A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book

John Barton. Viking, 2019. 613 pages. $35.00.

By D.T. Siebert

John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book is an encyclopedic source of information about a text popularly regarded as almost a sacred object or icon in itself. If one swears “on the Bible,” what is said would seem to have the absolute cachet of truth, almost as if an insincere pledge would be blasphemy. Barton’s aim is to demystify the Bible’s divine authority and to examine how the Bible came to be—that is, the secular, historical genesis of the sacred, canonical book of Genesis and the other books in the Bible. 

Barton is a theological professor at Oxford and also a practicing priest in the Church of England. He is obviously a latitudinarian Christian, one whose historical examination of the Bible mounts a formidable argument against those who believe the Bible is the literal, inerrant Word of God. And when one maintains that the Bible is infallible—thus refusing to acknowledge its contradictions, inconsistencies, supernatural stories, and passages that seem antithetical to common morality—skeptics have an easy time denying its claim to truth. But a critical, historical examination of the Bible’s origin need not devalue the Scriptures as “revelations” of spiritual truth. And there can be little question that the Bible is also a cultural monument transcending any objection to its sacrosanct origin.   

Doubts that the Bible is the exact word of God go back to ancient times. In the first century CE, the Gnostics advanced suspicions about biblical sources and authority, and in the 17th through the 18th centuries, questioning the absolute veracity of the biblical canon gained additional strength. Prominent doubters include rationalists like Spinoza, Hume, Gibbon, and Voltaire. By the later 19th century, textual criticism of biblical sources and internal evidence had become a scholarly project. In Germany the so-called “higher criticism” revealed that the Bible had to have been a patchwork conflation of various writings, by various people, at various times, and with varying knowledge and creeds. Even the four Gospels were composed at different times, and the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ markedly in details about the whole narrative of Jesus’ life. There is only one mention of the Trinity in the four Gospels, a prayer attributed to Jesus in Matthew. And of course the miracles and prophecies are easy prey for doubters, intent on naturalistic explanations. All this and much more, Barton documents with convincing detail.

Indispensable to “a history of the Bible” is a treatment of its translations in almost every language of the world—now even in the tongue of African-Americans in the coastal islands of South Carolina and Georgia: Gullah (or Sea Island Creole)—one not mentioned by Barton. Here is the well-known passage at the beginning of John—in the King James Version (KJV): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”; and in Gullah: “Fo God mek de wol, de Wod, been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God.”  

Complete English translations go back to William Tyndale (1526) and Miles Coverdale (1539), followed later in that century with the Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops’ Bible (1568). These versions in turn gave birth to the great “authorized version,” the King James Bible of 1611 (KJV), composed by six different committees working  separately on assigned portions of the Holy Book—a remarkable example of splendid writing by committees. This version relied heavily on the previous English translations mentioned above, but it succeeded in fusing them all, including the texts in Hebrew and Greek, into one magnificent whole. The English language and its literature owe a priceless debt to the poetic majesty of the King James Version.   

Christians today have preferred more recent translations such as the Jerusalem Bible and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)—the King James Version (KJV) as corrected by modern scholarship and rendered into contemporary English—such as replacing the “thou” forms and making the language more gender-neutral. Nonetheless many still revere the KJV for the time-honored beauty of its language, despite its archaic English (or indeed because of it). In fact some believers regard the KJV as “the perfect and infallible word of God.” And one might therefore suppose that the Aramaic-speaking Jesus actually spoke Elizabethan/Jacobean English. Barton presents one recent advertisement from an American fundamentalist church, promising its pastor will “not correct the preserved word of God with newer translations from Greek” but read instead from the original version of the Bible (the KJV). Barton observes wryly, “This could almost be taken to imply that the Greek New Testament is a translation of the King James Version.”

Recent translations of the Bible depart from simply modernizing the King James Version’s antique and masculine-dominated language, and correcting its mistranslations. These versions basically ignore the KJV and start from scratch. One notable example is the New English Bible (NEB, 1961) now re-rendered as the Revised New English Bible (RNEB, 1989). Barton admires this version and other modern versions like the Jerusalem Bible for being more faithful to Hebrew and Greek and for their modernized English. But these newcomers run into stiff competition with each other, as well as with the time-honored King James Version. For instance, KVJ’s “a still small voice” becomes “a low murmuring sound” in the New English Bible (NEB)—a rendering perhaps justly derided by critics. Barton prefers the Revised Standard’s “a sound of pure silence,” also closer to the Hebrew than the KJV is. Actually one might still prefer “a still small voice” for it evocative power, despite its being a bit less faithful to Hebrew.

Modern translations encounter other problems. Oddly, perhaps, even they can become outdated, so to speak, or reveal the dialect and social class of the translator. The British version by J.J. Phillips (1958) renders Paul’s “holy kiss” as “a hearty handshake all round” and “Friend, go up higher” as “My dear fellow, we have a much better seat for you.” At least Phillips avoided “My dear chap.” But sometimes a 20th-century translation can challenge the beloved King James Bible’s wording. Barton cites part of Paul’s famous passage in I Corinthians 13, defining charity or love, as translated in 1913 by James Moffatt:

Love is very patient, very kind. Love knows no jealousy; love makes no parade, gives itself no airs, is never rude, never selfish, never irritated, never resentful; love is never glad when others go wrong, love is gladdened by goodness, always slow to expose, always eager to believe the best, always hopeful, always patient.

And Barton has high regard for Robert Alter’s recent translation (2018) of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Barton says that Alter’s version is close to the King James Bible but quite accurate in its rendering of Hebrew. Barton observes that overall “one certainly gets the sense that the source is a foreign language and remote book, yet one also hears a text in real English.”

In any case, an exact translation of a unique text is impossible. Yet very few can read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, which are themselves not necessarily authoritative texts.  Translation is the only expedient, and the variety of translations—only a few mentioned here—proves the unavoidable difficulty of the task. One question emerges from these many varying translations, however. What is the Word of God? 

A History of the Bible comes with a substantial apparatus: numbered end notes; suggestions for further reading; a long and extensive bibliography; a reference to pages where individual biblical books are mentioned; and an index to topics and individuals in the main text.

Barton’s book is an impressive accomplishment, well deserving the highest praise. A brief review like this can hardly do it justice. It is one a student of the Bible might well refer to again and again. To borrow the words of John Dryden, “Here is God’s plenty.”

D.T. Siebert (ΦBK, University of Oklahoma) is Distinguished Professor of English Literature Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Recent publications include Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying (Delaware, 2013) and the chapter “Hume’s History of England” in the Oxford Handbook of Hume (Oxford, 2016).