The Bible: A History
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Date: May 2003

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Photo: Lion Publishing
'What arguments has it caused? How has it shaped our history ... Why so many versions?'

The Bible: A History
Stephen Miller, Robert Huber
Lion Publishing
Hardcover, 256pp

Reviewed by Steve Tomkins

This is the story of the Bible. Most of us know the story in the Bible, from Adam and Eve to Jesus, though we might be a bit hazy about some of the stuff in the middle. But how much do you know about the Bible's own story?

How did it come to be written? And why? Who wrote which bits, and in what order? Who decided which books made it in? How has its popularity changed over the years? How has the way people understand it changed? And the way it looks? What arguments has it caused? How has it shaped our history and our world? Why so many versions?

These are the questions that The Bible: A History is here to answer. Unfortunately, many of them don't have much of an answer or only answers with lots of maybes in. So much of the Bible is anonymous, including all four Gospels and most of the Old Testament, that piecing together the behind-the-scenes story is like reading a detective novel with no last chapter many clues, many possibilities, no answers.

The Bible: A History does a pretty good job of filling in the gaps to make a proper story, though of course with lots of 'probablies' and 'scholars believe'. It has sections on how the Old and New Testaments were written and put together, and how it fared in the Middle Ages, in the Reformation and in modern times.

Each is full of bite-sized segments: 'Lost books of the Bible', 'First-century letter writing', 'The Bible in early worship', 'Life as a monastic scribe', 'King James version', 'The Dead Sea scrolls'. And the margins are full of quotes and titbits of information.

The strong point is that it is beautifully presented and illustrated and for £25 it should be. The colour pictures on every page not only make it easy on the eye but give you a real sense of the changing worlds of the Bible. The Babylonian wall carvings from where the prophets wrote in exile. The crumbling pages of the earliest Christian scriptures. Gorgeous medieval illuminated manuscripts. The scholarly beards of translators. Archeologists poking about in the Palestinian sand.

You're bound to pick up some interesting titbits as you go through. Did you know, for example, that the Bible is named after Byblos, a seaport in Phoenicia? That's because it was a major exporter of papyrus, so papyrus rolls were called 'biblia' in Greek.

Books made from it were called 'biblia' too, and the Bible became so famous that it was simply known as 'The Books', 'Biblia'.

And here's something I had never really thought about. The Old Testament was largely compiled, and some of it at least was written, when the Jews were in exile after being conquered by Babylon.

That, Miller and Huber suggest, is why it presents such an unusually honest, 'warts-n-all' portrait of the Jewish people - rebellious, unfaithful, sinful. After the chosen people have their promised land destroyed, they have to do some serious thinking about where they've gone wrong with God.

The Bible has inflamed fiery passions, inspired murderers and martyrs, told different people wildly different things, and persuaded a lot of people to behave extremely strangely. The Bible: A History won't do any of that, but it will look very handsome on your coffee table.