Wolfson History Prize 2020 Blog Tour – A History of The Bible

Today the Hisdoryan blog is honoured to play host to the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize 2020, the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK. This prize recognises the best factual history writing from the past year.

This year’s shortlist has a distinctly global focus, with five of the six titles exploring non-British history. International topics covered in the shortlist range from a human history of the oceans, to an  exploration of Chaucer’s relationship with Europe, to a history of West Africa from the rise of the slave trade to the age of revolution, to looking at Anglo-Indian relations through the untold history of the first All India cricket team, to a seminal study of the impact of the Bible on world religions and cultures. Meanwhile, the only exclusively British history on the 2020 shortlist sheds light on the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.

Today I am proud to play host to an extract from A History of The Bible: The Book and Its Faiths by John Barton. In this book, the author skilfully charts the history of the bible from its origins to its interpretations today, examining who its authors were, how its interpretations have evolved over time, and the interplay between religion and text.

The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye (1912–  91) wrote of the Bible: ‘this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit[s] there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage . . . frustrating all our efforts to walk around it’. In a secular age, some might think it surprising how much interest there still is in the Bible, as the celebrations for the fourth centenary of the King James Version (KJV), sometimes known as the Authorized Version (AV), in 2011 showed clearly; even those who do not believe in Christianity continue to be fascinated by its presence. For believers, the Bible is often seen as inspired by God and having a high level of authority in matters of belief and practice. For non-believers, it is a central document of western culture: it continues to interest many readers as a collection of major literary works. The history of these works, and of how they have been disseminated and interpreted, is a central part of the history of western literature.

This book tells the story of the Bible from its remote beginnings in folklore and myth to its reception and interpretation in the present day. It describes the Bible’s genesis, transmission and dissemination, and shows how it has been read and used from antiquity to the present, both in its original languages and in translation. Among other things, this will, I hope, dispel the image of the Bible as a sacred monolith between two black leather covers, recapture the sense of it as the product of a long and intriguing process, and illustrate the extraordinary variety of ways in which it has been read over the centuries.

Centrally, it also illustrates the difficulty in moving from the Bible to religious faith: neither of the two religions, Judaism and Christianity, that claim biblical books as their foundation can be read off from the Bible. Indeed, the Bible contains many elements that are problematic for Jewish and Christian belief. These include not only widely known morally objectionable features, such as God’s destruction of innocent people in the stories of the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land, but also the variety of genres (narrative, prophecy, poetry), many of them not conducive to doctrinal definitions, and the setting in ancient cultures many of whose features we do not share. At the same time, I aim to show that the Bible is an important source of religious insight, provided it is read in its original context and against the conditions prevailing when it was written.

A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths by John Barton (Allen Lane) is shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2020. The winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2020 will be announced in an online ceremony on Monday 15th June. Follow @WolfsonHistory on Twitter to follow the blog tour and keep up with the latest news.

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