Customer Reviews: The Bible: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)
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on October 14, 2007
Karen Armstrong's book is (despite a poorly selected cover on the American edition) the most straight-forward, lucid explanation of how the Bible originated that I've seen. In only 230 pages the reader is taken on a tour of the current scholarly consensus about what we now know about the Bible's beginnings and development, not what the Sunday morning popularizers would like us to think. This book is written for non-specialists (something the previous reviewer doesn't seem to appreciate), which means you get a general account without footnotes, and that makes it highly readable. If you recoil from the literalism of the proof-texting preachers, here is a measure of both liberation and exhilaration. Even the short introduction is a tour de force of common sense all by itself. Brilliant!
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on December 17, 2008
I'd rename this book "Karen Armstrong Calls a Code on The Bible", as in calling a code in the hospital when someone has had a cardiac and/or respiratory arrest. By the end of Armstrong's book, the cardiac monitor hooked to the Christian Bible has a strong and steady beat.

I once took the time to read the Bible from cover to cover. Weary of being battered by Campus Crusaders (an oddly apt name), I went to the source (in English, I don't read Greek or Hebrew), and read every word, including the begats, including the many, many proscriptions for capital punishment, including the incredibly bloody and genocidal behavior of those who were supposed to be God's Chosen People, including funky dietary directions. My conclusion was that taking the Bible as the literal word of God can only be done by descending to a level of intellectual and emotional dishonesty that I could not personally access. If the Bible WAS the literal Logos (word of God), then, to paraphrase Ricky Ricardo talking to Lucy: God, you have some serious 'splainin' to do.

What then to do with this amazing collection of texts that has been somewhat haphazardly and arbitrarily lumped together and called The Bible? Answer: read Armstrong's remarkable, pithy, eye and mind opening book. The rich tradition of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) springs into a Joseph's Multi-Colored Coat dazzler: Violence, religious ecstasy, profound desire for knowledge of God, sex, political manipulation, ego, faith, hope, love, and raw lust for power swirl through this kaleidoscopic, richly layered, many textured book called The Bible.

By tracing the Abrahamic roots of biblical religions, tracking the gradual coalescence of religious writings that would eventually become the Bible, and giving a thorough AND thrilling history of the way Western faithful have reacted to Sacred Scripture, Armstrong made me, and might make you, want to again pick up a book that seems more often used for hitting people over their theological or political heads than inspiring compassion and cohesion. Armstrong's closing comments strongly belie the negative reviewer comments about her "attacking the Bible". Armstrong does nothing of the sort. She breathes life and hope into a book that has more often been used, of late, as a theological/political, anti-scientific football than a source of spiritual enrichment and growth. Read with a spirit of inquiry, Armstrong's The Bible, A Biography, is a resurrection, a healthy dose of CPR, for a Good Book that is dusty, unoriginal, dated, and often brutal when taken literally (except for the sexy parts, of which there are more than a few). Armstrong's book can't make The Bible into Chicken Soup for the Atheist, but it does make The Bible rich and enticing, even to those who are more concerned about freedom FROM religion than freedom OF Religion. Doubt me? Give it a whirl, we'll chat afterwards.
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on February 13, 2009
What other reviewers miss in their assessments of this book is the single most important fact about this book. Karen Armstrong presents the reader in a straight forward chronological timeline the historical evolution of the Bible. As she has written many books in this area some may feel it is a rehash but I disagree. She never walked the reader from early Hebrew history all the way to today and then overlays the Christian additions and movements to the most read book in the West. She does all of this in her succinct but deeply passionate style which conveys how important the evolution of this book has been and remains to be in our current culture and society.

With other books one can get pieces of this perspective but only in highly related and academically correlated subject areas. This means that for instance one can find books from a leading scholar on the Dead Sea Scrolls from the esteemed Dr. Lawrence Schiffman but one can't find a book where Dr. Schiffman addresses the entirety of what is known relative to the Bible and related ancient writings. This is what is unique about Karen Armstrong. I wrote Dr. Schiffman and asked him where to find a book like this and he referred me to the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. In those reference books scholars have annotated what is commonly agreed to in terms of biblical scholarship. The problem with that approach is that it is not a complete linear overview. It comes in pieces and does not address the end to end to approach that Armstrong delivers with this book. What Armstrong is doing in her works, and this book in particular, will be understood later in history as having been on the same footing as what Guttenberg did with the printing press for the bible or what Martin Luther did when he translated the good book into his native language for all of his countryman to read. The importance of making this historical information available to all of us, the common everyday people can not possibly be under rated.

Armstrong writes so powerfully and with such care and precision that one also wonders whether or not she is creating new insight for the many which might someday either be incorporated or by itself seen as having the majesty of the Vedas, Psalms, Koran and several other seminal spiritual texts. Given the current state of spirituality in the world this may seem far fetched but from the perspective of where new spirituality is headed it is conceivable, more so than one might initially suspect.

The scope of this book is so large that Armstrong can not go into the level of detail equally for each subject area. However what she does for us this time is to leave markers with individual names and dates so that one could delve further into an area which further interests them. I personally am such a fan that I could read 10,000 page offering from Armstrong on this subject and still be left wanting for more. I am hopeful that she may construct future writings in such a way where we will be able to bolt them together for the production of detailed grand view of agricultural eras contributions in spirituality to our world. On a personal note, I would dearly love to see and read Armstrong take on the all of it. From the hunter-gatherer era, through the agricultural era up into the current industrial era. She has touched on the inherited structures from the hunter-gatherer world views in previous works spanning the Fareast and Near East. She also touched on the industrial eras main focus for the leading edge thinkers when she briefly discusses Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach in this book (the rise of social governmental systems). Therefore I have no doubt that she clearly sees the direction that all of this is headed from a future facing perspective. The implications in understanding the direction for humanities evolving world views requires no further qualification on import for us today. However even without such a book, Armstrong's legacy is in helping us construct an understanding for the trajectory of humanities spirituality. We hope she continues her work well into the future!!!!!
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on May 4, 2008
I quite liked parts of this book, but parts were appalling, in factual and discursive content. Karen Armstrong is a well respected religious writer, whose sincerity and efforts to bring different beliefs together in harmony cannot be doubted. All the more disappointing that she gets so much wrong in her latest effort.
One good test of a non-fiction work is to examine the dating of the source material quoted by the author. For the first part of the book, which deals with the Hebrew version of biblical accounts, her references tend to be from 20-25 years ago and are not in tune with latest scholarship. For instance she gets the dating of Abraham, and the Exodus wrong, talks about Palestine in the time of the Greeks, and says the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1942! Current thinking puts the Exodus around 1200 BCE and the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. Armstrong clearly has a limited knowledge of the Qumran Community and so-called Essenes, indicated by her thinking that they did not have a coherent vision of beliefs, and continued to worship at the Temple. That is quite wrong. Their corpus of sectarian texts has a commonality of style and purpose and repeated cross referencing. They hated the Temple in Jerusalem and kept away from it.

As she moves into the Christian era, her scholarship becomes stronger, as one would expect from a former Catholic nun. One has to admire her breadth of knowledge of the New Testament texts and Christian history. If only she would refrain from being so dogmatic in some of her assertions, and admit of the lack of certainty on so many issues she seems to take as gospel. As the book progresses we drift more and more away from a Biography of the Bible into a highly knowledgeable, and often interesting dissertation, on commentary from outside sources. There are diversions into, what can only be described as backwaters of Bible evolution, like Kabbalah, which she, in my view, gives far too much prominence to. The Bible has certainly been an evolving creation, and she rightly comments that Talmudic studies continue this evolutionary process. I would contend that the Koran is an evolutionary development of the Bible and as such should have been a major consideration in assessing the Hebrew-Christian texts. From someone who has done so much valuable work in Muslim areas, in helping to bring ideas and people together this is an even more surprising omission.

Books by well-known authors tend to be viewed automatically as being as good as their predecessor. They should be viewed on their own merits, and this book is lacking in comparison to her previous works. It also reflects poorly on the editors of Atlantic Books as well as the back cover reviewers; Hugh MacDonald, of the Glasgow Herald; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Sunday Times; Edward Norman, Literary Review. They are clearly not experts in this field, although one could equally blame their editors for asking them to review such a complex work. Would you ask a gereralist to review a book on gardening? Better to ask the gardening columnist, or if there isn't one, bring in an expert from outside.
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on December 30, 2007
"The Bible: A Biography" is Karen Armstrong's best book. It's short, but opens all windows and doors to the infinite. Let's explore a living reality that cannot be trapped between two covers, she seems to say. She hints that the Bible is an biography because it's unfinished and always will be. It's a biography that includes anyone who wishes to participate: this is one open chat room!

Unlike many scholars of the Bible, Armstrong doesn't try to give you the Final Word. For example, as I was reading her book, the doorbell rang and I was offered this book: "What the Bible REALLY Teaches."

Nevertheless, orthodox "believers" have not wanted to imagine how the Bible came into being over time. Nor how the Bible has been interpreted differently through the ages. Nor the nature of the book as it exists today. Too threatening to our "beliefs"; we want absolutes, written in stone.

Ironically, these fears result in many believers treating the Bible more like a set of Tarot cards. This is not necessarily bad if you know this is what you're doing. According to Armstrong, this is a time-honored way of approaching the Bible. Many church fathers (for example, Origin) and Midrash fathers (perhaps some mothers too) stared so long at each word that depth upon depth upon depth of meaning expanded out exponentially.

The Bible is best approached as a humble and trusting seeker, not a believer. It offers you a time-tested spiritual practice, an invitation to embrace the human-divine nexus with all its messiness. But in the modern age of materialistic science, believers have reacted in a narrow literal way. Hence, instead of "seeing" through the Bible, they get stuck in the Bible. The Bible becomes a legal document a "believer" must sign onto, without eyes to see, or ears to hear, deadening.

Armstrong's vision could be a wake up call. She is a prophet, whether she defines herself as a Christian or not. "Don't be afraid; Trust," she seems to say. "And enjoy the ride." I will return to this book again and again.
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on October 15, 2011
I have read several other books by Karen Armstrong and have found her to be insightful and respectful of historical and religious understandings. This book, however, is rife with agnostic chauvinism that is somewhat antagonistic to the reader. She asserts with a measure of certainty that Exodus did not happen, early Christians are known as the "Jesus group" and the lives of Abraham and Moses are relegated to being almost mythological. Jesus, in fact, is given less attention than the rabbis of Kabbalah, which seemed disproportionate in measure of importance.

By comparison her books about Mohammad and Buddha and The History of God, are far better in their historical perspective. She also does not demean the reader in these books by putting forth as much personal conjecture as she does in The Bible. Because this book is so different from the other books I have to wonder if it was the work of her editor, and not her original writing style. Either way I would love to see Karen update and strengthen the context of this book because I believe the subject matter is important.
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Believers and non-believers alike cannot deny the indelible influence the Bible has had on Western civilization. Outright dismissing this patchwork of tales, poetry, prophecy, history and pseudo-history equates to dismissing the very foundations of Western civilization itself. Over the past two thousand years no other book has impacted, for better or worse, as many human politics, philosophies, institutions, and literature as this often impenetrable tome. Though its overall influence has waned dramatically in the past few centuries, millions still find spiritual inspiration within its multifarious books. But some have claimed they know what "The Book" means and how to interpret it beyond question. Karen Armstrong's small but dense exegetical history seems aimed at these groups. The fundamental issue remains one of interpretation.

Armstrong's book delineates the history of how people have constructed, edited, solidified, and analyzed Bible verse through millenia. Some centuries speed by like blurry billboards. In the beginning, around 1000 BCE, there were the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Sometime in the 8th Century BCE their kings commissioned books to glorify their regimes. Not yet considered scripture, these stories were interpreted and edited to help the embattled kingdoms through hard times. Essentially, they were dynamic texts to which people turned to for inspiration or catharsis. Scholars refer to these books collectively as "PEJD." They included tales, morals, prophecies, and laws.

Dual tragedies then occurred in the destruction of successive Jewish Temples by the Babylonians and the Romans. Scripture became sacred as the communities came to terms with these spiritual disasters. From this the Pentateuch, or Torah, emerged as a sacred book around the fourth century BCE. A century later, the Septuagint was established as a perfect and unchangeable translation of Hebrew scripture into Greek. Tradition continued to emphasize an allegorical, flexible, and open interpretation of scripture ("allegoria"). Under this exegetical method, scripture's transcendence was revealed through study and meditation on the meaning beneath and under the text.

Two movements rose up as a reaction to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. One was led by Jesus, who many saw as a corporeal replacement of that lost shrine. The other was Midrash, which focused on interpreting scripture, but claimed that any definitive interpretation was impossible. In the fourth century CE, the books of the New Testament were canonized by the leading Christians of the day. Christianity was born and almost destroyed until appropriated by the Roman Empire. Allegory remained the dominant exegetical technique as the Bible's depths were considered beyond any single person's interpretation.

When Rome fell some depicted it as punishment for the Original Sin outlined in Genesis. Humanity was now seen as wicked and "fallen." God's infinite goodness was hopelessly beyond our sinful dirge. The Bible, analogously, was also beyond our tiny evil minds. Martin Luther, meditating on the concept of "righteousness" came to a different conclusion: faith. All sinners need is faith for salvation. He undertook the then very unpopular project of making scripture available to nearly everyone. People could now read the Bible for themselves without the aid of religious specialists. Subsequent interpretations flourished.

Modernity saw opposing ideologies using the Bible as support. For example, both American slaves and slave owners justified their positions by reference to scripture. Science further confused the issue as literal interpretations rose from the ideas of reason and rationality. This culminated in New Criticism which provided fuel for the backlash fire of "the Bible as literal truth" movement. Starting in 1881, this thesis led to the well-know "rapture" theory of the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible and ultimately to today's "Reconstructionists" and Creation Scientists. As secularism and Darwinism flourished, especially through the Scopes trial of 1920, they were met with a tide of Christian fundamentalism that claimed the Bible as literal, unquestionable truth. The Reconstruction movement believes, according to Armstrong, that the United States Government will be usurped by an undemocratic theocracy. Armstrong also traces the lineage of Zionism as another movement that embraces literalism.

Not much exegesis is required to unearth the message of this book. Clearly, Armstrong takes issue with current literal interpretations of the Bible. She sees them as ahistorical, uncharitable, and a possible foundation to the intolerance of today's world. Our very survival make even be at stake unless we take a more charitable stance toward our ancient scriptures. Armstrong doesn't delineate what "charity" would comprise, however, though she drops some hints, such as toning down "secular fundamentalism" and "interfaith hermeneutics." But asking for towering answers from such an ambitious, and short, historical survey probably doesn't correspond to charity either. Ultimately, the book doesn't provide any solutions, but it hints at a direction. It does provide a fascinating portrait of how the scriptures known as "The Bible" were created, disseminated, and used by human beings. People of staunch religious bent may not appreciate the book's more scholarly tone, but they nonetheless stand to learn much. Though some will find passages difficult or obscure, mastering them will reap big rewards. Just remember to be charitable.
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on May 8, 2013
This a very good book for someone who has not read any of the authors prior works. If you have read 'A History of God' and/or 'The Case for God' then I would suggest you skip this one as it covers pretty much the same material. If you haven't read any of her prior works then you will find this book to be a good, detailed account of how the Bible, both Christian and Jewish, came to be what it is today.
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on January 2, 2012
I was really looking forward to reading this book, as I have been longing for a succinct overview of the history of the Bible.

However, my problem with this book is that Karen Armstrong makes a number of assumptions of what is true about the Bible that are simply not accepted as fact. For instance, Karen takes it as fact that Paul was not the author of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 or 2 Timothy, or Titus (pp. 61) when in fact the authorship of the pastoral letters is still a source of scholarly debate with no firm evidence disproving the authorship of Paul. On the same page, Armstrong suggests that Paul was convinced Jesus would return in his own lifetime, yet does not provide a reference. When in fact, in Phillipians 1:20-24, Paul makes it abundantly clear there was a distinct possibility that death could come first.

There are others:

pp. 11 Armstrong cites Psalm 137 in attempting to show Israel's pining for a temple, but the psalm was about devotion to the city at the center of Israel rather than the temple itself. In fact, the temple is not mentioned.

pp. 11 she then goes on to say that Moses spoke with Yahweh face to face, when in Exodus 33:20 it is clearly stated that Moses is not permitted to see the Lord's face. This is reaffirmed in verse 23.

pp. 16 Armstrong tries to use Deut. 32:8-9 as a warrant of regional worship, when the verses suggest the opposite: in fact, Deut. 32:8 is the only use of "Most High" in all of the book of Deuteronomy and the verses are used to attribute all sovereignty to the Lord.

pp. 16 is yet another example where Armstrong assumes as fact a matter that is still up for debate. She claims that "gods" represented "El" in this psalm, when that is not even one of the top three most common explanations. The "gods" referred in Psalm 82 were more than likely referred to local leaders or judges - see how Jesus interprets the passage in John 10:34.

pp. 18 this is where Armstrong starts to get ridiculous by suggesting that Isaiah believed that Hezekiah was the Immanuel, the Messiah. Where does Armstrong get these conjectures? Not only is this nowhere recorded in Scripture, it was Isaiah who told Hezekiah that he was to die (Isaiah 38:1) and then later reporting he had 15 more years to live.

This is what I would recommend: read the book, but discard every claim that is not backed by a reference. For those claims that contain references, be sure to follow the links to their endpoints and form your own conclusions as to the validity of Armstrong's warrants.
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on November 2, 2014
This book, like all books in the “Books that changed the World” series, is intended for the advanced and knowledgeable in the subject, not the novice. In the case of this book readers who are not well versed in the religious aspects and history of the Bible and Christianity and Judaism (both are covered extensively in the book – the book does not cover Christianity either alone or predominately) would simply be unable to follow this book. The religions based on the Bible are covered from many different perspectives and angles. Neither religion is covered from, exclusively, a mainstream perspective.

Despite the historical coverage geared towards the teachings, which is quite good, there are weaknesses. For example, in its coverage of Christianity there is an inadequate discussion on the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. With respect to the Eastern Orthodox faith there is barely even a mention of its existence, never mind any serious analysis in regard to its differences between Catholicism and Protestanism. In addition, there is little examination as to how historical secular events lead to different interpretations of the Bible and the formation of many of the religion’s sub-groupings (i.e., the growth of trade leading to the Protestantism) over most of human history. Over the past 200 years or so (i.e., since the early 1800s) there is a good discussion of how science and technology have impacted religion but this discussion is limited to only the past 200 or so years. In addition, sociological and anthropological factors outside of science and technology are not addressed.

Hence, in short, the book is a mixed bag.
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