To many people in the twenty-first century, the Bible may seem an anachronism, but as an all-time best seller, it still attracts many new commentaries. Undoubtedly, Karen Armstrong is one of those best qualified to add to this vast body of literature. Her breadth of knowledge is impressive. After providing an outline of how the sixty-six books were assembled she turns to describing how these texts have been interpreted by different groups of scholars over the ages, in a process which she constantly reminds us is called exegesis, a Greek word meaning to lead or guide out.
Karen Armstrong explains that for hundreds of years before any of the words were committed to writing, the wisdom of the past was passed orally from generation to generation. Story tellers have always been given licence to modify and embellish their tales and this licence was extended to the generations of new authors, many anonymous or purporting to be well-known past prophets, who reworked and rearranged the early texts. ‘From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely different meaning.’ Much was added and some things were lost, but eventually an effort was made to establish an official canon, a set of books approved by religious authority.
Two canons are discussed. The books of the Old Testament, originally composed in several languages including Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, are shared by both Jews and Christians, but the books of the New Testament, all originally composed in Greek, are used only by Christians. Karen Armstrong describes how both Jews and Christians have undertaken the process of exegesis over the ages, each seeking new insights from old texts in the belief that this patchwork of ancient papers preserves the hidden Word of God.
Exegesis has been undertaken in an astonishing variety of ways. Many scholars have devoted their lives, and schools have worked for generations, on detailed analysis of every book, chapter and verse. Most efforts have involved looking beyond the words for an underlying meaning. Others have sought new insights by linking words and phrases from different books, often far removed from one another in time and context. Only one system is condemned. The Bible lacks historical accuracy and contains so many contradictions that any attempt at a literal understanding soon leads to confusion. Karen Armstrong is sympathetic to most of the religious groups who have wrestled with this literary leviathan but she warns of the dangers of literal interpretation leading to fundamentalism.