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A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  541 ratings  ·  104 reviews
A uniquely ambitious study of the Bible's creation: how it came to be written, how its contents were selected - and how it really relates to the religions that endorse it

The Bible is the central book in Western culture, yet extraordinarily there is no proper history of it. This exceptional work, by one of the world's leading Biblical scholars, provides a full account of ho
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published April 4th 2019 by Allen Lane
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Paul Bryant
May 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: godreads

There 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. The implications of this for theories of the inspiration and authority of the New Testament have scarcely begun to be worked out. Where the words of Jesus are concerned, for example, we often know only roughly what he is supposed to have said (and whether he really said it is of course yet a further question).

No, this was not written
Apr 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an absolutely fascinating book for anyone who has an interest in the Bible, regardless of whether you are specifically religious or not. This is a longer book with a lot of information in it, so I suggest reading it in smaller chunks, so you can truly appreciate all of the nuances.

The Bible, as most people are no doubt already aware, has been through many changes over the years, being adapted and translated for different languages and cultures and updated by various scribes either accid
Eric Anderson
Jun 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
I don’t often read much nonfiction so I always look forward to following the Wolfson History Prize each year for guidance of what biographical or historical books I should catch up on. Last year I read Matthew Sturgis’ excellent biography of Oscar Wilde but this year I thought I’d challenge myself a bit more by reading priest and Oxford scholar John Barton’s much-acclaimed “A History of the Bible”. Firstly, I must declare that although I was raised with regular Sunday trips to a Lutheran church ...more
Nick Imrie
One might expect a book about the history of a book to be a bit dry and academic, but Barton has done an excellent job of making a fascinatingly readable narrative, and there were many pleasurable little moments where I learnt something new and unexpected. Making a few thousand years of facts into a narrative entails leaving a lot out, this was done well enough that by the end I was both satisfied and still interested in following up on the rest (yes, for those of you who find this sort of thing ...more
The reviews for this book have been uniformly, firmly, positive, which is a shame, in some ways, because my expectations were far higher than the book met and now I have to try to work out whether that is the book fault or mine. In the positive column, the History of the Bible is very readable, broad in scope with thorough coverage of all periods, and careful to canvass a wide range of points of view, while having a distinct and stated point-of-view of its own. On the critical side, it's approac ...more
Sherry Sharpnack
John Barton, an Oxford theologian and ordained Anglican priest, wrote this new, EXHAUSTIVE “History of the Bible.” I learned SO MUCH about the history of the authorship of various Biblical books and that most were not written by the authors traditionally credited, nor even in the time periods that are traditionally assigned.

HOW were the books in the Bible chosen for inclusion? Mostly—they weren’t. They just became accepted as scripture. OK then, why were some writings left out (eg the “Apocryph
I learned so much from this book. Growing up in a fundamentalist church, Biblical criticism was totally frowned upon. I was taught to believe the literal 7-day creation, that everything in the Bible was historic fact, and my understanding of "divine inspiration" was some guy in a room transcribing as God narrated. Over time, I grew to have a more nuanced understanding of Christianity, but nobody ever clearly explained to me where we got the Bible from, what we actually know about it, or even wha ...more
Michael Cayley
Sep 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion
Be warned: this book will upset fundamentalists.

This is a fascinating book about the evolution of the Bible, the way it has been interpreted over the centuries both in Judaism and in Christianity, and how it has been translated. Explanations are clear, and no specialist knowledge is required of the reader. I see two key themes in the book.

First, the text and contents of the Bible as Judaism and Christianity now know it were fluid until much later than most believers realise.

Second, the way leadi
Reading Funk
Feb 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This exhaustive look is epic in scope. The best thing about it was that it was interesting and fun , rather than informative but dull. I recommend this book to anyone who wants a broad understanding of the Bible.
John Barton knows his stuff. Looking forward to the Oxford commentary !!
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Man oh man, this one was a worthy foe. It took me about three weeks to read it. I ducked in and out, taking on one or two chapters at a time, and finally vanquished it today. This is a long, highly academic book about the history of the Bible, but it is well written, engaging, and interesting so it was a pleasure to manageable bites.

What can I say about the Bible that I haven't already written? It is a mystery. It is a mess. It is inspired. It is man-made. It is confusing. It is enlig
Alisa Wilhelm
Absolutely fascinating. Will 100% be reading this again and I may need to buy a hard copy.

This is a thorough history of how the Bible came to exist in its current form. It explains the history of the existence of each book of the Bible (far more interesting than you might suppose). It also gets into big picture differences between Jewish and Christian interpretations and some of the finer details about how seemingly opposite sectarian interpretations of the same text can exist. The final part o
May 19, 2020 rated it liked it
A Missed Opportunity

I had high hopes for this book. Barton is an authority on scripture and its interpretation. I had looked forward to him detailing the history of the Bible. This history, I believed, would be about its formation, its preservation in the face of persecution, its transmission from a corner of the middle east to the entire globe from one language to many. Barton did not take the reader on this journey; in fact, it is unclear on which journey the reader was taken. On page 476, he
Aug 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
An interesting book which examines the Bible and its relation to both Judaism and Christianity in a number of ways: by who and when it was written, how it was understood by contemporaries, when certain of its books became scripture, when they were assembled and became a closed canon, how it was transmitted and produced, its various translations. Barton points out that many of these questions are fraught. Believers like to favour earlier datings, disbelievers later ones.

What I found most fascina
Dinesh Krithivasan
Picked this up because it was shortlisted for the Wolfson prize and boy, was I in for a tough time. I don't see how this is anything close to popular history for the lay reader unless the average (western) audience knows far more about the Bible than I had hitherto imagined. The title claims that it is a book about the history of the Book and that is exactly what the book is - it is a condensation of what I would imagine a graduate in Bible studies would be concerned with. Even seminal character ...more
Oct 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a deeply erudite but calmly sane book about a difficult topic. It's quite a tough read at times just because there is so much material, but the actual style is lucid and enjoyable. For anyone with an interest in the Bible, there is much to fascinate and illuminate - the fluidity of the text; the presence of 'forgery'; the different ways in which Jews and Christians read the Hebrew bible; the importance of context in understanding how any text within it is produced, or how it is collected ...more
Lauren Hiebner
May 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a massive undertaking by Barton. He talks about the Bible’s remote beginnings in folklore and myths, about how it was received and interpreted through modern times. He points out that the Bible does not directly transition into faith and practice for either Jews and Christians. So his history is the story of the interplay between religion and the Bible. Barton does say that fundamentalists who idolize the Bible largely misunderstand it. Barton analyzes nearly every book in the Bible givi ...more
Peter A.  van Tilburg
Nov 30, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Together with two friends I read the book. Barton did a good job to summarize the current scientific knowledge on the bible. He states that both the jewish and christian religion have dogmas which cannot be traced to clear biblical underpinning. He makes this plausible for the topics of the trinity and the church organization but on the basic christian dogmas this is not very clear e.g. creation, concept of sin and death and resurrection of Jesus. I think these can clearly be funded on the bibli ...more
Sep 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Tldr: If you thought the Bible was a piecemeal collection of texts from different authors and time periods, think again. It's way, way, more piecemeal. It also does not perfectly match any of the faiths that rely upon it, so if you are running a religion, don't be stupid and argue for a literal interpretation based on specific wording of things, because

Also there's just so many fascinating bits there and thorough scholarship all around (as far as I can tell, having no training
Aug 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Thorough to the point of pedantic at times, but overall an insight-filled primer on what we know about the history of the bible, how it was written and the way its message has been interpreted and adapted over time.
Dec 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
Andrew Pratley
Dec 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I have long wanted to read a book on the History of the Bible. I'm glad I waited, until now, since John Barton's excellent book was only published earlier this year. I possess a simple almost childlike faith. For that reason I have not sought to read many religious books or even works like this which are for those who do or do not possess a faith & are simply interested in the history of arguably the world's most influential book.

This History of the Bible is full of fascinating facts & insights
William Schram
The Bible is a lot of things to a lot of different people. It can be used as guidance and a source of wisdom, you can read it for some kind of entertainment, maybe your specific sect deals with the Bible as though it was directly inspired by God. I don’t really like the Bible as a whole, but there are some good books in there. I especially like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

A History of the Bible is a book that focuses on the origins of biblical texts and is an interesting foray into Biblical Analys
Nick Spencer
May 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
thorough, balanced, well-written, flows well, measured
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At the end of his learned book Mr. Barton includes a convenient guide to further reading in which he qualitatively describes 188 related works of scholarship, using discriminating terms such as “a classic work”, “an invaluable source”, and “a thorough treatment” ; a distillative effort, upon which future students are sure to alight, that cannot but help to reflexively cast one’s attention towards his 389 bibliographic citations and 572 end notes. A generosity of praise equivalent to that which M ...more
Sep 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
This was a hard book to get thought because while the bible is interesting and its history if fascinating .. This book was a bit too academic for me. So unless you are interested in theology would give it a miss.
Robert Muir
A piece of work that became increasingly difficult to wade through and one I might have set aside, unfinished, if I did not have an extreme reluctance to give up on any book without reading it through. And while I'm not a devout Christian, (agnostic may apply) neither am I an atheist. ...more
Jan Crackfeed
Nov 10, 2020 rated it liked it
Recently I read the main books of scripture in the monotheistic religions (Torah, Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament, New Testament and the Qur'an)
I am not at all religious and was intrigued by their central role to much of human history. While reading them, I continually wondered about their... 'authenticity' and so turned to this book to understand the actual, factual history behind them. Is there any truth behind Christianity's professed origins, or are churches founded on baseless claims?
Mar 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I really had a wonderful time reading this one. John Barton, Oxford Theologian and ordained Anglican Priest, managed to write a very thorough, honest history of how the Bible that we have today came to be in it's present form. Or rather, the best guess we have at how it came to be in it's present form. Naturally, there is a still a lot of controvery over many of the details. He managed to do this in a way that felt refreshingly honest, without the circular reasoning of theists (the scriptures ar ...more
I. David
Jan 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Highly Informative and Accessible Review of Biblical Theory

Please visit I. David's Blog at:

Theories of Biblical history and interpretation can probably fill an entire library. But, in his book, The History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book, John Barton manages to assemble a wealth of highly insightful Biblical theory into a single volume that is accessible both to readers that are highly knowledgeable and to readers that are les
Bivin Varghese
Sep 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
I was little hesitant when I picked up this huge book from one of my nearest bookshops. The book was audaciously packaged with a nice cover page and the blurb was interesting too. I am still quite fascinated by the idea of the formation of bible which made me pick up this book which is dubiously titled ‘A history of the bible’. Marked as the highest sold book ever, Bible is just a great piece of literary work without going further into its spiritual aspects or its authenticity.

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John Barton is Oriel & Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford. His publications include The Theology of the Book of Amos (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile (2007).

For the Canadian poet, see John Barton.

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131 likes · 39 comments
“become the New Testament than from the Old, even though they generally do not use citation formulas such as ‘it is written’ with New Testament material.13 Rather than seeing Jesus, known through the Gospels, as a reference point even more important than the Old Testament Scriptures, Christians after Irenaeus started to see the Gospels, the Letters and the Old Testament as all equally authoritative, parts of a unified Holy Bible. ‘Bible’ is in origin a plural – ta biblia in Greek, ‘the books’ – but a sense developed, certainly by the end of the third century, that the books were in reality a single one with many parts. This marked a departure from the earliest Christian perception.” 1 likes
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