The Good Book and True

The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible

by Robin Lane Fox
Knopf, 478 pp., $27.50

A book entitled The Unauthorized Version obviously has an iconoclastic intent. Robin Lane Fox—a classicist, historian of the ancient world, and atheist—sets out to discover how far, and in what senses, the Bible is “true.” He shows in great detail how often it is in error, and how much of the truth it nevertheless contains is human, not divine truth. But anyone who hopes that his book will therefore be an old-fashioned exercise in free-thinking apologetics, aiming to show up the Bible as nonsense and to convict the religious establishment of propagating lies, will find The Unauthorized Version an unwelcome surprise. Lane Fox is one of the few nonreligious readers of the Bible who are thoroughly acquainted with both professional Biblical and theological scholarship—much of it, of course, produced by believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As he remarks in his acknowledgments, “Ancient historians sometimes write as if all theologians are an inferior species: I have not shared this belief”; and he correctly sees that though he writes as an atheist, “there are Christian and Jewish scholars whose versions would be far more radical than mine. They will find this historian’s view conservative, even old-fashioned.”

His version, he writes, “is unauthorized not because Jewish or Christian scholars have tried to suppress it (some of them would find it decidedly traditional), but because the Bible itself does not proclaim it.” The Unauthorized Version is, indeed, a fine example of good critical Biblical scholarship, resting on an extraordinarily wide range of learning. It is hard to think of another book by a Biblical specialist that introduces the Bible and its world so readably and handles so capably the problems of its origins, contact with historical fact, and human insight.

Lane Fox is aware that there are many kinds of truth: literary, aesthetic, metaphysical, psychological. But as a historian he is primarily concerned with historical truth, understood very straightforwardly as the question whether or not certain alleged events actually occurred. There can be much “truth” in narratives considered as “story,” and he has an excellent, though perhaps too brief, chapter (“Human Truth”) on how factually untrue stories can express insights into the human condition. “In the Bible,” he writes, “human beings bring about their own catastrophes, giving scope for a powerful explanation of error and sin,” and he discusses, for example, how “people may be trapped by the unforeseen power of words,” and “how one party may be tricked by another, especially if he is dealing with Jacob, the Artful Dodger of the biblical world.”

But narrative truth is not the same as historical truth, and it is merely muddle-headed, he cautions, to allow one to dissolve into the other. Once it has been established that an author is intending to convey “what happened,” the question arises whether or not his account is true.

The same goes for statements about the future: if a prophet foretells that a certain kingdom will be overthrown, or that a person will die for …

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