Rev'd Professor John Barton FBA: Research

Ethics in Ancient Israel

Over the last four years (2010-14) I have been working on a book, recently published, called Ethics in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).  My research for this was funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship.  It is an attempt to provide a previously unwritten chapter in the history of ethics.  Historians of ethics always begin with the Greeks, because it is widely held that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the first to give attention to ethical questions in a systematic way.  I have worked on ethics in the Old Testament for much of my academic career, and have become convinced that what is said in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish sources (as well as in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia), though not formalized as in the analytical tradition coming from Greece, is none the less more than a mere collection of moral imperatives.  So I set myself the task of examining what is said about ethical questions in the Old Testament and related literature—such as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls—and trying to see whether it can be brought under any general principles. 

In my book I suggest that there were several ways of conceiving ethical obligation in ancient Israel.  There was indeed, as most people think, a divine command ethic, which we see expressed in apodeictic texts such as the Ten Commandments, and also in the specific commands God is recorded as having given to the Israelites, such as the horrible instructions to kill all the native inhabitants of the Promised Land that so alienate modern readers from the Old Testament.  But there is also in many places an ethic of moral order, somewhat akin to the western natural law tradition. We find this in the wisdom literature such as Proverbs, but also, perhaps more surprisingly, in the prophets, particularly Isaiah. The idea of a pervasive moral order in the world is also found in Egypt, and seems to have been common in the ancient world. There are also, again perhaps surprisingly, instances of morality seen as pure custom, with no divine sanction attached.

Other ideas relevant for understanding ethics in the culture of ancient Israel are the presentation of human beings as made in the image of God, occasional imperatives to imitate God in one’s actions, and the central importance of theodicy in the prophetic books.  I also examine the tendency to offer short digests of moral conduct (the Ten Commandments are again a good example, but there are many others), and the vexed issue of the consequences of good and bad actions—are they sent by God, or is there an automatic retribution inherent in human deeds?  And I discuss the 'ends of life' (to use a phrase coined by Keith Thomas): what is seen as a desirable goal for human beings to aim at, and the issue of who owes moral obligations and to whom: to all their fellow humans, or only to members of an in-group?

I hope to continue to study biblical and related ethical systems, and to write further on concrete moral issues as they are raised by the Bible.  The volume I have completed s a kind of prolegomena to studying actual moral norms in ancient Israel.

A History of the Bible

Now that I have retired from my chair, I have more time for writing, and I am planning a large book (200,000 words) for Allen Lane/Penguin called A History of the Bible.  This is meant for the general educated reader who may be interested in the Bible but knows little about it.  It will first cover in some detail how the various biblical books came to be written, so far as there is a consensus on this among scholars, looking at the differences in genre and trying to establish the date at which they came into their present form—allowing for a complex process of compilation in many cases.  Then I shall go on to the question of canonization, on which I have already written a good deal in more technical books and articles, showing that the process was different as between the two Testaments, and that in neither case is there very much hard evidence about the actual process by which they became ‘canonical’.  Indeed, for the earlier stages this term is anachronistic and misleading.  I shall the examine the history of interpretation of the biblical books, both as individual texts (often in practice as collections of individual verses) and as a whole, showing how different is the construal of the overall meaning of the Bible in Judaism and in Christianity.  Then I shall look at the dissemination and translation of the Bible in various parts of the world, and the reception of the biblical text down to the present day.  This will inevitably be a superficial study in some ways, but I hope it will give readers some sense of the scale of what is known about the Bible and why it continues to fascinate even people with no religious convictions.  I am hoping to publish this book in 2018.

Other work in progress

I have just finished editing a large Guide to the Old Testament, to be published by Princeton University Press, with around twenty-five articles by a wide range of scholars, Christian, Jewish, and agnostic, both experienced and new to the field.  Along with Peter Groves, the vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s church in Oxford, I am involved in producing a Festschrift for John Muddiman, The New Testament and the Church.  Both these volumes should appear in the next year or so.  I then want to do more work on the origins of the biblical canon and the issue of how far canonicity does or should constrain interpretation of the canonical texts, which is both a theoretical and an empirical question.