John Barton

John Barton a fellow in theology at St Cross College, Oxford, is the author of Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study.

A Visit to Reichenau

John Barton, 14 June 1990

Despite its enormous learning, Judith Herrin’s work is marked by small personal touches which humanise the intricate story it tells. In an Afterword, she recalls a visit to Reichenau, which will ring bells for anyone who has visited the great monastic centres there and elsewhere around Lake Constance. In this small, quiet, sunny spot in the foothills of the Alps all the sources of Carolingian culture, both literary and artistic, had been concentrated by the mid-ninth century. ‘As a symbol of the monastic refuge, which sheltered this culture through the vicissitudes of Medieval history and into the service of Renaissance Europe, Reichenau stands apart. It remains one of the most attractive emblems of the formation of Christendom.’


John Barton, 16 March 1989

If the past is another country, the study of its thought-forms, its insights and its foibles has all the complexities of foreign travel. Some intellectual historians write travelogues – guidebooks for the relentless time-traveller who likes to collect funny foreign experiences but cannot stay longer than a bargain-break holiday allows. The inhabitants of the past, for them, are curiosities to be treasured chiefly because they show us how far we have come. Others return from the past full of evangelistic zeal, eager to show their readers how the ancients have been misunderstood, and to restore respect for our ancestors, who were less strange than the superficial tourist would think. In a culture which moves restlessly on and discards the past as it goes, scholars who can recapture a sense of kinship with past intellectual giants are ever more necessary. Tourists need constant reminders that they and the people they are observing share the same humanity; empathy needs to replace curiosity. Yet the greatest historical scholars are those who can restrain both tendencies – the laudable desire to see the relevance of past to present, as well as the cruder antiquarianism that sees only its alien character. Such historians remember that shared humanity consists, precisely, in irreducible individuality: by living long in a past culture, they have come to see that human beings are always aliens, even in their own country.

Bible Stories

John Barton, 16 February 1989

Hegel, says Kierkegaard, presents us with history seen in terms of its ends, as a story which we, from our privileged vantage-point, can decipher. But, says Kierkegaard, that leaves out of account precisely what it means to live in the world. It leaves out of account the choices men always have to make without any knowledge of ends, and it leaves out of account the directions not taken, relegating to darkness those who have made the wrong choices or the choices not condoned by history. Ultimately, it leaves out the fact that we each of us have one life and one death, which is ours and no one else’s.

Reading the Bible

John Barton, 5 May 1988

‘Everyone communes with the Bible,’ wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of English literature. Northrop Frye celebrated the literary rediscovery of Scripture in The Great Code, and now Frank Kermode and Robert Alter, two critics who have given a new rigour and seriousness to the ‘Bible as literature’ movement, have brought together a constellation of literary and Biblical specialists, from both sides of the Atlantic, to explain the Bible from a literary standpoint for what the blurb calls ‘cultivated general readers’. It is hard to see how the task could be performed better. At its best, the Guide does not merely introduce lines of interpretation unfamiliar to the non-specialist, it also breaks new ground; and, as would be expected from the editors’ own works, it seeks to appeal to readers who are prepared to open their minds to literary theory. Thus it avoids the kind of uncritical aestheticism which used to spoil ‘literary’ readings of the Bible, while not being in the grip of any doctrinaire method. The editors’ positive thesis – that the Bible can be read, in Jowett’s famous phrase, ‘like any other book’ – is ably vindicated by almost all the contributors. There is also a negative thesis: that previous Biblical criticism has been defective in literary perception – of which more later.’

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