June 24, 2017

An interesting book

The English author Simon Loveday died in February, too young; but not before he had completed a ten-year project, distilled it down to 320 clear and interesting pages, and found a publisher for it.  The result, The Bible for Grown-Ups (link) is a succinct synthesis of scholarly work on the Bible.  It has pissed off everyone in sight, and it's great.

In response to a vile review in The Spectator, Loveday's friend Matthew Parris explains the book's intent as follows (the whole essay is very much worth a look):
Written neither from the viewpoint of belief or unbelief, he aims to explain what nobody ever tried to explain to me in my own religious education: how this vast collection of stories, poetry, historical records, reports, genealogical tables, inventories, testaments and legends ever got stapled together — as it were — into the thing we call the Bible. 
Who wrote the various bits, and why? What other aims might they have had, beyond the composition of a sacrament to their God? How did this all end up between two covers? How were its contents chosen? 
How much is meant to be a factual report, and how much allegorical? How much is included just because it is beautiful, uplifting, solemn? Which of its famous stories occur in other cultures, religions, or literatures?

The Bible for Grown-Ups maps the various books of the Bible to historical events, from the rise of the Kingdom of Israel in Judea and Samaria (starting somewhere between 928-722 BC), to the Fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, and on to the adventures of the Gentiles and their new religion thereafter.  Loveday sheds fresh light (for me) on the significance of the Apostle Paul, and his conflicts with the early Christians in Jerusalem.  He also explains why the original Jews for Jesus did not find success:
What is crucial is that by 60 AD, there were more Christians outside Palestine than in Palestine – and even more strikingly, more Gentile Christians than Jewish Christians. Why does this matter? Well, when the Romans responded to the Jewish bid for independence by flattening the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 AD, they effectively wiped out the community of Jewish Christians centred on the Temple. Only the converts outside Palestine – overwhelmingly Gentile – were left.

After that, Paul's mission to the Gentiles was all that remained of Christianity.  That project had its ups and downs, but he did ultimately find an audience.

Loveday also does splendid service in selecting good scholarship that brings fresh light to the origin of the texts.  I did not know, for example, that we may have a better grip on who pulled together the Pentateuch than the Gospels.  This is a bit of a challenge, since Christianity - the religion of 1/3 of the world's population - depends very heavily on these texts.  In a typically fluent passage, Loveday walks us through the issues:
We know extraordinarily little about the four evangelists, the people who wrote the first surviving accounts of Jesus. We do not know their names: the original Gospels do not bear an author’s name, andMatthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all merely guesses added 50 years or more after the books were first written and circulated. We do not know where they lived (though it was almost certainly outside Judea). We do not know their sex: it is unlikely that any was a woman, but women do feature largely in all four Gospels, notably in Luke. We do not even know for sure whether the writers were Jews or Gentiles. Matthew anchors his events strongly in the Old Testament, yet it is he who makes the Jewish crowd cry, ‘His blood be upon us’ before the crucifixion; Luke seems to have book-knowledge of the Jewish faith but little practical knowledge of its particular rituals and beliefs (see New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 1827); and John, who constantly speaks of ‘the Jews’ festivals’, gives the impression that the writer is no more Jewish than his audience.
All four Gospels circulated in numerous versions from the earliest times and editors and copyists felt no embarrassment about amending the version they had inherited. The texts we now use, initially written between about 70 and 110 AD, were all changed, updated, added to, revised, and rewritten – not to mention copied, with all the errors that introduces – over the next century as theological opinions changed. The result is that we have no certainty as to what was the original version of our modern Gospels: textual criticism, in the old-fashioned sense of establishing an authoritative version, is highly skilled, but also extremely difficult. Any new edition of the New Testament bristles with footnotes indicating the choices that have been made between competing alternatives. As one recent writer reminds us, ‘so much does the interpretation and evaluation of the manuscript evidence progress, that a new New Testament will be issued every ten or twenty years for the foreseeable future’.

Loveday does not draw the comparison, but Adam Nicolson (Why Homer Matters) encounters similar problems in the Greek epics.  Somewhere back there, someone who knew the story got together with someone who could write.  But the first thing they wrote down wasn't the "true" story, and it wasn't the final version, either.  In the case of the Bible, it is the collective testament of a community of believers, before that community had come together, organized itself into formal institutions, and received state sponsorship.

(Speaking of state sponsorship, one can only admire this peroration - if peroration is the word I want - from the Edict of Thessalonica:  "We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict."  All clear?)

The authorial problems make the testimony of contemporary observers very helpful, and there are a few.  We learn enough from Loveday to appreciate the melancholy life of Josephus.  He was Benedict Arnold to the Judeans, but also, through The Jewish War, Jewish Antiquities, and Against Apion, our only independent source on many biblical matters.  Loveday wonders who he was writing for.  After the Fall of Jerusalem, there weren't many literate Jews left around, and what Roman would want to bother with such a detailed history of just one of many subject peoples?

I must also say something about Loveday's superb prose.  I initially imagined him a Strunk and White disciple because of his easy fluency and the similarity of the text to everyday speech.  But Loveday had no aversion to complex sentence structures.  The opening paragraph of his chapter on New Testament morality breaks various rules, but is also clear and useful:
It is very common to hear people speak of ‘Christian values’, ‘Christian ethics’, or – on the other side of the coin – ‘un-Christian behaviour’. And although we often speak of Judaeo-Christian values and traditions as though they were consistent and uniform, not surprisingly it is the New Testament rather than the Old that is seen not only as the core element, but often as superseding the Old, with a contrast between the supposedly rule-governed and vengeful religion of the Old Testament, and the forgiving spirit of the New Testament where what matters is the inner state, not the outer observance.

The whole book is like this.  It bears the marks of something that has been, like its subject, under heavy revision for quite some time.  It also picks up Paul's mission, in a way hinted at by Parris in the conclusion of his defense in The Spectator:
Howse (I think) thinks Bible study is like that: dead without the Living God and the Living Christ. If that’s right then there’s no point exploring belief unless we already believe. 
Loveday disagrees, finding the Bible moving, instructive and beautiful even when its central figure is pixellated out. Though I am an atheist, this book has sent me back to the Bible. Make up your own mind, but take it from me: Loveday writes with a clarity that is little short of gripping. He will engage you in a way a sneering reviewer can only envy.

We know with certainty that religious faith varies in all populations and in all societies, and that this variation can be a cause of great stress and suffering.  By writing a book that makes these influential texts more accessible to unbelievers and critically-minded believers alike, Loveday did a great service and left this world a better place.  Well done.


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