A History of the Bible

The Story of the World's Most Influential Book

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John Barton
  • New York, NY: 
    Viking Press
    , June
     640 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this magisterial work, which is perhaps John Barton’s magnum opus and most thorough effort to make biblical studies and its major insights accessible to a broad audience, the author breaks with the idea of the Bible as a monolithic text. He argues that the Bible’s depth is due to its rich history and is itself the result of a long, arduous, and intriguing process, which continues to inspire Judaism and Christianity to this day. His book also appeared in England under the slightly different title, A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths (Penguin, 2019).

In the introduction, Barton maintains that the Bible as such is “the record of a dialogue among authors and transmitters of tradition” (2). This remark stands in odd relation to the dialogue between God and human beings that can be found throughout the Bible. In an accessible style, Barton depicts the general state of biblical studies in reference to the Old and New Testaments (parts 1 and 2) and the centrality of text and meaning (parts 3 and 4). His aim is to elucidate the pre-history of the Bible and to demonstrate that the Bible does not give rise on its own to specific traditions of faith or denominations, but that it is instead employed by various traditions to fulfill particular purposes. In contrast to Islam, neither Christianity nor Judaism is in essence a scriptural religion (2-3). However, whereas Judaism has an authoritative Hebrew Bible, “Christians have never had an official text, only many different manuscript traditions” (15). There exists, then, a kind of interplay between the Bible and religions, but the Bible cannot be mapped exactly onto any religion (17).

Barton is to be commended for many other relevant insights concerning the Bible, which he traces from the 9th century to the present. Next to its importance in faith communities, the “cultural Bible,” or Bible as icon, has taken on an important value in the modern (especially Western) world (5-6). Barton examines the role of genre (chapters 2-5; 7-8), the emergence of Christianity (chapters 1 and 6), and the historical unfolding of “the biblical text” and its interpretations in a diachronic account from first codification to recent translations (chapters 9-18). He concludes by arguing for a liberal form of Christianity which offers freedom “of interpretation, yet commitment to religious faith” (489).

A few points of critique are in order. While Barton makes reference to different Bible translations, he shows little interest in recent developments such as the rise of Christianity in Asia and the conversion phenomena from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. He deals with “The Bible and Science” on less than two of the 613 pages (427-28), and there is no mention of the important work by Peter Harrison (The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science, Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Also missing from Barton’s work is a treatment of contemporary research on the Bible and its significance for other texts and faiths such as the Quran and Islam in general. Some readers may find it puzzling that Barton reads the Bible only within and against the heritage of Judaism and Christianity. His general approach suggests that all such developments are connected to specific ways of reading the Bible. This shows that a history of the Bible has the daunting task of introducing its readers not only to the ways the Bible is read and understood, but also to the variety of social, political and ultimately theological phenomena connected to the Bible around the world.

Barton is also not clear about his own denominational stance (Anglican) and its impact on his approach, yet he refers, for instance, to his “favorite Anglican Reformer Richard Hooker” (426), whose ideas serve as a kind of leitmotif (13; 401-402; 414, 426-27; 489). Similarly, Barton’s frequent reference to the way the church is ordered may be motivated more by his denominational background than by the biblical text (471). His spot-on critique of formulations such as “biblical background” (13) is helpful, but perhaps not sufficient in addressing the fact that current denominations and churches continue to be based on monolithic readings of the Bible that follow a specific dogmatic agenda, and which often remain unacknowledged in their impact on Bible translations.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Barton’s history, while motivated perhaps by an apologetic intent, at the same time serves an important role in deepening the broader public’s knowledge of the Bible. Barton’s history succeeds in demonstrating how to read the Bible in context by means of numerous useful examples and insights. Maps and illustrations help to visualize important aspects, and at the end of his introduction, Barton offers a useful four-page outline of his book (14-17). The commented section on further reading may guide the curious reader 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, and a useful list of biblical references and an index (547-65; 567-613). A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book should be part of every general library and is recommended to all those seeking to understand its vast history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
October 1, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Barton is a theologian who served as the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford in England for twenty-three years, and has been an ordained and serving priest in the Church of England since 1973.


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