Inerrant or Oblique?

John Barton was the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford until 2014, and, since 1973, he has been a priest in the Church of England. These two roles correspond approximately to the related aims indicated by the title and the subtitle of the British edition of this ambitious book. (Its American subtitle is less subtle: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book.)

It is by no means Barton’s intention to break new ground. Rather, he aims to synthesize, summarize, and sift through the immense body of scholarship on both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and to trace the multifaceted trajectory of their interpretation and translation from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, down to our own times. The learning Barton brings to bear for this large undertaking is prodigious as well as judiciously deployed, and everything is conveyed in lucid, precise prose quite free of academic jargon.

If A History of the Bible is academic popularization, it may well be the finest example of the genre that I have ever encountered. Barton never condescends to his readers. He explains complicated matters with great clarity, occasionally glossing a technical term he is constrained to use in a way that scarcely seems to interrupt the flow of his writing. He avoids taking sides in scholarly debates as he reports them, at most hinting that he finds certain hypotheses less plausible than others. And he shows himself to be an excellent teacher.

The prophet Deborah by Charles Landelle. (Private collection.)

Let me offer one small example. In explaining that the original Hebrew text of the Bible is entirely consonantal (as, of course, is typical modern Hebrew prose, from newspapers to novels), he helpfully remarks that “there is no more difficulty in reading a purely consonantal text than there would be in understanding an English sentence such as ‘Hbrw wrtng ds nt hv vwls,’ especially when (as here) the context helps us to decipher it.”

However, the picture of the Bible that emerges from Barton’s scrupulous account may be disquieting to many believers. We think of the Bible as a “book”—as in the proverbial phrase, “the Good Book”—when, in fact, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are what we would now call anthologies, though the two are radically different in nature. The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, brings together works composed over perhaps seven centuries, nine centuries if one includes the oldest pieces of poetry such as the Song of Deborah. The New Testament, also the product of different writers, was, by contrast, composed over roughly just seven decades. The two anthologies further differ in purpose, character, and intended audience. As Barton incisively puts it, “The Old Testament is the literature of a nation, written over some centuries, and having a certain official character. The New Testament is the literature of a small sect, distributed over the eastern Mediterranean world, and in its origins unofficial, even experimental writing.”

This brief formulation handily dismisses supersession, the idea that virtually everything in the Old Testament is a prefiguration of what is grandly fulfilled in the New Testament. The notion has long dominated Christian readings of Hebrew scripture but is now almost universally rejected by scholars, whatever their confessional background. Barton is forthright on this issue. The early Christians, following what they believed Jesus had taught,

proceeded to read the Old Testament as though it already taught these new ideas, and in the process they distorted its natural meaning, because they wanted the two Testaments to hang together as a seamless whole, despite the fact that they tell significantly different stories, and for Christians the New Testament story always trumped the Old one. This was worked out in practice by a creative rereading of the Old Testament as though it spoke in the New Testament’s voice.

In this tradition, for example, Second Isaiah’s vision of national redemption in imminently unfolding history becomes in the splendid music of Handel’s Messiah a rousing evocation of the coming of Christ, something the anonymous Israelite prophet of the Babylonian exile by no means had in mind.

Beyond this disparate character of the two Testaments, one must also say that the texts of both anthologies are, in rather different ways, a mess, a consideration that is bound to be discomfiting to those who seek to regard the Bible as the always reliable source of truth. Barton neatly illustrates the problem by showing how, in Exodus 24, Moses ascends the mountain with Aaron and his sons and the 70 elders—or is it with Joshua while these others stay behind, or does he go up alone? These three accounts from three juxtaposed sources cannot be reconciled. Barton concludes that whoever put them together was not concerned with reconciliation. Rather,

he wanted to ensure that no piece of tradition got lost. He was not writing a coherent story of Moses, like a modern biographer, but collecting pieces of Moses’s tradition and working them together to keep them safe. This means that he did not see the finished text as a consistent work, as we do with novels or with historical accounts, but as something more like an archive.

Deliberate inconsistency—the biblical text as an archive—takes us quite far from prevailing conceptions in our general culture and in the Jewish and Christian traditions of what the Bible is. One may add that, beyond this sort of inconsistency, which is especially visible in the first four books of the Torah, there is another kind of contradiction when material is inserted by a later editor, as in the case of the David story, in an effort to pull a resistant inherited narrative into the editor’s ideological line. To be sure, some splicing of sources is actually quite purposeful, but the frequent incoherence of the biblical text is undeniable.

The New Testament has its own textual problems, which are somewhat different from those of its Hebrew predecessor. The stylistic and theological gap between John’s gospel and the three synoptic gospels has often been observed, but there are many differences and even contradictions among the synoptics as well. The text of the Hebrew Bible was well established by the late years of the pre-Christian era. Barton cites as evidence the Dead Sea Scrolls, which, despite numerous divergences in their biblical texts from the Bible we know, are nevertheless fundamentally the same as what was adopted as the received text. The gospels, on the other hand, are based on varying oral accounts of the life of Jesus passed on during the decades following his death, and their stability as written formulations in different manuscript groups is itself open to question. The Pauline epistles are not much better off. Barton states the issue baldly: “[T]here is not, and can never be, a text of ‘the New Testament’ as it left the hands of Paul, Luke, or John: we have only variants.” In any case, these sundry reports in the gospels give us only a rough idea of the actual words Jesus spoke, if indeed he spoke them, and those, of course, would have been in Aramaic, not in Koine Greek.

All this is bound to confront believers with perplexities, but they are not insuperable. I was recently interviewed by an American evangelical, and, in the course of our conversation, he wanted to know whether English versions of the Bible conveyed the real meaning of its words. I told him that I had made a consistent effort to do that in my own translation but that, unfortunately, it was sometimes impossible to know the meaning with any confidence. There are words that appear only once in the Bible, the meaning of which can merely be guessed based on context or flights of etymological fancy.

Then, there are many places where the text has been scrambled in transmission, and whatever may have been the original is simply not retrievable. “You may believe,” I explained to him, “that all of the Bible is inspired by God, but even inspired words have to be copied by scribes passing on their texts to subsequent generations of scribes, and because they are, after all, human, they are prone to error, skipping words or phrases or inadvertently repeating them, replacing unfamiliar terms with familiar ones that don’t belong, and, in a variety of related ways, turning an originally coherent text into something incomprehensible.” In translating the Hebrew Bible, at a few points that read as gibberish in the original and where no emendation seemed viable, I deliberately reproduced the gibberish in English, explaining in a note that we will never be able to recover whatever had been there to begin with. My evangelical interviewer seemed to understand this, or at least was willing to consider it, which gives me some hope for Barton’s attempt to make the inevitability of historical and textual scholarship clear to readers seeking to guide their spiritual lives by the Bible.

Let me add that, in the multiple responses by email to my translation and commentary, many of them by a variety of believing Christians but some also by Modern Orthodox Jews, I encountered a good deal of enthusiasm and, perhaps surprisingly, no objections in principle. Orthodox Jews in study groups, synagogues, and day schools expressed appreciative interest in my undertaking. They did not seem in the least troubled by my general assumption that the traditional notion of “Torah from Sinai” could not, on clear intellectual grounds, be accepted whole cloth. It may be that serious believers—Jews and others—are more open to less-than-orthodox concepts than we usually imagine.

One further challenge to common preconceptions about the Bible emerges from Barton’s candid account: The Bible often does not, in fact, say what many people assume it does. The Hebrew prophets, for example, are thought of in the popular imagination as moral beacons, advocates of the faith, and heralds of a luminous future of redemption. Barton calls our attention to a rather different tenor of prophecy: “The prophetic books, like the pieces of which they are composed, are for the most part subversive entities, undercutting the foundations of established religion, especially the state religious cults of the Hebrew kingdoms in preexilic times, and the political machinations of the times just before the exile.”

King David in Prayer by Pieter de Grebber, ca. 1630s. (Museum Catharijneconvent, Netherlands.)

Again, for many, the Bible is inseparable from the idea of heaven. The unanimous view of modern scholarship is that the Hebrew Bible, at any rate, has no genuine idea of an afterlife, with the limited exception of a few lines at the end of the very late book of Daniel. Although this is well established, the perfect aptness of Barton’s formulation is admirable:

The Hebrew Bible is noticeably reticent about any kind of afterlife, tending to portray the world of the dead as shadowy and mysterious and as lacking in any positive features, very much like Hades in Homer. Sheol, as that world is known, is a place where the praise of God has ceased and where people can no longer enjoy fellowship with him.

The New Testament is equally a screen on which later religious views have been projected. It contains no hint of the virgin birth. The doctrine of the Trinity is absent, apart from two brief texts where it perhaps might be inferred. The divine status of Jesus shifts from at most an implication in the synoptic gospels to an affirmation in John, and, as Barton notes, “There are places . . . where Jesus is presented as definitely subordinate to God the Father in a way that would later have been regarded as heretical.”

Perceptions of this sort segue into what is the principal burden of the second half of this book, which follows the large historical sweep of the Bible’s reception from the early rabbis and the church fathers down to modernity. When communities of faith read the Bible, they repeatedly recast it to fit the contours of their own belief systems in the full conviction that this is what the Bible has been saying all along.

Early on, there was a decisive parting of the ways between Christian and Jewish readings of scripture, although there were also sharp divergences among Christians, especially after the Reformation. This is not only a matter of the Christian embrace of supersession and its categorical rejection by Jews but also of fundamentally different strategies of reading. The rabbinic sages cultivated the method of what we call midrash, in which, with homiletic or legal ends in mind, any given word or phrase could be seized on as a kind of cross-reference to all sorts of verses and phrases elsewhere in the corpus, making possible a mutual illumination of meanings. “Scripture,” in Barton’s deft summary of the procedure, “is like an enormous crossword puzzle, or a complex tapestry: it is nothing at all like any other book someone might write. A simple surface reading is bound to be a false reading.” The purpose for which this strategy of reading is marshaled “is not so much literality as an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that endorses and undergirds Jewish belief and practice, and rules out the tenets of other religions (specifically Christianity and Islam).”

A corresponding judgment can be made for Christian readings, although, for these, the emphasis is not on practice but, rather, on belief or theology. In the instructive example offered here, Jews read the story of Ruth as a narrative illustration of the ideal convert to Judaism, whereas Christians see it as an intimation of the advent of Christ through David, who is descended from Ruth. In this fashion, “Christians read the biblical text within the framework of the theological text they found in the Bible, the message of creation, fall, redemption and final consummation.”

This sharp divergence in how the two faiths conceived of the Bible is reflected in the physical medium with which they originally used it. From the beginning, the Christian Bible was presented in what was then a rather new form, the codex, a manuscript bound in the form of a book. In contrast, Jews continued to preserve it in scrolls, adopting the codex only around the eighth century CE (Scrolls, of course, continue to be used for the cantillation of the Torah in synagogue to the present.) Barton interestingly suggests that the adoption of the codex by the early Christians was a conscious attempt to set off their writings both from the Jewish texts and from Greek and Latin literature.

Divergent readings of the Bible, which may be thought of as divergent constructions of what the Bible is, have proliferated with the passage of time. This process is perhaps most strikingly apparent in what has happened with translations of the Bible, which, of course, are a form of interpretation. In our own time, there have been “inclusive” translations, aiming to eliminate all gendered terms. This is an especially difficult undertaking for the Hebrew, which is a pervasively gendered language, in verbs and all pronouns as well as in nouns. Concerning such inclusive versions, Barton is led to wonder “how far [the Bible] can be adapted or emended to fit a modern agenda.”

Beyond these ideologically driven versions, several of the widely circulated translations by committee done in the second half of the 20th century aspire to make the Bible clear—even when it is pointedly not clear in the original—by repackaging its syntax, recasting its idioms, and erasing its metaphors with what are supposed to be their referents. The overall effect, unfortunately, is to make many biblical passages read like badly written newspaper stories, ungainly in style and inappropriately contemporary in tone. Pushing rather further in this direction, some modern translators have sought to have the Bible speak vividly to contemporary readers by rendering it in punchy modern English. Barton cites a British translation of 1958 by J. B. Phillips in which the “holy kiss” of Romans 16:16 becomes “a hearty handshake all round.” In a similar vein, a recent American version by Eugene Peterson has the Lord in Genesis 1 telling the plants to “green up” and turns “give us this day our daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer into “keep us alive with three square meals.” Readers of such versions, however much they may find scripture newly “accessible,” are, to some extent, reading Bibles quite different from the original writings.

In any event, the crucial challenge to traditional thinking about the Bible is the sense that has developed especially since the 19th century that it is not, after all, a unique book. Barton, like many others, marks the breakthrough in this reconceptualization of scripture with Spinoza. “The implication,” he writes concerning Spinoza’s discussion of miracles in the Bible, events scarcely credible for later rationalists, “that people in biblical times thought differently from modern people, had not been made clearly before.” Over the centuries, Jews and Christians had tended to imagine a seamless continuity between their own world of thought and that of the Bible—King David is represented poring over the Talmud in rabbinic lore and is a harp-playing saint in Christian depictions. The radical notion that the biblical writers lived and thought in a different world from ours would, in time, lead to a historicization of the Bible that has been universally embraced by scholars. The Bible is now seen as a product of its era against the background of archeological knowledge that often contradicts it, as well as of other ancient sources and in light of what can be inferred about the mindsets of the people who wrote it.

John Barton is a rigorous scholar with a firm commitment to the body of empirical knowledge of what has been learned about the origins of the Bible, its evolution, and the actual contexts of its texts in all their difficulties and contradictions. He is also a person seriously engaged in Christian tradition, and this means not only “the Book” but also its faiths. At the end of his first chapter, he affirms, with the creation story in Genesis in mind, that “scepticism about the details of the narrative books in general can coexist . . . with continuing respect for the texts as inspiring and informative.” Yet, Barton also goes on to wonder, “how far can we go along a sceptical path before losing touch with traditional use and understanding of the Bible altogether?” He is perfectly aware that there is no easy answer to this question and that the way of biblical scholarship, by now an indispensable perspective, can turn into a slippery slope for believers. The inerrancy of the Bible, its literal truth, is surely no longer a viable option.

Barton’s proposal about how scripture might nevertheless provide depth and energy for the spiritual lives of adherents to the faiths founded on it, and perhaps of secular readers as well, is cautious and judicious, like everything in this book. Early on, he asks, “[H]ow can [the Hebrew] narrative books be religiously important, and how were they important for religious thought in ancient Israel?” They offer, he rightly notes, no direct guidance for how to live a good life, as Jews and Christians through the centuries have thought. “They may well have functioned,” he goes on to say, “to draw people in and engage them in a narrative world that leads to no definite conclusions but illuminates the human condition obliquely.” This would not be true to the same extent of the New Testament narratives, which have, after all, a doctrinal purpose: They are narrative embodiments of a theology.

If the ancient writers, especially those whose work appears in the Hebrew Bible, resist definite conclusions but, instead, seek to illuminate “the human condition obliquely,” they do not differ in this essential respect from writers who have created great literature of other kinds. When David, learning of the death of the infant son born to him by Bathsheba, somberly tells his courtiers, “I am going to him. He will not come back to me,” he is movingly expressing an understanding of human fate, of fathers and sons and the inexorable grip of mortality, that is rooted in the same realm of harsh existential reality we feel in Priam’s words to Achilles as he pleads to be given the body of his son Hector: “I have done what no man has done. I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son.” The only difference is that David’s story plays out in a frame of monotheistic faith. David, a notably imperfect human being, is not inclined to challenge the belief system of his time and place or his divine election to the throne; that he lives with imperfections, with strong desires and emotions and conflicting loyalties while caught in the iron vice of political circumstances, is what makes his story so broadly relevant and so compelling.

Near the end of his conclusion, Barton proposes that “the Bible can also nourish religious faith by its very difference from what Jews or Christians instinctively believe or do: it can surprise constructively or challengingly.” He adds that the biblical writers “do not tell their story in such a way as to direct us as to what we should believe, but set up a world into which we can enter imaginatively and have our perceptions changed.” This is what literature of the first order of originality, whether secular or religious, often does for us: It shakes up settled notions about human nature and relationships; about the moral, social, and historical realms; about the inner lives of people, acting as a constant source of instructive surprise.

In this regard, the Bible is not a special case but, as a set of writings that has nurtured the religious life of our culture, an exemplary instance of what literature does, enacted in the context of monotheistic belief. In John Barton’s finely deliberated argument, this becomes a plausible way for readers to accept a historical and analytic understanding of the Bible while still embracing, if they choose, one of the faiths that were built on it.


Suggested Reading

Robert Alter’s Bible: A Symposium

Ronald Hendel, Aviya Kushner, Shai Held, David Bentley Hart, Adele Berlin, Adam Kirsch

In the 14 years since he published the Five Books of Moses, Alter has steadily progressed through the Tanakh, producing translations that aim at something like a 21st-century American equivalent of what he has called the “simple yet grand” English of the King James Version, while attending closely to the literary techniques of the Hebrew text. We asked a learned, eclectic group of six critics to discuss the results.