Robin Lane Fox - The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible
The book is an interesting historical exposé about the Bible by a scholar whose approach to this biblical analysis is purely historical although he does value highly prior contributions from many of the leading theologians. In his introduction he shares his passion for history whilst acknowledging a non belief in GOD, to introduce to us his stated aim to critically review the veracity or otherwise of historical evidence within the bible where the bible makes reference to events taking place - to ask the question ‘is the text historically true or credible’?
Biblical text represents a literary history of humanity; rich in inspired testimony, prophesy, story, parable, metaphor, analogy, allegory and poetic verse. Fox, as a historian contends the bible does represent a fallen history of humanity but whose truthfulness is limited to the extent the texts remain faithful within that narrow context.
The question arises as to primacy of purpose and of expectations given the texts accumulation over 700 years.
What is evident is the continual gravitation towards ‘modernity’ - that is what was modern then – to became a primacy of purpose to flow through from the nadir of the old testament to the parables of Jesus whose mystery was to the disciples as it remains today - discerned by reference to allegory. The quest for the sacred and for life meaning was what held together tentatively those unwieldy papyrus manuscripts to emerge finally into book format a thousand years later. Along the long and arduous journeys which bears witness to the richly endowed stories biblical authors borrowed from the mythical, pagan or recalibrated prior events or texts to give reasons and substance to their existence as new needs arose.
Indeed in the very first book of Genesis spanning 2 centuries from the time of King David, scholars have identified at least 4 different authors collaboratively presenting different moral, repetitive and mythical interpretative views of creation edited by the one exhibiting a priestly style. - The Liturgical Press – Collegeville Minnesota – GENISIS – Pauline A, Vivano.
Fox asserts there are the 2 conflicting contradictory creation stories – the unblemished story of creation and the other in which Adam and Eve fall from grace.
The question arises, can different interpretations and issues of style be creditable and, are contradictions no more than a matter of acceptably different views taken from a different perspective, so that both different views might reasonably be argued as capable of being right rather than to assert such differences must logically denote a falsehood.
Repetition of style
An important aspect to a scholar’s work is to painstakingly analyze different writing styles and grammatical expression to reliably link a consistent style to identify each writer, but even so the results can be problematical and changes oft remain the secrets of antiquity.
The Bible represents a kaleidoscope of genres written in the style of priestly, poetic, historic, and philosophical traditions. Hence determining the cultural context together with both genre and style is a prerequisite to unlocking the door to understanding. What is revealed is purpose, as is the case of the creation text where the 4 authors offer different perspectives of the creation stories. At first sight these different perspectives may give the appearance of contradiction as the writers attempt to introduce new themes – many of which would already be very familiar to their intended audience.
Many of the earlier books of the Old Testament depict the tribal patriarchal evolution which invokes the ideas of their transcendent GOD or GODS tied to the preceding recorded events of triumph or tragedy – slavery to freedom, or the stained blood and redemptive events that shaped nationhood in keeping with a coherent purpose. The coherency of this purpose is evident in the patriarchal tribal stories of Abraham commencing when he believed in many GODS before his conversion in belief of the one GOD- Yahweh – or at least to assert Yahweh has primacy. Solomon in his youthful wisdom presiding over a period of immense prosperity that opened up trade with the Phoenicians and brought untold wealth and prosperity to his reign- attributable to his wisdom. But in the latter chronicles of the book of KINGS he succumbs to materialism and the worship of many different GODS towards the end of his extraordinary reign. Hence the writers adapt but do not distort events that shaped them – not necessarily confined to an era or historical context, but much more to do with what actions they perceived to be faithful or unfaithful to their GOD – to breathe new life and perspective into the living texts to impart perceived wisdom for each new generation.
Walking the Bible
A remarkable measure of that ancient past journey can be gauged by reading “Walking the Bible” by Bruce Feiler.
Feiler takes you on a 10, 000 mile journey to retrace the 5 books of Moses; through the desert, 3 continents, 5 countries and 4 war zones. He crosses the Red Sea and tests the slopes of Mt Sinai, to interview Bedouin tribes people and pilgrims – to touch and feel the ancient lands and in the process spiritually experienced that same sense of awe of what must have been felt so long ago from what is the cradle for many of the world’s great religions. A measure of the faithfulness of the ancient texts is the degree to which biblical stories still define existing terrain and foliage of a living landscape whist remaining faithful to a consistent coherent purpose.
Given the extraordinary long time periods that ensued over which the texts were compiled, matters of authorship and authenticity are legitimately challenged by Fox. He poses questions over what systems guarded against the alteration or amendments to books or material regarded as sacred. Later, in relation to the gospel writers he asserts irregularities in the narrative and falsehoods in relation to the nativity scenes. These are questions that go to the root of any historical quest for Jesus and assume greater importance when we consider maters of the heart or faith as interpreted within the gospels.
The historical Jesus
Here I believe it helpful to include a reference to the rather long somber conclusion presented by Albert Schweitzer in his ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’ -
“The mistake was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves. That is not possible. First because such a Jesus never existed. Secondly because, although historical knowledge can no doubt introduce a greater clearness into an existing spiritual life, it cannot call spiritual life into existence.
History can destroy the present; it can reconcile the present with the past; to a certain extent there was a danger that we should offer them a Jesus who was too small, because we had forced Him into conformity with our human standards and human psychology. To see that, one need only read the Lives of Jesus written since the 'sixties, and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down His imperative world-contemning demands upon individuals, that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals, and might tune His denial of the world to our acceptance of it.
Many of the greatest sayings are found lying in a corner like explosive shells from which the charges have been removed. No small portion of elemental religious power needed to be drawn off from His sayings to prevent them from conflicting with our system of religious world-acceptance. We have made Jesus hold another language with our time from that which He really held.
Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but His spirit, which lies hidden in His words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct. Every saying contains in its own way the whole Jesus. The very strangeness and unconditionedness in which He stands before us makes it easier for individuals to find their own personal standpoint in regard to Him.
Modern Lives of Jesus are too general in their scope. They aim at influencing, by giving a complete impression of the life of Jesus, a whole community. But the historical Jesus, as He is depicted in the Gospels, influenced individuals by the individual word. They understood Him so far as it was necessary for them to understand, without forming any conception of His life as a whole, since this in its ultimate aims remained a mystery even for the disciples.”
The question of concern over Fox’s irregularities and biblical factual errors proffered will only be of concern to those who believe all of the Bible is inspired truth- for those of less emphatic views but needless to say acknowledge their belief in the sacred, such revelations will not be of concern- perhaps one can be fortified by the view that what was to be analyzed in the flesh so to speak would reveal its ongoing fragility.
Fox in his conclusion draws a parallel in his acknowledgment in the humanity of the Bible to become empathetic with the idea of the revelation of human truth in the frank admissions and misunderstandings of the disciples, the betrayal, in their disloyalty and in the admissions of wickedness which stains the pages of much of the earlier ancient texts.
Robin Lane Fox’s book is a thoughtful and insightful treatise into the history of religion and of belief, but his findings will be met with immediate hostility to anyone of a fundamentalist persuasion. For others his courteous disciplined scholarly approach will be welcomed but for me the continuing theme became a tad too long and highly predictable.