Monday, September 12, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“ON THE BIBLE” by Karen Armstrong (first published in the “Books That Shook The World” series, 2007) [Also published in other editions as “The Bible – A Biography”]
About nine years ago, the books-page editor of a Wellington newspaper asked me to do one of those dreadful “round-ups” of a new series of books that were being published. The series was called “Books That Shook the World” [also published as “Books That Changed the World”] and each was intended to be a simple, non-technical account of major books in world history, which had exerted a huge influence on people. Each was written either by a well-known controversialist or (in the case of slightly more unfamiliar titles) by a respected academic. Some of the authors combined both roles.
I was sent the first five titles in the series.
Given that - as is the way with silly “round-ups” - I was allocated all of about 50 words to cover each book, I was sorely tempted to cheat (as most writers of “round-ups” habitually do), read the blurbs, briefly squizz the text, and file my verdict. Instead, I became absorbed in each book and read them all conscientiously from beginning to end. I noticed that most came in at somewhere between 150 and 200 pages of text, and the tone was pitched at the non-specialist average intelligent layperson.
They were a mixed bag. Simon Blackburn’s introduction to Plato’s Republic was highly uncritical and rather soft on Plato’s more exclusivist ideas, but it did the business in setting the book’s cultural and historical context. Bruce Lawrence’s take on The Qur’an inevitably had to explain much arcane material that would be unfamiliar to any non-Muslim. The late weary loudmouth Christopher Hitchens turned his account of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man into a polemic on his favourite themes of secularism and free speech. The worst of the bunch was the journalist Francis Wheen’s glib introduction to Marx’s Das Kapital. Not only was it very brief (about 120 pages) but it fudged much of what could have been said about Marx’s economic theories and (as was the case with Wheen’s earlier biography of Marx) was rather too anxious to separate Marx from the Marxist-Leninism that later developed.
And at the other end of the achievement scale, the very best of these five was Janet Browne’s introduction to Darwin’s Origin of Species. Not only was it an excellent introduction to the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, but it fairly analysed rational (and some irrational) criticisms of Darwin and placed his book in historical context, as well as showing both the benign and the negative effects Darwin’s book had. I was happy to at once pass this exemplary little book on to my teenage children.
Some months later, the New Zealand Listener asked me to review a later title in the same series, Karen Armstrong’s take on the Bible. They gave me generous space to do so. I was very grateful for this. Among other things, Armstrong’s book is a bit longer than other titles in the series, and I dreaded to think what might have happened if I had had to cover it in 50 words of a “round-up”.
I went rather anecdotal and drew on some of my own (recent) student history in writing my review, but I still think I covered in fairly. So here, unaltered from its first appearance, is the review, which appeared in the Listener on 24 November 2007.
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Here are two grisly tales from my days of sitting in theology classes.
One evening, one of the lecturers, a patient and scholarly Franciscan priest, had been explaining that the “winged creatures” mentioned in a Hebrew Bible text should properly be imagined as the type of winged beasts seen on Assyrian ruins. They had nothing to do with the popular modern image of angels as beautiful winged human beings, a tradition that really derives from the pagan Greek Winged Victory.
This appeared to be news to a young man and his friends huddled over their Bibles at the back. Finally the young man, visibly agitated, said that that wasn’t the impression he got from his translation.
“Oh well,” said the lecturer, trying to be conciliatory, “perhaps we should compare different translations when we have difficulty with a text.”
“But this is the AUTHORISED version!” shouted the young man, getting red in the face. He pointed to the word on his Bible’s title page. Clearly, he thought there was a once-for-all-time translation of the Word of God.
Like many others of that mindset, he’d fastened onto the 400-year-old Anglican Authorised Version (the one that Americans took to calling the “King James Version”). His Bible was not only infallible; its translation was immutable. Presumably he thought God personally had “authorised” it.
I was a little shocked that somebody with such an outlook had signed on for a university course in scripture in the first place. On the other hand, I wasn’t all that surprised that he and his friends didn’t last the course.
Second grisly story. I had to do a student seminar on John’s Apocalypse (or Book of Revelation, if you prefer). As a happy hunting ground for literal-minded nutters who don’t know what a symbol is, it is traditionally rivalled only by the Book of Daniel.
Thinking that I’d begin with a tease (it’s always good teaching practice to begin with a laugh), I read from an old fundamentalist pamphlet that solemnly warned that the Whore of Babylon was the Catholic Church, Jesus was returning in a set number of days identifiable by specific historical signs, a limited number of the elite would be taken up in a “rapture”, etc.
By this stage, I expected my students to be rolling about with laughter at such ahistorical, unscholarly nonsense – and indeed, some gave knowing smiles. But I cut the comedy short when I saw others soberly taking notes as if this were a serious and worthy exegesis. Never underestimate the power of crazed rhetoric.
Talking about the Bible, it’s quite easy to pot fundamentalists, although nowadays some of the potting takes the form of strident, materialist counter-fundamentalism by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens and their ilk.
It’s a lot harder to assert what exactly the Bible’s current significance is.
Its general significance should be plain to all. At the very least, and more than anything from ancient Greece or Rome, it’s the foundational text of western culture. Without some workable acquaintance with the Bible, much of western literature and most of western art simply becomes incomprehensible.
But there’s a danger for religious believers in this approach. Pushed too far, it reduces the Bible to not much more than a series of footnotes to High Culture – to be read only in order to understand John Donne, Paradise Lost and the hard bits of King Lear.
Is there any sane middle way between red-faced fundamentalists asserting the inerrant, literal Word of God, and cultural historians seeing an interesting collection of old fables giving artists their raw material?
Sanity can be found only if the texts are respected, and respect means really listening to the results of linguistic analysis, really considering the historical context and genre of each text, really appreciating that many texts are open to different – and equally valid – interpretations, and humbly acknowledging that all interpretations are provisional anyway, even those of the best scholars.
Even then, there will still be a gulf between believers and non-believers. But at least both groups will have a clearer idea of what they’re talking about.
Karen Armstrong’s On the Bible is an excellent starting point for this sort of programme. Her brisk 230 pages (followed by an efficient glossary and references) are not a sequential survey from Genesis to the Apocalypse. Rather, in line with the rest of this Books That Shook the World series, they are a “biography” of the Bible. She deals with how and when the books were written, how the canon was formed and how it has been interpreted over 2500 years, rather than with detailed analyses of individual books.
Little here will be news to alumni of Theology 101 or 201, but it is presented vigorously and accessibly and with a fair respect for all points of view. Which is one of the book’s great surprises, because Amstrong – who long ago was briefly a Catholic nun – has built up a reputation as a strong feminist critic of much organised religion. In A History of God she took aim at patriarchal and masculinist versions of the Almighty, and sought to deconstruct them by historical analysis.
Yet in On the Bible, she shows a remarkably tender regard for some who have sometimes been painted as misogynists in feminist polemic. St Augustine, for example, gets a big tick for his awareness that the essential rule of the Gospels is Charity. Armstrong seems to be concerned that readers understand the basics of biblical criticism. She does not want to be sidetracked by polemic. And she is of course fully aware that if Augustine and others were limited by their historical context, then so too are we.
I could take issue with some aspects of her account. She gives virtually no consideration to the Deutero-canonicals, those mainly Greek-language Jewish texts, some of which are fenced off in some editions of the Bible as “Apocrypha”. In presenting in detail both the strengths and weaknesses of the Reformation-era Protestant ideology of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone”), she presents half of an historical argument. The opposing Catholic “Scripture and Tradition” deserved a more explicit hearing. But what do you expect when such a huge topic is being handled in such a concise survey?
On the credit side, she shows amply how long it took the Jewish people to move from polytheism, and how its final abandonment post-dated the Bible’s beginnings. In alternate chapters, she also shows how Jews and Christians fed off each other in their reactions to scripture. Modern Judaism is as much a development of, and departure from, the ancient Jewish religion as Christianity is.
Some books in this series have been glib and superficial, like Francis Wheen’s sorry volume on Das Kapital. Others have been models of popularisation, like Janet Browne’s intelligent take on Darwin’s Origin of Species. Armstrong’s contribution is one of the good ones, well-informed, balanced, asking a lot of hard questions and really opening up the text.
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To this review, I am inclined to add only one (lengthy) pedantic footnote. It still annoys me that people who should know better do not know the difference between the “Alexandrian Canon” of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) and the “Palestinian Canon”. All Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox etc.) accept the same texts as being the New Testament. But when it comes to the Old Testament there is a distinction.
About 100 years before Christ, Jewish rabbis in Alexandria collected all the Jewish religious writings they regarded as authentic and inspired. They included a number of books (e.g.Tobit, Sirach, the two books of Maccabees) that were written by Jews in Greek rather than in Hebrew – Greek being the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean at that time, and the everyday language of much of the Jewish diaspora. This is known as the Alexandrian Canon.
About 100 AD, after the great failed Jewish revolt against Roman authority, after the destruction of the second temple and the end of traditional Jewish temple worship, and when rabbis (really the heirs to the Pharisees) were radically reorganising the Jewish religion – the Hebrew canon was revisited. This time, rabbis decided to exclude from their canon all books not written in Hebrew, so out went those books originally written in Greek. This is known as the Palestinian Canon.
When Jerome made his translation of the whole Bible into Latin, he included the whole Alexandrian Canon, but he fenced off those books originally written in Greek as “Apocrypha” – meaning “things hidden”. Jerome’s Latin-language translation of the Bible remained the standard Catholic Bible in Western Europe for over a thousand years.
Came the Protestant Reformation and the reformers (Luther, Calvin etc.), in making their translations, decided to biff the Greek-language books. This was largely for theological reasons. Reacting against the Catholic theology of Purgatory (and the corrupt sale of Indulgences), the Protestant reformers were irritated by the clear evidence (especially in the books of Maccabees) that traditionally Jews had prayed for the dead and even routinely made offerings for the salvation of the dead. Some Protestant Bibles grudgingly included the “Apocrypha”, but most simply deleted these inconvenient books. In the process, the term “apocryphal” took on its new meaning (not intended by Jerome) signifying “inauthentic” or even “deceptive”.
There is a big irony in all this. While [most of] the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, all of the New Testament was written in Greek, and it is clear [from the way they cite Old Testament texts] that the writers of the Gospels primarily knew the Old Testament in its Greek translation – which would have included the Deutero-Canonicals. Furthermore, nearly all of the New Testament would have been written before the Palestinian Canon, excluding Greek-Jewish texts, was established.
In good faith the Catholic Church included the Deutero-Canonical texts in editions of the Bible. In good faith the Protestant reformers exluded them. But it is impossible to make a real study of the Bible without considering them.