Why read the Hebrew Bible? An interview with John Barton

barton the hebrew bible jacketUnderstanding the Hebrew Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature, human nature, covenant, creation narratives, ethics, ritual and purity. In The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, an invaluable reference book for students and teachers, John Barton outlines the endless reasons, beyond the religious, for studying The Hebrew Bible. Recently, Barton shared why this is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament.

Why should anyone be interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Many Jews or Christians have encountered it as all or part of their Bible, and are intrigued by it—it is, after all, a very long and complex work to have as one’s Scriptures. But the Hebrew Bible is part of Western culture, especially through its many translations—first into Greek and Latin, and then in more modern times into all European languages and, eventually, almost all the languages in the world. Western literature can’t be understood without knowing it, and it has stimulated and inspired huge numbers of people over many centuries, and infuriated others. No one can afford to ignore it.

How did you get interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Like many biblical scholars, I came to the Bible from a religious interest. I was planning to be ordained in the Church of England, and that meant studying theology; and at that time (in the 1960s) theology courses all involved the Hebrew Bible. But of all the subjects I studied, it was this that caught my interest most strongly, because of its mixture of literary, theological, historical, archaeological, and geographical themes, and its relation to other ancient literature from the classical and ancient Near Eastern world. A rabbi in ancient times said ‘Everything is in it’, and I have found that chimes with my own experience.

What is the difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament?

JB: In terms of content there is no difference—the books are the same, though Jews and Christians arrange them in a different way. Christians call them the Old Testament, since for them there is also a New Testament, and the Old Testament books preceded that. Jews generally call them simply ‘the Bible’, but sometimes the ‘Tanakh’, which is an acronym based on the initial letters of the three sections of the Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Torah, Nebiim, Ketuvim in Hebrew). Nowadays there is a suspicion that the Christian term ‘Old Testament’ could encourage anti-Semitism by implying that these books are ‘old’ in a derogatory sense, so the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ has been developed as a more neutral description that everyone can use.

How can I start reading the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Preferably not by beginning with Genesis and simply pressing on, since parts of the text are more accessible than others. I would distinguish prose from verse: in prose, I would read the books of Samuel, which contain much of the best prose narrative, followed by Genesis; and, in verse, the Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, which are both stylistically excellent and religiously profound.

Isn’t the Hebrew Bible a barbaric and brutal work?

JB: Parts of it describe brutalities—Joshua is probably the book most readers find chilling. But this is because it is the literature of a nation, not of a religious community, and it describes the history of that nation without glossing over its brutal aspects. The God who is encountered in the text is also sometimes presented as brutal and violent. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also presents a monotheistic idea of God, for the first time in world history; and it has a developed and humane social morality in which the underprivileged are meant to be cared for, and rulers are encouraged to rule justly and generously. The brutal episodes are a problem if we think that we are bound to approve of everything in the Bible, but if not, then we can see them as reflection on the whole of life, good and bad alike.

How can a work from such a remote culture still have anything to say to us today?

JB: Great texts speak across the centuries: think of Greek tragedy, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare. A lot of effort, and some background knowledge, are needed to get into an ancient text, and this book is meant to provide some of that knowledge. But most, at least, of the books of the Hebrew Bible repay the effort by having important things to say about human life, whether we agree with them or not. In the process we encounter an ancient culture that was in many ways highly distinctive in its world, and where people had thoughts, especially about God, that no one had had before.

How were the books of the Hebrew Bible selected?

JB: They weren’t. No one ever ruled on what was to be in the Bible until long after it was all settled anyway. We don’t know whether the books we have represent the majority of those that existed in ancient Israel, but they are the only ones that have survived (with a few exceptions, such as the books sometimes called the Apocrypha). The Hebrew Bible consists of all the literature we know of from Israel up till the second century BCE. There are many later books (various books of Enoch, the book of Jubilees), but they were never part of the Hebrew Bible.

How do we know that the Hebrew Bible really goes back to such ancient times—might it not have been totally corrupted over such a long time?

JB: We have no complete manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible before the eleventh century CE (the ‘Leningrad Codex’). But among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the second century BCE and the first century CE, there are substantial parts of almost all the biblical books. These differ from the Leningrad Codex in many points of detail, but they are quite obviously the same books, and hardly diverge in any major ways. This confirms that the Bible was transmitted carefully by scribes, at least from the second century BCE onwards. There is every reason to think that such care goes back even before that.

John Barton is the Oriel and Laing Professor Emeritus of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His many books include Reading the Old Testament; Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile; and The Nature of Biblical Criticism. His most recent book is The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion.