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A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths

John Barton

Allen Lane, 2019, £9.50 Paperback. ISBN 978-0141978505

Review by Neville Manning, Retired Anglican Priest in Chichester Diocese

<strong><em>A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths</em></strong>

Reading this monumental work we have the impression of being in the hands of one who knows the territory he is writing about, which should be no surprise as the author John Barton, Anglican priest, was for several years Oriel and Lang Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford. Here is a book which is both scholarly and readable but also at times challenging. Its sweep is both deep and wide, as the author deals with The Old Testament, The New Testament, Textual issues and then the Meaning of the Bible.

He takes his cue from the Anglican Divine Richard Hooker and his plea for a balanced approach to Holy Scripture, not attributing too much to the Bible, lest in so doing we actually undermine its real significance. Barton is very clear that for him the Bible is crucial but not infallible. One of the main points which comes over is the diversity of Scripture, which is not monochrome, and the need for awareness of the many different genres included in these writings. For those of us who preach sermons it raises the pertinent question of whether we are prepared to vary the styles of our sermons in order to reflect that diversity. For example, a sermon on a narrative and parabolic story like Jonah needs to be different from the unravelling of the complexity of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is all too easy to get stuck in the proverbial homiletic rut whereby every sermon has a dull predictability about it.

Another key point which comes over is about our basic approach to the Bible. Do we look into the constituent parts of the Bible, which can be very illuminating? It is fascinating to follow Barton’s accounts of how the different strands of something like the Pentateuch came together in the form we have them. Or do we simply accept Scripture canonically as we have received it, for instance treating the Book of Isaiah as a whole, rather than focussing on its three constituent parts? There are advocates for both approaches in the scholarly world. However, at the risk of seeming like Mr. Facing Both Ways, I suspect we need both approaches, not either-or.


Barton makes us aware of the different ways in which different Faiths understand particular Scriptures. A Jewish reading of the Old Testament will often differ from the ways Christians have tended to read it, with our wish to connect with Jesus Christ and the story of our salvation, perhaps thinking of Jesus on the Emmaus Road ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets (explaining) what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24 v27).

The author faces a number of difficult issues in Scripture, including ethical ones or those about inconsistencies. A few bits of scepticism found my eyebrows being raised: did Ezra the Scribe really not exist, or did Luke not actually write The Acts of the Apostles? He also seems to favour the Gospels as a form of biography, an idea which I thought went out a long time ago. More positively and personally I found his comments on the Psalms very helpful. It is also good that several passages of Scripture are printed out in full, so that we are engaging with Scripture and not just with a book about it.

The book is obviously not about preaching sermons, yet it is a valuable resource in understanding the writings through which we hope people will be helped to hear the Word of the Lord.

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