Review- The Bible: A Biography, by Karen Armstrong

Ms. Armstrong is a former nun who has become a popular writer on religion. Her “biography” of the Bible reminds me of Bishop Eusebius’s biography of Constantine, which invented “saintly” material while suppressing Constantine’s murder of his wife, eldest son, and many relatives. Ms. Armstrong plays fast and loose with the facts to create a “biography” that reflects her faith and hopes, but not reality.

At the outset, she says, “The truth of scripture cannot be assessed unless it is – ritually or ethically – put into practice” (p. 2). She asserts that reason does not apply. According to her principle, we cannot assess the truth of the Church’s Malleus Maleficarum without “ritually or ethically” burning witches. The Bible was used by both Catholics and Protestants to support a series of witch hunts that killed many thousands of innocent women. Ms. Armstrong omitted this from her biography.


Literal Interpretations -- Then and Now

Ms. Armstrong repeatedly warns against literal interpretations of the Bible. She claims that historically, few people  read the Bible literally: “It is … crucial to note that an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life.” (p. 3); “the first chapter of Genesis was rarely read as a factual description of the origins of the cosmos.” (p. 223); “after the Enlightenment, some saw the biblical narratives as purely factual, forgetting that they were written as stories” (p. 220). She makes no attempt to support her claims.

A recent survey by the Barna Group shows that nearly a quarter of Americans believe the Bible is the “actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word” -- including Genesis. Ms. Armstrong’s historical claims are false. Copernicus published his theory of a heliocentric universe in 1543. It took the Church about 70 years to discover his work and evaluate it. But in 1616 they declared it heresy and placed it on their Index of Forbidden Books, which was enforced by the Inquisition. After this, the Church reacted more quickly. They forced Galileo to recant on pain of death, subjected Kepler to the Inquisition, and burned Giordano Bruno. Their books were forbidden.

Had Copernicus discovered his theory a thousand years earlier, he almost certainly would have been persecuted. Literal interpretation of the Bible was the rule, rather than the exception. For example, St. Augustine’s theory of original sin is based on a literal reading of Genesis, and a perverse one at that. Ms. Armstrong throws in some casuistic weasel-words like “purely” and “exclusively,” knowing that theologians often went beyond the literal meaning to derive allegorical meanings. But they still believed in the literal truth of the text.

The core of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses) are the stories about Moses. The book of Genesis was written afterward to provide a backstory, and parts of it were mythic. But the “core” Bible narratives were intended to be taken literally. The story of the ten plagues, and of the serpent from Aaron’s rod devouring the serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians, were purported to be facts, proving that the God of Israel was far more powerful than the gods of the Egyptians. (The Bible generally does not deny the existence of other gods, but merely asserts that the God of Israel is bigger and badder, and can kick their butts.) The story of the golden calf and the slaughter of its idolaters was also supposed to be taken literally. Most of all, the story of God’s covenant with Moses, requiring the people of Israel to uphold the Torah, was supposed to be taken literally, including all the fantastic carrots and sticks written into that covenant. If these stories were merely regarded as “narratives” rather than facts, they would not have motivated compliance with the Torah -- their real purpose.



In her chapter on the sacred reading of the Bible, Ms. Armstrong called the Spanish Inquisition “a modernizing institution, designed to create ideological conformity and national unity” (p. 176). This is incredible. She viewed it as secular, ignoring the fact that Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, was appointed by the pope, who repeatedly praised his work. The Spanish Inquisition was designed to persecute conversos, Jews who had been forcibly converted about a century earlier. It was an atrocity, and had nothing to do with modernism. As we will see, the Church condemned modernism in the harshest terms. Once again, Ms. Armstrong rewrote history to conform to her faith.

She included a chapter on “modernist” approaches to the Bible, but only discussed Protestant and Jewish versions. About Protestants, she claimed, “Before Scopes, fundamentalists had been willing to work for social reform with people on the left; after Scopes, they swung to the far right of the political spectrum, where they have remained” (p. 211). She would have us believe that if only Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken hadn’t humiliated the fundamentalists, they would have been liberal supporters of the Social Gospel. Again, she provides no evidence. But fundamentalists were always overwhelmingly conservative. The second Ku Klux Klan was founded by fundamentalists long before the Scopes trial, and was called the secular arm of Fundamentalism. When the Klan persecuted sinners, blacks, and Jews, they cited the Bible. They opened their meetings with Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Ms. Armstrong pointedly ignores the Catholic Church’s history on modernism. The Church attacked modernism with papal encyclicals, councils, and just about every other weapon at its disposal. It said that one of the worst forms of modernism was “Americanism,” a damnable heresy. The pope thought Americanism was the evil force behind the Italians’ revolt against his rule of the Papal States, not to mention the French Revolution. The Church condemned democracy, and insisted that the Bible and God himself wanted monarchs in charge, at least if they were good Catholics.

Ms. Armstrong suppressed the Syllabus of Errors, an encyclical of Pope Pius IX. In September 2000, Pope John Paul II made Pius IX a saint, reinforcing his positions. The Syllabus condemns freedom of speech, freedom of religion, public schools, human reason, the separation of church and state, religions other than Catholicism, and many other “modernist” principles. For example, Article 7 denies that in “the books of the Old and the New Testament there are contained mythical inventions” -- contrary to Ms. Armstrong's claims. Pope Pius X doubled down on the Syllabus with his encyclical, Lamentabili Sane: Syllabus Condemning the Errors of The Modernists, which condemns many of Ms. Armstrong’s claims. She suppressed this as well.


The Bible and Pluralism

Ms. Armstrong’s conclusion and bottom-line: “We can read the Bible today as a prophetic commentary on our own world of raging orthodoxies; it can provide us with the compassionate distance to realize the dangers of this strident dogmatism and replace it with a chastened pluralism.” These are the kind of feel-good bromides that have made her popular. But her claim about the Bible's pluralism is preposterous.

The Bible’s very first commandment proclaimed that the God of Israel is a jealous God, and prohibits having anything to do with any other god. The Bible is anything but pluralistic. Whenever the children of Israel show signs of pluralism, God punishes them. Whenever anything goes wrong, pluralism is blamed for it. When God delivers his people to their new land of milk and honey, the first thing he has them do is slaughter all the tribes living there. Those tribes worship other gods, and God will not tolerate pluralism.

Christian Pluralism

Intolerance is not limited to the Old Testament. The New Testament's gospels say there is no salvation outside of Jesus. There is no trace of pluralism in the Book of Revelation, which prophesies that non-believers will die a gruesome death and suffer the eternal flames of Hell. You need both determination and a strong imagination to find evidence of pluralism in the New Testament.

Following the death of the apostles, there were many different Christian sects. While they disliked each other, they were tolerant. They had no choice, as pagan officials kept the peace. But as soon as Christians were empowered by Constantine, they became intolerant. They established the Nicene Creed, and declared any deviation to be heresy. They declared most Christian gospels and other writings to be heresy, and destroyed them, initiating their tradition of book-burning. They soon declared pagan worship to be a capital crime. Christianity totally rejected pluralism, and used the Bible as justification. Centuries later, when some Christians protested the corruption of the Catholic Church and its dubious interpretations of the Bible, the Church declared another Holy War. Catholics and Protestants spilled a sea of Christian blood. Ms. Armstrong's biography willfully ignores this.

The bloodiest and most exploitative forms of imperialism were conducted with the help of the Church or other Christian institutions, using the Bible as justification. The White Man’s Burden was accompanied by Onward Christian Soldiers. Christian imperialists practiced murder, subjugation, and forced conversion -- not pluralism. These chapters are also missing from Ms. Armstrong’s biography.

Today, secular governments and institutions keep the peace and generally prevent religious bloodshed. Secular improvements in living standards provide more attractive options than holy war, and increase pluralism. But Christians still shed the blood of Muslims in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and the Middle East, as well as Buddhists in Vietnam and Cambodia. The Bible got dragged into this as well.


Ms. Armstrong repeatedly commits major errors of commission and omission in her “biography” of the Bible. Her conclusion about pluralism reflects a massive misunderstanding of the Bible and the way it has been used by those in power. She carries wishful thinking to extremes, as do many other people of faith. No doubt she and her colleagues have the best of intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The public has been indoctrinated to believe that religious bullshit is not only benign, but praiseworthy. That’s why Ms. Armstrong’s book is praised, and no one mentions its failings. But while small doses may be harmless, bullshit is toxic.

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