The Bible: The Biography, by Karen Armstrong

God's book: the strange and complex genesis of the greatest story ever told
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The Independent Culture

The great attraction of religion is that it provides not just answers to the dilemmas and confusions of everyday life but, for some fundamentalists, The Answer. There is a childlike quality to this approach even when, ironically, it manifests itself in a very adult and aggressive attachment to a literal interpretation of sacred texts. Not that fundamentalists would use the word "interpretation": they prefer Truth, with a capital T.

It would be very comforting if they were right. How straightforward, when a problem arises, simply to open the Good Book and look up The Answer. Yet as soon as you start to read the great holy books, you see that they say what you want them to say. There is no Answer.

Which makes a "biography" of the Bible a delicate task. How to capture its importance, the astonishing ambition that, remarkably, it gets some way towards realising, while acknowledging how far short it (and its many authors) falls?

For this latest volume in the "Books That Shook the World" series, there could not be a better guide than Karen Armstrong. Her background is Catholic (she spent her early adult years as a nun). Her scholarship is immense. She has researched and written with wisdom and insight on all the major faiths and on the notion of God itself to huge acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Her style is never to knock down, caricature or expose (in the manner of Richard Dawkins et al), but to immerse herself in her subject and to understand what makes religions, and the religiously inclined, tick.

Her short "biography" provides a learned but accessible history of the Bible's origins and genesis. Armstrong goes behind the authorised versions preached by the churches to recreate the order – and the political and social circumstances – in which the books of the Old and New testaments were first written down, amended, and then endlessly reinterpreted and recast.

She writes with authority on the exaggerated claims made of late for the extra-canonical gospels, claims that underpin the Da Vinci Code industry. And she provides the best brief history of Madonna's favourite tipple, the Kabbalah, that I have ever come across.

Armstrong's great achievement, however, is that, as well as leaving you with a clearer, more historically accurate picture as to what precisely the Bible is (and isn't), she also makes you want to go back and read it again with fresh eyes.

Atlantic, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897