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on 24 August 2014
This book is extremely interesting. It contains a wealth of information for anyone interested in the biblical text or that era of history. It is now a bit dated, having been written in 1991; but the main discoveries from the Dead Sea scrolls had just been published in time. It is written from an atheist perspective, but not one that is unsympathetic to Christians. The author unflinchingly gives his own judgements, but does often mention alternative viewpoints. He is particularly favourable to the gospel of John, the book of Acts and parts of Nehemiah, 2 Samuel & Kings, which he believes to be primary sources. Elsewhere he devastates the text: he kicks off by pulling apart Luke's Nativity narrative. There is great scholarship here but the author does sometimes give us some comments and views that aren't so well supported. In particular, where this work falls down is in its unquestioning acceptance of the Protestant Biblical canon. The protestant "Apocrypha" occasionally gets a look in, but is not given full justice. He also mentions the beginnings of the realisation that the Greek Septuagint preserved a separate and sometimes older tradition than the Masoretic Hebrew texts, but for a proper discussion of this, you will need to read When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible.
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on 19 May 2004
If you are expecting a populist best seller challenging the basis of Christian faith, this is the wrong book. What you will be getting instead is a very serious and considered account of the current results of historical and linguistic research into one of most important works of mankind. As a Christian or Jew you can of course expect to be challenged, but not by the ravings of an atheist with an agenda to disprove the existence of God, but instead by a new and sober perspective on the process of the creation of the bible. Divine inspiration or not, Lane Fox allows you to keep to your own council. You will however learn that many readily accepted religious truths about authorship or time of composition of certain texts are indeed the invention of later generations. You might be also surprised as to how some facts, taken commonly as gospel today, have no foundation in the bible, let alone history, but are inventions of the medieval period. Take for example the 'Three Magi' from the Adoration: Casper, Melcher and Balthasar, allegedly three kings now buried in Cologne. Nowhere in the Bible are either their number or their names specified, and nobody in the bible mentions their royalty either. Their names appeared for the first time a remarkable 1100 years later.
There are no world changing theories put forward in this book, but it is a very insightful account into the culture and history of the early tribes of Israel and the forces and events that shaped the creation of two major religions. This subject matter is fairly complex and often in need of very thorough explanations. This makes the book somewhat strenuous to read, but to do the subject proper justice it is in my opinion a necessity. The author writes however for the layman and for the interested reader the book is not too hard to follow.
Lane Fox has in my opinion approached a very controversial subject with admirable consideration and academic skill. A book that speaks academic truths without trying to offend religious faith or push a specific agenda. Sine ira et studio, one could say.
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on 12 January 2004
I like this book because it makes accessible a fascinating field of work which is very little popularised. The religious position is that the bible's plainly human authors were divinely inspired; the historical position from this book is that more worldly motives were frequently at work. This book examines the evidence for that and gives one a view of the size of the issue, in both testaments.
Lane Fox is not a biblical expert, but rather has used his expertise in the common currency of the historian, source criticism. Nonetheless he relies mainly on the work of others, and when he expresses preferences between possible variant conclusions, he (at least appears) to inform you of the alternatives.
Particularly interesting is the evidence that extensive parts of the bible have been compiled and edited from earlier by various early authors, and then later recompiled and re-edited, etc. We can infer the particular obsessions and agendas of the principal editors. The existence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, giving many variant texts, provides further evidence that old testament texts had a tendency towards revision in the light of political expediency.
The new testment is also examined. Unfortunately a clear conclusion is not available on whether the letters attributed to St Paul have a single author. It also examines whether there is more than one John (gospel vs revelations).
The book is a hard read. The problem with a genre such as this is that an author can get away with crankiness and only experts would notice. The book does not appear to be an attempt at sensationalism, nor does the author have an obvious axe to grind, but he is nonetheless aiming at the wider historical market. I have given it 4 stars because it appears that he has apparently made accessible an important area of work that others prefer to obscure. That makes it an important book on my bookshelf.
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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?
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on 12 November 2011
For many who are not religious, books on the Bible are monochromatic, aiming to convince you that the Book of Books is right and true. This book, written by a non religious writer, is conversational in tone yet authoritative, and when necessary forthright.
It is a wide ranging investigation of the Bible from the renowned historian and gardener. Part One and its dissection of the historicity of the stories of creation and birth of Jesus are clear, succinct and informative, demonstrating clearly the untenable nature of fundamentalist readings.
This is followed by wide ranging, historical and archaeological accounts of the development of the sources to their final form, as well as historical investigations of the purported major events that are recorded in the Bible.He also discusses those who focus on the story rather than the history.
Some of his judgments are contentious because they are surprisingly conservative and traditional e.g supporting the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis; the traditional view of the authorship of John; and that Acts was written by a companion of Paul. The footnotes show with whom he disagrees and why, giving any reader the opportunity to read them to make up their own mind, and so test the reliability and cogency of his arguments.
Readers will find much to agree and argue with. A great and delightful book.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 November 2011
This book is, by any standard, a sublime, but for the believers an extremely hard-hitting, analysis of the available texts of the Old and the New Testament.

The text of the Bible
For the author, `we have scriptures in plenty, but the original scripture has been lost forever. By the time of Jesus nobody read the scriptures correctly, because nobody knew what they were.'
The text of the Bible is a result of padding and reinterpretation. The Christian scriptures were `a battlefield for rewriting and textual alterations.'

The truth of the Bible
There is absolutely no coherence to support a theory of biblical truth, a correspondence with what really happened, with the facts.
A few examples. The Bible contains blatant contradictories in its story of the Creation and the Flood. The 4 Christian Gospels do not give us one single truth. Jesus' birth date and age are false. Outside the Bible, there is no evidence that Moses, David, Solomon or Joshua ever lived.

The sanctity of the Bible and its consequences
What have the prophets of the Old Testament predicted about Jesus Christ or Christianity? Nothing.
Moreover, the belief that as God's word, the scriptures never err, has been prominent in evangelical Christianity with important consequences for the uses of the scriptures in Christian missions throughout the world.

Morality
For Robin Lane Fox, `the theology of a single, jealous God, who required total love from his chosen people, had clear, earthly consequences. Yahweh ordered genocide against the unbelieving neighbors. Within Israel, those who broke the rules of behavior were to be killed by communal punishments.

Jesus Christ
The author gives a fascinating analysis of Jesus' trial, whereby he believes that the 4th Gospel by John was written by an eyewitness of what really happened. But, John's interpretation of the facts is blemished by his belief that the end of the world was near and that he soon would see his master again.

The real truth of the Bible
For the author, the Bible is not history; it is much more than literature. It is not a revelation of `truth', but a recognition of a `human truth': it is a mirror of fallen man, a record of human errors and wickedness. In the New Testament, righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ was put to death.

This book, which reads like a thriller, is a must read for all believers and heathen.
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on 4 January 2012
This is an excellent book which every devotee of the authorized Bible should read, but won't. As the Preface says, it is a historian's view of the Bible, about evidence and historical truth, not about faith. He writes as an atheist but gives a very fair, balanced treatment of the internal and external evidence that throws some light on who wrote the various parts of the Bible, when and why.

If you're interested in the origins of Abrahamic holy scriptures then this is essential reading, and the detailed notes and bibliography at the end of the book are sufficient reason to possess the book - as a source for other scholarly research in this area.

The structure is fairly diffuse so that specific texts or ideas pop up at several points in the book. A glance at the useful index shows this. Quite often he gives a published critical interpretation of some event and then says why he disagrees with it, giving his own view. There are lengthy treatments of important issues (for me): the Hilkiah scroll discovery, the first compilation of the Hebrew texts, the prophets, the Gospels, the Christian usage of the OT. Perhaps he could have spent more space on the Christian epistles. There's a very good analysis of the Nativity stories and the Trial of Jesus. He does not discuss the Resurrection apart from the differences between the accounts of the empty tomb.

The whole subject is immensely complex so the book is a quite densely-packed discussion. But if you're interested in the material it's impossible to stop turning the pages. I expect to re-read selectively many times.
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on 5 August 2013
Hmmm - I think I have a problem with RLF's writing style (I had the same issue with his Into to the Classical World) he is an erudite and well well respected academic yet this book at time wanders, repeats ideas and doesn't not always make his conclusions clear. That said there is much of interest here and he does show conclusively that the bible is a very human construction set firmly within the events & political / religious requirements of various eras. I particularly liked his exploration of the key stories of genesis and the accounts of the birth of Jesus, these are clear and informative, and make it entirely obvious that fundamentalist/literalist readings are wholly untenable.
In order to get the most from this book you need a really good knowledge of the bible - I thought mine was OK but I had to frequently check stories and references in a KJV bible so it made this comparatively slow going.
Not an easy read but good for providing evidence for refuting "the bible says...." type arguments. If you want a lighter read or a less rigorous overview then there are other books out there that may suit you better.
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on 23 January 2015
People say Charles Dickens books gives us a picture of the life and times of society during his life, like reading Sherlock Holmes stories where the goose was the Christmas bird where as today is the Turkey. Reminding you of the differences, This book is similar, which attempts to separating the fact from friction, by giving us the true history of what really happened, exposing holes and mismatch of timelines, that make the Bible more a novel rather what is sold today. There are information that is accurate along others to make the story interesting like a good novel. This book is interesting to read, the historic information within so good, that visits to the British Museum seeing the artefacts and reading their stories makes this book magical. Reading this book, would perhaps help the decrypting of the Bible for readers leading to better understanding of the spiritual side of the Bible and changing society, another justification (not for movies purposes) why archaeological activities and their finds are important so that interested Parties can use them to verify what is truth and friction.
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VINE VOICEon 6 January 2009
This is an examination of the various books that make up the Old and New Testaments from a historical perspective. At no point does it descend into polemic, and when the author is making a best-guess from the available evidence he makes this clear, and explains his reasoning. It is a series of considered judgements, with evidence, and a million miles from some of the sensationalist exposés that are often found in books about the Christian religion.

Yet through it's calmness and rational approach it provides a far more compelling argument against belief than is to be found in the recent spate of anti-religious books, such as "The God Delusion". This isn't through argument against religion, but through careful explanation of the text, the history of the text, and comparisons to evidence that we do have for the time in question. The misunderstandings, and accidents of history that led to the success of the texts that make up the Bible become breathtaking when spelt out within this book.

Note that you need a copy of the bible at hand when reading it!
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