Book Review

Helen-Ann Hartley, Making Sense of the Bible

by Alan Wolfe

from Signs of the Times, No. 43 - Oct 2011

Book cover This is a good era for us laypeople to start serious Bible study. Until quite recently, most scholars (and clergy) believed that the Gospels were not written down until at least the fourth century AD/CE and so were based on tenth-generation oral-tradition, and were then partially re-written in Constantinian times to support the doctrines of the newly-accepted Church. This seems to have meant that thinking Christians had the choice of taking everything with either a dose of agnosticism or alternatively with simplistic fundamentalist credulity.

But following recent archaeological finds and modern textual analysis, the consensus now is that they were more probably begun in the 60s and the whole New Testament was in existence before the end of the first century. Hence, we may take at face value the idea that the stories of the "Historical Jesus" originated from eye-witnesses, and also the quotations to that effect in Luke and John. The alternative belief that the character of Jesus of Nazareth, "the Christ of Faith", was wholly invented by the post-Nicean Church is now about as justifiable as denying the Holocaust or the Moon Landing.

Nevertheless we have to accept that we still have nothing like an original manuscript and that during 1,500-odd years of hand-copying there were many accidental errors plus deliberate changes made for good or bad reasons, only some of which have been identified. Also that our Bible in English has suffered at least two changes of language since Jesus spoke to us in Aramaic, and the meaning of many words and the context in which they are used has changed more than once. So taking literally all the English wording without skilled guidance and indeed extended study and prayer is still fraught.

Helen-Ann Hartley is an ideal person to provide such guidance. She is Director of Biblical Studies at Cuddesdon (which has produced so many influential Anglicans) and so is in regular contact with relative beginners and their problems. Unlike most theological textbooks she does not use without explanation unfamiliar technical terms, such as exegesis, hermeneutics, or pericope (which perhaps should be confined to consenting experts in private!).

She explains many of the pitfalls, such as the importance of understanding context (both ancient and modern), and makes clear as others have before her that the New Testament was not written as biography, history or journalism but as "good news for Christian converts". Also that because of our limitations as human beings we cannot fully comprehend God's purposes for his Kingdom or His role in our lives. As Hartley puts it "there is much in the state of current debates involving the Bible that is deeply concerning, in unthinking and uncritical interpretations of texts. After all, there should be room for debate and disagreement while still allowing for God's overwhelming grace to remind us that any encounter should involve humility, generosity and graciousness".

This is a short book (76 pages excluding the Notes and a very short list of useful Further Reading) and so makes an excellent starter text for anyone who feels the need to understand more about the "difficult" Biblical passages. To quote again: "The Bible makes sense by inviting us to make sense of our own lives, and the lives of the communities of which we are part, alongside the stories that we encounter". When read with this in mind, the New Testament (and the Old without which much of the teaching of Jesus and Paul is incomprehensible) can make so much greater sense of our present lives and environment.

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