Wednesday, November 11

Truth and Fiction in the Bible

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.


Seraphine said...

all truth is inspired by the one telling (or retelling) the tale.
i'm not a biblical scholar. neither have i been able to read the bible from beginning to end (it has some slow spots). but i know most of the important stories and parables.
even though it is a written history of mankind, i never interpreted, even as a child, the bible as being literal.

Anonymous said...

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.

I don't think so. The two stories in Genesis were merged out of political need - not out of factual truth.

I think it could also be argued that Abraham's God was not YHWH, it was Elohim (as Buber put it - a God cloud). It wasn't about belief in one God for Abraham or any of the early Jews - but as you say simply that one God had supremacy. (monolatry not monotheism) And in the beginning, the different tribes did not hold the same God's as supreme - they were merged in 500 B.C. - thus the two creation stories.

Feiler has an amazing DVD to go along with his book, Walking the Bible. Have you seen it? I think you would greatly enjoy it! It's beautiful and provides a very interesting perspective.

I fully agree with the quote you offer from Schweitzer. The historicity of Jesus is only important insofar as it offers an unlearning to the boundaries that were placed around him by modern Christian upbringing. Beyond that, they serve no purpose but to place further bounds based upon the limits of the modern mind. I suppose it's a sort of paradox. It is sometimes necessary to go through an unlearning process and the best means for that is to be presented with fresh information. But go too far with that information and you'll have to go through the entire unlearning process again in no time - just from a different point. :)

Cartledge said...

Surely the problems of the bible reflect the inbuilt arrogance of the Judeo/Christian tradition; an arrogance Christ’s teachings sought to counter. Judaism is clearly an amalgam of religious traditions roughly crafted into a power structure. Christianity, in practice, appears to dismiss the clear teachings of Jesus, again in favour of a power structure.
Surely we need look no further than the current plethora of ‘one true’ churches, in both Judaism and Christianity. Jesus Christ did not mandate a new church to be formed, he illuminated a simple set of rules in an attempt to put religious belief on the right path. Religious structures distort those simple truths to their own ends, and have probably done so from the first inklings of spirituality. The contradictions go well beyond those evidenced in the Bible, they are alive today throughout our diverse range of religious groups. Perhaps a simple message is just too complex for mere mortals.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Sera, Laura & Cart

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

Sera - it seems to me also, the telling or retelling of stories will account for non literal truth about how those ancients viewed varying interpretations and perspectives over long time periods.

The Bible needs to be read in conjunction with different commentaries to breathe life into the somewhat heavier sections .which were well known for audiences at the time but not so much for us today.


Thanks for stoping by to include your thoughtful comments.

However I’m not aware of the background about the 2 stories in Genesis merging out of political need - not out of factual truth. You may like to provide some more background for me which would be of interest.

From what I understand the Genesis texts frequently contain continuing differences or inconsistencies about events quite apart from those evident in the 2 creation stories. This indicates authors/editors were not only less concerned about differences, but indeed saw their truth in the context of the genre and perspective of different times.

The first much older creation story has been attributed in many scholastic schools as arising from the region of Mesopotamia or specifically from the ancient Babylonian creation myths which were handed down from tribe to tribe before taking root in the biblical cosmos version of a creation story. The second priestly structured story depicts an understanding of the interaction. to humanity. Hence the authors denote a style of Yahweh or of the Elohimist - the latter serving as I understand it to denote a generic term for God or the Gods of the Bible. Hence my understanding is that the earlier version representing symbolic visions of the cosmos in creation and the second is that of humanity.

I would certainly like to view Feiler’s DVD which sounds amazing. Glad to see you liked the extract from Albert Schweitzer’s “Quest for the Historical Jesus”.


I am sure Christ was acutely aware of the scriptures and the laborious ways in which they were interpreted, but his radical but straightforward message was ahead of his time and to some extent it remains so to day. The parables can only be understood by allegory.

Bes wishes

Anonymous said...

Lindsay - how there came to be two creation stories in Genesis is based on politics. (Neither were ever factual truth - not sure what you mean by this.)

First in Genesis is El - Ancient High God of the Canaanite (pre-Babylonia - or at least pre-neo Babylonia) and possibly Israelite tribes of Sumeria. (God of Abraham and the northern tribes - plural divinity without individuation).

Yahweh - 2nd god from Negev desert (Jehovah). Warrior God, God of Hosts. God of Judah. (single god).

Yahweh-Elohim - 3rd god. The political merger of tribes of Judah and northern tribes - beginning of monotheism which resulted in the salvation of Judaism. Genius political move on the part of the Levitical priests.

The Levitical priests had returned from Babylon to discover that the Jews were back to their pagan exploits. They create a third god which says - "You shall have no other God before me (Exodus).

The monothesitic, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God is born and is the only theistic god in all of world mythology to make such a claim. And the Jews would have likely died off if this god had not been created.

Seraphine said...

its hard to separate contemporary history from a good story. the same could be said of shakespeare- many of the references he uses in his writing were contemporary but are now forgotten to all but the most studious scholars. but that doesn't detract from the timeless truth of his plays and sonnets.
shakespeare-- and the bible-- is as relevent today as when it was written.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Laura -Thanks for returning with all of the added interesting information. I think the 4 different styles of writing so closely interwoven in the Genesis narrative make any reliable historical perspective very difficult.

Some scholars think the post Babylonian exile period marked the time when redacted texts were made scared so that thereafter scribes and sages became the future Jewish leaders to supplant the previous tribal system.

Best wishes

Richard said...

Questions over the cononicity of sacred scriptures is very old (I don't mean the in-fighting over which texts were legitimate or not), but simply "are they at all accurate".

For at least the past 20 years or so, I have had to dismiss with the notion of sacred scriptures as being Divinely authored (unless I wanted a lobotomy). I regard the Bible not as "God's Love Letter to You" (ugh, I hate that because it is so untrue), but rather I see the sacred scriptures as a record of the Jewish experience of God. They took their experiences and tried to make sense of them in terms of their relationship with Yahweh.

Ptolemeaus (a Valentinian Gnostic) in his letter to Flora (some 1800-1900 years ago) gives a very good argument on the three sources of The Law: (1) God, (2) Moses, and (3) other leaders and elders.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Richard

Thanks for dropping by and adding your thoughtful comments and the reference.

Albert Schweitzer contended in modernity we try to make Jesus in our own image and likeness.

Best wishes

Richard said...

I think Albert Schweitzer is a little wrong, I think each generation fashions God in their own image; adapting and didtorting to fit their own views and ambitions.

I think the trick is to first determine Who / What God is. For Jews, God is a thing a deity with whom they have an exclusive covenent. It is God the Creator. Jesus reveals to us a personal God - God the Father.

Aside from these revelations, we also have our senses and reason (which God gave us) and we should use them. I refuse to confine God to a few pages between two covers. I believe our understanding of God continues to grow. I don't believe God disappeared from our lives 2000 years ago.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Richard – your opening remark to me almost mirrors what Schweitzer has said, and I wonder why you’re arguing your other points with me – except for the fact I do think in a literal sense starting off with the concept of trying to determine who God is can be like trying to pin a map on a sunset.

I’m not sure if your read much on Schweitzer whose main works are now freely available on the web and who I think is well worth considering. Schweitzer was unusual in that his philosophy was underpinned both by his early academic life when he securing doctorates in theology and philosophy to be head of theological college but also later on as a African doctor. When he finally left for Africa after completing his medical exams he was prepared to make 3 sacrifices.-to lose financial independence by becoming reliant on donations from friends to support the mission station hospital, to discontinue his burgeoning career as a concert artist and to renounce academic lecturing.
However just as Abraham was spared his sacrifice Schweitzer to his great joy found himself in the same position. The Paris Bach Society donated a piano with organ pedals specially adapted to the tropics. He was able to return (between long intervals in Africa) to Europe as an esteemed professional as his performances continued to grow in popularity. He was only totally reliant on the financial help of others for a short period as his publications and acclaimed recitals soon made him financially independent. He was also highly acclaimed and sought after as a Lecturer in Europe and in the leading universities in the USA. His enduring legacy of thought is contained within his writings on “Reverence for Life”

Best wishes