on 6 July 2005
The first time I picked up Robin Lane Fox's 'The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible', I was intrigued. While this was hardly the first time I had heard the historical information of the bible questioned in terms of accuracy or even plausibility, it was I believe the first time I had ever heard the word fiction applied in a serious way (the title, no less!) to consideration of the bible.
First, a note on the author. Robin Lane Fox is a fellow of New College, Oxford, and a University Lecturer in Ancient History. Among other popular and scholarly works he has produced are 'Alexander the Great' (a respected history) and `Pagans and Christians' (an interesting exploration of the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity). Robin Lane Fox explains in the preface to 'The Unauthorised Version' that this is an historian's view, not an exposition written from the standpoint of faith.
Robin Lane Fox is often discounted, particularly by Christians, because he purposely writes for Christian-dominated audiences, but does so from the stated standpoint of being an atheist. He does make a few historical errors in his framework -- he would say they are matters of interpretation, but I dispute that. For instance, he claims that his address to Christians rather than Jewish readers is because the Bible is a Christian creation. He discounts the Jewish influence in formation of the canon (both the positive and negative aspects related to that, yet another double-edged scenario in history). He reads the biblical texts as he would any other ancient narrative -- this is perhaps what he considers objective. However, I would submit that to write as an atheist is already to import certain judgements into the scheme of analysis and interpretation, rather like those early Enlightenment scientists and philosophers who assumed the aura of objectivity but then discounted the value of thing that didn't fit the framework of their approach.
Robin Lane Fox discounts the idea of getting beyond the translations of texts back to original documents for closer understanding. Almost in an ironic position, Lane Fox argues for the 'standard' versions over the scholarly reconstructions primarily because of the level of influence and acceptance they have gained through recitation, spiritual development, and liturgical use. This reminds me of Luke Timothy Johnson's arguments against the quest for the historical Jesus, although this is a parallel Johnson would perhaps not appreciate.
Robin Lane Fox concludes, after going through historical and literary analyses of many stories and principles in the text, that the scriptures are not unerring, and most likely only one view or voice among many (a curious claim, considering that he also speaks of the biblical text having too many voices, not just one).
I enjoyed this book. It challenges much of my faith and belief, not only religiously, but also historically and philosophically. That, I contend, is its primary value. While I certainly don't discount the need for reading spiritual texts for edification, I worry about those who exclude all but that kind of literary. Is a faith that is never challenged truly faithful? Is a faith that cannot stand up against the arguments of Lane Fox a worthwhile faith? Is the faith that cannot admit when, as much as one might not want to say so, Lane Fox has made some good points, truly a strong faith?
One of the problems with texts like these (and, ironically, their opposites) is that people rarely read enough or think enough to pull in the variety of interpretations and materials they need for sound judgement -- this is as true among those who wander the halls of seminary as it is among those outside, both in and out of the church. We naturally gravitate toward those things that are comfortable, and avoid those things which are difficult. For many, Lane Fox is discounted because of his beliefs (and yes, atheism is a belief, not merely the absence of belief). Others discount him because they 'already know his viewpoint or framework'. This, of course, is arrogance, even though it usually has a subtle cast to it (and I am guilty of this often myself).
I recommend this book. Do not look for truth of a religious sort here, but rather look for a text that will prompt thinking, both subtle and direct. Some things of value include an examination of the lack of triviality in the biblical text -- there is only one accidental death in the whole bible, and that is also to prove a point (indeed, the word 'accident' does not occur anywhere in the Bible, the King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version). The whole text is devoid of anything that does not matter, that does not have a purpose. How many readers have that kind of attention and faith to detail?
Lane Fox ends with an evaluation of the 'answer' to Pilate's question. He states (accurately) that the disciples are presented in all the gospels as often fallible and ignorant. They argue among themselves over trivial matters, and fail to understand the importance of what is happening. They also loose faith -- they fall asleep, they run away. No other religion has texts with such a human foil to its story.'