BOOK REVIEW:  The Bible: A Biography (Karen Armstrong)
Posted Dec 12, 2007

BOOK REVIEW:  The Bible: A Biography (Karen Armstrong)

Making the Bible Intelligible in the Tempest of Modern Life

Karen Armstrong, The Bible: A Biography, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007

The most popular Christian evangelist in the world is a man named Joel Osteen who presides over a weekly Church service in a lavishly reconfigured professional basketball arena.  Each week he begins his mega-service with an exordium that asks each of the participants in the cavernous hall to raise up their leather-bound Bibles and make a series of declarative statements.  The most important of these statements is: “This is my Bible … I am what it says I am.”

What does this declarative statement mean? 

And what does it mean to pick up a Bible and treat it as if it is an organism?

Many years ago in my Synagogue, which was led by an Ashkenazi rabbi whose extremist interpretation of Zionism is well-known, one Sabbath picked up a Bible and started screaming about a statement reported in that morning’s New York Times by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef which counseled Israel to negotiate a land for peace trade with the Palestinians.  The rabbi clutched his Bible and raised it high above his head while intoning: “I don’t know what Bible Ovadiah Yosef is reading, but it is certainly not the one I am holding in my hand.”

The Bible is a book that is central to any understanding of our Western civilization.  It forms the template of the three monotheistic religions, each of which has a unique way of reading and interpreting it.  The labyrinth of the Bible is one that has become ever more contested and fought over in the course of time.  Modern scholars have exhumed what they feel is an “authentic” Bible that basically deconstructs almost everything that traditional people once thought they knew about it. 

As we recently saw while discussing the emergence of a new intolerance in our culture, there is nary a person who has been unaffected by this debate, which often becomes heated to the point of no return. Scholars, theologians, and ordinary religious people are often exhorted to take sides regarding what the Bible is, with groups breaking off into incompatible sects – all of whom make exclusive truth claims that they back with a resolve that permits no debate.

Writers on religion are often members of these sects and their books seek to drive home the beliefs of their particular group.  It is rare to find a writer who seeks to bridge the various divides; such a writer would allow us to achieve some form of objectivity on what has become a thorny and troubling set of conflicting truth claims.

I first discovered Karen Armstrong back in 1991 when chancing on a book called Holy War – a book that discussed the Crusades and their impact on the modern world.  A couple of years after this discovery, Armstrong’s star exploded with perhaps the most salient and enduring contemporary book written on Monotheism, A History of God.  It was this book that energized the study of religion and led to a resurgence of spiritual books which made best-seller lists world-wide.  But unlike many lesser works written by people without the wide knowledge and erudition of Armstrong, A History of God was not simply some piece of spiritual hackery.  Armstrong was – and is – a deeply learned and committed seeker of the truth and she would not limit herself to cursory and ill-informed readings of religious history and textual criticism.  In her book, which became a wildly popular best-seller, she taught her readers well; setting out a staggeringly eclectic range of sources that served to better clarify and elucidate the subject at hand.

With the publication of a companion volume to A History of God, The Battle for God, in 2000, Armstrong brought the story of Monotheism up to date to provide her readers – in the nick of time it would appear – a learned discussion of the emergence of religious fundamentalism in a world of secular modernity.  The Battle for God complemented the earlier work and provided a thorough history of Western religion that was as comprehensive as it was canny.

Having composed many works over the course of the 1990s and into the new millennium, Armstrong has become our most reliable writer on matters religious.  In her most recent opus The Great Transformation, published last year, she went back to delve even deeper into the origins of the religious idea and affirmed her centrality in our intellectual culture.  Her place is similar to that of the Harvard savant George Foot Moore whose own works on religion schooled a generation on the ideas and history of the religions of the world.

Armstrong, as I have noted, does not simply rehash the history of religion in a cold and an impersonal manner, but has adapted and enriched her sources with a keen appreciation of world affairs.  Her deep and abiding love and respect for Judaism and Islam separated her work from that of polemicists who simply wished to elevate one religious tradition over another.  Her work on Buddhism and non-Western faiths heightened this sensibility for her readers.  Her books attempt to generate an intellectual, moral and spiritual synthesis that would not skimp on the rigors of the scholarly, but continue to refuse the often maddening reductionism of academic studies which would limit open discussion and determine the direction of the debate as if in a vise-like grip.

The recent publication of her short book on the Bible (in an excellent new series from the Atlantic Monthly Press on the Great Books) is not simply a sterile recapitulation of her older works, but a creative tour of the Bible using the raw materials developed in her other books. 

Something that is not well-appreciated or understood in contemporary academia and pedagogy is the need for lucid and intelligible books that can be easily read and digested by the general reader.  In many ways, the balkanization of modern letters has created different categories of readers.  There is a maddening tendency of academics to write their books only for other academics and graduate students.  Popular books are more often than not written in a sloppily ignorant way to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  The middle ground for an educated reader is not always easy to find.

The Bible: A Biography is a masterful work whose concision is by no means a mark of shallowness.  Armstrong achieves on each and every page of the book a rich synthesis that speaks to a strict precision which liberally draws from her past studies.  She has been able to carefully distill the most essential aspects of the subject and leave out what is not needed.

The book tells the story of the Bible in a linear fashion that does due justice to the complexity of its history.  She begins with a learned discussion of the history of Ancient Israel that is unafraid of the messiness of history.  And yet her discussion cannot be reduced to bombast or polemic.  She maintains an even temper when reviewing some of the most contentious issues in the Bible’s history:

From the multifarious traditions of Israel and Judah, the eighth-century historians built a coherent narrative.  Scholars usually call the southern epic of Judah ‘J’ because the authors always called their God ‘Yahweh,’ while the northern saga is known as ‘E’ because these historians preferred the more formal title ‘Elohim.’  Later these two separate accounts were combined by an editor to form a single story that formed the backbone of the Hebrew Bible.  (p. 14)

Here we can see the great genius of Armstrong’s stylistic gracefulness and her level-headed sobriety; rather than asserting the religious incompatibility of an evolutionary development in the text, she sees the emergence of it as an organic phenomenon.  It is all presented in a matter-of-fact way with little hysteria and without acrimony.  Hers is a pure rationality that is always sensitive of the need to maintain the lines of contact that anchor the text.  Rather than presenting the historical Bible as a hopeless cacophony of disparate elements that have neither rhyme nor reason, she is uses great care to patiently go step by step to show us how these texts were organized and collected by writers, editors, copyists and redactors.  What is missing from her discussion is any mention of the malign conspiracies that seem to accompany most academic presentations of the matter.

She understands the spiritual currents informing prophetic discourse and makes sure to align her historical and textual discussion with a careful assessment of the spiritual aims of the seers:

As Hosea condemned the widely respected cult of Baal, Amos turned the traditional cult of Yahweh the warrior on its head: he no longer reflectively took Israel’s side.  Amos also poured scorn on the temple rituals of the northern kingdom.  Yahweh was sick of noisy chanting and devout strumming of harps.  Instead he wanted justice to ‘flow like water, and integrity like an unfailing stream.’  From this early date, the biblical writings were subversive and iconoclastic, challenging prevailing orthodoxy.  (p. 18)

The documents that make up the Bible are visionary pieces of literature that encapsulate lives, ideas, histories, ways of seeing the world and, most importantly, ways of approaching God.

The Bible: A Biography is a book that does not ignore either the spiritual component of the texts that comprise the finished book, nor does it gloss over the complex historico-literary process that brings these spiritual ideas into play.  It carefully delineates the historical realities that inform the writing of the texts and the interplay between God and man in the evolution of law, form and meaning in the traditions that serve as the template of the written components of the texts.

The figure of Ezra the scribe, a seminal figure in this evolution of meaning in the texts, is not well-known in religious circles and is over-figured in the academic study of the Bible where he is seen as a primary shaper of the meaning and significance of the texts.  Ezra is both more and less important than that.  He is not at the center of a theological conspiracy as many scholars may claim, but neither is he an inert and minor figure in the history of the Bible. 

Ezra is a “bookman” who becomes the navigator of the ship that the Bible is to become.  He inherits documents from the hoary past and the more recent past, and fixes those documents as texts, as Armstrong explains:

Ezra’s reading marks the beginning of classical Judaism, a religion concerned not merely with the reception and preservation of revelation but with its constant reinterpretation.  The law that Ezra read was clearly unknown to the people, who wept in fear when they heard it for the first time.  When he expounded the text, the exegete did not reproduce the original torah imparted in the distant past to Moses but created something new and unexpected.  The biblical writers worked in the same way, radically revising the texts they had inherited.  Revelation had happened not happened once and for all time; it was an ongoing process that could never end, because there were always fresh teachings to be discovered.  (p. 35)

It is this perceptive attention to detail and complexity that marks the genius of this wonderfully lucid and richly informative book. 

Understanding the template laid down within the Ezran tradition, the formation of the classical tradition takes its penultimate shape.  Subsequent developments in the Hellenistic world through the figure of the great Biblical exegete Philo of Alexandria whose allegorical interpretations fed into the nascent Christian tradition and the vast literary endeavors of the Hakhamim, the Sages of Jewish tradition who embark on a radical project rooted in the Ezran lore called Midrash, the uncovering of new and latent meanings in the Biblical text, all depend on a canonical set of texts that were formulated in the Jewish diaspora and brought into more recognizable form by scribes like Ezra.

The parallel development of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism shows the ways that these exegetical moments could achieve a semblance of the same, as well as split into violently divergent movements. 

The Christian tradition emerges out of Jewish apocalyptic literature which continues the traditions of the seers and visionaries.  It refuses to accept that prophecy has ceased or that the Law has been fixed by the scribes.  Traditional Judaism parts company with these new and emerging movements that are relegated to the margins of the literary texts that will emerge in the rabbinic canon.  The rabbis and the first Christians both experienced the loss of the Jerusalem Temple in radically different ways: the Sages created new “temples” of learning and a scholastic program founded on Scripture.  The Christians were still writing their story in the guise of their God and his messenger.  Christianity found that it could appropriate the stories of what they would come to call the “Old” Testament – a term charged with theological and ontological significance – and make them prefigure the mission of Jesus.  Using the allegorical method of Philonic exegesis, Christians from Paul to the Church Fathers and beyond found that they could transform the new faith out of its Jewish cradle and make it something that was wholly new and regenerative.

Because Christ lay at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures, they also expressed the divine economy, but this subtext only became apparent if the Bible was interpreted correctly.  Like the cosmos itself, scripture itself was a text, a tissue made up of an infinite number of interconnecting entities that were ‘woven together’ to form an inextricable whole.  Contemplating the encoded textus of scripture helped people to understand that it was Jesus who held everything together and explained the deeper significance of the entire economy.  The task of the exegete was to demonstrate this, fitting all the clues together like the interlocking pieces of a vast puzzle.  (p. 105)

Here we see the fork in the road that tore Christianity asunder from Judaism; the road to Christ that Judaism did not accept.  But it was in the form of an exegetical strategy common to both of the competing faiths that this struggle took place.  Both rabbinic Judaism and Christianity found in scriptural exegesis a place to articulate their respective visions of the world and of the divine.

Within the setting of this exegetical paradigm – that of Midrash – the stage would be set for the development of the classical traditions which were based on a Biblical foundation.  Midrash was an open process that was circumscribed by the ideational qualities of the differing faiths and their respective semiotic systems.  Judaism was founded on a ritual Law, Halakhah, while Christianity in its increasingly Gentile (af)filiation found in Paul’s abrogation of the Law in the name of the Son of God, another Midrashic motif, tore asunder the emerging Church from its Jerusalemite roots.

As classical antiquity turned into the Middle Ages, Judaism and Christianity found themselves in very different positions, and yet the need to parse Scripture remained.  Christian scholars continued to turn to the rabbis even as they were developing a reading of the Bible that was avowedly not the one of the Sages:

Andrew of St. Victor (1110-75), Hugh’s gifted pupil, was the first Christian scholar to attempt a wholly literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.  He had nothing against allegory, but it did not interest him.  He learned a great deal from the rabbis and found that scripture ‘read more clearly in the Hebrew.’  His academic commitment to the literal never failed, even when the rabbis discounted interpretations that were essential to the Christian understanding of the Old Testament.  (p. 135)

Out of this cauldron of medieval civilization came the great Judeo-Arabic synthesis and Scholasticism, which would later inform and be questioned by the first moderns.  The vast tapestry of Biblical exegesis contains philosophers, skeptics, mystics and lawyers.  The emergence of a Biblical culture that nourishes the faith traditions is one that is redolent with the influences and genuflections of new ideas coming from every possible direction.  As we can see in the Hispano-Andalusian tradition, cultures sought to learn from one another, translate each others’ texts in a frenzied attempt to find the truth and to mark the authentic.

With the breakdown of the Middle Ages and the scholastic ideal came new ideas that put into question the ideational structure of Biblical tradition.  It was this ferment that took Midrash and philosophical allegory and replaced it with a more hard-headed scientific modality that measured things temporally.  And once history trumped scholastic philosophy, the significance of the Bible took yet another turn.

Indeed, it has been the twists and turns of the epistemological that has served to inform the Bible as a book.  The endless layers of complexity in a Kabbalistic reading or in a Maimonidean-style philosophical exegesis cannot delimit the text and exhaust it of its meaning.  These new epistemologies served to maintain a dynamic within the Biblical canon that served intellectuals and scholars with new challenges that led to new anxieties.

In the Modern period, these anxieties led to the emergence of new literalisms and a forgetting of the old hermeneutics, or, better, a refiguring of the old hermeneutical strategies.  With the emergence of what would come to be known as the “Higher Criticism,” Bible scholarship divorced from religious belief, believing Jews and Christians were developing new ways of dealing with the past that would cause a rupture in the fabric of civilization.

The divisions led to what we now know as Biblical fundamentalism or “inerrancy.”  As Armstrong explains it:

In the past, some interpreters had favored the study of the literal sense of the Bible but they had never believed every single word of scripture was factually true.  Many had admitted that, if we confined our attention to the letter, the Bible was an impossible text.  The belief in biblical inerrancy, pioneered by Warfield and Hodge, would, however, become critical to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial.  Hodge and Warfield were responding to the challenge of modernity but in their desperation were distorting the scriptural tradition they were trying to defend.  (p. 199-200)

While this citation speaks to what was happening in the Christian world, so too did Jewish Orthodoxy emerge to do battle with the new scholarship.  It is this concern for what scientific scholarship would see as the literal “truth” of the Bible that has marked religious fundamentalism.  As Armstrong has already shown in the pages of her book, the Bible came together in a haphazard manner, was unified into a canon and then parsed over many centuries in ways that were avowedly not-literal.  Such a movement as that of Maimonides was a paradigm-shift in the way that Scripture would be understood.  Such epistemological shifts were contested, but the debate continued to remain lively and not static.

It was with the coming of the Modern age that the Bible began to become ossified in traditionalist circles and has led us to where we are today.  This forced straitjacketing of the Bible is the fault of both extremes – the religious fundamentalists and the scholars together: “When fundamentalist movements are attacked they usually become more extreme.” (p. 210) 

The constant jockeying for epistemological certainty has forced each side to demonize the other and to valorize their own “truth” as absolute.  Such dialectic has been a disaster for the Bible as well as for civilization in general.

Armstrong turns back to the Midrashic imperative for some cogent ways of dealing with the many problems we now face.  In a penultimate moment at the close of the book, she cites the work of Michael Fishbane, a Jewish scholar of Bible and Midrash, who

believes that exegesis could help us to retrieve the idea of a sacred text.  Historical criticism of the Bible makes it impossible for us to read the scriptures synchronistically any longer, linking passages widely separated in time.  But modern literary criticism acknowledges that our inner world is created by fragments of many different texts, which live together in our minds, one qualifying another. Our moral universe is shaped by King Lear, Moby Dick and Madame Bovary as well as by the Bible.  We rarely absorb texts whole: isolated images, phrases and gobbets live in our minds as myriad, fluid groupings, acting and reacting on one another.  Similarly, the Bible does not exist in our minds whole and entire, but in fragmentary form.  (p. 218)

Thus we see that tradition can be salvaged by using the marks, signs, and strategies of the tradition itself.  Embedded within Bible-study are the exegetical trappings that can free the text of the absolutism and certainty that has imprisoned it.  Scholars and religious fundamentalists have waged war on one another and used the Bible as a pawn in their fight.  Armstrong, in her own iconoclastic way, seeks to save the Bible from those who so arrogantly act as its owners.  In truth the Bible is not owned by anyone; it is a vast treasure trove of texts which contain myriad nuggets of the spiritual truths of the past and which all need to be unpacked by the interpreter to make any sense to us. 

We must be careful not to freeze these interpretations and their insightful discoveries, but must constantly be vigilant to allow for more interpretations.  Having said this, we must also be wary of allowing scholars to have the last word.  We must be careful to accept the various hermeneutical and philosophical approaches and not allow any one of them to rule the day.  It would be detrimental to the future of Bible study if we were to close off the hermeneutical process and sequester differing epistemologies.

In this sense, The Bible: A Biography is yet another landmark work from our best writer on religion.  It is a work of objective synthesis that is intimately informed by the spiritual and moral grandeur of the religious believer.  It lovingly reconstructs the entire history of the Bible – the good, the bad and the ugly – to better enable the reader to see what history has done and what is has not done. 

The Bible: A Biography is a book that is required reading not merely for the reader who is unfamiliar with all the debate and discussion over a work that is at the very epicenter of the Western Canon, but for anyone who has ever studied the Book.  It will navigate you through the vast labyrinth of the Bible in a precise and concise manner and teach you in a vigorous way why this book is more than just a book and why it is vital to what we are as human beings.  It does this with a calm sobriety and deep learning that understands the spiritual needs of human beings.  It is a book that will set us on the proper path and allow us to see in a transparent way the various peregrinations of this literature and what it means to us – now, and in times to come.

David Shasha