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.

In Lane Fox’s classification and evaluation of the Biblical material, he follows the main tendencies of Biblical scholars today. He adheres to what is now an “old-fashioned” position, the documentary hypothesis established by Julius Wellhausen in the 1870s that the Pentateuch derives from four sources. He believes that the account of David’s court in 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1 and 2 comes from someone who lived around the time of the events related, and who had access to eyewitness reminiscences. He holds with most New Testament critics that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark and also on a second common source (conventionally called “Q”); he thinks that Acts was written by a companion of Paul, who also compiled Luke’s Gospel.

The one startling exception, as the quotation above suggests, is his treatment of John, the Fourth Gospel. Here, following Church tradition but out of step with most professional scholars, he believes that the Gospel goes back to the primary testimony of the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” and who was present at the Last Supper and at the crucifixion. This has huge consequences for our reconstruction of the last days of Jesus, since it entails the rejecting of much in the accounts of the other three (“synoptic”) evangelists. If we follow John, the foot-washing rather than the symbolic bread and wine becomes the center of the Last Supper, which is not (as it is in the other Gospels) a Passover meal. Moreover, Pilate’s conversation with Jesus is historical, not an invention, and the empty tomb is fact, whatever its explanation may be. What is more, the long speeches which the Johannine Jesus makes, mostly about himself and his mission, are more likely to represent the real teaching of Jesus than the pithy sayings in the Synoptics which scholars for generations have rated more highly.

The “priority of John” is supported by very few current new Testament scholars, though it was strongly defended by J.A.T. Robinson during the 1980s. I doubt whether many minds will be changed by Lane Fox’s defense of it. It gave me pause, but then I am an Old Testament specialist who tends to be gullible in matters concerning the New Testament. (Still, one oddity of this book for me was that I was generally more convinced by the author’s views on the Old Testament material than by his discussions of the new—contrary to the usual experience of detecting more flaws the nearer an author comes to one’s own field of specialization.)

If John is a primary source, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke secondary, then John clearly deserves more emphasis than it commonly receives in historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus. I suspect, however, that Lane Fox is sometimes a little simplistic in his account of primary and secondary sources. “John” claims to be an eyewitness, whereas the other three evangelists do not—just as the author of Acts makes the same claim by writing in the first person plural when describing some of the events in which Paul was involved. But we need to ask whether the claim is true; and even if it is, whether the eyewitness had an accurate memory and a disposition to tell the truth. While Lane Fox acknowledges all these questions in theory, I am not sure that he does them justice in practice.

A similar problem emerges in dealing with the Old Testament, where the so-called “memoir of Nehemiah” (part of the present book of Nehemiah) receives high praise as a primary source for Jewish life under the Persians, by contrast with secondary sources such as the book of Ezra, and downright fictions such as the story of Esther. The point is an important one, and correctly warns us not to look for much solid historical evidence in the books other than Nehemiah; but it should not make us lower our guard when reading Nehemiah himself. Perhaps he was too much of a self-publicist to be trusted as a witness to historical events. At any rate we should resist the feeling that we are at last on firm ground—as Lane Fox himself continually warns us, there is not much of that in the Bible. But I see that I am starting to accuse the iconoclast of excessive conservatism—just as he himself prophesied that Biblical scholars would do.

The Unauthorized Version is a work of scholarship, not of popularization; but the manner of presentation makes it more readable than many professedly popular works. Witty, allusive, and teasing, Lane Fox makes the reader feel drawn into a shared quest for the truth, rather than instructed from on high by an authority. Some readers will enjoy this fiction more than others.

In Jesus’s lifetime people clearly expected that a great figure from their past would return: Elijah, perhaps, or Moses, or even (according to Jesus, at Luke 11:31) the Queen of Sheba. [Lane Fox’s interpretation of this verse seems to me doubtful.] Suppose that King Solomon had come back instead: he would never have credited it. Here were his descendants, venerating texts which he was supposed to have written…he had never composed a word of them. One of them said that he had “uttered three thousand proverbs and his songs were a thousand and five”: it was amazing to be thought so clever. There were even people who thought that he had written the Song of Songs: it would have looked to him like a collection of straightforward love poetry (his Egyptian wife had known plenty of bits like it). Why ever had people fallen for this book of the law in which Moses seemed to speak: why had they dreamed up a covenant with God or a future life? He and his friends had managed very well without any of them. They had never believed for one moment that Moses had left a long text of laws or had entered into a pact at the insistence of Number One…. He himself had thought that a meat offering in the morning and a grain offering at night were quite enough, except in emergencies or on special occasions. Nowadays the priests burned meat twice a day, received sin offerings, guilt offerings and had pulled off a coup by insisting on their tithes, first-fruits and Temple tax.

An enormous amount of information about the development of religious ideas in ancient Israel, and about the history of its literature and practices, is packed into these few lines. Even the phrase “Number One”—meaning Yahweh, the God who increasingly demanded exclusive worship in Israel—signals something of vital historical importance: that in Solomon’s day Yahweh was primus inter pares, not the single transcendent God of later Judeo-Christian monotheism.

Elsewhere points are argued in a more conventional way, but the easygoing yet precisely weighted style persists. The real dialogue, as in any academic book, is of course not with the reader but with other scholars. Perhaps too much of it is conducted in the endnotes, too little in the text, where mere assertions abound. Even in the notes, dissenting voices are scrupulously and helpfully cited, but dismissed rather than evaluated: “I dissent from”; “is extremely perceptive though wrong, I believe”; “a major statement of a case which is not convincing”; etc. I find such self-confidence attractive—and honest, which the more deferential and mealy-mouthed comments of conventional scholars sometimes are not. But it highlights a problem: a work that covers so enormous a field as this (in principle, the entire Bible and virtually every critical question that can be asked about it) needs to be much longer if it is really to argue its case rather than merely assert it. Yet at 478 pages it already strains the endurance of its intended readers, who are presumably not students of the Bible.

Yet even if Lane Fox’s comments on the secondary literature he cites cannot under the circumstances avoid being gnomic at times, his choice of what to cite is masterly. Wherever I knew something about the topic being discussed, I found that he had hit unerringly on the classic books, monographs, and articles, and I came to believe (or he talked me into believing) that he is a reliable guide to the literature in fields where my knowledge is deficient. From one point of view, the book can be seen as an enormous bibliographie raisonnée of Biblical studies.

But this leads me to a serious criticism: not only is there no alphabetical bibliography, but in many cases even the titles of articles are not given, only names of journals with years and page numbers; worse still, titles of journals often appear in abbreviated form, but there is no list of abbreviations. Perhaps an editor is to blame, but the author should have complained; or perhaps the author himself wanted an informal style, to match the informality of the main text. But text and notes have different requirements, and the reader is ill-served by the latter. Sometimes one cannot trace the origin of a quotation in the text. There are no superscripts for notes: the text is uncluttered (which in itself is pleasant), and the notes begin with a short phrase to help the reader identify the place to which they refer. But some quotations have no corresponding note at all. For a scholarly work this is a hopelessly ramshackle system. Combined with the brevity and allusiveness of the notes, and the already mentioned tendency to ex cathedra pronouncements, it results in some notes that are virtually meaningless—for example:

David and Goliath: I quote from R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), ch. 7, esp. 147–54, who is refuted by E. Tov, in D. Barthélemy, D.W. Gooding. J. Lust, E. Tov, The Story of David and Goliath (1986), 19–47, 129–38, an unnecessarily tentative research project as Gooding’s “defence” is the misplaced defence of a Homeric scholar (contrast my ch. 5 pp. 105–6), and Barthélemy begins with a prejudice against Tov’s correct position.

One could get lost in this note for days. Last of all, there are many misprints in the notes (very few in the text).

In matters of substance Lane Fox has made his case, a case that has both a negative and a positive side. The Bible does indeed contain much fiction, much error, much inaccuracy. It also contains, or shows that there once existed, ideas about God, the human race, history, and the future which do not correspond to what Jews or Christians now believe; and some of them ought not to be believed by any civilized or humane person.

Such a string of negatives will be highly controversial for many practicing Jews and Christians, but not controversial (though seldom stated so bluntly) among most Biblical scholars; and Lane Fox recognizes this, for he knows his way around the world of Biblical scholarship to an astounding degree. Like him, however, most Biblical scholars would say that this is far from being the last word on the subject of “truth” in the Bible, for there are many other kinds of truth than historical truth, as I have suggested at the beginning of this review. Eventually, when these other truths begin to be specified, he parts company with many of us, for he will never allow that any of the truths of the Bible are divine, whereas most Biblical specialists are still believers of some kind or other. But in my judgment there is a long journey before the necessary parting of the ways; for he shows himself sensitive to many of the truths about human nature, and about what it is to be caught up in the ambiguities and compromises of the human world, that theology also needs to understand before it can approach the knowledge of God.

Above all Lane Fox understands, as very few other historians do, how the study of the Bible can fascinate and absorb those who by no means regard it as an infallible oracle. He asks that the reader approach the Biblical text (or any other text) without a prior commitment to its truth or falsehood and, reading what the text actually says, form a considered judgment about whether it is, in fact, true or false. Interpretative devices that will force the text to yield acceptable meanings are to be eschewed; so is an interpretative free-for-all in which the text means something different to every reader. Such are (or used to be) the underlying principles of Biblical criticism. It is fashionable now to call such an approach naive, its claims to neutrality a sham. But The Unauthorized Version shows that it can be practiced, as has always been claimed, by an atheist just as well as by a believer. Perhaps only when it is an atheist who practices it can ordinary readers feel its inherent challenge to received religious opinions, and come to see why those who have once asked historical questions about the Bible can never again rest content with the idea of theology as a body of knowledge delivered by ecclesiastical authority. Lane Fox has written a marvelously lucid and invigorating book, which will encourage believers to test religious teachings against historical data, and nonbelievers to think the Bible worthy of historical study.

This Issue

April 22, 1993