How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible.

How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible

New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2016. 286 pp., paper, $19.

The typical American churchgoer has limited engagement with contemporary scholarship regarding the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There is a tendency to take them at face value, even in communities where modern scholarship is welcome. Others on the liberal end of the spectrum, whether religious or not, may simply dismiss the texts without engaging with scholarship, perhaps believing it to be too technical to be of interest.
Richard Smoley has rendered a fine service for those who want to understand these texts and the origins of Christianity. The book is primarily occupied with a broad and highly readable summary of current historical, archeological, and literary research on the Bible. Of course, scholarship is always changing, and the field is huge. Smoley does not attempt to be comprehensive — an impossible task. Rather he provides a good summary of the mainstream consensus, with caveats that there are differing views and continuous new developments. He also provides notes and a Further Reading section that will help the interested reader proceed into more specialized works.

Smoley is to be praised for the care and honesty he brings to his task. He provides information on his background and theological views, enabling the reader to understand his context and bias. As he notes, “I have never read anything by any scholar that was not, to some degree, conditioned by his or her own ideology.” Especially with the quest for the historical Jesus, the offerings generally reveal more about the questors than about Jesus. Smoley steers cautiously through these waters, and argues for positions that make maximum use of the available evidence, instead of discarding large parts of the texts for shaky reasons, or ruling out miracles or healings on principle.

Of particular interest to Theosophical readers, Smoley points out the usefulness of the esoteric traditions for understanding the Bible in truly helpful ways, which are not dependent on a literal reading or destroyed by the questions raised by scholarship. In this pursuit, he draws on a deep working familiarity with traditions ancient (Kabbalah) and modern (A Course in Miracles). He is not afraid to question esoteric truisms (for example, the claim that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnated), but looks at biblical passages on these subjects with fresh eyes. This aspect of the book is not an end note, but is integrated throughout, bringing esotericism into a living conversation with some of the most fascinating corners of modern biblical scholarship, such as Margaret Barker’s work on the Great Angel.

As Smoley points out, the Bible is important for all of us. Whether we are Christian or not, religious or not, the Bible is part of the “thrownness” of our culture. We may run from it, but we cannot hide. With a guide like Smoley, we can engage it skillfully, and to our benefit.

John Plummer

John Plummer is an independent theologian and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.