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The Bible: A Biography

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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.

302 pages, Paperback

First published November 10, 2007

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About the author

Karen Armstrong

114 books3,035 followers
Karen Armstrong, a comparative religion specialist is the author of numerous books on religion, including The Case for God, A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and Fields of Blood, as well as a memoir, The Spiral Staircase.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages. In 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and began working with TED on the Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public, crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It was launched globally in the fall of 2009. Also in 2008, she was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Trans cultural Understanding.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 394 reviews
Profile Image for Anne.
3,922 reviews69.3k followers
December 5, 2022
The readability is very high, but there just aren't many sources cited*.
None at all for the beginning of the book that dealt with ancient pre-written Jewish history, and that was actually what I found the most interesting. Who did ancient Jews think their God was and how did that connect to the other religions of the time? I'm not saying her information was wrong, but I'd like to at least have the opportunity to look up the sources for myself.
Edit: This is for the audiobook only.
Apparently, all of the sources are listed in physical and digital copies. It would have been nice if that were mentioned in the audiobook version, as I do like to paw around and check other books out. I do think it would have been cool if (especially towards the beginning of the book she could have added things like and we know this because scholars/archaeologists found such-n-such to support this theory instead of just stating everything as a fact.


The tone of the book was very mellow, and that's not always easy while talking about a historical view of several religions. It had that non-judgemental just the facts, ma'am feel to it.
If you're looking for an extremely short and simple explanation of the history of Judaism and its off-shoot Christianity, then this is a skinny version. It gives the basics of the different twists and turns the religions have taken, and some of the major sects and denominations that have popped up within them because of that.
I do like her concise writing style, so I'm definitely going to check out more of her books.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews7,023 followers
May 7, 2014

On Reading The Holy Texts: A Plea

The basic historical account of Armstrong’s fits nicely with the Aslan take and also elaborates it for the reader, both into the pre-christian past dealing with the consolidation of the old testament and the post-‘christo’ development of the holy texts.

In addition, this account gives a less detailed, and yet more comprehensive picture of this whole undertaking - it shows that Aslan might have tried to wind up his popular-history too fast and slacked on the details towards the end of his book, and attributed most of the blame to Paul in the reinterpretation. Armstrong shows how this too was a much more collaborative and extensive project and not a one-shot wonder or a singular turning point as Aslan dramatically portrays. In fact, most of modern christianity seems to have crystallized much later according to Armstrong’s account.

One thing that stands out even more is that while Azlan focused, almost with zealous enthusiasm, on the fact that the early christians were reinterpreting the Jewish scriptures, he leaves out the fact that these Jewish scriptures were themselves the result of continuous reinterpretation across the centuries. The Christians were only carrying forward that tradition, as did the post-jerusalem jews, who developed it into the Torah culture. The continuing tension between those who wished to see a strict historical truth in the holy texts and those who sought some mystical meaning through allegory is the real story of the Bible, as of most religious texts. An exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible, as of other religious document is a recent, and quite anti-religious development, as most religious scholars of the past would attest.

Armstrong traces two parallel stories (one kickstarting only later, of course): the one of the Jews and the other of the Christians, swiveling around the two pivotal points of the destruction of the temple in the 6th century BCE and the even more devastating destruction of Herod's great temple in 70 CE. Both setting in motion the contrasting and inverted paths from meekness to militant apocalyptic worship and vice versa, told with fine dramatic flourish.

In the end the central message of Armstrong’s book is that both these religions, especially Christianity, has evolved by continuous reinterpretation of the texts. This is what has allowed them to survive and adapt so much. Armstrong says that almost all religions of the world ask us to see the holy text with the light of compassion and then use them to guide our lives, and to be truly religious that is what we should do, not stick to artificial ‘textual’ readings of a text that was never there to begin with.

So unlike many scholarly attacks on Christianity and the historicity of the Bible, Armstrong does the same but from a deeply religious vantage point - one of saying that love your Bibles but also trust your holy texts enough to let them be your companions instead of your masters. The Bible, she says, was always interpreted in this spirit of ‘allegoria’, one of mystical and spiritual interoperation, and Armstrong asks us to do the same instead of rejecting these holy texts or accepting them too literally. Only then we would be in the same path along with the greatest exegetes of the past like Philo, Jesus, etc.

In our dangerously polarized world, this spirit is even more important, especially when dealing with the ‘holy’ texts of other cultures. When you meet an alien culture and their holy texts, we should approach with the suspicion of truth, not of hostility. This is Armstrong’s plea to us. The book is not particularly remarkable, being neither engrossing nor greatly educational, but the message is a valid one.

The Bible, and the other holy texts are today in danger of becoming either dead letters or toxic arsenals. There is an urgent need for a compassionate hermeneutics in our approach to religions, eschewing both extremes of outright rejection and blind compliance. The solution might be to recapture the spirit of the early religious scholars and mystics.
655 reviews
November 12, 2012
I really wanted to learn something from this book. But my problem is – how do I know what I've learned? Armstrong presents many controversial theories, but just states them as declared fact. Nowhere does she explain the evidence that led her to those theories or any alternative views. Primary sources are limited in several chapters and no academic research is cited. I'm not even aware whether she's done any of her own academic research, or whether she just repeating the popular material of the people she agrees with the most. Over and over she takes an issue for which we have limited facts and states her favorite theory about it as if it could be no other way. This is the kind of positivist view of history that was dismissed by serious historians decades ago, but still is fed to the general public by those who should know better.

I'm familiar with many of the theories because I've read them in other sources. Quite a few of them could be partially or entirely accurate. But if someone were to give me an alternative theory, how would I be able to judge it in comparison to Armstrong's? She doesn't give any examples of the facts, logic, or academic research her ideas are based on, and certainly doesn't express any humility or give consideration to alternative ideas. She just expects you to believe her. My recommendation would be – if you hear any alternative theories that contradict anything she says, and those theories provide the slightest bit of primary sources, interior logic, or academic research to back themselves up, then you'd have to prefer them over hers.
580 reviews24 followers
February 11, 2009
This book is a 120 mph speed race through . . . what? I guess how people have approached the Bible over the past couple of thousand years? I think it is a shallow book and poorly put together. To me, it feels as if the author simply shuffled her index cards, lined them up, and copied them. I felt I was reading a text that has all of the interest of an online computer manual.

This is a book that talks about the Bible and how it's been interpreted, but actually does not give one "real life" example about how a particular school might have done it. There are, amazingly, hardly any quotes --- if there are any at all --- from the Book itself. The whole thing is a vast abstraction, somewhat like a study guide that might be used to cram for an exam.

The author makes some interesting remarks, but then just drops them. For example, it would be interesting to know why or how the monk became the exemplar when there was no further opportunity for martyrdom (page 115). Or to know more about why the Fall of Rome means the West has a deep sense of Original Sin that apparently no one else does (page 126).

Then, there are things like Anselm of Bec becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1189 when the previous line gives his dates as 1033-1109!!! (page 136) And Nicholas of "Lyre" as opposed to Nicholas of Lyra!!! (page 153)
Profile Image for Thomas Stroemquist.
1,481 reviews123 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
August 8, 2018
DNF @ pg 170-something, which is way too late in this book where at least the last quarter is but references and glossary. It really started out interesting - or, maybe not interesting as much as bewildering.

This always happens to me when I try to read anything on the subject, I end up in a confused state over how so many have the ability to just turn off logic reasoning and just decide that "I'm going to believe this.". In this case, the discrepancy is of course the mutual exclusiveness of believing in god and believing what's in the collection of writings later known as "The Bible", through countless mutations due to translations, interpretations and will of men to be a true account of anything.

The beginning describes this nicely, we move through old stories and polytheistic religions evolving much through the writings through hundreds of years and later included in or discarded from what became the Bible. Somewhere in the middle, the author lost me though and when she tried to in some roundabout way act the apologetic from all that was in the first part and try to reason Jehova into existence again, I dropped this one. Twice, literally - first on account of rolling my eyes so hard I got dizzy and later when I fell asleep in my lounge chair.

I went in with no pre-knowledge, but after this turn of events, I did look the author up and Wikipedia tells that she was a nun, but converted to a more liberal and mythical christian faith. It is also stated that "Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion and the Golden Rule." Hm, I do wonder how come different religions, from different parts of the world do have certain things, such as these, in common? The fact that they are directly related to human decency and common frickin sense surely must be a too simple solution? Perhaps not. One thing I'm really sure about - if I had read the Wiki article first, it would have saved me some time that I could have used reading something else...
4 reviews2 followers
December 18, 2008
I bought this on a whim in the bookstore at O'Hare and read much of it on the plane. I thought it was a very good summary of the history of the Bible, from origins in oral tradition to contemporary phenomena such as a literal reading. It was particularly good on outlining the differences in approach in Jewish and Christian traditions. As in her other books, Armstrong strikes a nice balance between critical analysis and broad understanding of the non-rational aspects of religious thought and tradition. It also did a good job of discussing the widely diverse ways in which the Bible has been interpreted over time, based on the issues and dynamics of the time.
Profile Image for John Martindale.
750 reviews81 followers
October 16, 2017
Karan Armstrong not only quickly did an overview of the development of bible from a highly skeptical secular perspective, but also touched on Christian and Jewish history. The most interesting part to me was the brief overview of Jewish and Christian interpretations of scriptures through history. As I listened, I did notice some straight up errors (if what I've learned elsewhere is to be believed), and the book seemed very biased. Again and again she would share what was in reality an extremely speculative interpretation, theory or hypothesis and present it as solid fact, I don't recall her ever using the words; “possibly”, “It seems” or “some have argued” or “maybe it was”, or even hinting that some of what she presented as fact is even seen as problematic by other liberal and anti-theistic scholars. What she shared was astronomically one sided, and the suppressed evidence was truly immense. If there was interpretation of the data that had tons of evidence for it, but then another interpretation that had very little or no evidence to support it, and yet put the bible and Christians in a worse light, the latter interpretation was of course the one presented as absolute undisputed fact.
I suppose that due to the brevity and scope of the book that there wasn't the time to give a more fair and balanced telling, yet still the extreme dogmatism could have been tempered somewhat, especially that which was based upon scholarship of convenience as Bart Ehrman calls it. Or as I like to call it Procrustean Scholarship, where they confidently date material so it fits their previously held schema, and claim the individual verses that still don't fit with their preconceived theories are interpolations, and then dream up motivations and read anything they want between the line, in order to force things line up a little too perfectly.
Profile Image for Osman Ali.
329 reviews68 followers
August 8, 2017

كيف ومتى ومن كتب الكتاب المقدس أو اسفار العهدين القديم والجديد؟؟
دائما ما كنت أطرح على نفسي هذا السؤال وألتمس الاجابة من محاضرات أو مناظرات أو حتى ابحاث مختصرة إلى حد ما
وها هي الاجابة تأتي من الباحثة الرائعة كارين أرمسترونج وهذا الكتاب هو الرابع لها في قائمة ما قرأت بعد محمد نبي لزماننا ومحمد - سيرة النبي ومسيرة الاسلام
يبدأ معنا الكتاب رحلة تاريخية منذ حوالي الألفية الاولى قبل الميلاد وحتى العصر الحديث ويتناول الظروف الاولى لكتابة التوراة بعدما كانت تتداول شفاهةً
وكيف اختلف كتاب مملكة يهوذا الجنوبية عن كتاب مملكة اسرائيل الشمالية وكيف حدث السبي البابلي واثره على كتبة الاسفار وكيف تدخلت الثقافة الوثنية المحيطة بالقبائل اليهودية واثرت على كتابة الاسفار
واسر الدمار الو السبي البابلي على اختيار نصوص عنيفة وتأويلها على أعنف وجه
انبياء بني اسرائيل وسيرتهم وكتاباتهم وتعديلاتهم على النصوص المتتابعة
اسفار التوراة الخمسة المنسوبة إلى سيدنا موسى عليه السلام واستحالة ان يكون هو كاتبهم او راويهم بالكامل لاحتوائهم على احداث تلت وفاته بزمن
مجيء السيد المسيح عليه السلام كنبي ومجدد وثوري قبله بعض اليهود والتفوا حوله ورفضه البقية خوفا من الرومان او كرها له او لتوقعهم شخص اخر سيكون هو المسيح
وكيف كان تلاميذ المسيح يهود ملتزمين يحافظون على قوانين التوراة (التي نسخها بولس مستقبلا)
ما بعد رفع المسيح باعوام عديدة ظهرت الاناجيل الاربعة المكونة للعهد الجديد والتي لا يعرف احد كتبتها على وجه الدقة ولا ظروف كتاباتها الفعلية
بولس (أكثر شخصية مثيرة للجدل في تاريخ المسيحية) وكيف نسخ الشريعة التوراتية برسائله وكيف وضع التنظيم الاولي للكنيسة
كيف تأثرت العقيدة المسيحية بوثنية الرومان وحتى اعيادهم ومناسبتهم بعدما تحولت الامبراطورية الرومانية للمسيحية
الصراع بين أريوس واثاناسيوس حول الوهية المسيح وكما هو معروف ان اريوس واتباعه من بعده أمنوا ببشرية ونبوة السيد المسيح وهذا ما رفضه مجمع نيقية واعتبرهم هراطقة ومنافقين (ارجع لكتاب أقباط مسلمون قبل محمد للمهندس فاضل سليمان) واقر المجمع الوهية المسيح
يتناول الكتاب ايضا اسماء الكتب اليهودية وطرق تدريسها وتفسير وتقويل المفسرين لها وتدخل الروحاني تارة والمادي تارة والحرفي تارة والغنوصي تارة
ويستمر التاريخ لتزدهر دراسة التوراة في عهد الدولة الاسلامية في الشام والاندلس ويطور الحاخامات اساليب نقد وتفسير من المسلمين واشهر هؤلاء الحبر الكبير موسى بن ميمون
ولم تفوت كارين ذكر مأساة الحملة الصليبية الاولى ونفي اي قدسية عنها فهي كما ترى حملة مادية دموية واصبح المسيح هو اللورد الاقطاعي لهؤلاء الصليبيين وليس السيد المخلص
وايضا تشهد هنا لحضارة الاسلام التي يتشكك بها بعض الحمقى والمهزومين نفسيا من ابناء المسلمين المعاصرين وتقول " بينما قاتل بعض الاوروبيين المسلمين في الشرق الادنى, عكف اخرون على الدراسة على أيدي العلماء والمسلمين في الاندلس" وتتابع "ففي مملكة الاندلس المسلمة, اكتشف الدارسون الغربيون الطب والرياضيات وعلم اليونان القديم الذي حافظ عليه وطوره العالم الاسلامي, وهناك قرأوا لأرسطو لأول مرة باللغة العربية وترجموا اعماله إلى اللاتينية"
فصدق أو لا تصدق نحن من علمنا الغرب العلوم والفلسفة والثقافة وحتى النقد التاريخي لكتبهم المقدسة وتطبيق العقلانية على دراستها وتفسيرها
وتستمر الرحلة لعصر العلم الحديث والفيزياء والفلق والتطور ويحدث الصدام بين النصوص المقدسة وبين الحقائق العلمية والتاريخية ويبدأ المفسرون في تبني رؤى ظاهرية عن النصوص ورفض حرفيتها ويصر البعض الاخر على الحرفية ويرفض العلم ويهاجمه بضراوة
ثم تأتي الصهيونية من جهة والاصولية البروتستانتية من جهة اخرى وتستخرجا من الكتاب المقدس أعنف اياته وتستغلها على اسوأ ما يكون لتبرر جرائمها ضد الفلسطينيين فيما يخص الصهاينة والسود والملونين وغيرهم فيما يخص اصوليين امريكا من جهة اخرى

ولم تفوت كارين الحديث عن الاصولية العلمانية الحديثة التي تبغض الاديان وتحاربها وتشوهها وفي المقابل ما ارتقبته من جرائم على ��د النازيين والشيوعيين وغيرهم من اتباعها
وهكذا بدأ الكتاب المقدس بنصوص شفهية تداولتها الانبياء وحرفت وغيرت وبدلت على أيدي من كتبوها وفسروها من بعدهم حتى يومنا هذا
والحمد لله على نعمة القرأن الذي لم يتغير فيه حرف منذ ان انتهى الوحي بقوله تعالى " واتقوا يوما ترجعون فيه الى الله" ومهما اختلفت التفاسير والمذاهب والفرق يبقى النص المقدس هنا محفوظ بحفظ الله له ويشهد على ذلك العدو المنصف قبل المؤمن به

واختم باقتباس مهم وموجه للمهزومين نفسيا من المسلمين
"نفس الأمر فيما يتصل بمسألة العنف في النصوص المقدسة, ذلك أن هناك بالفعل قدر عظيم من العنف في الكتاب المقدس أكثر بكثير مما هو موجود في القرأن"

كتاب رائع ومهم للمهتمين بمقارنة الاديان وتاريخ الامم والحضارات
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
489 reviews76 followers
May 31, 2023
“When their sacred texts tell stories, people have generally believed them to be true, but until recently literal or historical accuracy has never been the point. The truth of scripture cannot be assessed unless it is – ritually or ethically – put into practice.”

Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography is a wide ranging history of The Book, a well researched and thoughtful examination of a number of important topics. For this review I am going to focus on just one of the areas she covers, because of the powerful and often destructive influence that it represents: the subject of biblical inerrancy.

Considering how deeply the concept of biblical literalism is embedded in contemporary evangelical Christianity, it is somewhat surprising to learn that it only became an issue in the late eighteen-hundreds. “[A]n 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.” Until then only the lunatic fringe asserted that the Bible was literally true in all things for all time. Although the author does not use the term, there is a word for the belief that the Bible is the literal word of god: bibliolotry: the worship of a book rather than the book’s message.

The stories which became the Bible were originally just that – stories, whose purpose was to explain and illuminate, and intended to be metaphorically rather than literally true. In fact, “From the very beginning, people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty.”

The Bible as we know it today was codified by St. Jerome around 400 CE, including the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 of the New. Jerome was unconcerned that the gospels differed significantly from one another not only in their facts but in their interpretation of who Jesus was, his views on salvation, and when and how the world would end. “When the editors fixed the canons of both the Jewish and Christian testaments, they included competing visions and placed them, without comment, side by side. From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely different meaning.”

It has been known since the earliest times that words are finite because people are finite, and thus can illuminate but not express the infinite, the unbounded, the omnipotent.

God had revealed some of his names to us in scripture, which tells us that God is ‘good’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘just’, but these attributes were ‘sacred veils’ that hid the divine mystery which lies beyond such words. When Christians listen to scripture, they must continually remind themselves that these human terms were too limited to apply to God. So God was ‘good’ and ‘not-good’; ‘just’ and ‘not-just’. This paradoxical reading would bring them ‘into that darkness which is beyond intellect’.

Because of this, “Bitter, angry disputes about the meaning of scripture were, therefore, ridiculous. The Bible expressed a truth that was infinite and beyond the comprehension of every single person, so nobody could have the last word.” Instead of engaging in tendentious arguments about what the Bible ‘really’ means and whose interpretation is correct, a spirit of understanding should guide faith, along with a humble acknowledgment that by admitting our limited capacity and by listening to one another we might find shared insights more illuminating than anything we could have come up with on our own.

For Saint Augustine, faith was not a doctrine but the embodiment of the spirit of love. He understood that the original stories of the Bible had been modified for many reasons, both inadvertently through transcription errors and intentionally as different interpretations fought for supremacy. Augustine believed that “Whatever the author had originally intended, a biblical passage that was not conducive to love must be interpreted figuratively, because charity was the beginning and end of the Bible,” and any interpretation that spread hate or dissension must be illegitimate.

Until Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) the Bible had always stood apart as holy writ. Spinoza looked beyond the little stories to a belief that did not need miracles or revealed truths, that developed a moral and ethical system distinct from religion, which in any case he dismissed as “a tissue of meaningless mysteries.” Following him, European scholars began examining the Bible not as a sacred text, but as human one, with all the distortions and contradictions of any human text, with the German Tübingen School taking the lead in what came to be known as Higher Criticism.

The idea that the Bible should be treated as a human book frightened and offended some Christians, who closed ranks and began to assert that everything in it was literally true, always and forever, and thus Christian fundamentalism was born. “There was...a growing sense that the truths of religion must be factual and a deep fear that the Higher Criticism would leave a dangerous void. Discount one miracle and consistency demanded that you reject them all. If Jonah did not spend three days in the whale’s belly, asked a Lutheran pastor, did Jesus really rise from the tomb?”

By the start of the twentieth century fundamentalist beliefs had taken root and become widespread in certain Christian sects. Since the Book of Revelation had described a detailed sequence of events that would lead to the Second Coming, Christians began interpreting world events as signs of the impending end times.

During the First World War, an element of terror entered conservative Protestantism in the United States: the unprecedented slaughter was on such a scale that, they reasoned, these must be the battles foretold in Revelation. Because conservatives now believed that every word of the Bible was literally true, they began to view current events as the fulfillment of precise biblical predictions.

Every world event was fair game for biblical exegesis so long as it could be twisted into support for their interpretation. It did not matter that the only consistent thing about every one their end times predictions is that they all turned out to be wrong, and to this day they continue to sees signs and prophecies everywhere.

When they read the Bible, Christian fundamentalists saw – and still see – themselves on the frontline against satanic forces that will shortly destroy the world. The wild tales of German atrocities circulating during and after the war seemed to prove the corrosive effects of the Higher Criticism on the nation that had spawned it.

All of this might seem quixotic, even amusing to an outside observer, like obsessing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but it has serious real-world consequences that threaten democratic societies. By picking and choosing parts of different books of the Bible and combining them they created new exegesis, which often led to shocking distortions of the gospel, and to pernicious effects on secular institutions such as education.

When fundamentalist movements are attacked they usually become more extreme. Before [the 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’] the conservatives were wary of evolution, but very few had espoused ‘creation science’, which maintained that the first chapter of Genesis was factually true in every detail. After Scopes, however, they became more vehemently literal in their interpretation of scripture, and creation science became the flagship of their movement.

A common interpretation of Revelation is that the Antichrist would slaughter two-thirds of the Jews living in Palestine during the end times, so fundamentalists look forward to the massacre of millions of Israelis. Some fundamentalists wish to overthrow the government entirely, to bring about their own ‘godly’ theocratic state.

Reconstructionists are thus planning the Christian commonwealth in which the modern heresy of democracy will be abolished and every single law of the Bible implemented literally: slavery will be re-established, contraception prohibited, adulterers, homosexuals, blasphemers and astrologers will be executed, and persistently disobedient children stoned to death.

Furthermore “God is not on the side of the poor: indeed...there is a ‘tight relationship between wickedness and poverty’. Taxes must not be used for welfare, since ‘subsidizing sluggards is the same as subsidizing evil”.

The Bible today is in danger of becoming a dead letter, though it contains magnificent stories of faith, courage, and compassion which are worth knowing and sharing. These stories have inspired some people to acts of greatness at the same time they have inspired others to cruelty and murder. The good things that are in the Bible are in danger of being swept away if educated people associate it with kooky fundamentalism and decide it has nothing that is worth their attention.
Profile Image for Jon Stout.
279 reviews57 followers
March 3, 2011
Like everything that Karen Armstrong touches, this work is exhaustive and erudite and wonderful. It does not summarize what is in the Bible, but rather is a broad scope history of how the Bible was written and how it has been interpreted unto the present day. The treatment supports Armstrong’s general theme that world religions do not offer a body of beliefs to be factually evaluated, but rather a way of life, a spiritual discipline including rites and rituals, which can only be evaluated by being lived out.

The history of how the Tanakh (or “Old Testament”) was written had some surprises for me. For example, I knew that in Genesis, scholars had discerned (at least) two distinct authors, the Yahwist and the Elohimist (based on the names “Yahway” and “Elohim” used for God). The Yahwist famously portrayed God in highly personal terms, as walking in the Garden of Eden with Adam, and as being a guest in the tents of Abraham, while the Elohimist portrayed God in more transcendent terms. What I didn’t know was that these two “authors” probably comprised the respective literatures of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The points of view were collated into one after the Assyrian defeat of Israel in 722 B.C.E., when the refugees fled to Judah.

Equal attention is given to early Christianity and to Pharisaical Judaism, the two largest competing branches of Judaism at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Judaism and Christianity needed very different survival techniques, and took very different forms, in order to cope with the power of the Roman Empire.

The history continues with a discussion of how the Bible was interpreted by both Jewish and Christian traditions in the last two millennia. There is far too much information to summarize, but one consequence of the discussion is to show that the contemporary reflex, to evaluate the Bible as either factually true or factually false, leaves out a lot of possibilities for how the Bible has actually been regarded and used.

Talmudic scholars sometimes regarded the inspirational experience derived from interpretation as more important than the original meaning. Christian writers and interpreters of the New Testament often took the Tanakh to be referencing the yet-to-be-born Jesus. More commonly, scholars have regarded the Bible as the history of a faith community, whose general conclusions are relative to a particular time and place. And many commentators, both Jewish and Christian, have argued that an interpretation should be judged in terms of whether it increases compassion in the world.
Profile Image for Beckie.
111 reviews
February 6, 2008
Karen Armstrong is among my top five religion scholars, and also probably my top five former nuns. She does a good job of making complicated history and theory comprehensible. At least one chapter of "The Bible: a Biography" pretty well summed up a semester-long class I had, and the book sweeps through history from ancient Israel through the present.
It's also worth noting that Armstrong traces the Jewish perspective on the Bible throughout that whole period, where many authors focus exclusively on Christian ideas once we hit the early church. This is to her credit, and the reader's benefit.
My main complaint is that the author's trademark simplification comes at a price. While Armstrong is very critical of much accepted wisdom about the Bible (particularly the idea of taking it literally) and of events as portrayed in the biblical texts, she takes some theories for granted. For example, the idea of the 'Q' text behind the synoptic gospels is presented as a fact. It's a well-respected theory, but how much stock can you put in a hypothetical text we don't have? There are also some historical stories she accepts at face value, and I cannot tell how she makes that call sometimes. This does the reader a disservice.
Toward the end, Armstrong tips her hand a bit, showing a clear desire to salvage the Bible (and other religious texts) from the damage inflicted by fundamentalists (in her view) and find value in it for modern readers. Which is fine and all, I personally do think opinions should be allowed in scholarship, but it's just not the purported purpose of this book.
It's still worth reading: a scholarly book for a general audience.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 18 books1,279 followers
August 26, 2019
Goodreads 2019 Summer Reading Challenge
17. Genre explorer: Read a book from a genre you’ve never read before

A few years ago I added to my literary bucket list the challenge of reading the Christian Bible from cover to cover; but since I'm an atheist who knows little about biblical history, this means that to do a thorough job at it, I also need to read several dozen other books on Judaism, Middle Eastern history, the history of Bible interpretation, the history of early Christianity, and more. It's a daunting task, which is why I keep putting off really throwing myself into the middle of it; but for this summer reading challenge, I thought I'd at least start with this short and plain-written guide to the Bible's history, construction, and two thousand years of different interpretative schools of thought. If like me you know almost nothing about these subjects, this primer by comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong is a great place to start, in that she often delves into some really simple subjects (for one early example, what the exact relation is between the Christian Bible and the various holy books of Judaism, and how they all went from normal books to "holy" in the first place), but without ever being simplistic or overly patronizing, a sophisticated look at some basic topics that is perfect for the budding intellectual who's not sure where to start with this overwhelming subject. It served as a great entrance to the rabbithole I'll be descending more and more over the coming few years.
Profile Image for Leslie.
354 reviews9 followers
January 16, 2009
This book, a biography of the Bible, is very informative and it covers from the beginning of the Old Testament to the present time. I've never read a book before that talks about how the Old Testament canon was chosen, so that was very interesting. Armstong shows the different schools of thought that existed back in ancient Isreal. I was surprised how little time she spent on how the New Testament canon was chosen. Instead Armstrong concentrated on the many different ways of approaching scripture, studyig the bible,viewing God, when people did or didn't take things literally. She concentrates on exegesis and all the many ways it is done. I also like that she continues comparing and contrasting the two religions all the way through time. Most books about the bible don't mention Judiasm after they start talking about Christianity, like it just shriveled up and died or something. Which it did not! Armstrong keeps both threads running concurrently and shows how similiar cultural shifts and historical events affected both religion's approach to the bible and God. She explains many terms I didn't know the meaning of and elaborates on many I was fuzzy on. As always, Armstrong's writing style is concise, complex, and yet comprehensible in the extreme. I think Karen Armstrong is one of the best writers about religion around.
July 29, 2017
Wavering back and forth between two and three stars. This wasn't just about the Bible, which is what the title purported it to be. Full review to come.

Rating: 2 Stars

Man, this book was dull.

Considering the fact that the topic is one of the most important books ever compiled, you'd think the history could be put together in an engaging way. It's not. There is a ton of information in this short volume, but it is so haphazard and random that I don't even recall anything I learned. My total lack of interest could also have to do with the fact that the author needs a thesaurus because she used the word 'exegesis' or a variant on every single page. It was the worst. You could make a drinking game out of how many times she uses it, and you would be hammered after the first third of the book.

Don't bother with this one.
Profile Image for Ned.
297 reviews125 followers
May 14, 2014
I found this illuminating, as I always do Armstrong's books, for its careful yet lively writing style. She makes history and scholarship come alive. Predominant themes are how the written word has been used as guide and history and since the enlightenment the book known as the bible has been subjected to the criticisms and a level of literalism for which it was not intended. Her writing style is superb and she has an experts level of understanding of ancient tomes and history and context. Three stars only because I've gathered these themes from reading her prior works, and there wasn't a tremendous amount of revelation for me. But a good primer and a great read for anyone interested in how the bible came to be and the influences that came to bear on its many renderings and interpretations. The final chapter on modernity is excellent and she gives a fine epilogue for how we might all find some peace, civility and charity in an ugly world of strife.
Profile Image for Dan.
217 reviews16 followers
June 21, 2016
for me, often involuntarily in the promised land, this was interesting, but i accept it might be a minority interest here in godless europe. karen armstrong is one of the greatest writers today on the history of religion - learned, fair, fairly concise. i trust her in a subject needing objectivity as the desert needs some rain. i enjoyed the early chapters, illustrating the variety of peoples and religions and writers that got shoe-horned into being the 'chosen people' of this book. the jewish and christian nit-picking over the middle sections was heavier going. then i enjoyed armstrong's presentation of the reformation, the enlightenment and the return of fundamentalism in some parts more recently. if there had been religious studies at my school i would have wanted karen armstrong standing there by the blackboard.
Profile Image for Israel.
280 reviews
March 3, 2018
Fascinante y, sorprendentemente, amena historia del libro sagrado de la religión cristiana, en la que Armstrong nos muestra no solo la creación de lo que ha terminado por conocerse como La Biblia cristiana, sino también (y esto es lo interesante) como ha ido cambiando la visión que de ella se ha tenido a lo largo de la historia, así como las diferentes aproximaciones que a ella han tenido tanto los estudiosos como el pueblo laico y llano.
Profile Image for Steve Herman.
Author 1 book
July 29, 2016
Ms. Armstrong is a former nun who has become a popular writer on religion. Her faith-based “biography” of the Bible runs roughshod over the facts. There are far too many errors to discuss here, so I will focus on a few key points and her overall conclusion.

Like many others, Ms. Armstrong says that we should not read the Bible literally. This leads to too many problems. But Ms. Armstrong goes further and insists that Christians did not read the Bible literally: “It is … 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.” (p. 3); “the first chapter of Genesis was rarely read as a factual description of the origins of the cosmos.” (p. 223); “after the Enlightenment, some saw the biblical narratives as purely factual, forgetting that they were written as stories” (p. 220).

This is utterly preposterous. For example, St Augustine wrote The Literal Meaning of Genesis. As the title indicates, Augustine insisted on literal interpretations, and dismissed allegorical and other non-literal approaches. Historically, Christianity almost always insisted that the Bible was literally true. They claimed it was the literal word of God, and therefore must be taken literally. The Catholic Church created the Office of the Inquisition to enforce literal interpretations. That’s why it arrested Galileo, and persecuted many others. That’s why Copernicus was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. For centuries, the Index focused almost exclusively on books that contradicted a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Index was enforced by the Inquisition.

Nor was literal interpretation limited to the Catholic Church. Martin Luther insisted on it, as did John Calvin. Ms. Armstrong knows these facts, but chooses to rewrite history to fit her faith. And she does so repeatedly. To cite another fantastic example, Ms. Armstrong claims, “The Spanish Inquisition … was a modernizing institution, designed to create ideological conformity” (p. 176).” That’s like saying the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was urban renewal. Even Pope John Paul apologized for the Inquisition, tacitly admitting it was an atrocity.

Ms. Armstrong’s conclusion and bottom-line: “We can read the Bible today as a prophetic commentary on our own world of raging orthodoxies; it can provide us with the compassionate distance to realize the dangers of this strident dogmatism and replace it with a chastened pluralism.” These are the kind of feel-good bromides that have made her popular. But her claim about the Bible’s pluralism is, once again, preposterous.

The Bible’s very first commandment said the God of Israel is a jealous God, and prohibits followers from having anything to do with any other god. It is anything but pluralistic. After the Exodus, when God delivers his people to their land of milk and honey, the first thing he has them do is slaughter all the tribes living there. They worshiped other gods, and according to the Bible, God would not tolerate pluralism. Whenever the children of Israel show signs of pluralism, God punishes them. Whenever anything goes wrong, pluralism is blamed for it. This is the constant refrain of the prophets.

Intolerance is not limited to the Old Testament. The New Testament’s gospels say there is no salvation outside of Jesus. There is no trace of pluralism in the Book of Revelation, which prophesies that non-believers will die a gruesome death and then suffer the eternal flames of Hell. You need a vivid imagination to find evidence of pluralism.

Before Constantine empowered Christianity, there were many different Christian sects. Constantine established the Nicene Creed. Any deviation from it was heresy. The Church persecuted heretics. It destroyed most Christian gospels and other texts as heresy. Soon the Christian state declared pagan worship to be a capital crime. Christianity totally rejected pluralism, using the Bible as justification.

Centuries later, when some Christians protested the corruption of the Catholic Church and its dubious interpretations of the Bible, the Church declared another Holy War. Catholics and Protestants spilled a sea of blood. Ms. Armstrong’s biography willfully ignores this. Neither Catholics nor Protestants found “chastened pluralism” in the Bible.

Based on the biblical commandment to kill witches and sorcerers, Catholics and Protestants alike conducted witch hunts, killing thousands of innocent women.

The bloodiest and most exploitative forms of imperialism were conducted by Christian institutions, once again using the Bible as justification. The White Man’s Burden was accompanied by Onward Christian Soldiers. Christian imperialists practiced murder, subjugation, and forced conversion -- not pluralism. These chapters are also missing from Ms. Armstrong’s biography.

Ms. Armstrong repeatedly commits major errors of commission and omission in her “biography” of the Bible. She carries wishful thinking to extremes, contradicting facts she knows very well. No doubt she has the best of intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What’s worse, nearly everyone applauds such pious fraud.
15 reviews3 followers
March 3, 2008
This was another helpful book by one of my favorite authors--Karen Armstrong. In it she traces the history of the Bible and its interpretation. As usual, Armstrong did a wonderful job. I only gave it 4 stars because, unlike all of her other books, it didn't really provide me with any new information/ideas. If you've never really studied the history of the Bible; however, I would highly recommend this introduction. I loved this quote from the epilogue:

"Making sense of the utterances and behavior of others, even their most aberrant behavior requires you to find a great deal of truth and reason in them. Even though their beliefs may be very different from your own, you have to assume that the alien is very much the same as you are, otherwise you are in danger of denying their humanity." ---Donald Davidson
Profile Image for Lisa.
96 reviews1 follower
August 14, 2013
I can understand why the publisher's marketing department decided to name it The Bible: A Biography; it's because A History of Biblical Exegesis just doesn't have the same popular ring. But that's what the book really is. If you are looking for theoretical histories of JEPD and the New Testament text, you will be sorely disappointed. These things are skimmed over. Is it a good book anyway? In some ways. There is interest to be found in the discussion, especially in the history of Jewish exegesis and philosophy. But the basic blandness of the writing, the superficial coverage of some basic issues (such as JEPD) makes it feel unbalanced. This disappoints me because I expected to like Karen Armstrong's writing, having heard about her for a while and only just gotten around to reading her work. But I'm not nearly as eager to try another Armstrong effort as I was to start this one.

Profile Image for Ericka Clou.
2,106 reviews162 followers
November 17, 2017
Armstrong writes about the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Bible, over and over again through the centuries. It has a similar thrust to her book, The Case for God, but it is much shorter because it focuses only on the text of the Bible and not the overall concept of God. It was a little boring in its early history and sped through contemporary history, and it wasn't as strong a thesis as The Case for God, but it was a solid read.
Profile Image for A. J..
135 reviews2 followers
February 2, 2009
Fabulous topic. Author's style makes it like trying to see through peanut butter. I have read several of her books and usually like them. This is work to get through and while doing such... I find it difficult to stop and say what I just read or learned.
Profile Image for Seppe.
64 reviews
April 30, 2023
Introductie voor het lezen van de Bijbel. Beknopt historisch overzicht - een biografie - van bijbelinterpretatie van de oudheid tot 20ste eeuw. Niet op een apologetische, maar op een kritische wijze.
Profile Image for Illiterate.
1,761 reviews31 followers
July 13, 2021
Recommended for Christians who are ignorant of historical criticism. Ultimately, though, it’s a vacuous defense of a vacuous spirituality.
Profile Image for Kcatty.
160 reviews48 followers
Shelved as 'could-did-not-finish'
March 19, 2013
I am a life-long Baptist and a science person. No matter how contradictory that sounds, it means that I do a very good job separating my belief from my reason. I can completely accept scientific facts while still believing that the Bible was written how most of us believe it was written.
So, from this point onward, it's my reason talking. And the writer in me, not the Baptist.

I stopped reading this book because it seemed so thoroughly biased in unbiasness. It is a completely scientific-based book, but, from the tone, it felt really determined to debunk Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the same time. It goes out of its way to point out all the ways the scripture was used for really wacky stuff, and how wrong a lot of people today are at interpreting it. A scientific work is unbiased from beginning to end - it may seek to prove, or perhaps debunk a hypothesis, but if the data doesn't support the original theory, the scientist notes that. The author came in with her hypothesis and spent the whole book proving it, but also taking shot after shot at the other side with glee. Even when I agree with authors (cough, Glenn Greenwald) on premises, I can't stand the ego some of them show so obviously.

Another thing - the author presents information as fact when it is theory. For example, the documentary hypothesis (JEPD) is, as the name suggests, a hypothesis. It's not fact. I've learned about the theory before and I'd say it has merits. It explains some things and not others. But there's a big difference between a theory and a fact. Gravity is fact. JEPD is not fact. We will never be able to prove it to be fact. Armstrong states it, clear as day, as fact, without presenting any other theories or even parenthesizing (hey! that's a word! finally I make up something legit!) that there are holes in it!
I'm a Physics/Engineering person. If you ignore something, bad things happen. Seriously. Even if you don't want them to.

Perhaps Karen Armstrong needs to critically read Glenn Greenwald, then go back to her book. She'd find a disturbing number of similarities.
Profile Image for Sam.
73 reviews3 followers
December 7, 2016
Whenever I mention my admiration for Karen Armstrong and try to discuss her work with people I know are interested in the history of religion, they usually give me an incredulous look and talk about how dense and boring her books are. That always shocks me, because I find her writing riveting. This is the fourth book I have read of hers, and I have noticed that she frequently reuses examples, parables, and citations, but always to provide some fresh insight or illustrate a different, more grand lesson.

That written, compared to The Great Transformation, A Case for God, and Fields of Blood, this is relatively light reading. It is a quick and dirty history of the composition of the Bibles. The first part of the book focuses on the Tanakh and then tells the parallel stories of the composition of the New Testament and Torah and then the centuries of exegesis that followed.

But this is not a simple recounting of history. Armstrong has a powerful argument that she builds throughout the book, that the whole enterprise going back to oral tradition has been to perpetually reexamine transcendent ideas about benevolence and figure out how to convey that message and turn it into action in the context the writer/teller lived. Having written the book in 2007 when the post-9/11 reality of perpetual violence and fear inspired by cultural and religious extremism was beginning to feel like the new normal, she makes a moving call to action: "But because scripture has been so flagrantly abused in this way, Jews, Christians and Muslims have a duty to establish a counter-narrative that emphasizes the benign features of their exegetical traditions. Interfaith understanding and cooperation are now essential to our survival... Midrash and exegesis were always supposed to relate directly to the burning issues of the day, and the fundamentalists should not be the only people who attempt this."
Profile Image for Mag.
383 reviews55 followers
October 29, 2010
The book seems to be making a very convincing case against literal interpretation of the Bible. It takes us through ages of its development, adding and deleting texts, their interpretation and re-interpretation; from its origins in the Torah, through the Old Testament, the New Testament, to the Christian Bible.

One of its main points seems to be that the Bible was never meant to be read literally, as it contains both logos and mythos. Mythos is '...not intended to be factual.. it was concerned with meaning rather than historically accurate information, and described a religious experience.' Logos, or the reason, on the other hand, enables to translate those experiences into 'allegories of divine'. The reading of the whole Scripture depends on the balance between the mythos and the logos. Since nowadays we have come to depend more on the logos- scientific and rational reading, the fundamentalist reading of the Bible is trying to turn the mythos into the logos, and read the allegory literally.

The book was somewhat interesting, but in the end it did not meet my expectations. Since it was labeled ‘a biography’, I was expecting much more about the origins of the texts and of what’s in them. Being non-religious, I have a rather hazy picture of the details and less known stories, constituting parts and where they came from. What the book gave me instead was a string of historical dates and monks or philosophers who have added and re-interpreted the texts. Not to mention that I was lost to the very end as to what really constituted the Bible.

Overall, I have enjoyed other books by Armstrong more. I found them more informative and better written than this one.
Profile Image for Don.
853 reviews38 followers
December 29, 2015
Karen Armstrong has long been one of my favorite authors to read on religious topics (her "A History of God" continues to be one of the best books I've ever read on religion), and her "biography" of The Bible continued show why. She is direct, thorough, and concise in exploring how not only the parts of The Bible came to be considered scripture, but how those parts have been interpreted have changed over the course of history. What is of particular interest is how the rise of literal translations of The Bible, and the subsequent and corresponding rise of religious fundamentalism based upon that interpretation, is very much a phenomenon of the last 100-150 years. Armstrong presents a convincing argument that this phenomenon is a response to the rise of scientific literacy, particularly with the publishing of Darwin's "Origin of Species."

That said, the strength of the book is not in its examination of modernity (though that is very good), its the exploration of how the various threads of tradition that led to writing and re-writing of the Jewish holy books were the result of the varieties of the Jewish experience, and how that led into the writing and selection of texts to be included in the Christian canon.

Anyone who wants to know more about the history of one of the most influential books in the Western world, and, if one is Jewish or Christian and wants to know more about the origins of their faith, the book will be a worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Katherine.
49 reviews
December 29, 2007
This is really a fascinating book on the Bible, a short biography of the book itself, how it came into being, and the religious movements around it. Armstrong's explanations of who shaped it and why are clear and easy to follow, even without having an extensive religious background. Her take on U.S. fundamentalists is deservingly harsh and welcome, but it's interesting to see how their views, wacky as they are, don't seem as wacky compared with all the other drastic changes that have happened as a result of biblical interpretation. And her shout-out to Martin Luther, misogynist though he was, I particularly appreciated--I'm becoming more and more grateful everyday for the life lessons I learned from the church community I grew up in rather than the religious ones per se. Moreover her explanation of the Zionist movement helped me really understand how that turned into the full-on war that it is today. I must admit that I found the parts on Kaballah rather difficult to follow. Could it really be that Demi Moore and Ashton Kucher understand it and I'm left in the dark? Thankfully Armstrong doesn't get into that part of it.
Profile Image for Sarah Clarke-Smith.
38 reviews2 followers
September 23, 2011
Karen Armstrong tends to be a little on the squishy/feel good side as far as arguments go, but as a former nun, she knows the Bible. I clearly don't. Besides learning how little I know about the bible and its history, this book convinced me that I can no longer believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, nor do I believe that the bible is the word of God, more like the words of Paul and several other Jewish men. I appreciate Armstrong's reasonable view of the purpose of religion and where it goes wrong. I am following this book up with Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible & Why
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