"The Bible: A History" - Book Review

"The Bible: A History"

By Stephen Miller & Robert Huber

This excellent book, first published in 2003, tells the story of the Bible – its making, shaping, influence and the controversies spawned.  Many disciplines are woven into the account – bibliography, printing, comparative religion, archaeology, the arts, linguistics and translation.

The main sections cover the taking shape of the Testaments, from oral to written, to canon; the Bible in a rapidly growing church, from Jerome to the pre-Reformation, with the key role played by Irish monks highlighted; the ‘Book of the Reformation’; and the Bible in the modern world.  Short chapters of about four pages make up each section, so the book can be dipped into for reference to a particular topic, such as writing materials; the Septuagint; the ‘Unwanted Gnostic Gospels’; the Bible in medieval mystery plays and modern cinema; picture-book Bibles going back to medieval times; ‘tendentious’ scriptures such as President Jefferson’s ‘miracle-less’ gospels; the effect of the Enlightenment on biblical scholarship; the Dead Sea Scrolls; different translations available today in English; the Bible and slavery, with the very different use of Scripture by slaves and their owners.

The scope is broad, with the final section taking us to different parts of the world to see what translations have been produced and, in some cases, how the Word has been used and abused.  We learn too how alphabets have been constructed from early times right up to the present to enable people to have Scripture in their own languages.  Fascinating is the story of how the creation of an alphabet for the Bible solved both a religious and a political problem in Armenia, the first Christian kingdom.  Mesrop, the fifth-century monk behind this, is one of the unsung heroes of early Christianity; while Ulfilas’ creation of a Gothic alphabet for Bible translation opened the door to literature for the Germanic peoples.  Centuries later, Luther’s translation helped unify Germany and its dialect-diverse language.

The Bible is a dangerous book.  Wycliffe’s work in starting to make Scripture available in English to the common folk aroused, as we know, much fury in the church, including the priceless complaint that “the jewel of the clergy has been turned into the sport of the laity” (p.263).  Erasmus later remonstrated with those who “make much of a fragment of [St Paul’s] body, boxed up in a shrine”, instead of “admir[ing] the whole word of Paul shining through his epistles” (271).  Atahualpa’s ‘desecration’ of the Bible and the ensuing massacre by the Spanish conquistadors tell an uncomfortable tale replicated today where blasphemy laws (though not against the Bible now) hold sway.

The theological position of the book is also broad.  The Documentary Hypothesis is accepted as fact, as are Deutero-Isaiah and non-Davidic authorship of psalms attributed to him – though he is considered the inspiration behind many.  The style is at times a little pedantic: do we really need definitions of the Reformation and of ‘polyglot’?; though I guess as American writers, they have to tell us which countries Paris, London and Bologna are in!

A few errors have slipped in.  The great African bishop and translator Samuel Crowther was educated by the Church Missionary Society, not the ‘Christian Missionary Society’ (340).  The statement that “no Spanish Bibles were published until the eighteenth century” (294, 390) overlooks the great sixteenth and seventeenth-century translations of Reina and Valera, still in beloved use in the Hispanic world today after several revisions.

Despite these slight drawbacks, this is an excellent historical overview, great to read and probably even better to dip into for information about our Scriptures and their impact – which will continue until our Lord comes back.

Robert Lunt

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