Karen Armstrong specialises in religious topics, and has taken on the big topic of writing a biography of the Bible – how it came to be written, how its content was determined, how it has been interpreted and how it has influenced history. This is too much to tackle satisfactorily in only 230 pages, though there are 70 pages of glossary, notes and index, to give it academic weight. This author has a predilection for biting off more than she can chew. The influence on history is something she wisely only touches on, since that could arguably be a massive volume.
However her brave amateur approach scores some surprising successes, since she has a knack of providing a good précis and moving across subject boundaries. She gives equal weight to Jewish and Christian use of the bible, and draws parallels between Jewish and Christian exegesis of the sacred texts in an illuminating way. The ways the bible has been reinterpreted down the ages and even to draw totally opposite conclusions is fascinating. She makes clear that a literal interpretation, and a belief that this is the literal word of God, is intellectually untenable. This is very much a book written, edited, censored, added to and copied by humans, imposing their views and temporal beliefs on the text. The idea that the bible has to be supplemented by ritual and ecstasy re-occurs in several periods of history.
I was particularly interested in the first three chapters which describe how the text the Jews and Christians have today was written, often from contradictory sources and traditions and viewpoints. References to specific passages in the bible allowed fruitful re-reading of the bible from a new viewpoint. I also appreciated the brief references to key figures in the development of religious and philosophical thinking, since that encourages one to investigate further those people, such as Spinoza and Bacon. I was disappointed with the hurried and incomplete treatment of the 20th Century, which surely had many key people and events to cover in a ‘biography’ of the bible