The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong presents a precise history of how The Bible was written and assembled and then she concisely chronicles how Jews and Christians have used The Bible for the last 2,000 years in her short volume, The Bible: A Biography, from Atlantic Monthly Press.  Armstrong’s narrative runs just 229 pages – it’s intense, scholarly, and very readable.  If there’s a better short one volume overview of The Bible let me know, but for now, this is the book I’ll recommend to anyone who wants to study The Bible in a historical context.

The Bible is not a single book, but an anthology of narratives written over hundreds of years, by many writers, with some text blended together by unknown editors from multiple earlier sources.  The books of The Bible are not always in chronological order, and most of the main characters are presented differently by various writers.  How do you sum up the most read, most written about, book in history?

To understand the scope of Karen Armstrong’s task, I thought I’d list pertinent Wikipedia articles.  Reading these articles will enhance your understanding and enjoyment of The Bible: A Biography.  Whether you are among the fundamental, faithful or unbelieving, The Bible is completely woven into the fabric of Western society and history.  The Bible is actually the Rosetta Stone between prehistory and history, between oral tradition and the dawn of writing.  Studying religious texts written down in the Iron Age reveals concepts first formulated in the Bronze age, giving clues to the childhood psychology of homo sapiens.

Take the time to read these articles even if you don’t buy Karen Armstrong’s book, but I really recommend her elegant digestion of this vast intellectual feast.  I was especially impressed with her whirlwind survey of how The Bible has been used to back so many different belief systems, and inspired so many philosophers and philosophies.

I read Armstrong’s book first, and now I’m going back researching all this stuff on Wikipedia.  I wish I had found a review like this one, telling me to read the Wikipedia articles before I read Armstrong’s book because I think I would have been even more impressed with her writing.  I just finished listening to the unabridged version of this book and I’ve already started back at the beginning and I’m now reading a hardback copy with my eyes.

Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers has the hardback edition remaindered for $5.95.

The Bible: A Biography is part of a series from Atlantic Monthly Press called Books That Changed the World.  Other books in the series are:

  • The Republic by Plato
  • The Prince by Machiavelli
  • Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin
  • Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  • The Qur’an
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • On War by Clausewitz
  • Das Kapital by Marx

JWH – 1/27/10

2 thoughts on “The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong”

  1. I just discovered your blog. It is wonderful and your posts on various topics are quite interesting! Will keep following it from now on 🙂

    Your review of Karen Armstrong’s book was quite interesting! Will look for the book. Atlantic Monthly Press’ series looks quite wonderful! I will look for them when I go to the bookshop / library next time.

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