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A History of the Bible

The Story of the World's Most Influential Book
Narrated by: Ralph Lister
Length: 21 hrs and 57 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (13 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A literary history of our most influential book of all time, by an Oxford scholar and Anglican priest.

In our culture, the Bible is monolithic: It is a collection of books that has been unchanged and unchallenged since the earliest days of the Christian church. The idea of the Bible as "Holy Scripture", a non-negotiable authority straight from God, has prevailed in Western society for some time. And while it provides a firm foundation for centuries of Christian teaching, it denies the depth, variety, and richness of this fascinating text. In A History of the Bible, John Barton argues that the Bible is not a prescription to a complete, fixed religious system, but rather a product of a long and intriguing process, which has inspired Judaism and Christianity, but still does not describe the whole of either religion. Barton shows how the Bible is indeed an important source of religious insight for Jews and Christians alike, yet argues that it must be listened to in its historical context - from its beginnings in myth and folklore to its many interpretations throughout the centuries. 

It is a book full of narratives, laws, proverbs, prophecies, poems, and letters, each with their own character and origin stories. Barton explains how and by whom these disparate pieces were written, how they were canonized (and which ones weren't), and how they were assembled, disseminated, and interpreted around the world - and, importantly, to what effect. Ultimately, A History of the Bible argues that a thorough understanding of the history and context of its writing encourages religious communities to move away from the Bible's literal wording - which is impossible to determine - and focus instead on the broader meanings of scripture.

©2019 John Barton (P)2019 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"John Barton has written a wise and eminently sane book about a book which has inspired both insanity and wisdom. It is a landmark in the field, and it will do great good." (Diarmaid MacCulloch)

"John Barton’s new book gives a superb overview... condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist ... even for those deeply familiar with the Bible there is much here to be learnt." (Bart D Ehrman, author of The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

"This strikingly accessible yet wonderfully erudite volume will be welcomed by many...a tour de force." (BBC History Magazine)

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Very in depth

This is the best book I’ve found covering the Bible. That said it is very in depth this is not just an overview. The Author did a great job and so did the reader good voice.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Engaging and comprehensive

Ralph Lister gives a clear and lively reading of this wonderful book about an even more wonderful book. The first part presents a history of the writing of the text, containing concise accounts of the best modern scholarship. If you finish this part, you'll have a good grasp of the history of ancient Israel and of Roman Palestine, as well as the date of composition and the process of revision for each book.

If you hold to the belief that the Bible is without factual error and that the traditional attributions of authorship are beyond question, this book is not for you. But from my perspective it's possible to accept Barton’s analytical approach and still have great respect and even adoration for the Bible. (I'm an agnostic myself, but the Bible remains one of my favorite books and one that I read continually.)

The second half of the book presents the history of the text since its writing: the process of selecting texts for canonization, the differences in the canon among different faith communities, the problems of translation, the impact of the teachings on society. Barton believes the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was settled by the 1st century CE, and that a strong consensus on the New Testament canon existed by the 2nd century CE. He puts no stock in the idea that powerful conspiracies succeeded in suppressing alternative writings; to Barton, the process of canonizing books was straightforward and noncontroversial.

He does, however, note that the Bible often lacks support for some of the doctrines attributed to it. For example, the Hebrew scriptures are not consistently monotheistic, and the New Testament doesn’t explicitly support the doctrine of the Trinity. Efforts to show otherwise lead to unnecessary contortions.

Not everything in the book lends itself to straight audio. For example, early in his discussion of the New Testament, Barton presents a table of the Herods. There are a lot of Herods, and it's useful to have a list, but while it can probably be quickly grasped in a visual format, it doesn't make for the easiest listen. (This is a case where a PDF download would be helpful.)

Barton’s history is really an engaging and well-organized one-volume survey course on the Bible. As a survey, different parts will be more or less interesting to different readers. I found my attention wandering during the discussion of medieval interpretations of the Bible. On the other hand, I found especially interesting the section on translations of the Bible into English. Since the KJV dominates the English Bible scene, Barton focuses on the leadup to that — Wycliffe, Geneva Bible, Bishops Bible — and its successors: the RV, ASB, RSV, and NRSV. Attention is given to other translation genealogies: the NIV, NEB and REB, the Jerusalem Bible and NJB. Even one of my favorites — the crusty old Scot James Moffat — makes the cut.

It’s possible to get all of this information elsewhere. But I don’t know of any other book that brings so many details together in one place.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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The Bible

narrator is great for the story. Book is easy to listen to if you're into this kind of thing. even if you're not into this kind of thing, it genuinely gives information that is punctual and factual, along with very few opinions.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Detailed and Vast

An unbiased survey of the history of the Bible that doesn't attempt to draw conclusions but offers an in-depth detailed presentation of historical facts, where it was possible, and the most popular theoretical explanations where facts are impossible to know or discover (because some parts of the Bible are too ancient for any original source material to have survived). I'll admit that for me it was at times tedious and dense. I started out with the hardcover edition and figured out pretty quickly I wouldn't finish it and switched to the audio. It worked out better for me as a "lecture". If a reader is looking for a definitive opinion on how the Bible came to be and which version is the most correct and "God Inspired" they won't find that here. That was clearly never Barton's intent for this book. I appreciated that he presented not only ancient origins but also spent a lot of time on more recent Biblical developments and how modern versions and interpretations came to be, what roles they serve now, and how the various Christian churches of the world use them.

I have to give a nod to the narrator, Ralph Listor, who reminded me a lot of John Hurt. So if you like the idea of Dr. Who telling you about the Bible, it doesn't get much better than this. Jokes aside, Listor is a fantastic narrator with great auditory presence. I'd gladly listen to him again.