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Excerpt: 'The Bible: A Biography'

Cover Image of The Bible: A Biography

Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we find some pattern or significance in our lives, we fall very easily into despair. Language plays an important part in our quest. It is not only a vital means of communication, but it helps us to articulate and clarify the incoherent turbulence of our inner world. We use words when we want to make something happen outside ourselves: we give an order or make a request and, one way or the other, everything around us changes, however infinitesimally. But when we speak we also get something back: simply putting an idea into words can give it a lustre and appeal that it did not have before. Language is mysterious. When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh; speech requires incarnation — respiration, muscle control, tongue and teeth. Language is a complex code, ruled by deep laws that combine to form a coherent system that is imperceptible to the speaker, unless he or she is a trained linguist. But language has an inherent inadequacy. There is always something left unsaid; something that remains inexpressible. Our speech makes us conscious of the transcendence that characterizes human experience.

All this has affected the way we read the Bible, which for both Jews and Christians is the Word of God. Scripture has been an important element in the religious enterprise. In nearly all the major faiths, people have regarded certain texts as sacred and ontologically different from other documents. They have invested these writings with the weight of their highest aspirations, most extravagant hopes and deepest fears, and mysteriously the texts have given them something in return. Readers have encountered what seems like a presence in these writings, which thus introduce them to a transcendent dimension. They have based their lives on scripture — practically, spiritually and morally. When their sacred texts tell stories, people have generally believed them to be true, but until recently literal or historical accuracy has never been the point. The truth of scripture cannot be assessed unless it is — ritually or ethically — put into practice. The Buddhist scriptures, for example, give readers some information about the life of the Buddha, but have included only those incidents that show Buddhists what they must do to achieve their own enlightenment.

Today scripture has a bad name. Terrorists 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 (modern Israel) to the descendants of Abraham, oppressive policies against the Palestinians are legitimate. There has been a scriptural revival that has intruded into public life. Secularist opponents of religion claim that scripture breeds violence, sectarianism and intolerance; that it prevents people from thinking for themselves, and encourages delusion. If religion preaches compassion, why is there so much hatred in sacred texts? Is it possible to be a 'believer' today when science has undermined so many biblical teachings?

Because scripture has become such an explosive issue, it is important to be clear what it is and what it is not. This biography of the Bible provides some insight into this religious phenomenon. It is, for example, crucial to note that an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life. For centuries, Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive exegesis, insisting that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither possible nor desirable. They have rewritten biblical history, replaced Bible stories with new myths, and interpreted the first chapter of Genesis in surprisingly different ways.

The Jewish scriptures and the New Testament both began as oral proclamations and even after they were committed to writing, there often remained a bias towards the spoken word that is also present in other traditions. From the very beginning, people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty. Religious knowledge cannot be imparted like other information, simply by scanning the sacred page. Documents became 'scripture' not, initially, because they were thought to be divinely inspired but because people started to treat them differently. This was certainly true of the early texts of the Bible, which became holy only when approached in a ritual context that set them apart from ordinary life and secular modes of thought.

Jews and Christians treat their scriptures with ceremonial reverence. The Torah scroll is the most sacred object in the synagogue; encased in a precious covering, housed in an 'ark', it is revealed at the climax of the liturgy when the scroll is conveyed formally around the congregation, who touch it with the tassels of their prayer shawls. Some Jews even dance with the scroll, embracing it like a beloved object. Catholics also carry the Bible in procession, douse it with incense, and stand up when it is recited, making the sign of the cross on forehead, lips and heart. In Protestant communities, the Bible reading is the high point of the service. But even more important were the spiritual disciplines that involved diet, posture and exercises in concentration, which, from a very early date, helped Jews and Christians to peruse the Bible in a different frame of mind. They were thus able to read between the lines and find something new, because the Bible always meant more than it said.

From the very beginning, the Bible had no single message. When the editors fixed the canons of both the Jewish and Christian testaments, they included competing visions and placed them, without comment, side by side. From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely different meaning. Later exegetes held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their time. Sometimes they allowed it to shape their world-view but they also felt free to change it and make it speak to contemporary conditions. They were not usually interested in discovering the original meaning of a biblical passage. The Bible 'proved' that it was holy because people continually discovered fresh ways to interpret it and found that this difficult, ancient set of documents cast light on situations that their authors could never have imagined. Revelation was an ongoing process; it had not been confined to a distant theophany on Mount Sinai; exegetes continued to make the Word of God audible in each generation.

Some of the most important biblical authorities insisted that charity must be the guiding principle of exegesis: any interpretation that spread hatred or disdain was illegitimate. All the world faiths claim that compassion is not only the prime virtue and the test of true religiosity but that it actually introduces us to Nirvana, God or the Dao. But sadly the biography of the Bible represents the failures as well as the triumphs of the religious quest. The biblical authors and their interpreters have all too often succumbed to the violence, unkindness and exclusivity that is rife in their societies.

Human beings seek ekstasis, a 'stepping outside' of their normal, mundane experience. If they no longer find ecstasy in a synagogue, church or mosque, they look for it in dance, music, sport, sex or drugs. When people read the Bible receptively and intuitively, they found that it gave them intimations of transcendence. A major characteristic of a peak religious insight is a sense of completeness and oneness. It has been called coincidentia oppositorum: in this ecstatic condition, things that seemed separate and even opposed coincide and reveal an unexpected unity. The biblical story of the Garden of Eden depicts this experience of primal wholeness: God and humanity were not divided but lived in the same place; men and women were unaware of gender difference; they lived in harmony with animals and the natural world; and there was no distinction between good and evil. In such a state, divisions are transcended in an ekstasis that is separate from the conflicted fragmentary nature of ordinary life. People have tried to recreate this Edenic experience in their religious rituals.

As we shall see, Jews and Christians developed a method of Bible study that linked together texts that had no intrinsic connection. By constantly breaking down barriers of textual difference, they achieved an ecstatic coincidentia oppositorum, which is also present in other scriptural traditions. It is, for example, essential to the proper interpretation of the Qur'an. From a very early period, the Aryans of India learned to apprehend the Brahman, the mysterious potency that held the diverse elements of the world together, when they listened to the paradoxes and riddles of the Rig Veda hymns, which fused apparently unrelated things. When Jews and Christians tried to find a unity in their paradoxical and multifarious scriptures, they also had intuitions of divine oneness. Exegesis was always a spiritual discipline rather than an academic pursuit.

Originally, the people of Israel had achieved this ekstasis in the Jerusalem temple, which had been designed as a symbolic replica of the Garden of Eden. There they experienced shalom, a word that is usually translated 'peace' but is better rendered as 'wholeness, completeness'. When their temple was destroyed, they had to find a new way of finding shalom in a tragic, violent world. Twice their temple was burned to the ground; each time its destruction led to an intense period of scriptural activity, as they sought healing and harmony in the documents that would become the Bible.

Excerpted from The Bible: A Biography Copyright 2007 by Karen Armstrong, reprinted with permission of Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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Karen Armstrong