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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 his sins, then his utterance is in principle verifiable (and falsifiable). A false prophecy may contain many kinds of “truth”; but the historian is bound to be interested in the question of historical fact. The few occasions when Lane Fox seems to lose patience with Biblical scholars are those on which they prove to be evasive about questions of historical fact. What is new in his book is in fact not the accumulation of individual historical judgments about the Bible (where he is nearly always avowedly following others) but the insistence with which he presses the question of historicity in narrative and prophecy.

This central concern shapes the book in more ways than one. It means that the weight falls on historical or potentially historical parts of the Bible: the Pentateuch; the “Deuteronomistic History” (what the Hebrew Bible calls the Former Prophets, running from the book of Joshua to the second book of Kings); the prophets insofar as they deal with contemporary events; the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles; and Revelation (because it makes specific predictions). There is less on such books as the Psalms or the Epistles of Paul—though these are not ignored altogether, and their inclusion adds to the compendious character of the work and its suitability as an introduction to the Bible for general readers.

But the historical emphasis also has consequences for the art of Biblical interpretation. Lane Fox commits the intentional fallacy at every available opportunity, giving his work a deceptively naive tone. The important questions for him are: What did the author mean? Was he right? Modern Biblical scholars have lately made use of many of the sophistications of literary criticism—sometimes because they are genuinely sophisticated in literary matters, but sometimes (I suspect) because it makes it so much easier to dodge the literal-minded questions of truth and falsehood, which are central for Lane Fox:

Original meanings and right and wrong interpretations are not standards by which other arts are widely appreciated nowadays…. Interpretation is part of the arts, so why should we worry if our interpretation is new or personal? As in art or music, why not be free in reading too: are not historians trying, like Samson’s Philistines, to tie us down? Texts, however, use words for meaning in order to communicate. A biblical text may have had several authors, all of whom are unknown, but these authors still had purposes, even cross-purposes, which guide (but do not exhaust) what they meant.

Readers will no doubt divide into those who feel like cheering these words and those who wonder where Lane Fox has been during the last twenty years when open-ended interpretations have become fashionable. Few will remain neutral. But at least we know where we stand, and can see why he can dismiss without further argument a scholar’s highly ambivalent and speculative interpretation of the book of Esther as “quite wrong.”

This, then, is a historian’s “reading” of the Bible (already an unacceptable way of putting it, from Lane Fox’s point of view). He has no use for critics and theologians who believe that the books of the Bible make up a “canon,” with each book a “coherent” text—“the book of Genesis or Isaiah as we now have it, not Genesis as a web of contradictory sources or Isaiah as a book whose second half is more than a century later than its first.” The concept of the canon, he observes, “appeals to literary critics who read the ‘Bible as literature’ and see attempts to split each book as an obstacle to understanding what they now mean.”

This type of criticism uses the canon as a sandbag against the dangers of piecemeal criticism by historians and textual scholars. As a historian, I believe that we cannot appreciate something correctly unless we try to discover what it is. Correct appreciation…is not an open frontier in which anything found is valid.

Historical questions about the origins of the Biblical books, what their authors intended by them, and whether the assertions they made were true, should not, Lane Fox argues, be evaded through an easy appeal to the text “as it is now.”

It seems to me very odd, in view of this stout defense of historical criticism, that Lane Fox remains so wedded to the Authorized (King James) Version. He justifies this on what seem suspiciously “canonical” grounds—“in English, the Authorized Version has a special place which ought, even now, to be unshakable”—and by pointing to the provisional nature of all the textual criticism that underlies modern versions, as though this meant that one reading can never be better than another. Each religious community, he thinks, should be free to use the particular form of the Bible rooted in its own culture. How this pluralist and culturally relative position is to be squared with his strict, anti-canonical historical criticism is for me one of the puzzles in the work. Especially odd is his insistence that the Hebrew and Greek scriptures may not be emended with new words, but that new meanings may be found for the existing words by comparative philology: a now outmoded fashion in Biblical studies, and one which helped to make the New English Bible so unsuccessful as a scholarly translation.

But Lane Fox’s discussions of individual historical issues are full of life and color, and bring to the texts historical skills rarely encountered in the study of the Bible—one of many reasons why Biblical specialists should read his book. In the Old Testament, the vexed question of the settlement of the Israelite tribes in the Promised Land receives especially skillful treatment, with a full and illuminating account of the place of archaeology; and the history of the Hebrew monarchy gives scope for a detailed examination of the great “Deuteronomistic” history-work, and for a survey of contemporary records in Mesopotamia. Discussing the Book of Judges with its stories of Jephthah, Gideon, and Samson, he writes:

It makes little difference whether our author inherited these traditions in a book or compiled them from popular hearsay as late as 550 BC; at best, original reminiscence had faded here into secondary oral traditions. At a distance of at least four hundred years, they may have preserved a few names of real heroes, but they have wildly invented their exploits. None the less, D [the original author] used them as if they were history and imposed a pattern, not so much by speeches as by his own connecting refrain. Again and again, we read that the people did evil, God gave them to oppressors for a specified time and then the process began again. D arranged his stories with precise lengths of time, but many of his figures are based on “forty years.” “Forty years” is the conventional number for one generation: probably, the original stories were told in terms of generations (the usual time chart for oral stories), and our author tried to convert them to numbers.

In his discussion of the New Testament, Lane Fox gives an excellent account of the historical probabilities behind the Gospels’ versions of the trial of Jesus, and (using material from Acts and Paul’s Epistles) of the growth of the early Church. In each case his concern is to distinguish between primary and secondary sources (something that Biblical scholars have not always been scrupulous about), and to discover how close the Biblical record may be to the historical facts. The following passage about the arrest of Jesus is characteristic:

Was it really the public teaching at Tabernacles, let alone the raising of Lazarus, which prompted the Jews to outlaw Jesus? It seems hard to believe that there was not more to it: a saying, at least, against the Temple and fears, perhaps, of this new kingdom which crossed the boundary between the political and the religious spheres and put at risk the Sadducees’ entire compromise with Rome. Yet these explanations are not the fourth Gospel’s [i.e., John]. If, then, it is right about the outlawing and the arrest, the absence of a Jewish trial and the date, it is not entirely reliable about the origins of the hostility and the cause of the order. Perhaps we should not be surprised: did the disciples really know what the authorities were thinking? The order for arrest was one thing, its motives another: one Gospel seems cogent in its idea of the order and arrest, the others rather more plausible on the causes of the trouble. Can we, then, credit the fourth Gospel’s framework of action and formalities, yet refuse to credit its causation and origins? Or do we have three separate portraits, not one of which is historically accurate? My inclination is to follow the fourth’s framework but reject its motivation, the one being primary, the other of the author’s shaping. Others would suspend judgment: at their climax, on either view, the Gospels do not give us one single Gospel truth.

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