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).

More disquieting than the inconsistencies of Genesis’s opening chapters are the problems surrounding the familiar poll-tax registration setting of the first Christmas. Mark and John tell us nothing about Jesus’s birth; Matthew sets it in the reign of Herod the Great, to which Luke assigns the Annunciation. Luke’s specificity regarding the circumstances of the Nativity inspires confidence (2.1-5): ‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’ (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria). ‘And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’ – because he was of the house and lineage of David – ‘to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.’ The precise detail, it is often said, conveys that concern with accuracy which we look for in a medical man (cf. Coloss. 4.14. ‘Luke, the beloved physician’). Our confidence, however, is misplaced: no satisfactory answer has been found to the objections marshalled against this passage more than a century ago by Emil Schürer in his magisterial history of the Jewish people in the intertestamentary period. Herod had died some ten years before Quirinius (Cyrenius) became governor of Syria in AD 6, when Judaea passed from rule by Herod’s family to direct rule by Rome, and a local (not an empire-wide) census was required to assess the province’s taxation. But, to make matters worse, Joseph, as a native of Nazareth in Galilee, would not, in AD 6 have been liable to a Roman census or taxation, since Galilee was still under an independent ruler; in any case, ‘his own city’, so far as the Roman administration was concerned, was Nazareth, his place of ordinary residence, not Bethlehem. Luke’s confident precision as to the date and circumstances of the nativity thus appears to be wholly misleading.

The idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem appears to derive from the prophecy of Micah (5.2) cited in Matthew (2,6): ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel’; Bethlehem, the city of David, seemed an appropriate birthplace for a future Messiah (cf. John 7.42). Speculation as to the sequence of events which might have brought Jesus’s parents there passed into received tradition.

Prophecy too, Lane Fox argues, has contributed substantially to the star which guided the Magi: compare the prophecy of the Moabite seer Balaam (Numbers 24.17), ‘there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel,’ the text with which the great Rabbi Akiba in the 130s acclaimed the rebel leader Simon bar Kokhba (Son of the Star) as the King Messiah. Here it is good to see no encouragement given to attempts to link this celestial guidance with some astronomical reality (whether in the form of a comet, a nova or a planetary conjunction), a recurrent form of rationalisation which leaves two-thirds of the story unexplained. (I had hoped Lane Fox might have been attracted by a Classical precedent: according to the learned Roman antiquarian Varro, writing in the first century BC, Aeneas was guided in his journey from Troy to Latium by his mother’s star, Venus; the idea might be expected to hold a powerful appeal to those for whom the Daystar had its own, very different symbolic force (Revelation 22.16, cf. 2.28,2, Peter 1.19). Early Christian tradition was, it seems, very vague about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth (which there is of course no reason to associate with the winter solstice) and invention filled the vacuum.

After thus setting the scene by demonstrating his approach in relation to some of the most familiar parts of the Bible, Lane Fox outlines the origins of its constituents and the (surprisingly haphazard) evolution of the canon of Scripture. I feel some unease with the earlier Old Testament chapters: we are taken over difficult and, to most of us, unfamiliar terrain at a pace so headlong as to suggest a fear that we should be embogged in a quagmire of controversy and speculation if there were any slowing-down before the Exile. Of course, in general the very helpful endnotes indicate the means to pursue further what is here treated rather summarily. But no such support appears to be offered for the rather offhand statement that in Hosea’s time ‘very few Israelites could read.’ Yet the transmission of Hosea’s prophecy implies recognition of the value of a written record, and immediately raises questions about the diffusion of literacy and the eventual growth of a reading public. Were the Old Testament writings largely composed to be heard by an audience, rather than perused by a reflective reader in private?

Scripture enjoyed no special immunity from the chances and changes to which literature was naturally exposed before the invention of printing. The Qumran finds have revealed an unsuspected degree of textual diversity in the Old Testament, suggesting a surprisingly carefree approach to the wording of Scripture (and often justifying what previously had been judged to be inaccuracy on the part of the Greek translators). Conventions of authorial anonymity brought their own hazards; multiple authorship, secondary redaction, and pseudepigraphy repeatedly complicate the attempt to set what we read in its proper historical context. Surveying the body of texts central to Jewish religious life in Jesus’s lifetime, Lane Fox sees ‘a fabulous jungle of story, interpretation and prediction’. The topography of that jungle, some of it no older than the second century BC, is not well established. It is not clear what writings besides the books of the law Jesus would have regarded as authoritative, but his citation of a passage not to be found in our Old Testament as if it were Scripture is disconcerting (John 7.37-40): ‘In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water ... Many of the people, therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth, this is the Prophet.’

We are on solider ground with the evolution of the New Testament, a shorter process and set in an age when there existed a reading public with an intelligent interest in authenticity and verbal accuracy; our manuscripts, moreover, go back much nearer to the time of composition. But there are some major worries. Jesus’s defence of the woman taken in adultery, normally printed as John 8.1-11, is absent from some early manuscripts and not invariably set at this point in those which include it; it must be a later addition. Even more disturbing are the strange problems raised by the ending of Mark. Our best and earliest MSS end at 16.8: ‘And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.’ Style and content alike indicate that 9-20 are an addition by a later writer; some MSS, in fact, give different conclusions. Mark thus offers nothing about Jesus’s appearances after the resurrection. Lane Fox finds this ending impossibly abrupt, and favours the view at the original ending was accidentally lost ‘from a very early copy, perhaps the author’s own text’. (But on this hypothesis there is surely no alternative to an accident to the original.) Yet many works of ancient literature have endings so lacking in closural effect as to suggest either that the author left open the possibility of a continuation or that the work is unfinished or has lost its conclusion; Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Lucretius, and Virgil’s Aeneid could be cited. Kings comes to a very abrupt ending; Jonah and Acts would be easily extensible. Modern readers take too much for granted the well-finished ending.

Having thus alerted us to the dangers of interpretation based on an uncritical confidence in the redactional and ‘canonising’ processes, Lane Fox turns to historiographical questions. The anonymity of Old Testament narrative creates an impression of authority and objectivity which we must be prepared to question: but we are left to infer from internal evidence, as best we can, the writers’ dates and circumstances, their sources and methods of enquiry. Comparison with Herodotus, who was certainly not averse to tracing the operation of divine forces in history, proves variously instructive. With the New Testament, again, the situation improves. It is reassuring to find that Lane Fox argues for the ‘beloved disciple’ as the author of the Fourth Gospel and for Paul’s travelling companion as the author of Acts. An entertaining survey of excavation in Biblical lands provides some memorable examples of wishful thinking – of over-optimistic ideas of what archaeology could establish without the support of written material. Excavation gives a clearer context to the Biblical story, but there is less direct contact than tends generally to be supposed, and the most solid results achieved by archaeology are negative. Extra-Biblical sources relevant to Old Testament history may usefully amplify the Biblical account. The historical value of the Gospels is considered in a detailed examination of Jesus’s trial. We have some external evidence, Jewish, Greek and Roman, bearing on points of procedure and jurisdiction, but it provides no labour-saving solution to the problem of whether the Gospels exaggerate the degree of Jewish responsibility for Jesus’s death. It is discouraging to find that the Gospels disagree on a most basic point, the day on which the trial and crucifixion took place: the Synoptic Gospels set the Last Supper on the day of Passover, whereas the Fourth Gospel puts it on the preceding day. Lane Fox says we should follow the latter’s framework of action but reject its account of motivation.

A perceptive and stimulating survey of prophecy in the Old Testament (with particular attention to Jonah and Daniel) leads naturally to its significance in the New. ‘This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears’ (Luke 4.21): Jesus’s claim on Isaiah (61.1-2) exemplifies a phenomenon which we, who do not believe in the possibility of forecasting specific events many centuries ahead, may easily underestimate. We are repeatedly told that Jesus fulfilled what was predicted of the Messiah; not only Jews but also Gentiles are impressed by this correspondence. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts, 8.26ff.) exemplifies how converts could thus be won: exposition of (Deutero-)Isalah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant (53.1ff.) in terms of Jesus’s mission leads directly to a request for baptism. We, however, must find it impossible to believe that the sixth-century writer had any such reference in mind. (Of course, if it is suggested that a prophet may speak more truly than he knows, the floodgates open, and Plato, Virgil and the author of the Prometheus Vinctus may be held to have foretold the coming of Christ.) This persistent misinterpretation of Scripture has undoubtedly affected the Gospels’ presentation of events; on occasion indeed (as with the Nativity at Bethlehem) events were created to fit the texts adduced to predict them. A sympathetic account of the Apocalypse, emphasising both its links with earlier prophecy and its relevance to the reign of Domitian, concludes this section.

It is hard to see how anyone could do more than Lane Fox to demonstrate the intrinsic interest of the Bible as a whole, but he is shrewd enough to anticipate a somewhat chilly reaction to his methods:

One response to these conclusions ... is to ask, ‘so what?’ It implies that historians’ findings are all old hat, the results of a pedantry which was popular a hundred years ago but which has no surprises for modern readers. The problems in Luke’s Nativity story or Mark’s trial of Jesus are not exactly new. The groundwork was laid by scholars in the 19th century, and, despite it, the Bible is alive and well.

He is surely right to stress the usefulness of restating the arguments; the non-specialist should welcome reassurance that these findings have indeed stood the test of time. In any case, it is unrealistic to suppose that these issues are widely familiar. I do not have the impression that undergraduate Classicists, many of whom are regular churchgoers and come from schools established on a religious foundation, are generally familiar with the difference between Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah, or the demonstrable spuriousness of Mark’s ending. Meanwhile unanalysed fundamentalist assumptions prove surprisingly durable.

The last part of the book addresses the questions raised by the Bible’s power to speak to our condition irrespective of its factual accuracy. ‘Scripture is not an event-course, but it is still a body of writing which can come home to people ... whether or not it is factually true.’ This attempt to display its qualities as a vehicle of ‘human truth’ does not sit altogether easily with the earlier part of the book, where, paradoxically, Lane Fox often achieves this objective very successfully en passant. This section is obviously the most subjective.

The book maintains its verve until its final sentence, casting serious doubt on the view attributed to the wise king Solomon that much study is a weariness of the flesh and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. The year 2000 may be expected to bring a crop of books about the origins of the faith reflected in our dating system; I will risk the prediction that few of them will be half as readable as The Unauthorised Version.