While reading Karen Armstrong's new book, "The Bible: A Biography," a volume in the Atlantic Monthly's Books That Changed the World series, I fancied I could hear the sound of recently qualified Ph.D.s in the Bible sharpening their pencils for comment.
In her condensed history of how the Bible grew, Ms. Armstrong only sketches the development of the Torah of Moses, contained in the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, and her account of the rise of Prophetic and later literatures is also sketchy. Nonetheless, Ms. Armstrong is such a capable writer that she conveys a sense of the interaction of oral traditions and the later editing of written sources that gave us the Hebrew Bible as it is today. Her account of the Christian Bible, even briefer, less successfully locates the writings in their context; the reader is likely to come away with a general impression that the Gospels are late and anonymous, but without a feel for how they grew during the generation after Jesus's death.
Scholars of the Bible might disagree with Ms. Armstrong's choices, but this book is deliberately impressionistic in its approach. Ms. Armstrong, a scholar of religion and self-described "freelance monotheist," has never written on such a broad scale, or with as much passion. Even the subtitle of her book, "A Biography," does not do justice to her ambition, which involves the afterlife of biblical interpretation, including rabbinic and Christian theology until the rise of fundamentalism.
She pushes selectively into rabbinic, patristic, and medieval exegesis, and it is while discussing post-biblical interpretation that Ms. Armstrong spells out her argument. Two connected contentions animate her presentation. The first is that the greatest interpreters, whether Jewish or Christian, were animated by the principle of Charity (her term, with a capital "c" in a chapter title), which they explored in mystical depths. The second is that all exegetes of Scripture — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and others — must develop a new method of interpretation that will permit them to get beyond their violent disputes.
Throughout history, charity has pervaded reflection on ethics in the West; when John Lennon claimed, "All you need is love," he voiced a perennial theme of theology. St. Augustine, one of Ms. Armstrong's heroes, boiled all Christian ethics down to the imperative: "Love — and do what you will." Even that radical reduction to a single principle was hardly original: Jesus, following an older rabbinic contemporary named Hillel, summarized the law and prophets with the commandments to love God and neighbor. Those, in turn, were drawn from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. You cannot go far wrong in asserting that love lies at the center of the Bible's message.
The trouble with love is what it can become in practice. St. Augustine himself rationalized violence on the grounds that it could be improving for its victims. A group called the Donatists, a majority of Christians in North Africa at the time St. Augustine became bishop of Hippo, believed that the Church should be strict toward those who had acceded to pagan authorities during periods of persecution, and withdrew into enclaves rather than mix with people who were too ready for compromise. St. Augustine, a Catholic partisan, justified the use of force against Donatist property and the Donatists themselves, including the use of torture, although he did try to mitigate the ensuing atrocities.
Ms. Armstrong is enthusiastic about St. Augustine's theory regarding love, but vague when it comes to how he put it into practice. She is more forthcoming in her criticism of another of her heroes, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. St. Bernard championed a traditional, spiritual reading of Scripture during the 12th century, and opposed the new, rational theology of Peter Abelard. Even here, however, Ms. Armstrong does not seem to realize the depth of the problem in assuming that love's pure motives result in pure actions. St. Bernard, she is well aware, engineered Abelard's condemnation by Pope Innocent II, but St. Bernard's capacity for animus went beyond personal and intellectual rivalry. St. Bernard truly believed in the purifying power of violence, which is why in 1146 he preached the Second Crusade from Vézelay, at the time a principal shrine of Mary Magdalene. When that venture failed, he called for yet more holy war. Such is the power of love harnessed to violent means.
The fact that both St. Augustine and St. Bernard were sometimes not only wrong, but willfully wrongheaded, should come as no surprise. They were talented, celebrated intellectuals, no more immune to pride than many people before and since. But ignoring their resort to violence only conceals the excess that appeals to love or charity can provoke.
This basic problem in Ms. Armstrong's first argument is accentuated in the naïveté of her second, that "the three monotheistic faiths should work together to establish a common hermeneutics" — a consistent theory of interpretation — to resolve the differences among them. College professors will tell you that hermeneutics is necessary when you try to compare one form of sacred literature to another. Anything less than consistency will obviously lead to favoritism for one religion, and/or prejudice toward another. A good, critical understanding of the interpreter's task is crucial for clear reading, and it is encouraging to see Ms. Armstrong call for it.
But great religious traditions do not pick and choose their interpretative stances, or "hermeneutics." Interpretation is part and parcel of basic belief. Rabbinic readings of the call of Abraham, for example, perceived in the patriarch the same vocation that drew Moses to Sinai, while the fathers of the Church saw belief in Christ prefigured in Abraham's faith, and the Koran depicted Ibraham as the model of Muhammad. No appeal to interpretative theory can argue the faithful out of those grounding perceptions: They are embedded in being a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim. Trying to get the Abrahamic religions to agree in advance on a single program of hermeneutics, despite their long and unique histories, would require the equivalent of yet another holy war, with perhaps even less prospect of success than the Second Crusade.
Ms. Armstrong's passionate concern that religion should no longer be used to promote violence animates her measured, lucid prose and vivifies her summary of the development of the Bible and its interpretation. But her proposed solution to the problem of religious violence — urging charitable motivation and the discovery of a single program for evaluating religious truth — has historically proved to provoke yet more violence. Rather than continuing to chase the single truth of the chimera love, perhaps the time has come to learn from history itself that empathy is wiser and healthier than charity, especially when substantial disagreements are at issue.
Mr. Chilton is general editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Bible, Second Edition.