one aspect of the Bible’s history — the chronology of the events described in the Hebrew scriptures — he says there is probably not a single episode in the history of Israel about which modern scholars are in agreement; and not just about when the events happened, but whether they happened at all.

Nevertheless, this scholarly caution has never stopped determined believers reading their own opinions into the Bible and forcing it to tell the story they want it to tell. A good example of the absurdities to which this can lead is illustrated by how some of them handle the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, that tell us that God created the world in six days. There are conservative Christians who cleave to belief in a six-day creation because they are convinced that the Bible can never be wrong about anything, thus placing themselves on an unnecessary collision course with modern science, to the delight of evangelical atheists who quote them as proof of the infantilising nature of all religious belief.

But there are other conservative believers who take a more subtle approach. They also believe the Bible is never wrong about anything, but they accept the account of the creation of the world offered by modern science. So how do they get around the obvious difficulty? Easy. In Genesis, ‘day’ does not mean 24 hours. It means the length of time it actually took to get the job done, even if it was billions of years. Problem solved. Thus, no conflict between the inerrant Bible and modern science.

But why go to such lengths to contort an ancient text into the shape you want it to have, rather than accept it as it is in all its mythic beauty? It is because of the need humans have to believe in something larger than themselves that gives meaning to their lives, even if it is rejected as absurd by unbelievers, whose dismissal, anyway, only serves to fortify their belief.

But let me turn now to the part of the Bible we call the New Testament, a description that needs a word of explanation. If we buy one of those OUP Bibles in the King James version so admired by Pastor Hefner of Charlotte, North Carolina, we’ll notice that it comes in two sections, or Testaments, an Old and a New. This is another example of how believers can make the Bible tell any story they want it to tell. The story being told here is that the ancient Hebrew scriptures foretell, or point towards, the coming of Jesus Christ and the Church that claims his name, hence the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments. In this reading, the Hebrew scriptures are only the prelude, or prologue, to the main event: Christianity.

Barton continues to use the terms Old and New Testament for convenience, but he is aware that they open the Church to the charge of ‘supersessionism’ or ‘displacement theology’. This is the claim that, under God’s direction, Christianity has fulfilled and replaced Judaism, which sinfully and stubbornly refuses to accept the fact. Herein lies the root of the virulent anti-Semitism that has dogged the Jewish community ever since. Yet in spite of the hideous effects of this appropriation of their scriptures, and the centuries of abuse and persecution that followed it, Judaism has been remarkably magnanimous towards those who have chosen to make free with its sacred texts. And in its own reverent use of them, it has demonstrated many different ways of understanding and interpreting them, some of them imaginatively playful and compelling.

But where did the Christian Church find the idea that it was the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures? At the risk of simplifying a complicated issue, the quick answer is the Book of Daniel, one of the latest texts in the Hebrew scriptures — according to Barton, no earlier than the second century bce. Daniel predicted the coming of a king such as David of old, an anointed king, a mashiah, from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to smear’ or ‘anoint’, later transliterated into Greek as messias, giving us the familiar word Messiah, or Christos in Greek. The Messiah would be God’s final answer to the sorrow and suffering that engulfed his people. This is the kind of longing we find in the scriptures of all broken peoples, the hope that one day God’s agent of justice would end the torments of history and heal the world.

The followers of a first-century Jew of undoubted spiritual and prophetic genius, called Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is told in an untidy bundle of writings composed between 50 to 120 ce — and now known as the New Testament — came to believe that Daniel’s prophecy was pointed at, and fulfilled in, him. And the rest is a history that keeps on telling itself.

But here’s an interesting fact. A superficial reader of this review so far might be forgiven for assuming that the author of this history of the Bible is a religious sceptic, given his scholarly disdain for the way believers down the ages have insisted on imposing their own views on the book. Yet he himself is a believer, a priest of the Church of England, a community that also manages to get the Bible to tell the story it wants it to tell. Which makes the point I want to end with.

One way or another, we are all believers in some kind of story that makes sense of our lives — even if it’s a story that believes life doesn’t, in fact, make any sense. (By the way, there’s a terrific book in the Hebrew scriptures that makes that very point. It’s called Qohelet, Ecclesiastes or Preacher in the King James Bible — and you may even have heard a bit from it the last time you went to a funeral.)

So why can’t we settle for a more tolerant and ecumenical attitude to the stories we all tell ourselves and the ways we tell them? After all, which of us really knows what’s going on?

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