Karen Armstrong is a gifted and inspiring scholar. In this volume she details the process by which the editors of the Bible fixed the canon, and the many layers of discussion and debate this required. Armstrong describes the key early developments in the Jewish faith and identifies central figures for Torah study. The book covers an immense amount of history, from recording the books of the prophets to the fundamentalist movements that arose in the modern period. Though she covers a broad scope of history, Armstrong’s focus remains clear throughout.
The book opens in 597 BCE and describes the historical events experienced by the Hebrew people during this time, and the process through which their religious practice was developing. Armstrong describes how reading the scriptures came to be a way to be in the presence of God—an alternative to prayer in the temple. The Jesus movement is set in this historical context, as well as the Pharisaic revival that took place about 50 years after the death of Jesus. Most importantly, Armstrong highlights the many ways that rabbis and the leaders of the early Christian church interpreted and applied religious texts, and the implications of these varied viewpoints.
The first century rabbi Hillel famously observed, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and study it.” (p. 82) In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo came to a similar conclusion: “Whoever thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” (p. 124) These examples highlight the centrality of compassion in the practice of religion.
The renaissance brought the development of many religious orders, and within these orders traditions of scriptural interpretation developed. Meanwhile, the kabbalist mystical movement of Judaism flourished. There was lively discussion of whether the allegorical, mystical, literal, or historical sense of scripture offered more richness. Armstrong brings the read through the Protestant reformation, with Martin Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone,” through the rationalist-humanist movements of the 17th century, to the modernist pull between poles of secularists and fundamentalists. Through this discussion, the reader gains a clear sense of the Bible’s roots and of its life in an ever-changing environment. It becomes abundantly clear that for each pull toward the literal, a mystical response will emerge, as an impulse toward balance.
The glossary of key terms provides a helpful reference for Hebrew, Greek, and philosophical vocabulary. The footnotes give the interested reader a map for further study, and the index of biblical citations appears thorough.
Armstrong concludes by noting the critical importance of emphasizing compassion in our religious traditions. Sadly, it is easy for someone to pick up a book of scripture and use the words for ill. People of faith have a responsibility to educate themselves, and to practice loving our neighbor in an expansive way.
This book is part of the Books That Changed the World Series, published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. I reviewed a copy from my public library.