As the single work at the heart of Christianity, the world's largest organized religion, 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 and its best-selling, with an estimated six billion copies sold in the last two hundred years. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Its contents have changed over the centuries, it 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, life, and afterlife 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, and how its interpretation changed over time. Armstrong's history of the Bible is a brilliant, captivating book, crucial in an age of declining faith and rising fundamentalism.
Of all the "Books That Changed the World"-the recently launched series to which this book belongs-surely the Bible is among the most important. And of all contemporary popularizers of religious history, surely Armstrong is among the bestselling. Who better, then, to recount the history of the Bible in eight short chapters than this former nun and literature professor who relishes huge topics (The History of God) and panoramic descriptions (The Great Transformation)? Armstrong not only describes how, when and by whom the Bible was written, she also examines some 2,000 years of biblical interpretation by bishops and rabbis, scholars and mystics, pietists and critics, thus opening up a myriad of exegetical approaches and dispelling any fundamentalist notion that only one view can be correct. Readers unfamiliar with ecclesiastical history may feel overwhelmed by dense chapters that read more like annotated lists than narrative-a hazard of trying to cover so much in so little space. (A glossary helps to anchor the bewildered.) At her best when she pauses long enough to expand on a topic, Armstrong offers intriguing insights on, for example, the allegorical method developed by Origen in the third century and the mystical midrash of the Kabbalists in medieval Spain and Provence. (Nov.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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October 31, 2008
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Excerpt from The Bible by Karen Armstrong
Because scripture has become such an explosive issue, it is important to be clear what it is and what it is not. This biography of the Bible provides some insight into this religious phenomenon. It is, for example, 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. For centuries, Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive exegesis, insisting that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither possible nor desirable. They have rewritten biblical history, replaced Bible stories with new myths, and interpreted the first chapter of Genesis in surprisingly different ways.
The Jewish scriptures and the New Testament both began as oral proclamations and even after they were committed to writing, there often remained a bias toward the spoken word that is also present in other traditions. From the very beginning, people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty. Religious knowledge cannot be imparted like other information, simply by scanning the sacred page. Documents became "scripture" not, initially, because they were thought to be divinely inspired but because people started to treat them differently.