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As the work at the heart of Christianity, the Bible is the spiritual guide for one out of every three people in the world. It is also the world’s most widely distributed book, translated into over two thousand languages, and the world’s best selling book, year after year. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six “books” w As the work at the heart of Christianity, the Bible is the spiritual guide for one out of every three people in the world. It is also the world’s most widely distributed book, translated into over two thousand languages, and the world’s best selling book, year after year. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six “books” written by various authors and divided into two testaments, its contents have changed over the centuries. The Bible has been transformed by translation and, through interpretation, has developed manifold meanings to various religions, denominations, and sects. In this seminal account, acclaimed historian Karen Armstrong discusses the conception, gestation, and life of history’s most powerful book. Armstrong analyzes the social and political situation in which oral history turned into written scripture, how this all-pervasive scripture was collected into one work, and how it became accepted as Christianity’s sacred text. She explores how scripture came to be read for information, and how, in the nineteenth century, historical criticism of the Bible caused greater fear than Darwinism. This is a brilliant, captivating book, crucial in an age of declining faith and rising fundamentalism.


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As the work at the heart of Christianity, the Bible is the spiritual guide for one out of every three people in the world. It is also the world’s most widely distributed book, translated into over two thousand languages, and the world’s best selling book, year after year. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six “books” w As the work at the heart of Christianity, the Bible is the spiritual guide for one out of every three people in the world. It is also the world’s most widely distributed book, translated into over two thousand languages, and the world’s best selling book, year after year. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six “books” written by various authors and divided into two testaments, its contents have changed over the centuries. The Bible has been transformed by translation and, through interpretation, has developed manifold meanings to various religions, denominations, and sects. In this seminal account, acclaimed historian Karen Armstrong discusses the conception, gestation, and life of history’s most powerful book. Armstrong analyzes the social and political situation in which oral history turned into written scripture, how this all-pervasive scripture was collected into one work, and how it became accepted as Christianity’s sacred text. She explores how scripture came to be read for information, and how, in the nineteenth century, historical criticism of the Bible caused greater fear than Darwinism. This is a brilliant, captivating book, crucial in an age of declining faith and rising fundamentalism.

30 review for The Bible: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Riku Sayuj

    On Reading The Holy Texts: A Plea The basic historical account of Armstrong’s fits nicely with the Aslan take and also elaborates it for the reader, both into the pre-christian past dealing with the consolidation of the old testament and the post-‘christo’ development of the holy texts. In addition, this account gives a less detailed, and yet more comprehensive picture of this whole undertaking - it shows that Aslan might have tried to wind up his popular-history too fast and slacked on the detai On Reading The Holy Texts: A Plea The basic historical account of Armstrong’s fits nicely with the Aslan take and also elaborates it for the reader, both into the pre-christian past dealing with the consolidation of the old testament and the post-‘christo’ development of the holy texts. In addition, this account gives a less detailed, and yet more comprehensive picture of this whole undertaking - it shows that Aslan might have tried to wind up his popular-history too fast and slacked on the details towards the end of his book, and attributed most of the blame to Paul in the reinterpretation. Armstrong shows how this too was a much more collaborative and extensive project and not a one-shot wonder or a singular turning point as Aslan dramatically portrays. In fact, most of modern christianity seems to have crystallized much later according to Armstrong’s account. One thing that stands out even more is that while Azlan focused, almost with zealous enthusiasm, on the fact that the early christians were reinterpreting the Jewish scriptures, he leaves out the fact that these Jewish scriptures were themselves the result of continuous reinterpretation across the centuries. The Christians were only carrying forward that tradition, as did the post-jerusalem jews, who developed it into the Torah culture. The continuing tension between those who wished to see a strict historical truth in the holy texts and those who sought some mystical meaning through allegory is the real story of the Bible, as of most religious texts. An exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible, as of other religious document is a recent, and quite anti-religious development, as most religious scholars of the past would attest. Armstrong traces two parallel stories (one kickstarting only later, of course): the one of the Jews and the other of the Christians, swiveling around the two pivotal points of the destruction of the temple in the 6th century BCE and the even more devastating destruction of Herod's great temple in 70 CE. Both setting in motion the contrasting and inverted paths from meekness to militant apocalyptic worship and vice versa, told with fine dramatic flourish. In the end the central message of Armstrong’s book is that both these religions, especially Christianity, has evolved by continuous reinterpretation of the texts. This is what has allowed them to survive and adapt so much. Armstrong says that almost all religions of the world ask us to see the holy text with the light of compassion and then use them to guide our lives, and to be truly religious that is what we should do, not stick to artificial ‘textual’ readings of a text that was never there to begin with. So unlike many scholarly attacks on Christianity and the historicity of the Bible, Armstrong does the same but from a deeply religious vantage point - one of saying that love your Bibles but also trust your holy texts enough to let them be your companions instead of your masters. The Bible, she says, was always interpreted in this spirit of ‘allegoria’, one of mystical and spiritual interoperation, and Armstrong asks us to do the same instead of rejecting these holy texts or accepting them too literally. Only then we would be in the same path along with the greatest exegetes of the past like Philo, Jesus, etc. In our dangerously polarized world, this spirit is even more important, especially when dealing with the ‘holy’ texts of other cultures. When you meet an alien culture and their holy texts, we should approach with the suspicion of truth, not of hostility. This is Armstrong’s plea to us. The book is not particularly remarkable, being neither engrossing nor greatly educational, but the message is a valid one. The Bible, and the other holy texts are today in danger of becoming either dead letters or toxic arsenals. There is an urgent need for a compassionate hermeneutics in our approach to religions, eschewing both extremes of outright rejection and blind compliance. The solution might be to recapture the spirit of the early religious scholars and mystics.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    I really wanted to learn something from this book. But my problem is – how do I know what I've learned? Armstrong presents many controversial theories, but just states them as declared fact. Nowhere does she explain the evidence that led her to those theories or any alternative views. Primary sources are limited in several chapters and no academic research is cited. I'm not even aware whether she's done any of her own academic research, or whether she just repeating the popular material of the p I really wanted to learn something from this book. But my problem is – how do I know what I've learned? Armstrong presents many controversial theories, but just states them as declared fact. Nowhere does she explain the evidence that led her to those theories or any alternative views. Primary sources are limited in several chapters and no academic research is cited. I'm not even aware whether she's done any of her own academic research, or whether she just repeating the popular material of the people she agrees with the most. Over and over she takes an issue for which we have limited facts and states her favorite theory about it as if it could be no other way. This is the kind of positivist view of history that was dismissed by serious historians decades ago, but still is fed to the general public by those who should know better. I'm familiar with many of the theories because I've read them in other sources. Quite a few of them could be partially or entirely accurate. But if someone were to give me an alternative theory, how would I be able to judge it in comparison to Armstrong's? She doesn't give any examples of the facts, logic, or academic research her ideas are based on, and certainly doesn't express any humility or give consideration to alternative ideas. She just expects you to believe her. My recommendation would be – if you hear any alternative theories that contradict anything she says, and those theories provide the slightest bit of primary sources, interior logic, or academic research to back themselves up, then you'd have to prefer them over hers.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lawrence

    This book is a 120 mph speed race through . . . what? I guess how people have approached the Bible over the past couple of thousand years? I think it is a shallow book and poorly put together. To me, it feels as if the author simply shuffled her index cards, lined them up, and copied them. I felt I was reading a text that has all of the interest of an online computer manual. This is a book that talks about the Bible and how it's been interpreted, but actually does not give one "real life" example This book is a 120 mph speed race through . . . what? I guess how people have approached the Bible over the past couple of thousand years? I think it is a shallow book and poorly put together. To me, it feels as if the author simply shuffled her index cards, lined them up, and copied them. I felt I was reading a text that has all of the interest of an online computer manual. This is a book that talks about the Bible and how it's been interpreted, but actually does not give one "real life" example about how a particular school might have done it. There are, amazingly, hardly any quotes --- if there are any at all --- from the Book itself. The whole thing is a vast abstraction, somewhat like a study guide that might be used to cram for an exam. The author makes some interesting remarks, but then just drops them. For example, it would be interesting to know why or how the monk became the exemplar when there was no further opportunity for martyrdom (page 115). Or to know more about why the Fall of Rome means the West has a deep sense of Original Sin that apparently no one else does (page 126). Then, there are things like Anselm of Bec becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1189 when the previous line gives his dates as 1033-1109!!! (page 136) And Nicholas of "Lyre" as opposed to Nicholas of Lyra!!! (page 153)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Strömquist

    DNF @ pg 170-something, which is way too late in this book where at least the last quarter is but references and glossary. It really started out interesting - or, maybe not interesting as much as bewildering. This always happens to me when I try to read anything on the subject, I end up in a confused state over how so many have the ability to just turn off logic reasoning and just decide that "I'm going to believe this.". In this case, the discrepancy is of course the mutual exclusiveness of bel DNF @ pg 170-something, which is way too late in this book where at least the last quarter is but references and glossary. It really started out interesting - or, maybe not interesting as much as bewildering. This always happens to me when I try to read anything on the subject, I end up in a confused state over how so many have the ability to just turn off logic reasoning and just decide that "I'm going to believe this.". In this case, the discrepancy is of course the mutual exclusiveness of believing in god and believing what's in the collection of writings later known as "The Bible", through countless mutations due to translations, interpretations and will of men to be a true account of anything. The beginning describes this nicely, we move through old stories and polytheistic religions evolving much through the writings through hundreds of years and later included in or discarded from what became the Bible. Somewhere in the middle, the author lost me though and when she tried to in some roundabout way act the apologetic from all that was in the first part and try to reason Jehova into existence again, I dropped this one. Twice, literally - first on account of rolling my eyes so hard I got dizzy and later when I fell asleep in my lounge chair. I went in with no pre-knowledge, but after this turn of events, I did look the author up and Wikipedia tells that she was a nun, but converted to a more liberal and mythical christian faith. It is also stated that "Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule." Hm, I do wonder how come different religions, from different parts of the world do have certain things, such as these, in common? The fact that they are directly related to human decency and common frickin sense surely must be a too simple solution? Perhaps not. One thing I'm really sure about - if I had read the Wiki article first, it would have saved me some time that I could have used reading something else...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    It is astonishing how much history Armstrong packs into a small space. While I am sure she knows her stuff, the brevity of coverage makes it impossible to independently evaluate her statements. For example, was Augustine's theory of original sin really inspired by the sacking of Rome? My other complaint is more a weakness of my own mind than of Armstrong's writing. I believe that approximately two weeks from now, I will not be able to remember the difference between the theology of Abelard and t It is astonishing how much history Armstrong packs into a small space. While I am sure she knows her stuff, the brevity of coverage makes it impossible to independently evaluate her statements. For example, was Augustine's theory of original sin really inspired by the sacking of Rome? My other complaint is more a weakness of my own mind than of Armstrong's writing. I believe that approximately two weeks from now, I will not be able to remember the difference between the theology of Abelard and that of Philo. (Despite the fact that only one of them is a Jew.) And since the oldest ecclesiastical authors go by names like "P" and "E", I can barely keep track of the Old Testament authors, even as I read about them. Very well narrated, if you like it bland.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ed

    I bought this on a whim in the bookstore at O'Hare and read much of it on the plane. I thought it was a very good summary of the history of the Bible, from origins in oral tradition to contemporary phenomena such as a literal reading. It was particularly good on outlining the differences in approach in Jewish and Christian traditions. As in her other books, Armstrong strikes a nice balance between critical analysis and broad understanding of the non-rational aspects of religious thought and trad I bought this on a whim in the bookstore at O'Hare and read much of it on the plane. I thought it was a very good summary of the history of the Bible, from origins in oral tradition to contemporary phenomena such as a literal reading. It was particularly good on outlining the differences in approach in Jewish and Christian traditions. As in her other books, Armstrong strikes a nice balance between critical analysis and broad understanding of the non-rational aspects of religious thought and tradition. It also did a good job of discussing the widely diverse ways in which the Bible has been interpreted over time, based on the issues and dynamics of the time.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jon Stout

    Like everything that Karen Armstrong touches, this work is exhaustive and erudite and wonderful. It does not summarize what is in the Bible, but rather is a broad scope history of how the Bible was written and how it has been interpreted unto the present day. The treatment supports Armstrong’s general theme that world religions do not offer a body of beliefs to be factually evaluated, but rather a way of life, a spiritual discipline including rites and rituals, which can only be evaluated by bei Like everything that Karen Armstrong touches, this work is exhaustive and erudite and wonderful. It does not summarize what is in the Bible, but rather is a broad scope history of how the Bible was written and how it has been interpreted unto the present day. The treatment supports Armstrong’s general theme that world religions do not offer a body of beliefs to be factually evaluated, but rather a way of life, a spiritual discipline including rites and rituals, which can only be evaluated by being lived out. The history of how the Tanakh (or “Old Testament”) was written had some surprises for me. For example, I knew that in Genesis, scholars had discerned (at least) two distinct authors, the Yahwist and the Elohimist (based on the names “Yahway” and “Elohim” used for God). The Yahwist famously portrayed God in highly personal terms, as walking in the Garden of Eden with Adam, and as being a guest in the tents of Abraham, while the Elohimist portrayed God in more transcendent terms. What I didn’t know was that these two “authors” probably comprised the respective literatures of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The points of view were collated into one after the Assyrian defeat of Israel in 722 B.C.E., when the refugees fled to Judah. Equal attention is given to early Christianity and to Pharisaical Judaism, the two largest competing branches of Judaism at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Judaism and Christianity needed very different survival techniques, and took very different forms, in order to cope with the power of the Roman Empire. The history continues with a discussion of how the Bible was interpreted by both Jewish and Christian traditions in the last two millennia. There is far too much information to summarize, but one consequence of the discussion is to show that the contemporary reflex, to evaluate the Bible as either factually true or factually false, leaves out a lot of possibilities for how the Bible has actually been regarded and used. Talmudic scholars sometimes regarded the inspirational experience derived from interpretation as more important than the original meaning. Christian writers and interpreters of the New Testament often took the Tanakh to be referencing the yet-to-be-born Jesus. More commonly, scholars have regarded the Bible as the history of a faith community, whose general conclusions are relative to a particular time and place. And many commentators, both Jewish and Christian, have argued that an interpretation should be judged in terms of whether it increases compassion in the world.

  8. 4 out of 5

    John Martindale

    Karan Armstrong not only quickly did an overview of the development of bible from a highly skeptical secular perspective, but also touched on Christian and Jewish history. The most interesting part to me was the brief overview of Jewish and Christian interpretations of scriptures through history. As I listened, I did notice some straight up errors (if what I've learned elsewhere is to be believed), and the book seemed very biased. Again and again she would share what was in reality an extremely Karan Armstrong not only quickly did an overview of the development of bible from a highly skeptical secular perspective, but also touched on Christian and Jewish history. The most interesting part to me was the brief overview of Jewish and Christian interpretations of scriptures through history. As I listened, I did notice some straight up errors (if what I've learned elsewhere is to be believed), and the book seemed very biased. Again and again she would share what was in reality an extremely speculative interpretation, theory or hypothesis and present it as solid fact, I don't recall her ever using the words; “possibly”, “It seems” or “some have argued” or “maybe it was”, or even hinting that some of what she presented as fact is even seen as problematic by other liberal and anti-theistic scholars. What she shared was astronomically one sided, and the suppressed evidence was truly immense. If there was interpretation of the data that had tons of evidence for it, but then another interpretation that had very little or no evidence to support it, and yet put the bible and Christians in a worse light, the latter interpretation was of course the one presented as absolute undisputed fact. I suppose that due to the brevity and scope of the book that there wasn't the time to give a more fair and balanced telling, yet still the extreme dogmatism could have been tempered somewhat, especially that which was based upon scholarship of convenience as Bart Ehrman calls it. Or as I like to call it Procrustean Scholarship, where they confidently date material so it fits their previously held schema, and claim the individual verses that still don't fit with their preconceived theories are interpolations, and then dream up motivations and read anything they want between the line, in order to force things line up a little too perfectly.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Beckie

    Karen Armstrong is among my top five religion scholars, and also probably my top five former nuns. She does a good job of making complicated history and theory comprehensible. At least one chapter of "The Bible: a Biography" pretty well summed up a semester-long class I had, and the book sweeps through history from ancient Israel through the present. It's also worth noting that Armstrong traces the Jewish perspective on the Bible throughout that whole period, where many authors focus exclusively Karen Armstrong is among my top five religion scholars, and also probably my top five former nuns. She does a good job of making complicated history and theory comprehensible. At least one chapter of "The Bible: a Biography" pretty well summed up a semester-long class I had, and the book sweeps through history from ancient Israel through the present. It's also worth noting that Armstrong traces the Jewish perspective on the Bible throughout that whole period, where many authors focus exclusively on Christian ideas once we hit the early church. This is to her credit, and the reader's benefit. My main complaint is that the author's trademark simplification comes at a price. While Armstrong is very critical of much accepted wisdom about the Bible (particularly the idea of taking it literally) and of events as portrayed in the biblical texts, she takes some theories for granted. For example, the idea of the 'Q' text behind the synoptic gospels is presented as a fact. It's a well-respected theory, but how much stock can you put in a hypothetical text we don't have? There are also some historical stories she accepts at face value, and I cannot tell how she makes that call sometimes. This does the reader a disservice. Toward the end, Armstrong tips her hand a bit, showing a clear desire to salvage the Bible (and other religious texts) from the damage inflicted by fundamentalists (in her view) and find value in it for modern readers. Which is fine and all, I personally do think opinions should be allowed in scholarship, but it's just not the purported purpose of this book. It's still worth reading: a scholarly book for a general audience.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Leslie

    This book, a biography of the Bible, is very informative and it covers from the beginning of the Old Testament to the present time. I've never read a book before that talks about how the Old Testament canon was chosen, so that was very interesting. Armstong shows the different schools of thought that existed back in ancient Isreal. I was surprised how little time she spent on how the New Testament canon was chosen. Instead Armstrong concentrated on the many different ways of approaching scriptur This book, a biography of the Bible, is very informative and it covers from the beginning of the Old Testament to the present time. I've never read a book before that talks about how the Old Testament canon was chosen, so that was very interesting. Armstong shows the different schools of thought that existed back in ancient Isreal. I was surprised how little time she spent on how the New Testament canon was chosen. Instead Armstrong concentrated on the many different ways of approaching scripture, studyig the bible,viewing God, when people did or didn't take things literally. She concentrates on exegesis and all the many ways it is done. I also like that she continues comparing and contrasting the two religions all the way through time. Most books about the bible don't mention Judiasm after they start talking about Christianity, like it just shriveled up and died or something. Which it did not! Armstrong keeps both threads running concurrently and shows how similiar cultural shifts and historical events affected both religion's approach to the bible and God. She explains many terms I didn't know the meaning of and elaborates on many I was fuzzy on. As always, Armstrong's writing style is concise, complex, and yet comprehensible in the extreme. I think Karen Armstrong is one of the best writers about religion around.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sarah - All The Book Blog Names Are Taken

    Wavering back and forth between two and three stars. This wasn't just about the Bible, which is what the title purported it to be. Full review to come. Rating: 2 Stars Man, this book was dull. Considering the fact that the topic is one of the most important books ever compiled, you'd think the history could be put together in an engaging way. It's not. There is a ton of information in this short volume, but it is so haphazard and random that I don't even recall anything I learned. My total lack of Wavering back and forth between two and three stars. This wasn't just about the Bible, which is what the title purported it to be. Full review to come. Rating: 2 Stars Man, this book was dull. Considering the fact that the topic is one of the most important books ever compiled, you'd think the history could be put together in an engaging way. It's not. There is a ton of information in this short volume, but it is so haphazard and random that I don't even recall anything I learned. My total lack of interest could also have to do with the fact that the author needs a thesaurus because she used the word 'exegesis' or a variant on every single page. It was the worst. You could make a drinking game out of how many times she uses it, and you would be hammered after the first third of the book. Don't bother with this one.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jason Pettus

    Goodreads 2019 Summer Reading Challenge 17. Genre explorer: Read a book from a genre you’ve never read before A few years ago I added to my literary bucket list the challenge of reading the Christian Bible from cover to cover; but since I'm an atheist who knows little about biblical history, this means that to do a thorough job at it, I also need to read several dozen other books on Judaism, Middle Eastern history, the history of Bible interpretation, the history of early Christianity, and more. I Goodreads 2019 Summer Reading Challenge 17. Genre explorer: Read a book from a genre you’ve never read before A few years ago I added to my literary bucket list the challenge of reading the Christian Bible from cover to cover; but since I'm an atheist who knows little about biblical history, this means that to do a thorough job at it, I also need to read several dozen other books on Judaism, Middle Eastern history, the history of Bible interpretation, the history of early Christianity, and more. It's a daunting task, which is why I keep putting off really throwing myself into the middle of it; but for this summer reading challenge, I thought I'd at least start with this short and plain-written guide to the Bible's history, construction, and two thousand years of different interpretative schools of thought. If like me you know almost nothing about these subjects, this primer by comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a great place to start, in that she often delves into some really simple subjects (for one early example, what the exact relation is between the Christian Bible and the various holy books of Judaism, and how they all went from normal books to "holy" in the first place), but without ever being simplistic or overly patronizing, a sophisticated look at some basic topics that is perfect for the budding intellectual who's not sure where to start with this overwhelming subject. It served as a great entrance to the rabbithole I'll be descending more and more over the coming few years.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ned

    I found this illuminating, as I always do Armstrong's books, for its careful yet lively writing style. She makes history and scholarship come alive. Predominant themes are how the written word has been used as guide and history and since the enlightenment the book known as the bible has been subjected to the criticisms and a level of literalism for which it was not intended. Her writing style is superb and she has an experts level of understanding of ancient tomes and history and context. Three I found this illuminating, as I always do Armstrong's books, for its careful yet lively writing style. She makes history and scholarship come alive. Predominant themes are how the written word has been used as guide and history and since the enlightenment the book known as the bible has been subjected to the criticisms and a level of literalism for which it was not intended. Her writing style is superb and she has an experts level of understanding of ancient tomes and history and context. Three stars only because I've gathered these themes from reading her prior works, and there wasn't a tremendous amount of revelation for me. But a good primer and a great read for anyone interested in how the bible came to be and the influences that came to bear on its many renderings and interpretations. The final chapter on modernity is excellent and she gives a fine epilogue for how we might all find some peace, civility and charity in an ugly world of strife.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    for me, often involuntarily in the promised land, this was interesting, but i accept it might be a minority interest here in godless europe. karen armstrong is one of the greatest writers today on the history of religion - learned, fair, fairly concise. i trust her in a subject needing objectivity as the desert needs some rain. i enjoyed the early chapters, illustrating the variety of peoples and religions and writers that got shoe-horned into being the 'chosen people' of this book. the jewish a for me, often involuntarily in the promised land, this was interesting, but i accept it might be a minority interest here in godless europe. karen armstrong is one of the greatest writers today on the history of religion - learned, fair, fairly concise. i trust her in a subject needing objectivity as the desert needs some rain. i enjoyed the early chapters, illustrating the variety of peoples and religions and writers that got shoe-horned into being the 'chosen people' of this book. the jewish and christian nit-picking over the middle sections was heavier going. then i enjoyed armstrong's presentation of the reformation, the enlightenment and the return of fundamentalism in some parts more recently. if there had been religious studies at my school i would have wanted karen armstrong standing there by the blackboard.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Steve Herman

    Ms. Armstrong is a former nun who has become a popular writer on religion. Her faith-based “biography” of the Bible runs roughshod over the facts. There are far too many errors to discuss here, so I will focus on a few key points and her overall conclusion. Like many others, Ms. Armstrong says that we should not read the Bible literally. This leads to too many problems. But Ms. Armstrong goes further and insists that Christians did not read the Bible literally: “It is … crucial to note that an e Ms. Armstrong is a former nun who has become a popular writer on religion. Her faith-based “biography” of the Bible runs roughshod over the facts. There are far too many errors to discuss here, so I will focus on a few key points and her overall conclusion. Like many others, Ms. Armstrong says that we should not read the Bible literally. This leads to too many problems. But Ms. Armstrong goes further and insists that Christians did not read the Bible literally: “It is … crucial to note that an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life.” (p. 3); “the first chapter of Genesis was rarely read as a factual description of the origins of the cosmos.” (p. 223); “after the Enlightenment, some saw the biblical narratives as purely factual, forgetting that they were written as stories” (p. 220). This is utterly preposterous. For example, St Augustine wrote The Literal Meaning of Genesis. As the title indicates, Augustine insisted on literal interpretations, and dismissed allegorical and other non-literal approaches. Historically, Christianity almost always insisted that the Bible was literally true. They claimed it was the literal word of God, and therefore must be taken literally. The Catholic Church created the Office of the Inquisition to enforce literal interpretations. That’s why it arrested Galileo, and persecuted many others. That’s why Copernicus was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. For centuries, the Index focused almost exclusively on books that contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Index was enforced by the Inquisition. Nor was literal interpretation limited to the Catholic Church. Martin Luther insisted on it, as did John Calvin. Ms. Armstrong knows these facts, but chooses to rewrite history to fit her faith. And she does so repeatedly. To cite another fantastic example, Ms. Armstrong claims, “The Spanish Inquisition … was a modernizing institution, designed to create ideological conformity” (p. 176).” That’s like saying the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was urban renewal. Even Pope John Paul apologized for the Inquisition, tacitly admitting it was an atrocity. Ms. Armstrong’s conclusion and bottom-line: “We can read the Bible today as a prophetic commentary on our own world of raging orthodoxies; it can provide us with the compassionate distance to realize the dangers of this strident dogmatism and replace it with a chastened pluralism.” These are the kind of feel-good bromides that have made her popular. But her claim about the Bible’s pluralism is, once again, preposterous. The Bible’s very first commandment said the God of Israel is a jealous God, and prohibits followers from having anything to do with any other god. It is anything but pluralistic. After the Exodus, when God delivers his people to their land of milk and honey, the first thing he has them do is slaughter all the tribes living there. They worshiped other gods, and according to the Bible, God would not tolerate pluralism. Whenever the children of Israel show signs of pluralism, God punishes them. Whenever anything goes wrong, pluralism is blamed for it. This is the constant refrain of the prophets. Intolerance is not limited to the Old Testament. The New Testament’s gospels say there is no salvation outside of Jesus. There is no trace of pluralism in the Book of Revelation, which prophesies that non-believers will die a gruesome death and then suffer the eternal flames of Hell. You need a vivid imagination to find evidence of pluralism. Before Constantine empowered Christianity, there were many different Christian sects. Constantine established the Nicene Creed. Any deviation from it was heresy. The Church persecuted heretics. It destroyed most Christian gospels and other texts as heresy. Soon the Christian state declared pagan worship to be a capital crime. Christianity totally rejected pluralism, using the Bible as justification. Centuries later, when some Christians protested the corruption of the Catholic Church and its dubious interpretations of the Bible, the Church declared another Holy War. Catholics and Protestants spilled a sea of blood. Ms. Armstrong’s biography willfully ignores this. Neither Catholics nor Protestants found “chastened pluralism” in the Bible. Based on the biblical commandment to kill witches and sorcerers, Catholics and Protestants alike conducted witch hunts, killing thousands of innocent women. The bloodiest and most exploitative forms of imperialism were conducted by Christian institutions, once again using the Bible as justification. The White Man’s Burden was accompanied by Onward Christian Soldiers. Christian imperialists practiced murder, subjugation, and forced conversion -- not pluralism. These chapters are also missing from Ms. Armstrong’s biography. Ms. Armstrong repeatedly commits major errors of commission and omission in her “biography” of the Bible. She carries wishful thinking to extremes, contradicting facts she knows very well. No doubt she has the best of intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What’s worse, nearly everyone applauds such pious fraud.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Jackson

    This was another helpful book by one of my favorite authors--Karen Armstrong. In it she traces the history of the Bible and its interpretation. As usual, Armstrong did a wonderful job. I only gave it 4 stars because, unlike all of her other books, it didn't really provide me with any new information/ideas. If you've never really studied the history of the Bible; however, I would highly recommend this introduction. I loved this quote from the epilogue: "Making sense of the utterances and behavior This was another helpful book by one of my favorite authors--Karen Armstrong. In it she traces the history of the Bible and its interpretation. As usual, Armstrong did a wonderful job. I only gave it 4 stars because, unlike all of her other books, it didn't really provide me with any new information/ideas. If you've never really studied the history of the Bible; however, I would highly recommend this introduction. I loved this quote from the epilogue: "Making sense of the utterances and behavior of others, even their most aberrant behavior requires you to find a great deal of truth and reason in them. Even though their beliefs may be very different from your own, you have to assume that the alien is very much the same as you are, otherwise you are in danger of denying their humanity." ---Donald Davidson

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I can understand why the publisher's marketing department decided to name it The Bible: A Biography; it's because A History of Biblical Exegesis just doesn't have the same popular ring. But that's what the book really is. If you are looking for theoretical histories of JEPD and the New Testament text, you will be sorely disappointed. These things are skimmed over. Is it a good book anyway? In some ways. There is interest to be found in the discussion, especially in the history of Jewish exegesis I can understand why the publisher's marketing department decided to name it The Bible: A Biography; it's because A History of Biblical Exegesis just doesn't have the same popular ring. But that's what the book really is. If you are looking for theoretical histories of JEPD and the New Testament text, you will be sorely disappointed. These things are skimmed over. Is it a good book anyway? In some ways. There is interest to be found in the discussion, especially in the history of Jewish exegesis and philosophy. But the basic blandness of the writing, the superficial coverage of some basic issues (such as JEPD) makes it feel unbalanced. This disappoints me because I expected to like Karen Armstrong's writing, having heard about her for a while and only just gotten around to reading her work. But I'm not nearly as eager to try another Armstrong effort as I was to start this one.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ericka Clouther

    Armstrong writes about the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Bible, over and over again through the centuries. It has a similar thrust to her book, The Case for God, but it is much shorter because it focuses only on the text of the Bible and not the overall concept of God. It was a little boring in its early history and sped through contemporary history, and it wasn't as strong a thesis as The Case for God, but it was a solid read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    A. J.

    Fabulous topic. Author's style makes it like trying to see through peanut butter. I have read several of her books and usually like them. This is work to get through and while doing such... I find it difficult to stop and say what I just read or learned.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kcatty

    I am a life-long Baptist and a science person. No matter how contradictory that sounds, it means that I do a very good job separating my belief from my reason. I can completely accept scientific facts while still believing that the Bible was written how most of us believe it was written. So, from this point onward, it's my reason talking. And the writer in me, not the Baptist. I stopped reading this book because it seemed so thoroughly biased in unbiasness. It is a completely scientific-based book I am a life-long Baptist and a science person. No matter how contradictory that sounds, it means that I do a very good job separating my belief from my reason. I can completely accept scientific facts while still believing that the Bible was written how most of us believe it was written. So, from this point onward, it's my reason talking. And the writer in me, not the Baptist. I stopped reading this book because it seemed so thoroughly biased in unbiasness. It is a completely scientific-based book, but, from the tone, it felt really determined to debunk Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the same time. It goes out of its way to point out all the ways the scripture was used for really wacky stuff, and how wrong a lot of people today are at interpreting it. A scientific work is unbiased from beginning to end - it may seek to prove, or perhaps debunk a hypothesis, but if the data doesn't support the original theory, the scientist notes that. The author came in with her hypothesis and spent the whole book proving it, but also taking shot after shot at the other side with glee. Even when I agree with authors (cough, Glenn Greenwald) on premises, I can't stand the ego some of them show so obviously. Another thing - the author presents information as fact when it is theory. For example, the documentary hypothesis (JEPD) is, as the name suggests, a hypothesis. It's not fact. I've learned about the theory before and I'd say it has merits. It explains some things and not others. But there's a big difference between a theory and a fact. Gravity is fact. JEPD is not fact. We will never be able to prove it to be fact. Armstrong states it, clear as day, as fact, without presenting any other theories or even parenthesizing (hey! that's a word! finally I make up something legit!) that there are holes in it! I'm a Physics/Engineering person. If you ignore something, bad things happen. Seriously. Even if you don't want them to. Perhaps Karen Armstrong needs to critically read Glenn Greenwald, then go back to her book. She'd find a disturbing number of similarities.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    Whenever I mention my admiration for Karen Armstrong and try to discuss her work with people I know are interested in the history of religion, they usually give me an incredulous look and talk about how dense and boring her books are. That always shocks me, because I find her writing riveting. This is the fourth book I have read of hers, and I have noticed that she frequently reuses examples, parables, and citations, but always to provide some fresh insight or illustrate a different, more grand Whenever I mention my admiration for Karen Armstrong and try to discuss her work with people I know are interested in the history of religion, they usually give me an incredulous look and talk about how dense and boring her books are. That always shocks me, because I find her writing riveting. This is the fourth book I have read of hers, and I have noticed that she frequently reuses examples, parables, and citations, but always to provide some fresh insight or illustrate a different, more grand lesson. That written, compared to The Great Transformation, A Case for God, and Fields of Blood, this is relatively light reading. It is a quick and dirty history of the composition of the Bibles. The first part of the book focuses on the Tanakh and then tells the parallel stories of the composition of the New Testament and Torah and then the centuries of exegesis that followed. But this is not a simple recounting of history. Armstrong has a powerful argument that she builds throughout the book, that the whole enterprise going back to oral tradition has been to perpetually reexamine transcendent ideas about benevolence and figure out how to convey that message and turn it into action in the context the writer/teller lived. Having written the book in 2007 when the post-9/11 reality of perpetual violence and fear inspired by cultural and religious extremism was beginning to feel like the new normal, she makes a moving call to action: "But because scripture has been so flagrantly abused in this way, Jews, Christians and Muslims have a duty to establish a counter-narrative that emphasizes the benign features of their exegetical traditions. Interfaith understanding and cooperation are now essential to our survival... Midrash and exegesis were always supposed to relate directly to the burning issues of the day, and the fundamentalists should not be the only people who attempt this."

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mag

    The book seems to be making a very convincing case against literal interpretation of the Bible. It takes us through ages of its development, adding and deleting texts, their interpretation and re-interpretation; from its origins in the Torah, through the Old Testament, the New Testament, to the Christian Bible. One of its main points seems to be that the Bible was never meant to be read literally, as it contains both logos and mythos. Mythos is '...not intended to be factual.. it was concerned w The book seems to be making a very convincing case against literal interpretation of the Bible. It takes us through ages of its development, adding and deleting texts, their interpretation and re-interpretation; from its origins in the Torah, through the Old Testament, the New Testament, to the Christian Bible. One of its main points seems to be that the Bible was never meant to be read literally, as it contains both logos and mythos. Mythos is '...not intended to be factual.. it was concerned with meaning rather than historically accurate information, and described a religious experience.' Logos, or the reason, on the other hand, enables to translate those experiences into 'allegories of divine'. The reading of the whole Scripture depends on the balance between the mythos and the logos. Since nowadays we have come to depend more on the logos- scientific and rational reading, the fundamentalist reading of the Bible is trying to turn the mythos into the logos, and read the allegory literally. The book was somewhat interesting, but in the end it did not meet my expectations. Since it was labeled ‘a biography’, I was expecting much more about the origins of the texts and of what’s in them. Being non-religious, I have a rather hazy picture of the details and less known stories, constituting parts and where they came from. What the book gave me instead was a string of historical dates and monks or philosophers who have added and re-interpreted the texts. Not to mention that I was lost to the very end as to what really constituted the Bible. Overall, I have enjoyed other books by Armstrong more. I found them more informative and better written than this one.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Don

    Karen Armstrong has long been one of my favorite authors to read on religious topics (her "A History of God" continues to be one of the best books I've ever read on religion), and her "biography" of The Bible continued show why. She is direct, thorough, and concise in exploring how not only the parts of The Bible came to be considered scripture, but how those parts have been interpreted have changed over the course of history. What is of particular interest is how the rise of literal translation Karen Armstrong has long been one of my favorite authors to read on religious topics (her "A History of God" continues to be one of the best books I've ever read on religion), and her "biography" of The Bible continued show why. She is direct, thorough, and concise in exploring how not only the parts of The Bible came to be considered scripture, but how those parts have been interpreted have changed over the course of history. What is of particular interest is how the rise of literal translations of The Bible, and the subsequent and corresponding rise of religious fundamentalism based upon that interpretation, is very much a phenomenon of the last 100-150 years. Armstrong presents a convincing argument that this phenomenon is a response to the rise of scientific literacy, particularly with the publishing of Darwin's "Origin of Species." That said, the strength of the book is not in its examination of modernity (though that is very good), its the exploration of how the various threads of tradition that led to writing and re-writing of the Jewish holy books were the result of the varieties of the Jewish experience, and how that led into the writing and selection of texts to be included in the Christian canon. Anyone who wants to know more about the history of one of the most influential books in the Western world, and, if one is Jewish or Christian and wants to know more about the origins of their faith, the book will be a worthwhile read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    This is really a fascinating book on the Bible, a short biography of the book itself, how it came into being, and the religious movements around it. Armstrong's explanations of who shaped it and why are clear and easy to follow, even without having an extensive religious background. Her take on U.S. fundamentalists is deservingly harsh and welcome, but it's interesting to see how their views, wacky as they are, don't seem as wacky compared with all the other drastic changes that have happened as This is really a fascinating book on the Bible, a short biography of the book itself, how it came into being, and the religious movements around it. Armstrong's explanations of who shaped it and why are clear and easy to follow, even without having an extensive religious background. Her take on U.S. fundamentalists is deservingly harsh and welcome, but it's interesting to see how their views, wacky as they are, don't seem as wacky compared with all the other drastic changes that have happened as a result of biblical interpretation. And her shout-out to Martin Luther, misogynist though he was, I particularly appreciated--I'm becoming more and more grateful everyday for the life lessons I learned from the church community I grew up in rather than the religious ones per se. Moreover her explanation of the Zionist movement helped me really understand how that turned into the full-on war that it is today. I must admit that I found the parts on Kaballah rather difficult to follow. Could it really be that Demi Moore and Ashton Kucher understand it and I'm left in the dark? Thankfully Armstrong doesn't get into that part of it.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Clarke-Smith

    Karen Armstrong tends to be a little on the squishy/feel good side as far as arguments go, but as a former nun, she knows the Bible. I clearly don't. Besides learning how little I know about the bible and its history, this book convinced me that I can no longer believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, nor do I believe that the bible is the word of God, more like the words of Paul and several other Jewish men. I appreciate Armstrong's reasonable view of the purpose of religion and where it goes w Karen Armstrong tends to be a little on the squishy/feel good side as far as arguments go, but as a former nun, she knows the Bible. I clearly don't. Besides learning how little I know about the bible and its history, this book convinced me that I can no longer believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, nor do I believe that the bible is the word of God, more like the words of Paul and several other Jewish men. I appreciate Armstrong's reasonable view of the purpose of religion and where it goes wrong. I am following this book up with Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible & Why

  26. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

    I loved this book. It gives a very simple account (as much of it can be simple) of a very complicated history. Although, when I picked it up I thought there would be more explanation of how the bible was put together, what got put in and why and what was thrown out i.e. the 7th Ecumenical Council. What this book is more about, is how the Bible was interpreted, used, and viewed throughout the ages. And this history is fascinating. I think the most fascinating chapters were the beginning chapters I loved this book. It gives a very simple account (as much of it can be simple) of a very complicated history. Although, when I picked it up I thought there would be more explanation of how the bible was put together, what got put in and why and what was thrown out i.e. the 7th Ecumenical Council. What this book is more about, is how the Bible was interpreted, used, and viewed throughout the ages. And this history is fascinating. I think the most fascinating chapters were the beginning chapters because she starts back before there was any written text, and explains both the Jewish relationship with the Bible and the Christians and New Testament.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rod

    Karen Armstrong is a great purveyor/interpreter/teacher of religious history and this book (an awe-inspiring task, to write a "biography" of the Bible in a couple hundred pages) is no exception. She concentrates on the liberality in methods of interpretation that were encouraged throughout history and (some might say) over-emphasizes that in an attempt to counter fundamentalist notions as the "real" interpretation. I will most likely be checking out other entries in this series of "Books That Ch Karen Armstrong is a great purveyor/interpreter/teacher of religious history and this book (an awe-inspiring task, to write a "biography" of the Bible in a couple hundred pages) is no exception. She concentrates on the liberality in methods of interpretation that were encouraged throughout history and (some might say) over-emphasizes that in an attempt to counter fundamentalist notions as the "real" interpretation. I will most likely be checking out other entries in this series of "Books That Changed the World." (And yes, I read the Large Print edition...ah, sweet bird of youth, you flew away so fast...)

  28. 5 out of 5

    Laura Debenham

    Fascinating look at the ultimate read. The author wrote this bio of the bible as if it were a person and not a book. It tells of all of it's adventures through different cultures and how it turned out to be what it is. I really enjoyed it. The focus seemed to be to help people understand that the bible isn't necessarily truth. Reading this book after teaching two years of college level religion courses, one on the old testament and one on the new, I had the experience of understanding just how po Fascinating look at the ultimate read. The author wrote this bio of the bible as if it were a person and not a book. It tells of all of it's adventures through different cultures and how it turned out to be what it is. I really enjoyed it. The focus seemed to be to help people understand that the bible isn't necessarily truth. Reading this book after teaching two years of college level religion courses, one on the old testament and one on the new, I had the experience of understanding just how powerful this work is and how wonderfully complimentary the Book of Mormon is as well. It was a great book, better understood if the actual bible is read along with it!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Donna

    A good counterpoint to my current course on the Anthropology of Religion. Not much that was new to me, and the first half was a bit of a dry historical rendition, but as Armstrong brought the issues into modern times it became much more interesting. I’m fascinated by the idea that the Bible has influenced so many for so long.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    Fascinating book. Clear and well written with a particular agenda that comes to the fore in the epilogue. The Bible is a construct - more interesting because of that - and any literal interpretion is as much a modern construct as it is spiritually damaging.

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