There is a Bible on The Budapest Times bookshelves, plus "The Lion Handbook to the Bible", and we refer to the latter side by side whenever we make another attempt to read the scriptures. These rare efforts manage to get beyond the non-scientific six-day creation of the universe and the "original sin" stemming from Adam and Eve’s duplicity in Eden (with the talking serpent), but we tend to stumble when we get to the bit about Adam having a son Seth and living 930 years, and Seth having a son Enosh and living 912 years, and Enosh having a son Kenan and living 905 years, and Kenan having a son Mahalalel and living 910 years, and so on and so on ...

Christians sometimes advise us to skip the Hebrew Old Testament and stick to the New, but we don’t feel happy about such devotional cherry-picking. After all, the entire book is supposed to be God’s word, and if you are a believer, it does seem you should surely believe in it all.

Born-again Christian Bob Dylan, a Jew, wrote a song called "Death Is Not the End", and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did a cover version. Australian singer Cave once recollected that in his early twenties, when he had what he calls a burgeoning interest in violent literature, "the Old Testament spoke to that part of me that railed and hissed and spat at the world. I believed in God, but I also believed that God was malign and if the Old Testament was testament to anything, it was testament to that. Evil seemed to live so close to the surface of existence within it, you could smell its mad breath, see the yellow smoke curl from its many pages, hear the blood-curdling moans of despair. It was a wonderful, terrible book and it was sacred scripture".

Christians of lower intellect than Coward, Fry, Dylan and Cave seem to think that God is a handy bod to have around to answer their prayers for such minor matters as passing an exam, winning a game of football or simply scoring a goal. This sort of belief is difficult to believe when the world is beset by war and disease.

In this vein we like to remember the words of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, a couple of centuries Before Christ: "Is God willing to prevent evil but not capable? Then he is not omnipotent. Is He able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?"

The Good Book, then, holds a certain fascination for us, and we make a point of noting other pertinent pearls of wisdom when we come across them. "Accept nothing you cannot verify for yourself," said mystic, philosopher and positivist George Gurdjieff. "I will pay for sin myself," said writer George Bernard Shaw. "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion," is usually attributed to former US President Abraham Lincoln, though he may have been quoting someone else. And German poet Heinrich Heine: "Of course God will forgive me; that's His job."

Well, surely religious doubts or perhaps a bit of minor theft or cunning in the past won’t result in banishment from those Pearly Gates and thus condemnation to join Adolf Hitler and similar brothers-in-blood in the other place? That’s a bit black and white, and, after all, one might still admire the wholesomeness of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, even though being dismissive about the weird story of Noah when we were once bussing past Mount Ararat in Turkey, the ark’s supposed resting place.

The eternal question of the Bible’s authority, it seems, is only likely to be solved by a Second Coming or perhaps some more Dead Sea Scrolls. All of which brings us, finally, to John Barton’s new book "A History of the Bible". Barton’s publisher says he is a theologian who served as the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford in England for 23 years, from 1991 to 2014, and has been an ordained and serving priest in the Church of England since 1973.

He has studied and taught the Bible throughout his academic career, and has written many books on it, including "Ethics in Ancient Israel" and "The Bible: The Basics". He is the editor in chief of the "Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion" and is an Anglican with Lutheran leanings.

Professor Barton is an erudite scholar whose learned study and thoughts put to utter shame our shallow thoughts at The Budapest Times. His is an unbiased overview of the history of the scriptures that doesn't draw unproven conclusions but offers an in-depth survey of the historical facts where possible, or of the most accepted theoretical explanations where the facts are uncertain or unknown.

The Bible is shown as a mishmash of myth, history, poems, narratives, laws, prophecies, propaganda and conjecture, and as Barton points out, "contains many elements that are problematic for Jewish and Christian faith". He explains how the Bible came into being, how it developed, and was used and interpreted from its remote beginnings to the modern day, in both Christianity and Judaism.

How much is historically true? How much is myth? Specifically does what the Bible tells us about Christ’s short life on Earth have any legitimacy or merit? As just one example, on the Gospels, Barton discusses the story of the woman taken in adultery (the "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" one) and asks if the account is a genuine reminiscence of Jesus?

After all, "The lack of secure anchorage in the Gospels suggests that it is, in effect, a piece of oral tradition, just as all the stories of Jesus were before the Gospel writers fixed them in writing". For, "… there is no way of being sure of the veracity of anything in the Gospels, if by ‘sure’ we mean established beyond all reasonable doubt".

The author offers a detailed and revealing account of the Bible’s individual books from Genesis to Revelation, the environments from which they sprang, how they developed from a collection of writings with different authorship, agendas and literary style penned at different times in different places, and how people have understood them and studied them for two millennia.

It can be a little overwhelming for those readers not persuaded about Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel and the rest, but Barton has done a brilliant job summarising all the common (and some not so common) theories surrounding the most influential book in human history.


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