The Bible: A Biography

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Overview

As the work at the heart of Christianity, 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—it has been translated into over 2,000 languages—and the world's best-selling book, year after year. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six "books" written by various authors and divided into two testaments, its contents have changed over the centuries. The Bible has been transformed by ...

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The Bible: A Biography

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Overview

As the work at the heart of Christianity, 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—it has been translated into over 2,000 languages—and the world's best-selling book, year after year. But the Bible is a complex work with a complicated and obscure history. Made up of sixty-six "books" written by various authors and divided into two testaments, its contents have changed over the centuries. The Bible 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, and life 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. She explores how scripture came to be read for information and how, in the nineteenth century, historical criticism of the Bible caused greater fear than Darwinism. The Bible is a brilliant, captivating book, crucial in an age of declining faith and rising fundamentalism.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For many, the Bible is the Word of God, written by Him, discovered by Man as if left in the drawer of some ancient hotel bedside table. Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography traces the evolution of this mysterious and malleable text, showing it to be --no less than any other living thing -- a product of natural selection, written and winnowed over many centuries in response to changing political climates, and only in danger of extinction when stripped of its divine mutability. From the beginning, priests were reluctant to record sacred oral traditions for fear that writing them down would encourage stridency and inflexibility. Revelation must be an ongoing process, and only those texts that best lent themselves to reinterpretation made the cut. Times of greatest societal stress spurred the greatest creativity: Jewish exile following the destruction of the First Temple gave us Torah's Law and the Prophets; the destruction of the Second Temple spawned the books of the New Testament. As a form of consolation after trauma, men wrestled with the the Bible's more obscure passages, glossing and allegorizing in a feisty dialogue with their sometimes incomprehensible creator. The Enlightenment, however, came to demand a new scientific certainty, which, ironically, gave birth to both Darwinism and the backlash of modern fundamentalism. Now, Armstrong postulates, our war-torn, genocidal era reads literal, prophetic meaning into the Book of Revelations, originally written as an anguished revenge fantasy against Roman persecution. The great first-century rabbi Meir wrote that any interpretation spreading hatred or disdain was illegitimate, and Armstrong ends with a plea for a return by members of all faiths to more charitable exegesis, lest the Bible, that most historically supple of books, calcify and become the dangerous weapon our forefathers feared. --Sheri Holman
From the Publisher
"[Narrator Josephine] Bailey skillfully keeps the text moving, easily handling historical terms and names." —-AudioFile
Publishers Weekly

Of all the "Books That Changed the World"-the recently launched series to which this book belongs-surely the Bible is among the most important. And of all contemporary popularizers of religious history, surely Armstrong is among the bestselling. Who better, then, to recount the history of the Bible in eight short chapters than this former nun and literature professor who relishes huge topics (The History of God) and panoramic descriptions (The Great Transformation)? Armstrong not only describes how, when and by whom the Bible was written, she also examines some 2,000 years of biblical interpretation by bishops and rabbis, scholars and mystics, pietists and critics, thus opening up a myriad of exegetical approaches and dispelling any fundamentalist notion that only one view can be correct. Readers unfamiliar with ecclesiastical history may feel overwhelmed by dense chapters that read more like annotated lists than narrative-a hazard of trying to cover so much in so little space. (A glossary helps to anchor the bewildered.) At her best when she pauses long enough to expand on a topic, Armstrong offers intriguing insights on, for example, the allegorical method developed by Origen in the third century and the mystical midrash of the Kabbalists in medieval Spain and Provence. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Publishers Weekly

Part of Atlantic Monthly's Books That Changed the World series, this "biography" ambitiously undertakes discussing not only the Bible itself (including its history, authorship and origins) but more than 2,000 years of its interpretation by Christians and Jews. In eight short chapters, Armstrong brings the story of biblical hermeneutics from the early church fathers through the rise of monasticism, medieval Kabbalists, and Renaissance inquiry up to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Armstrong has already perfected the concise but erudite primer on religion, so this brief introductory work can be preserved in its entirety without the awkward abridgments that characterize other scholarly religion books that are adapted to audio. Another plus is the crisp narration by über-British actress Josephine Bailey. She's in top form, lending the clipped and decidedly upper-crust accent that has served her well. American listeners may smile at hearing familiar biblical names such as Hezekiah or historical names such as Tyndale rendered with a British pronunciation, but Bailey's tone is flawlessly in keeping with Armstrong's learned account. Simultaneous release with the Atlantic Monthly Press hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 27). (Nov.)

Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Library Journal

British author and former nun Armstrong (A Short History of Myth) is one of the best writers on the Bible and contemporary world religions currently being published. Always erudite and accessible, she understands the value of historical precedent, apocrypha, biblical scholarship, and good storytelling. In this work, part of Grove/Atlantic's "Books That Changed the World" series, Armstrong argues that the Bible is one of history's most powerful and valuable books. Reminding listeners that the 66 books in the Bible were passed down orally and then turned into scripture and collected into a single work that became one of the most sacred and debated texts in Christianity, Armstrong offers engaging analysis and commentary. The Bible, written by multiple authors, using various points of view, and most often associated with Christianity, has changed over the course of its history. Different religions, denominations, and sects have taken the text as their own, which has led some to challenge the book's historical accuracy. Armstrong explores change and controversy with rational thinking and genuine respect, and Josephine Bailey's reading is lively and provocative. Recommended for all libraries with large audio collections. [Also available as downloadable audio from Audible.-Ed.]
—Pam Kingsbury

Kirkus Reviews
Detailed review of the creation and study of the Bible through the centuries. Religion scholar Armstrong (The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, 2006, etc.) opens with the accepted explanation for the creation of Hebrew scripture, then moves on to the prophetic and wisdom writings. The book's early chapters are especially notable for the author's strong presentation of historical background. After discussing the basics of the Hebrew Bible, Armstrong moves on to the life of Jesus and the written documents that ensued. From this point forward, she does an exceptional job of balancing and interweaving Jewish and Christian approaches to scripture. She discusses the tradition of Midrash both as an art in its own right and as an influence on early Christian perceptions of scripture. Likewise, when exploring Christian study of the Bible in medieval monasteries and universities, she compares their work to that of contemporary Jewish counterparts. The narrative advances chronologically into the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and finally the modern era. Today, Armstrong avers, readings of the Bible are influenced by the techniques of scholarly criticism, which lessens the faith of some while fueling a fundamentalist backlash among others. Again, she seamlessly weaves together the history of Jews and Christians in this period. Little here is new, although that is not really an issue for an entry in Atlantic's Books That Changed the World series. More troubling: The text often reads like a long academic paper, with only limited original insight from the author. Armstrong concludes by urging scholars to employ charity and compassion in their biblicalexegeses-though her faith in humanity's ability or desire to do this seems shaky at best. Overshadowed by Armstrong's more ambitious A History of God (1993), but religion students will find this a worthwhile resource. First printing of 100,000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400103942
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/1/2007
  • Series: Books That Changed the World Series , #7
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 5.52 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author


Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religious affairs, including Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions and The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.

British actress and narrator Josephine Bailey has won ten AudioFile Earphones Awards and a prestigious Audie Award, and Publishers Weekly named her Best Female Narrator in 2002.

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Table of Contents


Introduction     1
Torah     9
Scripture     32
Gospel     55
Midrash     79
Charity     102
Lectio Divina     126
Sola Scriptura     155
Modernity     183
Epilogue     222
Glossary of Key Terms     231
Notes     243
Index     279
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2008

    She is amazing

    I read this book after hearing her on KUOW- my public radio station. For anyone raised in a christian faith and yearning to understand how the bible truly evolved this is for you. She- Karen Armstrong takes an amazingly complicated topic and makes it understandable and fascinating. Since reading this book I've read 4 more of hers. She is an amazing! Her perspective on religion is fantastic!

    13 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 2, 2009

    5 stars for Karen Armstrong's "The Bible: A Biography"

    I discovered Karen Armstrong soon after 9/11/01 when I purchased "A History of God", in an effort to understand Islam and gain insights into religions fanaticism in general. With that booked, I became a Karen Armstrong fan and have enjoyed the many books of hers that I have read since ... including this biography of the bible. She does her research; she does her homework; and as a former nun with a now scholarly approach to the study of religion, she presents a very well-balanced, learned and objective history of the bible. I have enjoyed this book immensely and do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of religion and faith.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2014

    Provides important context to the Bible

    Not quite what I expected, but that's not always a bad thing. I anticipated this book to be more strictly about how the various writings that compose the Bible were drafted, edited, and eventually collected into their modern-day form. While this certainly was covered, Armstrong discusses in even more detail the relationship the various Judaic and Christian movements have had with scripture throughout history. This was extremely interesting, particularly when looking at such trends as the movement of certain contemporary Christians toward a more literal interpretation of the Bible. For example, Armstrong details how it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Christians began to interpret the creation story literally. Before then, it was almost universally accepted by scholars as an allegory. (Interestingly, the majority of creation science adherents today are related in some way to a Calvanist viewpoint; yet John Calvin never would have viewed the story in Genesis as an accurate portrayal of how the Earth was made.)

    A bit slow in places, but overall a good book that provides some important historical context and background to how the Bible was written and how it has been interpreted over time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 8, 2011

    An opinionated, frequently incorrect work passed off as scholarly

    I wanted a book that would present an objective, evidence-based history of the Bible. What I found in this book was a highly opinionated, cherry-picking, sometimes self-contradicting argument. For example, pg.56: "We do not know whether Jesus claimed to be this messiah -- the gospels are ambiguous on this point" with Mark 8:27-33 given as a reference! It is a real shame, because the author does present a great amount of interesting history; however it is tainted thoughout by an underlying anti-Christian sentiment. Of course, I didn't have to get to pg. 56 to recognize the anti-Judeo-Christian subjectivity of the author. Introduction, page 2: "Terrorist use the Qur'an to justify atrocities, and some argue that the violence of their scripture makes Muslims chronically aggressive. Christians campaign against the teaching of evolutionary theory because it contradicts the biblical creation story. Jews argue that because God promised Canaan to the descendants of Abraham, oppressive policies against the Palestinians are legitimate. There has been a scriptural revival that has intruded into public life." Nice 'analysis'. It is clearly NOT that book I still wish to discover, which would detail the earliest known copies of the various books of the Bible, and their ensuing evolution, in an objective manner. Footnote: The author, Karen Armstrong, was roundly criticized by the historian Rodney Stark in his book, "God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades", for her un-scholarly and incorrect interpretations of the Crusades.

    1 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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