The Lost Art of Scripture Book Summary - The Lost Art of Scripture Book explained in key points
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The Lost Art of Scripture summary

Karen Armstrong

Rescuing the Sacred Texts

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    The Lost Art of Scripture
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    The Israelites used their experience of oppression and exile to develop the first version of the Bible.

    The story of Adam and Eve isn’t about a fruit or a snake. Nor is it about being cast out of paradise. It’s about economics. 

    Here’s why: in ancient Mesopotamia, around five thousand years ago, the agrarian economic system ruled. In this system, an elite class appropriated up to two-thirds of peasants’ crops, forcing them into serfdom. Life was incredibly hard for serfs, so they developed the Adam and Eve narrative to explain their suffering. They chalked up their sorry state to original sin rather than to ongoing economic oppression by elites.

    Two thousand years later – so, around three thousand years ago – an economic crisis in Mesopotamian city-states forced Israelite peasants into exile in the desert. There, they continued to develop their founding myths – and they did it in a way that would ultimately change the world. 

    The key message here is: The Israelites used their experience of oppression and exile to develop the first version of the Bible.

    When the Israelite peasants fled into the desert, they felt sure they would die. When they didn’t, the Israelites attributed their success – and the collapse of the city-states that had exploited them – to the just and empathetic god Yahweh. In honor of this god, they decided that their society would be just and egalitarian, too – the exact opposite of the city-states they’d fled. In founding a society based on social justice, the Israelites reversed the prevailing political order of the age. 

    But as centuries passed and the Israelites’ power grew, their society began to lose touch with its founding principles. Its political structure veered away from egalitarianism. New hierarchies were established and reinforced by formal religious education. The Israelites’ commitment to social justice began to erode.

    Finally, around 600 BCE, the king of a neighboring empire, Babylon, razed the Israelites’ kingdom to the ground, including their holy temples. What’s more, he forced them into exile, to live under his watchful eye in Babylon. In exile, the Israelites used their cultural memory of previous exile – the terrifying period in the desert during which they first started worshipping Yahweh – to resist the extinction of their culture. 

    But you need more than memory to preserve culture; you also need tools. For Israelite elites in Mesopotamia, one of the most effective tools was memorizing texts – not by reading them, but by singing, chanting, or speaking them. The most gifted students internalized religious texts so thoroughly that they could select, from the archive of their mind, the passages that worked best for the current moment, like a jazz musician improvising with standards. 

    They transformed the rituals and stories of their lost temples, such as the fall of Adam and Eve, into a new scripture. This would become the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

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    What is The Lost Art of Scripture about?

    The Lost Art of Scripture (2019) traces five thousand years of religious tradition. It examines the common purpose and motivations of all scriptural revolutions, how literal readings of scripture birthed violent movements of fundamentalism, and how we can use scripture to address the political and intellectual concerns of today.

    Who should read The Lost Art of Scripture?

    • Alternative-history buffs
    • Those who have questions about religion but are too afraid to ask
    • Anyone who loves a rollicking story

    About the Author

    Karen Armstrong is the author of dozens of books on comparative religion. A former nun who now subscribes to a more mystical version of Christianity, she has received dozens of awards and honorary degrees from institutions such as McGill University and the University of Saint Andrews.

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