Re-reading the Bible

Stephanie West

  • The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox
    Viking, 478 pp, £20.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 670 82412 7

Though the Bible continues to retain its supremacy as a best-seller (see the Guinness Book of Records for 1992), it is hard to avoid the impression that its contents are increasingly unfamiliar, and while the issues raised (or apparently raised) by the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Turin Shroud generate extensive discussion, the text which gives these objects more than a narrow specialist interest goes largely unread. No doubt this neglect is partly to be explained by the increasing secularisation of society and by the widespread replacement of divinity in the school timetable by a pick-’n’-mix survey of comparative religion. But we must also reckon with the deterrent effects of a general awareness that, one way and another, science and scholarship have shown that much of the Bible is not what it was long thought to be, that demythologisation and source criticism, archaeology and stylometrics, have produced results of which we ought to take account. From this springs a want of confidence in our capacity to read the text intelligently, while those who are readiest to offer guidance too often appear to lack objectivity. Anyone who has felt disheartened by what sometimes looks like a complacent collusion in ignoring difficulties will welcome The Unauthorised Version, which makes accessible a complex mass of modern Biblical scholarship and addresses incisively a wide range of questions which occur (or should have occurred) to any intelligent reader.

The title may suggest a Qumranic fantastication, or something like Robert Graves’s King Jesus, but Lane Fox’s purpose, though ambitious, is sober enough. He offers an ancient historian’s view of the Bible. This is ‘a book about evidence and historical truth, not about faith. It is unauthorised because it addresses questions which the Bible itself obscures: its authors, historical growth and historical truth.’ Lane Fox has already staked out an intellectual claim on New Testament ground with his much praised Pagans and Christians (1986). Though no less learned, this is a very different kind of book: it does not so much advance the frontiers of knowledge as offer intelligible and scholarly cartography of territory already won. Lucid, lively and readable, it embodies the fascination of the Bible for a professed (in his first paragraph) atheist.

To some this may sound like a gimmick; students of the Graeco-Roman world, it may be said, should leave the Bible to theologians. But the ancient Levant was not compartmentalised along the lines of university departments; Classicists cannot afford to ignore Biblical material, nor can they use it without some consideration of its date and reliability. It is not intellectually eccentric, nor does it imply a misplaced confidence in unaided human intelligence, to approach Biblical source with the same questions as we put to Classical ones.

In his programmatic opening chapter Lane Fox examines two beginnings, the stories of Creation and of the Nativity. He reminds us that the discrepancies between Genesis’s two merged Creation narratives had excited discussion long before the idea of Creation in six days came to seem untenable on scientific grounds. He well emphasises that we are not justified in supposing either story to have been traditional before it was written down; nor should we be too confident that the authors themselves believed that everything happened in the way they described. We now meet for the first time a disturbing leitmotif, the New Testament’s exegetic manipulation of the Old, in this case Jesus’s appeal to the Creation stones to support his strong stand against divorce (Mark 10.6ff): ‘From the beginning of the creation God made them male and female [= Gen. 1.27]. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh [= Gen. 2.24].’ Mark’s Jesus thus quotes from the two different accounts as if they were all of a piece, and simply assumes their relevance to his argument. Further instances of this interpretative abuse of the Creation stories are to be found in the Epistles (1 Tim. 2.12 ff., Eph. 5.31-2, Rom. 5.12-8, source of the doctrine of original sin).

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