Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Unauthorized Version:
Truth and Fiction in the Bible

by Robin Lane Fox
Knopf, 478 pages, $27.50

Of the many obstacles that the modern world has thrown up in front of Judaism and Christianity, certainly one of the most damaging would be the historical-critical method. This form of intellectual inquiry has transformed radically the manner in which modern persons construe the origins of Scripture and the development of doctrine. Curiously, though, as all modern treatments of this theme have shown, the origins and development of this method were engineered at the hands of religious scholars.

Various explanations could be given for this fact, but two in particular stand out. The first is the somewhat naive but nevertheless widespread expectation among certain Protestant scholars that the historical-critical method would lay bare, once and for all, “the plain meaning” of the Christian Scriptures. Alongside this was the more “catholic” approach that saw the Bible as multivalent in meaning and could therefore restrict the damaging results of modern criticism to one particular hermeneutical plane. For centuries Christians (and Jews) operating under this assumption had been pursuing the simple, or historical, meaning of Scripture even though its results often clashed with normative practice and belief.

Though the interest in pursuing nonnormative meanings reached new heights in the medieval period, important precedents for it were to be found in the world of Late Antiquity. Famous allegorists like Origen were willing to point out surface incongruities within the Scriptures for the purpose of impelling the interpreter to consider another, more spiritual, level of meaning. A perennial problem for such an enterprise as Origen’s is how to correlate the historical and the allegorical meanings. But there is another difficulty. If the allegorist is too successful at showing the ahistorical aspect of the scriptural record, then could not the Bible appear as an unfaithful witness of the historical acts of revelation? As the example of Porphyry indicates, this was a matter of no small importance. For when he wrote against the Christian Scriptures, he made ample use of the allegorists’ own arguments about the historical credibility of the Bible.

Robin Lane Fox’s book can be described as an up-to-date Porphyry. For like Porphyry, Fox uses the results of modern biblical criticism to discredit the claims of the Bible to be a witness to divine revelation. Now, the book is a surprisingly insightful and sophisticated account of many of the more important findings of biblical scholarship. Like his ancient counterpart, Fox is a learned man who writes well and in a compelling fashion. However, his book is not an exercise in disinterested inquiry. His entire account is geared to answer one question: is the Bible a credible historical witness to what it claims to represent? To no one’s surprise a question put in this fashion can yield but one answer: No. From the first to the last page the book sets out to substantiate the unreliability of the Bible as a witness to ancient history. For this purpose, the results of modern criticism serve as an excellent guide.

Nor is Fox one to mince words in his descriptions of historical inaccuracies. In his view the writer of Chronicles is “a splendid liar,” and the practice of attributing works to pseudonymous writers, a practice well in evidence throughout the Bible, leads to his assessment that the Bible is a “forger’s paradise.” Moreover, the predictive narratives in the Bible “are no more accurate than those of a weather forecaster.” A better place to turn for an accurate view of the past, according to Fox, is the works of the Greek historians who, “unbiblical as ever, [took] exactness and realism as [their] guiding lights.”

The problem with this type of caricature is that it addresses the question of truth on grounds that are decidedly un-biblical. Though prior generations have (somewhat naively) assumed that the Bible’s historical details were accurate in every particular, its historical verisimilitude has never been made a criterion of faith nor has the issue received pride of place in the Christian intellectual tradition (excepting the fundamentalist debates of the past century). For the Bible’s own claim to truth is tied more to the ongoing interpretive life of this text within a living community of faith than to any claim to be an accurate historical record. Thus, for the believing intellectual, the modern discovery of the historical faults within the Bible, though disturbing and damaging to some degree, has not resulted in the dismissal of its claim to truth.

Indeed, most recent work on the nature of the Bible’s final composition has been interested in demonstrating how the final editors of its books took special care to guide subsequent readers through its apparent maze of inconsistencies. A good example is the recent work on the final shaping of the opening three chapters of Genesis. Fox correctly notes that within these chapters are preserved two stories of the creation that contradict each other in some rather obvious ways. The tendency of modern criticism in the past has been to accentuate these differences and ascribe them to discrete historical circumstances in the life of ancient Israel. For Fox, the very fact of these contradictions and their historically conditioned origins belies any naive belief that the texts could offer anything approaching the concept of “revelation.” Yet recent work on these chapters has shown that the latest editor who put the creation account in chapter one in front of the alternative account in chapter two did so in a very sophisticated manner. No doubt this editor realized that he had two different stories in front of him. But by putting the more general account at the beginning and appending the clear reductional formula, “These are the generations of the heaven and earth” (Gen. 2:4a) at the end of the first but in front of the second story, he provided a means of integrating the two. The second story is obviously intended to fill out or “particularize” the first. The result is a composite narrative whose final form results in a meaning unintended by either original source.

To be fair, Fox does address the issue of a nonhistorical hermeneutic. But here his treatment is superficial and naive. He places as a counterpoint to his own historical positivism the radical structuralism and postcritical tendencies of modern literary critics. He correctly rejects much of the nonsense found in the work of these thinkers. But the most sophisticated works on modern biblical hermeneutics would not be comfortable with this type of either/or analysis: there is a middle path between the two stark alternatives Fox has presented. The interested reader is well advised to consider the work of Brevard Childs, James Sanders, and Jon Levenson for a more balanced approach.

Finally, Fox’s book illustrates how strong anti-Jewish tendencies can flourish apart from any religious root. For example, Fox cites the modern insight that the law, being in origin a collection of materials from many different historical epochs and geographical centers, was never intended in its origin to be a complete law code for an entire people. From this purely historical datum Fox concludes—and here he leaves the plane of historical analysis and takes the reader into his own myopic world—that anyone who attempts to live his life by these laws would find himself “in a hopeless muddle,” a viewpoint obviously not shared by observant Jews. Far more appealing to Fox are the “fine books” of the wisdom tradition, for they are seen as “simply ignoring Judaism … [making no] mention of its special practices nor its festivals.” Self-servingly, he recounts the story of a group of newly converted Jews living in Italy at the end of the Second World War. “At the end of the war,” Fox writes, “British soldiers visited them and told them of the Holy Land: they visited the new state of Israel, but like true Jews of the Diaspora, they were repelled by its rampant Zionism [emphasis added].” It seems unlikely that Mr. Fox, by no accident a British citizen himself, is in any position to assess who is a true Jew, either in the Diaspora or within Israel itself.

Gary A. Anderson teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash. Image cropped.