Why The Bible Began: At Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins

11 September, 2024

We are deeply honoured to host Professor Jacob L. Wright’s conversation with Revd Prof John Barton, FBA, on Why The Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins.

Jacob Wright, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University, joins us to discuss his award-winning new book, Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origins. Featured on the “best-of 2023” lists for The New Yorker and Publishers Weekly, the book celebrates the Hebrew Bible as an unparalleled achievement in human history. Forged after Babylon’s devastation of Jerusalem, it makes not victory but defeat the foundation of a new idea of belonging. At the heart of this corpus is not a creed but a question: What does it mean to be a people? More than just religious scripture, the Bible began, according to Wright, as a trailblazing blueprint for a new form of political community. Its response to catastrophe offered a powerful message of hope that was unique in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds.

About the author: Dr. Jacob L. Wright serves as professor of Hebrew Bible at Candler and as an associate faculty member at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory. Prior to coming to Candler in 2007, he taught for several years at the University of Heidelberg, one of Europe’s oldest universities, renowned for biblical scholarship. Prof Wright is the author of many essays, articles, and books. he has developed a highly popular MOOC (massive open online course) through Coursera entitled: The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. More than 60,000 students have enrolled in the six-week course since it launched in 2014. Prof Wright delivered the prestigious 2010-11 lecture in Milieux biblique at the Collège de France in Paris, and was awarded a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. In 2015, he received a $50,000 Templeton Foundation grant to underwrite a new research project with the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, which will examine the highly developed discourse regarding the knowledge of God in the Hebrew Bible, as well as comparative work with the New Testament. Prof Wright has been named to Emory’s Faculty of Distinction, and is a member of Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta.

AWARDS

Prof Wright’s first book, Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (de Gruyter, 2004), won a 2008 Templeton prize, the largest prize for first books in religion. Prof Wright published his enhanced e-book, King David and His Reign Revisited with Apple iTunes (2013), billed as the first publication of its kind in the humanities. His book, David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (Cambridge University Press, 2014), received an honorable mention at the 2015 PROSE Awards, administered by the Association of American Publishers, as well as the coveted The Nancy Lapp Popular Book Award from American Schools of Oriental Research. Prof Wright is also the author of War, Memory, and National Identity in the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2020). HIs most recent book Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and Its Origin (Cambridge University Press, 2024) won the 2024 PROSE Award in Humanities.

About the book: Why did no other ancient society produce something like the Bible? That a tiny, out of the way community could have created a literary corpus so determinative for peoples across the globe seems improbable. For Jacob Wright, the Bible is not only a testimony of survival, but also an unparalleled achievement in human history. Forged after Babylon’s devastation of Jerusalem, it makes not victory but total humiliation the foundation of a new idea of belonging. Lamenting the destruction of their homeland, scribes who composed the Bible imagined a promise-filled past while reflecting deeply on abject failure. More than just religious scripture, the Bible began as a trailblazing blueprint for a new form of political community. Its response to catastrophe offers a powerful message of hope and restoration that is unique in the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman worlds. Wright’s Bible is thus a social, political, and even economic roadmap – one that enabled a small and obscure community located on the periphery of leading civilizations and empires not just to come back from the brink, but ultimately to shape the world’s destiny. The Bible speaks ultimately of being a united yet diverse people, and its pages present a manual of pragmatic survival strategies for communities confronting societal collapse.

Revd Prof John Barton‘s academic career has all been in Oxford, at several colleges; he retired in 2014 as Oriel & Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture. Since then he has been Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall in Oxford, a small Jesuit-run college for postgraduate students in humanities subjects. A fellow of the British Academy since 2007 and holder of an honorary doctorate from the University of Bonn, Professor Barton is also ordained in the Church of England; besides chaplaincy work in the University of Oxford, he has been an honorary assistant priest in the parish of Abingdon-on-Thames since 1979. Professor Barton has written both academic books and books for the general reader, and in recent years has published A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths (2019), and The Word: On the Translation of the Bible (2022), both Penguin.

Date: 11 September, 2024

Time: 18:00-19:00 BST | 19:00-20:00 CEST | 10:00-11:00 PDT | 13:00-14:00 EDT

Venue: Online


Prof Jacob L Wright’s Publications


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