|Book Review: "Unauthorized Version" by Robin L Fox|
Book Review: "The Authorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible"
by Robin Lane Fox (reviewed by Alex Kasman)
This is not a timely review; the book was published in 1991. However,
I obtained it at a recent SHL book sale, just finished reading it, and
I thought some of you might be interested in what Fox has to say.
Robin Lane Fox is an Oxford historian who has undertaken here the
difficult task of trying to sort out the truth from the fiction in the
Christian Bible. It is difficult to imagine an unbiased investigation
of this politically charged question, and Fox of course has his own.
Fox's bias is that of a historian, as opposed to being either a
theologian or an archeologist.
I am supposing from his frequent insistence that
the Bible is a unique source of beauty, ethics and awe that he
considers himself to be a Christian. However, he is certainly does
not believe that the scriptures are inerrant truths and very
(very) carefully avoids ever saying anything to indicate
whether he believes in the existence of God, heaven, or other
supernatural things. His interest instead is in which armies fought
which others, who were the rulers, the structure of judicial systems
and their decisions, etc.
His prejudice against archeology is especially interesting to me,
since it makes this book quite different from the others I have read
on the subject. At first, I felt proud to have noticed this bias
myself in his arguments, but halfway through the book he states it
The dumb evidence of digging and travelling relates obliquely, if at
all, to the truth of the biblical narrative. Written evidence is much
more powerful: it allows us to compare dates and events, and to set
one story against another.
Of course, I do agree with Fox that written evidence is interesting
and useful, but do not quite understand why he rejects archeological
evidence. It seems to me that this sort of "dumb evidence" is useful
in determining the truth or falsehood of written documents!
Because of this bias, Fox is put in the position of having to decide
which texts are true and which are not simply by comparing them to
each other. Often, he seems to reach the same conclusions that others
have reached by different means. For example, he determines that the Old
Testament has so little connection to anything historical that it may
as well be treated as entirely fictional.
When it comes to the New Testament, however, he reaches some
interesting conclusions that seem almost irrational to me. A trivial
example is that he states that it must be true that Christ's cross was
labelled "King of the Jews". His "argument", based on the idea that
this would have been public knowledge since it was posted, is so weak
that I cannot even call it an argument. (Certainly, if the cross was
indeed labelled with such a sign then it would have been public
knowledge and could have been known to the authors of the
Gospels...but that hardly shows that it is not equally likely that
this sign was a fiction created for the Gospel while the real cross
was labelled otherwise, was unlabeled, or never even existed.)
This is not to say that I did not enjoy and learn from the book. In
one of my favorite parts, Fox discusses some portions of Josephus'
histories that I had never heard about before. Like other historians,
Fox believes that Josephus never wrote about Jesus Christ (with the
passages that are often cited these days having been added at a much
later point by Christian revisionists). So, to discriminate truth
from falsehood in the biblical story of the trial of Jesus, Fox looks
at similar events which are described by Josephus: the trial of John
the Baptist (who is described as having never been a concern to the
Jewish authorities but was put to death by the Romans because they
feared he was becoming powerful enough to pose a threat as a
revolutionary) and another man named Jesus (!) (who was brought
before the Roman authorities by angry Jews because he kept walking
around muttering nonsense about ``voices on the winds'' but was freed
by the Romans without punishment). Fox uses these to address the
question of what did or did not lead to punishment from the Romans.
But, one of Fox's most interesting ``leaps of faith'' in terms of
textual truth is his view that the book of John (but none of the other
three Gospels) was written by an actual participant in the events
described. Of course, fundamentalists believe that all four
Gospels were written by apostles. Historians and biblical scholars,
however, consider many other possibilities. It is generally believed
that John was the last of the four Gospels to be written, and it is
quite different from the others. Thus, many would probably think it
is the least likely to have been an eyewitness account. Fox, however,
"argues" (again, it hardly seems like an argument to me!) that it was
written by an aged apostle based on his own memories after he had read
the more fictionalized accounts (the books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke)
written by people who had not even been there. His supposed evidence
for this includes the fact that the author of John seems to know
things about the city of Jerusalem and details of the Roman rule
there...but of course many people would have known these things and so
I cannot see what makes him so certain.
Anyway, it is interesting as a theoretical exercise to follow Fox's
assumption that the fourth Gospel is the most accurate account
(though, even to Fox, still full of fictional twists, exaggeration and
misremembered details) of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
However, since he never convinced me that there was good reason to
believe in this assumption, the conclusions he reaches are less
powerful than they might otherwise have been. But, I still enjoyed
the tour of biblical history as it appears to this knowledgeable and
thought provoking expert.