A History of the Bible

A History of the Bible

Normally I detest 600 plus page books, but John Barton’s History of the Bible is an exception.  If the story he tells is not always compelling, it is almost always interesting.  I focus on his account of the New Testament.  Barton tells a story familiar to Biblical scholars, but I’m not one, and I assume most of my readers aren’t either.  Mine is not a book review, but I stick closely to his text.

Paul or the gospels?

Paul wrote first, about twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The first gospel, Mark, was not written until about forty years after Christ’s death.  Surprising is that Paul has a more developed Christology, a theory of the divinity of Christ.  The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) never identify Jesus with God, and have nothing to say about the Trinity.  The only exception is Matthew 28:19, which most scholars think was an addition by later editors.*  (The term gospels refers to the Synoptic Gospels unless John is specifically included.  They are called that because there is so much overlap in their content.) 

The gospels openly puzzle about who Jesus is.  Jesus himself is not very helpful, claiming only that he is not God. “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18). So, who is he?  The son of God, you say, but this subordinates Jesus to God, which is incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity, which says that Jesus is God.  The point, and Barton makes it again and again, is that Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity, is not supported by the Bible.  The doctrine came later. 

Surprising is that while the doctrine came later (second century), there are more hints and feints in that direction in Paul than the gospels.  For Paul, Christ

is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created . . . He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together . . . For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  (Colossians 1:15–17, 19).

There is nothing like this in the gospels.  John comes closer to Paul than to the other three gospels.  John was written later than the synoptics, around 100 AD.  One would expect that stories about Jesus would precede theories about Jesus, but it doesn’t work that way with Paul.  

Paul doesn’t tell many stories about Jesus.  The gospels are full of them.  Paul tells us about Jesus.  The gospels tell us what Jesus had to say; they tell us about his teachings.  The gospels are about what Jesus taught about living with God and neighbor.  In both Paul and John, the teacher becomes the subject.

            Ascension and transcendence

For all the talk about Christ’s bodily ascension in Christian doctrine, one wouldn’t guess that it is only mentioned briefly twice in the New Testament (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).  Contrast this with the dozens of accounts of Jesus’ teachings and healings in the gospels, which “take up a huge portion of the gospels and are emphasized in the speeches in Acts?” (p 330)  Christian doctrine runs against the theme of the gospels. 

It’s sometimes argued that Paul sees Jesus through Greek eyes.  That is, Jesus is something like a Platonic form, an ideal that has always existed.  The gospels, on the other hand, see Jesus through Hebrew eyes.  Jesus is a Jewish teacher and preacher, a rabbi who founded a new sect.  I see no need to introduce Plato as inspiration (Philo).  The tendency toward transcendence is present in every religion.  It’s the nature of religious thought.  The gospels  are remarkable in crafting a vision of Jesus who, with all his miracles and wonders, remains a man.  A mysterious man, to be sure, one the gospel writers never figured out, but a man, not a God.

What are the gospels?

Form critics, as they are called, try to get behind the written text to the oral tradition on which it is based.  They see the gospel writers as collectors of these fragmentary bits and pieces, few of which actually go back to Jesus.  Rather, they reflect the teaching of the early church (p 191). 

Form critics generally assume the The Q hypothesis, which holds that there was an early but now lost manuscript of the sayings of Jesus, called Q after the German Quelle, or source.  This hypothetical manuscript contains most of the material shared by Matthew and Luke, but is absent from Mark.  These sayings were collected by the early church. 

Barton argues that the Q hypothesis is conservative (p 196).  If one claims that Matthew and Luke derive their common but non-Marcan material from an earlier source, it is an implicit denial that they made any of it up themselves.  If the gospels don’t go back to Jesus himself, they go back to the oral tradition of the earliest church.  But if one rejects the Q-hypothesis, then Matthew and Luke are adding material of their own, whose origin in the early church is no longer assured.  They were writing biographies of Jesus, not just rearranging fragments of early text, as form critics would have it. 

Matthew and Luke did not intend to write gospels that accompanied Mark.  They intended to write gospels that superseded Mark.  They included most of what Mark had to say and then added their own material, possibly from Q.  It is the (perhaps) unintended genius of the Bible that its compilers** decided to include four gospels, each with different and in many cases incompatible accounts of the life of Jesus.  Not so that we can pick and choose, but so that we may understand that the material on which we base our claims about Jesus are, in many cases, contestable even within the framework of the gospels.  “Thus the fourfold gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus.” (p 211)

     The original words of Jesus are lost forever

The closest we can get to the original words of Jesus is the Greek text; the entire New Testament is in Greek, with the exception of the odd Aramaic phrase such as talitha kumi (maiden arise).  But Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and translation is never exact, even when it is not tendentious.*** We may think we have found a likely statement by Jesus, but it will never be the original words.  They are lost forever.  Biblical literalists should keep this in mind.   


Most Christians believe that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation (God became a man) are found in the Bible.  They’re not, at least not in in form we usually talk about them in church.  Modern Biblical scholars find intimations of these doctrines in the New Testament (especially in John and some of Paul’s letters), but the doctrines remain embryonic.

The New Testament clearly claims that God was in Christ.  To hold this belief is essential doctrine. It’s what it means to be a Christian.  But the details that would fill out the doctrine cannot be found in the Bible.  Ninety percent of the New Testament has nothing to do with doctrine at all.  It has to do with the teachings of Christ.

From Mark: You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.” (10:19)

From Matthew: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (22:37-39)

From Romans: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (13:8-9)

Or perhaps this is the doctrine of the New Testament, which as anyone familiar with the Bible will recognize, draws heavily on the Old.****  Doctrine need not be creed.  It is the message of scripture, about which there is no doubt.  In doubt is only the application in particular cases, about which Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness should be kept in mind.

The reader might respond that the teachings of Christ are guaranteed (if that’s the right word) only because of his divinity.  Absent Christ’s divinity, these are no more than opinion (doxa) and tradition.  I think that’s a good way to think about doctrine.  Valuable not primarily because of what it asserts, but what it supports, the best way for humans to live with each other and with God.    


* We possess nothing like autographs (original) copies of any of the books of the New Testament.  Only copies of copies of copies, none of which are identical.  Furthermore, the oldest copies contain the greatest variation, suggesting that early scribes were inserting their own interpretations. 

**  Barton argues that no one chose the gospels (p 271).  Not just gospels, but the canon of the Old Testament, was traditional.  There were “not a lot of tough choices. In a sense, almost no choices. These were the books accepted over generations, and centuries.” 

*** A number of Jesus’ early followers were evidently bilingual, and could report what they heard in basic (koine) Greek.  That seems the most likely explanation of the earliest translation of the Gospels.  Paul wrote in Greek.  Some posit an as yet undiscovered original Aramaic manuscript.

**** Especially Exodus 20:12-16; Deut. 5:16-20, 6:5. 


John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths.  Penguin, 2019.  [All page references are to this book]

2 thoughts on “A History of the Bible”

  1. I confess I am sur ccprised that there is no clear evidence in the gospels are the doctrines
    we were taught.
    But I am sympathetic to the view which I believe is in Judaism that you don’t have to believe any doctrines of course you must believe that god exists and that Jesus is the incarnation of God.
    What matters is the practice
    What should the practise be for Christians? It must be Love.

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