How the Bible Became the Bible: The Politics, Power Struggles, and Beliefs That Shaped the Content of the Bible

Published (Edited) Review: New Age Retailer, Gift 2007 Issue, 08/2007

Donald O’Dell has woven an interesting tapestry of research, scholarship, and personal experience into this examination of the authenticity of biblical entries. While there are people that have developed beliefs that every word is the literal utterance of God (or Jesus as God), no one who understands centuries of transcription of text under conditions not often very favorable to the scribes will object to the common sense employed by the author in putting together this work.

While the references O’Dell uses are reliable and thorough, the beauty of this book is its readability. Many exploratory books that lean heavily on academic biblical research can be so dense it takes a person wholly devoted to the subject—or making their salary from it—to decipher the author’s writing style. This is almost akin to a book within a book. "How the Bible became the Bible" is more a Bible handbook and a Bible guide than an attempt at adding to the compendium of collected biblical scholarship. And a glance at the Table of Contents makes this very clear, indeed. Divided into two parts, one for the Old and one for the New Testament, there are cumulatively 12 chapters, two pages of bibliography, and three pages each of index and footnotes. What O'Dell is trying to do is to provide an historical context for the chapters and verses along with some strong doses of common sense about what social and political factors may have contributed to the characters, personalities, and their role in recording these powerfully consequential stories that have shaped Western, if not World history.

This highly readable book takes a conversational tone when, for instance, in Chapter 6 (The Time of Jesus), the author gently transitions us from the Old to the New Testament. The tenor focuses on the impact of Roman rule and the reactions to it and in the populace. Instead of dogmatic repetition of the chapter and verse based solely on moral directives from "above," we have "…the Romans did bring law and order…to Judea and Palestine…and roads were safer." This provides a context for understanding the times and conditions into which Jesus Christ was born and lived (assuming both). O'Dell goes on to provide yet more insight: "Homosexuality had been feared by the Israelites – not so much because it was a sin against God, but because it was a threat to their idea of eternal life through the ancestry of their loins." Likewise, divorce, the Roman Law, was frowned on because it could affect continuity (p. 107-8). The politics of sexual and marital and familial push-pull; how contemporary! Some things do not change…except that in 2007 we are stuck with irreconcilable head-butting without many on either side of these and other moral issues understanding the origins of the practices being contested. Often, out of ignorance, claims are made that "the word of God is that such-and-such behavior is forbidden" when in fact it was the pragmatic need to promote and continue the nuclear family structure. This work is full of such powerful clarifications.

One of the author's most important chapters is Twelve. The author makes five points, which really underpin his sensitivity and add elements of sane discourse to what often is emotionally charged. O'Dell does not really dispute that Jesus lived, so that is one battle that does not get fought is this summary. A person with good sense and an open mind will: 1) focus on the difference between general guidelines for moral living and literal instruction; 2) readers need to recognize and then acknowledge the danger of "bibliolatry" (idealizing and literalizing the Bible); 3) understanding how institutionalization can attract linear and closed-minded thinking; 4) understanding and analyzing how powerful the fear engendered by a god of retribution can be when promoted as that force is in BOTH Testaments; and 5) acknowledging who Jesus was and was not. These principles are what provide the reader with a sense of what the author is really up to; what he is trying to convey about the message of this powerful "Good Book."

It would be a mistake to just read the book for the History of the Jews in the first five chapters of the Old Testament just as much as it would be a waste of rational thought to rely on Jane Austen-like descriptions of the societies of the Mediterranean found in the New. This examination is really an open-minded exploration of whether morality is inextricably tied to biblical tenets that came directly from the font of God. As we gradually learn (Chapter 10, page 202), issues of morality were well illuminated for many hundreds of years before such principles landed in either Testament. They travel back through Roman times, even past the second half of the Millennium before Christ when the great Greek Philosophers were writing their Dialogues. What we do come to understand is that many of the exquisitely complex moral questions of the right and wrong of human action have been seductively intertwined into the Bible so as to create a seemingly authoritative, absolute, and final comment on what ought and should be. In fact, like a travel guide, the Bible is an aide to moral living, not THE unequivocal last word.

Finally, a short note about the author's personal annotations in several places, including his Afterword, which contains biographical information. Donald L. O'Dell was at one time an alcoholic. He has grown enormously since those days when his life was out of control. His insights about tolerance, biblical and otherwise, come with great authority: that of personal travails. He has earned this understanding and he seeks to share it with others. While strict biblical constructionists and Pentecostals may want absolute answers, which the author cannot give because of his open, inquiring mind, most readers will benefit from his clear writing style and will take away much from this work. Stock this in Religion, Ancient History, and Philosophy.

REVIEWED: March 20, 2007; Thomas Peter von Bahr, Pacific NorthWest Group, Lopez Island, Washington, 98261