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Scholarly but not Authoritative
on 3 June 2015
Lane Fox appears to have two aims in writing this book: firstly, to cast doubt on practically all the historical material in the Bible, secondly, to persuade his readers that the Bible, in the King James (Authorised) Version, is worth reading for its human stories.
On the second aim, I thought he was uninspiring and even banal. As to the first aim, Lane Fox is a self-confessed atheist, so one would expect him to reject any account containing supernatural or miraculous elements. However, his stance would be more convincing if he first explained why he is an atheist.
Who is the book aimed at? A Penguin book might be expected to be `popular' but Lane Fox expects his readers to have a good deal of background knowledge. For example he says that the Hebrew Scriptures have 22 books. A glance at the `Contents' page of a Bible shows 39 books in the Old Testament. Lane Fox does not tell us where the extra 17 books have come from. (In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures count the 12 Minor Prophets as one book; also I and II Samuel are one book, as are I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles and Ezra/Nehemiah. That reduces the 39 books to 24.)
The text is extensively referenced, so this is an `academic' book - but the system of references is not one normally found in academic works. Rather than numbered footnotes for each reference, the notes are given by page numbers, making it difficult to work out which sentence each reference applies to. Most of the references could not be checked by a reader with no access to a university library but I found it necessary to have a Bible to hand while reading.
As a historian, Lane Fox is sometimes properly cautious in drawing conclusions from the available evidence but sometimes he is far more certain of himself than the evidence warrants. Oddly enough, he is less sure of the Gospels (where the evidence is strongest) than he is of the Old Testament (where the evidence is weakest). For example he is very sure that he knows exactly how King Solomon would have reacted to Herod's temple (p 114/5)
A great deal of the book is about how and when the books of the Bible came to be written, and who contributed to them. In spite of all the efforts of Biblical scholars, in the end these are best guesses. We cannot be so sure as Lane Fox thinks we can.
The author's use of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible sometimes leads to problems. For example, at I Timothy 3:16, he says (p 140) "most Bibles tell us `God was manifest in the flesh', but the earlier and better text says `he' not `God'". I checked the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the Good News Bible and the New English Bible - they all say `he'. What are these "most Bibles"? Is Lane Fox unaware that `most' Bibles have footnotes indicating where variant readings occur? Again (p 142/3) he says that "At John 8:1-11... In our Bibles nowadays, we read Jesus' moving defence of the adulterous woman..." But all Bibles nowadays tell us that this story is not in the earliest manuscripts and some relegate these verses to a footnote. On p 157 Lane Fox gives his opinion that: "In English, the Authorized Version has a special place which ought, even now, to be unshakeable." Well, certainly as a piece of English literature I agree; but anyone wanting to study the Bible to find out what it says would surely go to a modern translation. The problem is that, as an atheist, Lane Fox is not actually interested in the Bible as something from which anything valuable might be learned.
"A small core of what Jesus actually said has probably survived the chain of reminiscence" says Lane Fox of the three synoptic gospels (p 204). Jesus spent a year (perhaps three years) going around the villages of Galilee teaching; presumably giving the same teaching (although with variations) in each village. Surely the disciples, having heard Jesus speaking again and again, would have been able to memorise what he said and pass it on accurately. They lived, after all, in an oral culture where teachers expected their students to memorise their lessons. I suppose that we should be grateful that Lane Fox believes that the fourth gospel rests on an excellent primary source (p 205). Nevertheless, John's gospel contains stories of miracles, not least the resurrection. Can we take it that these are reliable eyewitness accounts of historical events?
Of Jesus' twelve disciples Lane Fox says, "...characteristically, we do not know who the Twelve were, because their names differ in the various lists." (p 286) This is incorrect. Matthew (10:24) has exactly the same list as Mark (3:16-19). Luke (6:14-16) differs in one name: Judas son of James instead of Thaddaeus (Luke repeats his list in Acts 1:13, omitting only the traitor, Judas Iscariot). It is quite likely that Judas son of James is Thaddaeus (as today, many people had more than one name) and it was certainly important to distinguish him from Judas the traitor. John is aware of the Twelve (6:70, 20:24) but does not list them. However he correctly names, in different places, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Judas (not Iscariot) and mentions but does not name the sons of Zebedee (James and John). John also mentions a Nathanael twice (1:45-51 and 21: 2) but never says that he was one of the Twelve. We thus have a secure list of eleven names with only the twelfth being doubtful.
On the parables of Jesus, Lane Fox says (p 383) that Mark's parables are set in the little world of the village, Matthew moves among millionaires and Luke's parables have names in them. From the Notes, he is relying on "Parables" by M D Goulder for this section.
Now many of Jesus' parables are metaphors and these can indeed be said to come from village life. But Mark also has a parable (the Tenants, 12:1-8) which is about a wealthy landowner investing in and developing a vineyard which he then lets out. Matthew indeed has a number of parables involving wealthy men (the wealthy merchant buying pearls, the Unmerciful Servant, the Workers in the Vineyard, the Tenants as in Mark, the Wedding Banquet and the Talents). But Luke also has these parables or similar ones (the Rich Fool, the Great Banquet, the Shrewd Manager, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Ten Minas, the Tenants). It cannot be said that Matthew "moves among millionaires" as if Luke did not. Also, of some fourteen parables in Luke, only one, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has names (and the rich man is not named although a third character, Abraham, is). So it cannot be said that it is characteristic of Luke that his parables have names. It is also worth pointing out that of eight parables that appear only in Luke, four of them are clearly Jewish (the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) indicating that they do go back to Jesus.
Lane Fox has, it appears, relied on his source, Goulder, without bothering to check for himself.
In addition to these fairly major issues, a number of minor points and problems crop up, of which the following are some examples:
Lane Fox is keen on the word "contradiction"; when "discrepancy" would be fairer. He claims that the Old Testament Law contains contradictions (pp 86 and 115). Perhaps they do but he does not give even one example. In discussing the accounts of Jesus' trial in the Gospels, he says they contradict each other. One example is "In sharp contrast to the other Gospels' stories, the fourth Gospel leaves the Jewish contingent to wait outside Pilate's residence while Pilate questions Jesus inside..." (p 298) In fact the other Gospels do not say anything about where the chief priests were and where Jesus was so there is no "sharp contrast" - this is merely an unjustified claim from silence. In any case the crowd who appeared (Mark 15:8 and Matthew 27:17) must have been in the open air and so must the priests have been when they stirred up the crowd.
On p 133 Lane Fox says that Peter "had a Greek second name (Cephas)" Does he not know that Peter comes from the Greek and translates Cephas, which is Aramaic? Peter's original Jewish name was Simon.
It seems to me to be a very insignificant point that the author makes on p 140/1 about the original text on the "lilies of the field" (Matthew 6:28). After all, Jesus may have used the simile many times with slightly different wording but drawing the same lesson. Lane Fox decries the attempts by scholars to determine exactly what the Evangelists wrote (p 156) "The very aim... is misleading and unrealistic." But M D Roberts ("Can We Trust the Gospels?") has a chapter explaining why Bible scholars can "represent, with a very high degree of probability, what the autographs of the Gospels originally contained." (p 37)
Lane Fox says (p 297) that during Jesus' trial, Luke has Pilate refer Jesus to Herod Antipas because this fits Psalm 2:2 `The kings of the earth stood up...against his anointed.' However Luke knows (3:1) that this Herod was not a king - his official title was `tetrarch'.
Acts 10:1 begins the story of Cornelius, a centurion `of the Italic band' (AV) or `in what was known as the Italian Regiment' (NIV) and who was a `God-fearer'. On p 305 Lane Fox refers to an inscription from Aphrodisias which supports the view that Cornelius was a Gentile sympathizer. Unfortunately, he neither quotes from the inscription nor tells us which of the 1,500 inscriptions found at Aphrodisias he is referring to. This is not helpful. He also says the `Italic' band is now a soluble problem. But what was the problem? There were at least two `Italian cohorts', one of which is known from a tombstone to have been in the Middle East. The `Italian' indicates that these cohorts were recruited in Italy from Roman citizens, like the Legions but unlike all other cohorts which were recruited from non-citizens. Either the unit was stationed in Caesarea or Cornelius was detached from his cohort on some administrative duty, as centurions often were.
"...the Jewish faith is not dependent on whether its contents happened or not." So says Lane Fox on p 360. But surely the Jewish faith does require that Abraham was a real person and the Exodus was a real event. Indeed on p 363 Lane Fox says that the Jews believed the Exodus. If he had found these two statements in the Bible, he would say they contradicted each other.
"...a pattern of marriage between close kin lies behind our story of Ruth" (p 366). This is wrong. Ruth and Boaz were not close kin - Boaz was an Israelite; Ruth was a Moabite. Ruth's husband who died was a relative of Boaz and so Boaz was expected to marry the dead man's widow and raise children who would be regarded as heirs to the dead man. This is the custom of `levirate marriage'. Surely Lane Fox cannot be making such an elementary mistake!
The above points are simply those that I came across as I read and can be checked by anyone with a Bible, a Commentary and perhaps some background reading. If Lane Fox makes mistakes and misleading statements which are so easy to recognise, how can we trust him when he is writing about matters which cannot be checked by an ordinary reader without access to a university library?