The Bible

The Basics, 2nd Ed.

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John Barton
  • New York, NY: 
    , December
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Bible: the basics, the second edition of his introduction to the Bible—the first edition published in 2010—John Barton adds an account of how the Bible, taken as a whole, presents itself to Christians and Jews, respectively (chapter 2), specifies his use of the term “myth,” and expands upon his introduction to postmodern readings of the Bible (xi). The preface to the first edition opens with a pithy statement that rings all-too-true with those working in the field: “[s]ome people love the Bible and some hate it; but few read it” (ix). Barton goes on to state that he does not want to present a work of Christian apologetics or evangelism, and does not think that only believers can properly understand the Bible.

In seven chapters, Barton presents an intelligently structured overview that provides a structural, sociological, literary, and historical introduction to the Bible, while never losing its connection to today’s audience. In “The Bible in the Modern World,” (chapter 1), Barton focuses on reading the Bible as Scripture. He begins by laying out the five categories that believers use with regards to how they approach the Bible: truth, relevance, profundity, consistency, and its conformity with Christian belief. He considers the latter category of “conformity with Christian belief” as a distinguishing point between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics, for example, would view stories of Jesus’s brothers and sisters as referring to more distant relatives, since Jesus cannot have had literal brothers and sisters; therefore, the Bible is to be read so as to conform to the teachings of the Church, a strategy he elsewhere criticizes as “intellectually dishonest” from the perspective of biblical criticism (16).He affirms the relation between the significance of the tradition of the church in Roman Catholicism, and the way it interprets the Bible. Protestantism, on the other hand, seems less strict on this particular point, as its adherents do not typically believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. On other points, they stress the connection between the Bible and the Church: Barton names the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 as an example, which provides the basis for Protestant understandings of human depravity.

To further assist his readers, Barton focuses on examples that have dominated the discourse over the past decades, and garnered the most attention, such as Creationism and Christian Zionism, as well as classical controversies of New Testament exegesis such as the question of human righteousness as reflected in Galatians 3:6–14 and James 2:18–26 (2, 4, 6–7, 19). Barton introduces his readers to critical readings of the Bible (“biblical criticism”), demonstrating how it has affected the five categories mentioned above, and given rise to an ongoing dialogue between critical perspectives and perspectives based on faith. He concludes the first chapter with a brief overview of the Bible as a cultural artifact, briefly covering its literary and political influence, as well as its reception history.

A few points of critique are in order. While Barton references and reflects different Bible translations, his focus on Western Christianity does not fully take into account the significance of recent developments—such as the rise of Christianity in Asia and the conversion phenomena from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. His approach suggests that all such developments are connected to specific ways of reading the Bible. This illustrates how an introduction to the Bible has the daunting task of not only introducing the ways the Bible is read and understood, but also pointing to the variety of global, social, and political phenomena connected to the Bible, suggesting that specialist introductions, which focus on one aspect of Bible reception, would also be helpful in addition to such a general introduction.

Another critique is that the author does not make clear his own denominational stance (Anglican) and its impact on his approach. Apodictic readings, such as the idea that Adam and Eve were not immortal before the Fall, betray a denominational subtext insufficiently substantiated theologically (15–16). His bias is particularly apparent in his interpretations of Genesis—referring to Genesis as a “narrative book” without referring to the poetry it contains, restricting his view of biblical poetry to the psalms (18, cf. 64). As a consequence, it also affects his interpretations of the different attitudes towards the biblical text in Judaism and Protestantism (which seeks to derive the entire religious system directly from the Bible, [cf. 16]), a view which neglects the complexities of Protestant philo-Semitism, which was immensely important for the development of biblical criticism and modern Judaism alike.

Despite this critique, the work paves the way for reading the Bible by means of numerous useful examples. Each chapter concludes with a short paragraph suggesting further readings that may guide the curious into more specialized studies. The book concludes with a short summary bibliography, which provides a key to the selected studies mentioned in passing in the text, as well as an index (181–85,186–94). Therefore, this second edition of Barton’s introduction succeeds in introducing the reader to the pitfalls and neuralgic points of current Biblical studies. It functions as an invitation to read the Bible—as Barton would recommend, in the Revised Standard Version [xi, cf. 34–35], a decision one might contest—while, at the same time, encouraging one to ask how its future readers will resolve its many conundrums. It is hoped that many people read this book with an aim towards testing their preconceptions and general knowledge of the biblical text.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American Studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture and a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall at the University of Oxford.



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