A History of the Bible: A Progressive Christian View of Scripture… (And Why It Does Not Work)

Shocking truth claims: Did you know that the four Gospels were not based on eye-witness testimony, and that perhaps the Gospel of John was written as late as the second century, and not by the Apostle John? Or that the Apostle Paul had no knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity? Or that a good chunk of Paul’s letters were never even written by him in the first place?

If you were to pick up a copy of A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, you might discover shocking claims like this. What might shock you even more is that this popular survey of the Bible was not written by an avowed skeptic of Christianity, like a Bart Ehrman, but rather by John Barton, an Oxford professor emeritus and Anglican priest, serving in the Church of England.

…. another in a series of blog posts on “historical criticism” of the Bible….

Dr. Barton is certainly a well-accomplished scholar, and a very pleasant man through his appearances on YouTube, who has mastered the historical critical tradition of biblical research, which dominates academia today. A History of the Bible has received wide acclaim in the secular press. The Christian Science Monitor describes this volume as “the definitive account of the century,” regarding how we are to understand the Bible. A leading atheist/agnostic Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, says that the book “gives a superb overview… condensing masses of research into an easily accessible volume for the non-specialist.”

While Dr. Barton is not as well-known on this side of the Atlantic, A History of the Bible is well poised to become a standard exposition for contemporary scholarship rooted in historical criticism, aimed at both believer and non-believer alike. This popular presentation of Barton’s vast research of the Bible over many decades, published by Penguin Books, one of the most reputable book publishers in the world, will surely impress many readers, and in many respects has much to offer. However, one wonders why Dr. Barton continues to describe himself as a Christian believer, and even an Anglican priest, after he dismantles a long history of confidence in the Bible being the very written Word of God.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an upsurge of interest in the Bible, and the British Broadcasting Company took notice of this, and decided to broadcast abridged excerpts from Dr. Barton’s book in late 2020. These excerpts were brilliantly read by the Downton Abbey actor, Hugh Bonneville. I can just imagine listening to Lord Grantham speaking from his armchair, from the library in the Downton Abbey estate, with his yellow lab sitting by his side.

In an interview since that broadcast, Barton does not go as far as Bart Ehrman does, in labeling the four Gospels or the “disputed” letters of Paul as outright “forgeries” (many scholars believe that Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, and Titus were not written by Paul), but rather as an Anglican priest he is still able to say that Christians can find these New Testament books “useful” as part of the accepted canon, even if they were not written by the people who claimed to write them.

Really? Why would a Christian find certain writings to be “useful” that had the explicit purpose of deceiving their readers? How can one treat such writings as being authoritative, under that kind of shadow?

Dr. Barton admittedly has some qualms about all of that, but he forges ahead to try to make some kind of defense of the Bible.

Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is Helpful

First, let us consider some of the benefits provided by Dr. Barton’s book. Just from these abridged readings of A History of the Bible, the reader is intrigued to learn more about how the Old and New Testament texts came together, how these texts have been preserved over the centuries, how Judaism and Christianity eventually parted ways, and the importance of allegory in the history of Bible interpretation. You can find this type of material elsewhere, but one sure benefit of A History of the Bible is that this is all assembled together in one volume.

John Barton rightly corrects the common misunderstanding that the early Christian church had a completed list of what constituted the books of the entire Old Testament portion of the Bible. To the contrary, the definitive listing of the books of the Old Testament was not firmly established in the Western church until the 16th century, when the Roman Catholic Church officially adopted the books of the “Apocrypha” at the Council of Trent, while the Protestant Reformers officially rejected the “Apocrypha,” declaring it to be inappropriate for establishing church doctrine. In other words, books in the “Apocrypha” like 1 and 2 Maccabees, which are unfamiliar to most Protestants today, were actually well-known to Christians for the first 15 centuries of the church, though their canonical status was unclear across Christendom.

Furthermore, the ordering of the books in the Old Testament differs between Jews and Christians, and there is a theological reason for the difference. Christians place the prophets at the end of the Old Testament, which fits in with the overall Scriptural narrative. The story moves from creation to fall to the promised hope of redemption, where the prophets anticipate the coming of the Christ, who will accomplish that redemption. In fact, the Book of Malachi, which ends off the Christian Old Testament, itself ends with a vision for the coming “Day of the Lord,” with the prophet Elijah announcing that time of judgment. It is no mystery that John the Baptist, the herald for Jesus the Redeemer, emerges in the Book of Matthew next, as the “new” Elijah. Furthermore, the figure of Adam is central in the Christian story of the Old Testament, the created human who suffers a terrible fall, where Jesus becomes the “second Adam,” restoring Adam to his original created purpose, according to the New Testament.

Jews, on the other hand, place the two books of Chronicles at the end of their “Old Testament,” their Hebrew Bible, and not the prophets. The last phrase of the last verse in the Chronicles is “Let him go up,” which refers to the promise of the restoration of the land following the Babylonian exile. This is an invitation to the faithful Jew to dwell in the Promised Land. For the Jew, the story of Scripture is more about God establishing the Law with His people, with the promise that if they remain faithful as His people, they will dwell in that land. As for Adam, his presence is largely forgotten after the first few chapters in Genesis, according to Jewish theology. Dr. Barton brings that point out nicely, but I only learned about that difference after being a Christian for about 35 years. Why had it taken so long for me to learn about that?

Plus, Dr. Barton is quite right to say that you can pretty much find whatever you want in the Bible, as the teaching of the Bible has been “shape-shifted” to take upon the concerns of whatever age or culture the reader is in. That really is not a compliment towards readers who use the Bible that way. Simply consider how much effort was made to find out where the COVID-19 virus came from, just by looking at the Bible. Uncomfortable realities like these are sprinkled throughout A History of the Bible. Like taking a cold shower, A History of the Bible will challenge a number of cherished, yet erroneous beliefs.

Where John Barton’s A History of the Bible is NOT Helpful

Unfortunately, Dr. Barton’s liberal bias reveals a persistently bad habit by those who lean too heavily on historical criticism to adjudicate the ultimate interpretation of Scripture, by supposing that a contradiction in Scripture exists, where a reasonably plausible alternative actually makes better sense of the text, within the whole message of Scripture.

Barton makes no attempt to hide his liberal bias. This bias permeates and distorts much of his otherwise helpful prose. For John Barton, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation fall under the category of adiaphora, or “disputable matters,” from Romans 14:1, which the ESV translation renders as “opinions.” Would any truly historically orthodox Christian find that acceptable? Absolutely not. Nor does any historical creedal document in Barton’s own Anglican Church agree with him. Stretching “disputable matters” to this degree is essentially useless.

Here is another example: In the story of the rich young man who comes up to Jesus, Mark tells us that the man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the man with: Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  

Dr. Barton suggests that Mark is raising some doubt as to whether or not Jesus is truly divine. Dr. Barton then suggests that Matthew contradicts Mark by correcting Mark by having the young man instead ask, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?,” with Jesus responding with, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” (Mark 10:17-18; Matthew 19:16-17)

It is an interesting thing to consider why the Gospels differ here. But Jesus’ response to the young man in Mark’s version does not necessarily imply doubt about Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ question back to the young man most likely means to get the young man to think (as well as should modern readers), and consider the implications of what he is saying. For if only God is good, then Jesus’ question back to the young man is quite relevant to Jesus’ identity. Mark focuses more on Jesus’ identity, whereas Matthew focuses more on ethical action, that flows from one’s relationship with God. Matthew complements Mark, and vice-versa. To read a contradiction between Mark and Matthew here is to read something into the text that need not exist. Because the discipline of historical (or “higher”) criticism sometimes trains even the best of scholars to look for contradictions, it becomes easier to see such contradictions, when a more nuanced, and far more interesting solution is available to the reader.

Dr. Barton does not make sufficient effort to educate his readers that decades of conservative evangelical scholarship have sought to answer a number of these difficulties, with reasonably plausible alternative solutions. For example, fellow British Anglican Bible scholar Ian Paul faults Dr. Barton for making no mention of the research done by Richard Bauckham, in Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, that makes a cogent case for the Gospels having been based on actual eye-witness testimony. Nor does Dr. Barton engage the argument made, ironically, by a fellow liberal scholar, the late John A.T. Robinson, that many of the books of the New Testament could have easily been written before the year 70 A.D.

When it comes to the common scholarly proposal that many of Paul’s letters were not written by him, Dr. Barton manages to ignore the conservative argument that differences in writing style and vocabulary, tailored to a specific audience, using different secretaries, might sufficiently account for “discrepancies” between the “undisputed” and “disputed” letters of Paul. Nevertheless, Dr. Barton seems okay to live with the “taint of forgery” (p. 186) in such questionable letters, where he can find certain teachings to be persuasive in certain areas, while acknowledging this does take away from the full divine inspiration of these New Testament texts.

This is a bit of an aside, but an important one, nevertheless: Barton’s position regarding what he misleadingly calls the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church” (p. 186), in which his Church of England affirms women serving as elders/presbyters, actually is enhanced by his ambiguous view of Pauline authorship of disputed texts. When it comes to the disputed 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastoral letters, where most arguments take place regarding whether or not women may serve as elders in a local church, Barton is easily dismissive of what is taught here. “The Pastorals have no place in attempting to reconstruct the thought of Paul” (p. 186), but acknowledges this regarding what he calls regretfully the issue of “women’s leadership in the Church“:, where conservatives oppose women serving as elders, and liberals affirm women serving as elders”:... conservative opponents who appeal to Paul tend to rely on 1 Timothy, and more liberal believers reply that this letter is not really by Paul anyway. Along these diverging lines, little meeting of minds is possible” (p. 187).

At least Barton is right about that. The gulf between conservative and progressive Christianity seems to widen with each passing year. It is important to note that evangelical egalitarian arguments in favor of both Pauline authorship of the Pastorals AND the affirmation of women serving as elders do not even register a blip on John Barton’s radar. More on that in a future blog post in this series, or for a more in-depth look, read this earlier Veracity posting reviewing a recent book by historian Beth Allison Barr.

Anyway, here is what Barton says on p. 187, as his way of making a conclusion on the “forgeries” of certain letters associated with Paul:

‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’

Is this a ringing endorsement of the authority of the Bible? Hardly. Furthermore, Dr. Barton makes the rather odd suggestion that none of the four Gospels were considered to be inspired by God, as initially written, simply because modern scholarship acknowledges that Luke and Matthew most probably used Mark as one of their sources for their own gospels. Nor were the writings of Paul considered to be inspired by God either by his first century readers.

Astonishing.

All of this comes from the pen of a scholar hailed as writing “the definitive” book on the Bible for the 21st century.

Why does Dr. Barton neglect to tell his readers the following?: The Gospel writers and Paul probably were not aware that they were writing “Scripture” when they were composing their work. But this need not preclude others from recognizing the inspired nature of their texts. Paul himself was quite forceful in claiming that his message was received via divine revelation, and not a product of man’s (Galatians 1:11-12). It would have made no sense for his readers to have rejected his occasional letters as inspired, and at the same time come to recognize that Paul’s Gospel verbal preaching came from God.

Furthermore, even when Paul is supposedly “giving his personal opinion” in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, this most probably means that Paul is making a distinction between (a): Jesus’ teaching, given in Jesus’ earthly ministry, prior to any encounter with Paul, versus (b): teaching that Paul received directly from Jesus, following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Both teachings from Paul and “from the Lord” are equally binding authoritative statements. This neglect on the part of Dr. Barton reveals the fundamental flaw behind A History of the Bible: It shortchanges the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Does A Liberal, Historical Critical Approach to Defend the Bible Really Work?

Speculating on “contradictions in the Bible” may make for interesting scholarly discussions, as a more sophisticated response to a wooden, rigid dogmatism. But this does little to inspire people to have confidence in the Bible as God’s Word. Furthermore, the underlying posture towards the Bible adopted by Dr. Barton is nothing new. For example, doubts about the authorship of several of Paul’s letters are derived from the ideas of early 19th century German theologian F. C. Baur, but the whole project of historical criticism goes back to 17th century philosophers, like Baruch Spinoza, or even earlier.

Making ill-conceived judgments about the sincerity of John Barton’s progressive Christianity would be out of place. In other words, Dr. Barton clearly identifies as being a Christian, and there is no compelling need question to that. But one must consider the ramifications of his teachings. Based on the arguments presented in A History of the Bible, it deserves asking why one would want to become a Christian after reading this book.

For if A History of the Bible was my only source for learning about the Bible, I would merely conclude that the Bible is an interesting cultural artifact. An appreciation for the Bible’s influence on Western culture would be gained, but not really a sense that this is a book based on divine revelation. As a specimen for an anthropology class, it would be interesting. But would this really inspire obedience and worship? I am highly skeptical. The best you can probably get is either British historian Tom Holland’s wistful longing for Christianity to be true (even though he believes it is not), or else the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg perspective that Christianity is a “tribal thing” worth preserving, or even Jordan Peterson’s appreciation of Christianity as the mythological glue of Western society. Admirable as these sentiments are, they are nowhere near close to historic, orthodox Christian faith.

Nevertheless, despite weaknesses like these, Barton’s A History of the Bible does something that we do not find enough of in conservative evangelical churches today. Book reviewer Jeremy Marshall puts the situation like this:

As the Bible fades into the background from the general culture it acquires a power to shock and influence which its previous familiarity has reduced. We might ponder as evangelicals for example on the extraordinary case of Jordan Peterson, who gives 2- to 3-hour talks and draws millions by lecturing mainly on the Bible, without even being a Christian at all…. There is a growing demand to learn about the Bible and what it says to us today from the general public…. Maybe some great biblical scholar can write a book like this, about the Bible from an evangelical perspective, aimed at the general public?

To answer Marshall’s question, I say, “Here! Here!” If only our churches were to address the topics found in John Barton’s A History of the Bible, from a more historically orthodox perspective, framed within a compelling story, we would not only curb the tendency towards a progressive drift in evangelical churches, we would also unleash the power of the Bible itself to dramatically change the lives of people, who have a hunger to know the God of the Bible better. If we fail to take up that task, then we will find our young people looking to books like Dr. Barton’s, and then wonder why anyone would make any fuss about the supposed revelatory “faith” being promoted in the Bible.

If the church fails to take up that challenge, then we might as well tell folks to read books by agnostic/atheist scholar Bart Ehrman, and avoid the complicated efforts to try to “rescue” Christianity from the jaws of skeptical “historical criticism,” as John Barton tries to do.

Attempts like A History of the Bible to somehow rebuild a more flexible form of the Christian faith from a brittle fundamentalism might convince some people reared in the church, searching for a reason to continue to believe. But for the vast majority of folks for whom the Gospel remains opaque, a staunchly progressive approach to the Bible leaves those readers flat. That type of apologetic simply does not work.

 

…. In our next blog post in this series, there will not be a book review, but we will consider how some of the thinking behind “historical criticism” has shifted from the 20th century, to the 21st century, where the prominent 20th century biblical scholar, Rudolf Bultmann enters the story. Stay tuned for that………. Muslim apologist Paul Williams, at Blogging Theology, interviews Dr. John Barton about his book, A History of the Bible. If you want to get a feel for how a highly intelligent, knowledgeable, progressive Christian employs “historical criticism” when reading the Bible, you might find the following interview educational… but you might find it disturbing as well. There is just enough really good stuff in A History of the Bible, that it can easily overshadow the spiritually damaging elements in it that can sneak up on you, and knock out the legs from underneath your faith:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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