To many people in the 21st century, the Bible may seem like an anachronism, but as an all-time best-seller, it still attracts many new comments. Without a doubt, Karen Armstrong is one of the highest rated to add to this vast body of literature. His breadth of knowledge is impressive. After providing an outline of how the sixty-six books were put together, he goes on to describe how these texts have been interpreted by different groups of scholars throughout the ages, in a process that constantly reminds us that it is called exegesis, a word Greek meaning to direct. or lead out.

Karen Armstrong explains that for hundreds of years before any of the words were written, the wisdom of the past was passed down orally from generation to generation. Storytellers have always been given a license to modify and embellish their stories and this license was extended to generations of new authors, many of them anonymous or pretending to be well-known prophets of the past, who reworked and rearranged early texts. “From the beginning, the biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them a completely different meaning.” Much was added and a few things were lost, but eventually an effort was made to establish an official canon, a set of books approved by religious authority.

Two canons are discussed. The books of the Old Testament, originally composed in various languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, are shared by both Jews and Christians, but the books of the New Testament, all originally composed in Greek, are used only by Christians. Karen Armstrong describes how both Jews and Christians have embarked on the process of exegesis over the centuries, each of whom has sought new insights from ancient texts in the belief that this patchwork of ancient papers preserves the hidden Word of God.

Exegesis has been carried out in an astonishing variety of ways. Many scholars have dedicated their lives, and schools have worked for generations, to the detailed analysis of every book, chapter, and verse. Most of the efforts have involved looking beyond the words for an underlying meaning. Others have sought new insights by linking words and phrases from different books, often far removed from each other in time and context. Only one system is doomed. The Bible lacks historical accuracy and contains so many contradictions that any attempt at literal understanding soon leads to confusion. Karen Armstrong is sympathetic to most religious groups that have struggled with this literary leviathan, but warns of the dangers of literal interpretation leading to fundamentalism.

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