God literally walked in the Garden

A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths, John Barton, Allen Lane/Penguin.

The Bible is meant to be a particularly familiar work, read widely, saturating Western culture with its phrases and stories, heard by millions every Sunday, but John Barton’s hefty and excellent history emphasises just how messy and unwieldy and even strange it is. A History of the Bible covers both how the Bible was compiled and how it has been read. Already with the former, this can be tricky, as the original authors are somewhat lost to us, and much of the Bible’s books, especially in the Old Testament, are patchwork in character (at times with obvious discrepancies between parts), meaning, as Barton puts it, we get, even within books, authors in dialogue, and styles clashing.

The Pentateuch is a composite work spanning centuries, and is not by Moses, there is not much before the Exile that historians can agree on in Israel’s history as outlined by the Bible, the Gospels are taken from earlier works, and have their own emphases and foci, and not all Paul’s letters are by Paul. As Barton, a scholar and Anglican priest says, taking note of the benefits of modern scholarship in illuminating the Bible’s messiness doesn’t have to undermine faith, but the fact that there are different versions of particular books, obvious contradictions, and differences in authorial tone make the ideas of inspiration and inerrancy complicated, to say the least.

The Bible has always been read through the eyes of faith. Jews and Christians, the Church Fathers and fundamentalists, Orthodox and Westerners, and even Luther and later Lutherans all read it in very different ways. And obviously the Bible contains a mix of genres, although what is what is disputed, Genesis being a prime example, and the Gospels – what exactly are they? They were written down long after the events described and are not verbatim transcripts.

It is perhaps an obvious point that Jews and Christians read the Old Testament (Tanakh) differently (which surprises some Christians, but the very name ‘Old Testament’, used exclusively by Christians, should make that apparent). In Judaism the Bible has been used as a guide for living, but it has been viewed as less uniform than Christians tend to do. Jews tend to see it as less self-contained than Christians also, as in dialogue with the Mishnah, and they play down the universalism that Christians read back into it. Barton also notes that original sin as a concept is nowhere near as widely held in Judaism. Christians of course often read into the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus (especially at Christmastime). But one has to use some creativity to do so.

The Church Fathers were happy to do so, reading much of the Bible allegorically. Origen and Augustine both thought the Genesis Creation account was obviously not meant to be read literally, with Origen particularly scathing. He asked how one could be so ‘unintelligent’ to believe that night and day literally existed before the Sun and Moon were created, that God literally walked in the Garden and that there was an actual ‘tree of life’ with real fruit.

But the allegorical reading got out of hand at one point, not just because allegory was possible, but because the whole point of reading the Bible was to find references to Jesus everywhere one looked. So, the Exodus story and even the Song of Songs are ‘really’ about Jesus’ relationship to the Church. And some reputable exegetes even added another layer of allegory onto the parables, which were already allegorical.

The Reformers rolled this back somewhat, though Luther had a far less reverential attitude to the whole canon than many Christians do today. He was famously happy to jettison (or at least relegate to an appendix) books that seemed irrelevant to the ‘core’ theological message of salvation through grace alone. (Although Barton says he appreciates much of Lutheran teaching, he notes that the rejection of a literal reading of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis makes the grand theme of sin and salvation – what he calls disaster and rescue mission – problematic. But then maybe he forgets that the non-literalist Augustine is usually blamed for the origin of the original sin idea, so maybe it’s not as problematic as Barton thinks, and one can hold, as Augustine supposedly did, both together.)

Interpretation, and even what was to be included in the Bible, is guided by belief. The two are in dialogue. (And to think that we can interpret the Bible free from any preconceptions is a fallacy.) An example Barton gives is the doctrine of the Trinity, for which there is rather slight foundation in the New Testament, and in Mark’s Gospel we have what might be counted as evidence against, when Jesus says, ‘Why do you call me good? Only God is good.’ (Although we could interpret this as a veiled way of saying, ‘do you realise you are recognising that I am God?’) This doesn’t discount Trinitarianism necessarily, it just points to the interaction of Scripture, belief and tradition.