Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox




Why I Read This Book
            Given my religious background, and my long standing interest in history, mythology, and the intersection of the two, I suppose the real question is not why I read this book, but why I waited so long before I finally picked up a book on the historical accuracy of the Bible.
            The answer is that I don’t read as widely as I should, and I tend to get stuck in one subject area for a long time until something will come along and give me a nudge.

            There were 3 things I came across recently that gave me a nudge and got me interested in the Bible as history.
           
            1) Reading Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great.  Although Hitchens’ scholarship was a little bit sloppy, I still found the sections where he picked apart the historical accuracy of the Bible very interesting.  I wanted to find out more.

            2). Via my friend Phil, I’ve become a fan of the book review site openlettersmonthly.com.  While reading through their various book reviews, I came across their review of Genesis by Crumb [LINK HERE].  Even without having read Crumb’s book, their review of the book still managed to excite my imagination.  There’s something fascinating about mankind’s oldest mythologies.  How much of this is tall tales, and how much is this is the collective memory of true events?  How much true history is hidden inside these stories?

            3) Thirdly, I started watching Kings on DVD.  As I wrote before, the short lived TV series definitely had its faults.  But it still reminded me of the source material, and made me want to re-read those stories.  (And have fun imagining a better TV show that could have been based on the same stories.)  So I went back to my bible and re-read 1 and 2 Samuel.
            As a child, I took it for granted that all of these stories were literally true, but now I can’t read these stories without wondering about historical accuracy. How much, if any, of the David stories are vouched for by any outside sources?  What was true and what was myth?

            So, one day I eventually went down to the bookstore to try and find a book on the historical accuracy of the Bible.
           
            When living in Asia, finding English books is always hit and miss.  There are some used bookstores around that stock books which other English speaking expats have discarded, but you’re never guaranteed to find anything specific there.  Not only is it impossible to search for specific titles, but there was no guarantee I would even find anything remotely related to the subject.
            I was, therefore, extremely glad to find this book on the shelves of a small used bookstore in Cambodia.  I’m not sure if it’s the best book written on the subject, but the point was it was on the subject.  (If anyone knows of any better books out there, let me know.)
            This book was published in 1991, so it’s not exactly hot off the presses (I understand in the past few years there’s been a debate about the archeological evidence for David’s Kingdom) but even if it is a little bit dated it’s still an impressive work of scholarship.

Related Podcasts

            While I was reading this book, I was discussing it with a friend at work, and he told me that he had been listening to the Yale lectures on the Bible.
            I’m a bit behind the times on this I suppose, but my friend alerted me to a wonderful website called openculture.com which has links to all sorts of free podcasts on all sorts of imaginable subjects.
            Among those links, it turns out that Yale University has generously made some of its courses (or at least the lecture components) freely available to the public.  So I was able to download for free the Yale University lectures on the Old Testament by Professor Christine Hayes [LINK HERE] and the lectures on the Old Testament by Professor Dale Martin [LINK HERE].

            Both of these professors provided hours of fascinating listening.  In fact to be perfectly honest, I found these lecture podcasts to be much more interesting, much more enjoyable, and much more informative than the book I’m reviewing.  But the purpose of this blog project is to review books, not podcasts, so for this post I’ll only be using the information from the Yale lectures to supplement what is in Robin Lane Fox’s book.
            I will say, however, that anyone even remotely interested in the subject material would do well to check out these lectures.  Trust me, you won’t regret it.  Give it a try and you’ll be hooked on them before you know it.
             (Aside from the two lecture series I linked to above, honorable mention goes to the series on Ancient Israel by Daniel Fleming [LINK HERE], although he uses a lot more classroom discussion in his lectures, which is less satisfying when you're not in the classroom and watching it on youtube.  And the historical Jesus by Thomas Sheehan available on itunes [LINK HERE], which is also good but narrower in focus.)
           
            But back to The Unauthorized Version:
Comments on Reliability
          The book is written by Robin Lane Fox, a British classical historian.  He’s also an atheist, so the book comes from the perspective of a non-believer.
           Religious subjects often attracts a lot of very polemical writers, or crackpot writers, or both, so it is somewhat unfortunate that Robin Lane Fox’s book has a title that makes it sound like a tabloid conspiracy theory: The Unauthorized Version.  Perhaps Fox realizes how unfortunate his title is, because he tries twice to explain it away (once in the preface, once in the introduction chapter).  To quote from the preface:

            It [this book] is not an unauthorized version because other people have authorized their own version and wish to suppress the truth in mine. Those for whom the Bible is a book of faith wish to discover the truth, too. I write as an atheist, but there are Christian and Jewish scholars whose versions would be far more radical than mine. They will find this historian’s view conservative, even old-fashioned, but there are times when atheists are loyal friends of the truth.

            [I’ll return to this point later, but just as a sidenote: he’s not wrong when he says that in some ways he’s more conservative than some Christian scholars.  My religion professors at Calvin College (not a liberal institution) taught that probably none of the Gospels were written by the names attributed to them.  Fox defends at least 2 of the four—claiming that the Gospel of Luke and John probably really were written by the historical Luke and John.]

            Although one should always be cautious about anything in religious studies, this book seems pretty reliable to me.  Robin Lane Fox is well respected in his field, this book was favorably reviewed by major publications like the New York Times [LINK HERE].  The scholarship and interpretation of events lines up very closely with the Yale lecturers linked to above (albeit with some differences.)  And, insofar as I’m any sort of judge, it fits with what I’ve been taught before and seems reliable to me.

The Review
          The cardinal rule of book reviewing is: Review the book you read, not the book you wish you had read.
           
            That being said, this wasn’t exactly the book I wanted.
            The book I wanted would have taken me through the Bible stories in a simple chronological fashion, retelling the historical narrative and along the way commenting on what was supported by outside historical evidence, and what was not.

            This book is not that book.  It has more of an analytical framework than a narrative framework.  Although it does get into some historical details, it focuses more on the methodology. 
            (In terms of what I was looking for, the Yale podcast lectures linked to above actually did a much better job of scratching that itch.  The professors go through the Bible stories in order, commenting about the historical accuracy as they go.)

            This book is also a mess structurally.  I’ve actually read this book through twice now, and I still couldn’t tell you exactly what the structure is.
            Instead of going through the Bible chronologically, Fox divides his book up into chapters based on subject area—for example one section on the sources of the Bible, one section on the archeological evidence, one subject on what we can tell from other contemporary historical writings, et cetera.  (For someone like me, who likes narratives, this structure means that the sense of story in the Bible is replaced by heavy analysis based chapters instead.)
            Also the chapters themselves are not very well organized.  Fox will go on long digressions about whatever he feels like.   He will start a subject, abandon it as he goes on a long digression about something else, and then return to the same subject several chapters later.  He repeats much of the same material, and occasionally sometimes repeats the exact same sentence twice.
            Evidently, this book did not go through a lot of proof reading, because occasionally the same sentence will even appear twice on the same page.

            For example, on page 28, the second paragraph begins: The Gospel, therefore, assumes that Quirinius and King Herod were contemporaries, when they were separated by ten years or more.  The very next paragraph on the same page begins with an almost identical sentence. Luke’s Gospel, therefore, assumes that King Herod and the governor Quirinius were contemporaries, but they were separated by ten years or more.

            For the most part, Robin Lane Fox is readable, but every now and again I stumbled upon a sentence that was completely incomprehensible to me.  For this I blame the publisher more than the author.  I think we’ve all had the experience as writers of thinking we were being perfectly clear, but finding out we were not communicating to our readers as clearly as we thought.  (I’ve had that experience several times on this blog).  A 3rd party proof reader from the publishing house really should have gone through and redlined all the unreadable sentences in this book, but it looks like no one did.

            As for Fox’s various digressions: some are actually very interesting, and there were sections where I was absolutely glued to this book as I read.
            Some of Fox’s digressions are not so interesting, and so there were chapters in this book where my eyes positively glazed over.

            In short, the book is of an uneven quality.  Sections of it are very interesting and readable, other sections of it are poorly written and uninteresting. 

            Final verdict: In my opinion, the good outweighs the bad.  I would recommend this book with caution, but I would recommend it nonetheless to anyone interested in the subject.  The good parts of this book more than make up for all the other frustrations you will encounter reading it.

Structure of the Book
          I said the structure of the book is a bit of mess, but let me try and outline it as far as I can.
           
            Although he’s an atheist, Fox is actually fairly sympathetic to the Bible as an historical source, and throughout the book he vouches for several parts of the Bible as probably being based on primary sources, and probably being historical reliable (in so far as any ancient source is ever reliable.)
            However Fox is also aware that many people in Western culture consider the Bible to factual accurate in every detail, and the first thing Fox wants to do is disabuse his readers of this notion. 
            In regards to the historical accuracy of the Bible, Fox uses the old break-them-down, then-build-them-back-up method.  First he sets out to prove that large parts of the Bible (and often the most important parts of the Bible’s narrative) are not historically accurate.  Then, once he’s established that the Bible is not infallible, he will pick up the parts of the Biblical narrative that he does feel are accurate.  He will often follow this method within his various chapters, and it’s also the structure of the book as a whole.

            In the first chapter of the book, Fox focuses, as an example, on the stories which begin both the Old and New Testament: first the creation story in the Old Testament, and then the birth of Christ in the New Testament.
            He then begins a historical tour de force in which he demolishes the factual accuracy of these stories from just about every angle you can imagine.
            This is among the most impressive sections of the book.  Fox clearly knows his history.  It’s a pity really the whole book wasn’t written like this, with different Bible stories examined in great detail.
            But Fox instead moves from here into a very muddled and somewhat confusing description of where the narrative sections of the Bible probably came from.
            Any discussion of historical accuracy is not complete without trying to examine the sources, but Fox really makes a mess out of it.  He uses the JEPD theory, (W) but he never really adequately explains it.
           
            The JEPD theory is the theory that the narrative sections of the Old Testament (from Genesis through 2 Kings) are actually a compilation from 4 different sources—the Yawhist source (W), the Elohist source (W), the Priestly source (W), and finally the Deuteronomist editor (W) who combined all the others sources together sometime in the post-exilic period.
            Fox talks about likely the likely dates and geographical origins for these sources, but never explains how this theory came about in the first place, so it’s very unsatisfying for someone like me who doesn’t have the background knowledge.
            This is a really good example of where the Harvard Lecture podcasts really supplement this book nicely, because Christine Hayes in her lectures on the Old Testament does an excellent job of explaining the JEPD theory.  She works backwards from the Bible itself by first pointing out the problems with Mosaic authorship, then by showing how the various contradictions and changes in style in the Pentateuch led scholars to decide that it must have been from different sources, and then finally identifying the different characteristics of each source.
            This is what Robin Lane Fox should have done.  Instead he very clumsily handles it.  Here, for example, is how he introduces J:

            Behind the biblical books from Genesis to Numbers lie earlier written sources, one of which was a great collection of stories, sightings, of Yahweh and tales of origin. Its author is known to biblical critics as the Yahwist (J), but the date and identity of this person are highly disputed.

            He goes on for several more pages, but he never does get around to explaining how we know there was a J.  If you didn’t already know the logic behind the JEPD theory, Fox gives you absolutely no reason to believe it.
            The pity is that Fox clearly can explain stuff very well if he wants to.  (Later on in the book he gives an excellent summary of many of the arguments for and against Paul’s authorship of 1&2 Timothy).  But he does drop the ball quite often as well.
            In one of his many digressions, Fox breaks off from talking about source criticism to go on a digression about the ancient Hebrew dietary laws, and the probably historic reasons behind them.
            Fox continues on through the scriptural history of the New Testament and Paul’s letters.
            Once he’s done talking about the history of the texts themselves, Fox compares Biblical historians to ancient Greek historians and talks about the differences in how they viewed history.
            Then he doubles back to talk about the sources of the Bible again, and returns to E and J.  (Why he didn’t include this information in his earlier chapters on E and J, I’m not sure.)
            Like his sections on the Old Testament sources, Fox’s sections on the writers of the New Testament are not well organized.  He’ll talk about them in one chapter, then get distracted by a new topic, and then return to the subject of the New Testament writers only several chapters later.

            He has some chapters on what archaeological evidence tells us about the historical accuracy of the Bible, and then chapters on what other (heathen) historical sources can tell us about the history.
            There are chapters on the accuracy of Old Testament prophets, and also chapters on how the New Testament writers misused the prophecies in the Old Testament.
            The final chapter is about how the Bible has been important to various communities throughout history even if it is not historically accurate.  This last section is not particularly interesting, partly because Fox is stumbling over clichés about the appeal of the Bible that have been better handled by other writers.

The History
            After stumbling my way through all of Fox’s rambling sections, here’s a short summary of some of the more interesting things I learned from Fox’s book.  (I’m presenting them here in more or less order of historical chronology, but in the actual book they’re not neatly laid out like this at all.)

On the Prehistory
            There is no evidence to support the first five books of the Bible, although Fox has some interesting discussion about Christian attempts to connect what looks like an historical event in Genesis 14 (when the four Kings went to war against five other Kings) to actual history and why these attempts have failed.

On Joshua
            The archaeological evidence contradictions the story of Joshua and the Israelite conquest of Canaan.  (I had known this before actually—it was one of Christopher Hitchens favorite points.). 
            But if the genocidal account in Joshua never took place, the question then becomes: who would fabricate such a thing?
            It is all too easy to imagine invading nomadic Israelite tribes slaughtering everything in their path as they conquered their new homeland.  Such things have happened in history before after all.  (The Angles and Saxons seemed to have wiped out much of the native Britains during their invasion, for example.)  And it’s all too easy to imagine that afterwards to salve their consciences these same invading tribes would create a story in which they had been divinely commanded to commit these atrocities.
            It’s much harder to imagine why a nation that came together peacefully from within Canaan (as archaeological evidence suggests) would invent these awful stories.  Fox briefly talks about a couple of different theories historians have developed, but he mostly brings them up just to dismiss them  These new theories are no more proven, or suggested, by archaeology than are any of the sackings, burnings, and grand circumcisions by Joshua.  Archaeology can disprove a myth of settlement, but it cannot support an entirely new myth against an old one. (p.232-233) 
            (Here again I found the Yale lectures preferable.  Christine Hayes does a much better job of presenting various theories about where these genocidal stories came from and weighing the likelihood of these theories.)
           
            But whether or not we can adequately explain why these stories were fabricated, Fox notes that the simple knowledge of their inaccuracy should hopefully cause religious violence in the future to have less of a justification.
            Although he does also note that after 2000 years of being the dominant religion in the West, these stories have already done their damage.
            By proving a negative point, it [archeology] disarms Joshua and turns his bloodstained stories peacefully out to grass; it may even cool down their impact on biblical readers, although it has emerged too late for several would-be Joshuas (Oliver Cromwell,  above all, who took Joshua as his model in his lethal campaign against Ireland’s Catholics)” page 232.

On King David
            Interestingly, Fox thinks that this part of the Bible is based on a primary historical source.
            Granted he gives some of it more weight than other parts: In the opening scenes the choosing of Saul, then David, is based in part on popular tales, no more true than any other legend of a ‘once and future King’ (p. 187-188) Fox writes.  However once the narrative moves to the actual reign of King David, Fox writes: This section of the royal narrative is unlike any other. It contains no miracles but is full of intrigues and devious trick: women are prominent in the action. It reports the private dialogues of persons of high rank; it tells an interconnected story, from the wars against Ammon to the affair of David and Bathsheba, the deaths of two of David’s sons and the manoeurves to succeed to his throne…During these twenty years or so of David’s reign, the main focus is on events at court among David’s friends and enemies.  As a result, D’s source for these chapters has been ascribed as a court history, the work of a near-contemporary with access to court secrets….The scope, nature and date of this source are naturally strongly contested (we have to infer them) but there is no mistaking its difference of tone: its picture of King David is not unduly flattering (he commits adultery with Bathsehba and kills off her husband Uriah). On the strength of it, this source has been classed as an ‘anti-history’ and dated late during the Exile in reaction to others’ idealizing of David, the head of the royal messianic line.  Yet there is no trace anywhere else of such ‘anti-history’; the later our sources, the more they idealize David the king. Rather, the work’s detail, tone and focus point to a text which was written much earlier: how else did the author know so much court detail and geography, tell it relatively straight? (p. 188).
            Somewhat disappointingly, Fox does not bring in any outside historical evidence on the question of King David.  (I believe there’s currently an ongoing debate in Israel right now over whether the archeological record supports the boundaries of King David’s kingdom as the Bible describes them.  If the archeological evidence contradicts the Bible, then this would have an impact on the reliability of the court history).
            Fox’s only argument seems to be, “It sounds like it’s true, so it must be.”  The reader must decide for themselves how convincing Fox’s argument is.  (It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it’s not beyond my imagination that the court history could have been fabricated in a later age.  Greek myths also presented complex stories and had anti-heroes in them.)
            Nevertheless, both Fox and Christine Hayes in the Yale Lectures make an interesting point that I had never realized before in all my years of Sunday School—the material both directly before and directly after David’s reign focus almost exclusively on cycles of God rewarding Israel for her faith, or punishing her for her faithlessness.  The long story of David’s reign and succession crisis break from these themes with a completely different story, which does indicate the court history probably came from a different source.

On 1&2 Kings
            Some of the Kings listed in the Bible do pop up in other historical sources.  However there seem to be some distortions going on for thematic purposes.  Fox goes through several pages demonstrating how it appears from other records that Ahab and his father Omri were more successful in foreign wars than the book of Kings indicates, but how the author of Kings (D, again) moves around some of the stories and assigns to Ahab’s reign the Syrian Wars from a later period.
            (A nice supplementary point is brought to this by Christine Hayes in the Yale lectures.  D is well aware that the history doesn't always fit his polemics.  Bad kings will die peacefully, and good kings will die violently.  To solve this problem, D invents the idea of delayed punishment.  Good will punish the descendents for the sins of the father.  The author of Chronicles, interestingly enough, later rewrites this whole narrative removing the delayed punishment element completely.)

            The fall of Jerusalem, described in 2 Kings, is much more accurate and correlates very closely with our other historical sources.  Fox hypothesizes: In the age of Omri and Ahab, heathen evidence exposes gross distortions in the biblical story, and alerts us to the scale of its falsehood. In the last years of Judah, it matches small details of the biblical story but helps us to balance its interpretation and pick between its datings. The period was still within oral memory of D’s readers, and there was less scope, therefore, for liberty with the facts. (p. 267).

The Post-Exilic Period
            Fox believes probably the same editor put together 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.  Although the editor has made a muddle of his various sources and chronology, inside this muddle there are primary documents inside of them.  Fox believes the command from Cyrus for the Jews to return is a primary source.
            Fox also believes Nehemiah may actually contain (among other edited documents) the actual memoirs of Nehemiah.  Although why he believes this is a bit uncertain, and Fox doesn’t do a good job of backing this up.  He seems to believe that they are probably Nehemiah’s actual memoirs just because the author used the literary device of writing in the first person, and even though he has to admit that the beginning of the story—Nehemiah interceding as the King’s cup bearer—is a cliché from royal legends of the period.

The Birth of Christ
           This is actually at the beginning of the book, and as I mentioned before it’s one of the strongest sections.
            The fantastic myths surrounding the nativity appear to have been a later Christian invention.  The earliest Christian writings (the letters of Paul, and the Gospel of Mark) make no mention of Jesus’ birth.
            By the time Matthew and Luke were being written, it had become important for Christians to connect the birth of Christ with the prophecies that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem.  Jesus was well known to have been from Nazareth, so this prevented a narrative problem that both Matthew and Luke found separate and contradictory ways around. 
            Matthew has Mary and Joseph start out living in Bethlehem, but having to flee Bethlehem because of King Herod and then later resettling in Nazareth.  Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth to begin with, but they have to travel to Bethlehem for the census that took place over the whole Roman Empire.
            No such census ever took place.  We don’t have any other historical record of this census, nor do we have any sort of papyrus paper trail that these types of censuses often lead.  In addition no Roman census required people to travel to their ancestral land of their birth, because the purpose of Roman censuses was for tax purposes, and it was to assess the value of the land holdings and assets in the area they were currently living.
            Also the Romans only conducted censuses in Roman provinces.  In the time of Herod the Great (which is when both Matthew and Luke claim Christ was born) Judaea was still a client kingdom of Rome.  Herod would send an annual tribute, but Rome did not tax it directly.
            There was a census of Judea when it came under direct Roman control with Quirinius of Syria in 6 A.D.  (Luke muddles his dating by assuming Quirinius and Herod are contemporaries.  Herod died in 4 B.C.)  This census caused huge resentment among the Jewish population, and it is probably what Luke was referring to.  However it was only in Judaea, not the whole Roman world, it did not require everyone to move back to their ancestral land, and in 6 A.D. it still would not have included the Galilean town of Nazareth—In 6 AD Galilee, unlike Judaea, had remained under its independent rule and would not have been bound by a Roman census or taxing. This ruler’s existence is known from Josephus, other histories and his own coins: as a Galilaean, Joseph of Nazareth was exempt from the entire business. (p. 31)

The Letters of Paul and Peter
          Fox believes that 1 and 2 Peter were not written by Peter, but by an anonymous author using an assumed name.  And that several of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written not by Paul, but by someone else pretending to be Paul.
            Although this isn’t taught in Sunday School, among New Testament scholars this is actually a pretty mainstream view.  My Religion 101 professor at Calvin College (not a liberal institution) taught us the same thing.
            The style of 1and 2 Peter is that of highly educated Greek unlikely for an illiterate fisherman.  (Acts 4:13 tells us Peter had had no education.)  Furthermore 1and 2 Peter seem to be written sometime after the age of Paul, because they refer to Paul’s collected letters as if they were already being studied as scripture.  Also 1and 2 Peter refers to the age of the apostles as if it were something in the past.
            As for some of Paul’s letters, Fox writes there are three tests which could expose him: his sense of history, his style, and his doctrine. They are supported by a fourth, which is less conclusive, the views of early Christian critics and the dates at which each letter is known to have existed. (p.131).

            Interestingly, Dale Martin in the Yale Lectures on the New Testament seems to decide 1and 2 Timothy are pseudonymous letters based on style alone, but Fox argues that a writer’s style can change over time or deliberately adopt different tones, so stylistic arguments in and off themselves are not enough.  Instead, Fox says the deciding factors on 1and 2 Timothy are their content.
            The odd relation between setting and content is confirmed by the letters’ teaching. They are concerned with dangerous heresy (so, too, was the genuine Paul) but they read as if they are looking over their shoulder at a new generation of enemies. Above all, they are concerned with the qualities of a single leader (episcopos, or bishop) who is to lead his Church; there is no hint of a single leadership in the communities addressed by Paul’s letters or described in the eyewitness sections of Acts. Bishops were a post-apostolic invention, perhaps when Christian ‘elders’ could no longer agree among themselves. Here, too, Timothy is the peg for important post-Pauline advice (p. 133).

            My Calvin professors also accepted this view.  They also believed that 1and 2 Peter and 1and 2 Timothy were written under false names, but they told us not to think of this as deliberate deceit, but rather a common literary style at the time. It was, they said, just accepted as common practice in the ancient world to write books attributed to other people.
            Fox is aware of this argument and rejects it.  It would be considered dishonest now, he says, and it was considered dishonest then.

            The suggestion of a deliberate pseudonymity on the part of the evangelist need not cause qualms” a great scholar of the Gospel’s origin has tried to reassure us, “the ancient feelings and conventions about the practice were different from ours.”  The truth is exactly the opposite, as Paul’s experience shows.
            When a Christian issued fake “Acts of Paul and Thecla” in the second century, he was promptly deposed by bishops, although he pleaded that he had been acting “out of love of Paul”. As for the epistles, the problem of false names and forgery was acute. Already, in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul had to warn his audience against the possibility of fake letters with which some Christians were trying to mislead their fellow Christians about the end of the world. Several modern scholars have repaid the compliment by arguing that this Second Epistle is itself a fake, falsely adorned greeting from Paul. That view is not convincing, but this awareness that early pseudo-Pauline letters existed is not misplaced. (p.130).

The Authorship of the Gospels
          If you go over and read some of the Amazon reviews for this book [LINK HERE],  one of the things that Internet critics seem most upset with Fox for is his arguments that the Gospel of Luke and John were actually written by the historical Luke and John.
            This is indeed a surprising argument for an atheist to make.  Not even my Christian professors at Calvin College believed Luke and John were really written by their supposed authors.  (For example when I wrote this paper on Anti-Semitism in the New Testament at Calvin, it was supposed to be just taken for granted that John didn’t actually write the Gospel of John.)

            However, in the field of Biblical studies, where nothing is certain and everything is open to argument,  and all hypothesizes are fair game if they can be backed up by solid arguing.
            Disappointingly, Fox does not really make much of a solid argument. 
            He seems to believe that Acts was written by Luke (or at least a travelling companion of Paul) simply because it uses the “we” pronoun at places.  And he believes the Gospel of John was actually written by John (or at least a “beloved disciple”) simply because the Gospel uses that literary technique.

            Based on that evidence alone, it would seem to me that the most you could conclude is that the authors of Acts and John wanted to pass themselves off as eyewitnesses, not that they actually were.
            When Fox talks about the epistles attributed to Paul and Peter, he clearly believes there is blatant deceit going on elsewhere in the Bible.  (Their authors were very bold in their deceit. “Peter, apostle of Christ”, “Paul, apostle of Christ” they call themselves Fox says on page 136). Fox also believes attributing the Gospel to Matthew is perhaps a deliberate deceit (page 129).  Why then does he suddenly become so credulous when it comes to Luke and John?

            The reason that even my Calvin College professors believed that Luke and John were not written by their historical authors is that because there is good reason to.
            The Gospel of Luke seems to come from a later age than Paul.  Paul never once quotes any of the Gospels in his letters, and the quotations Paul does attribute to Jesus appear in a different form than the quotations in the Gospels.  This indicates that they were not yet written when Paul was alive.  The Gospel of Mark was written first, because Luke is clearly using it as a source and expanding on it.  The Gospel of Luke was written some time after Mark, when it later became important for Christians to develop some sort of nativity story.
            As Dale Martin explains in his lectures, there are several different explanations for the we passages in the book of Acts.  It was apparently a common literary device of the time to break into the first person plural at dramatic points in the narrative.
            Even if the we parts of Acts were written by an eyewitness, Acts is clearly put together from several different sources (Acts 1-12 clearly come from a source who wasn’t the travelling companion of Paul) and there’s no way of knowing if the person who wrote we passages was the final editor of the book of Acts, or the author of Luke.
            Also, as Dale Martin points out in his lectures, the narrative in the book of Acts contradicts Paul’s own version of events in Galatians 1-2, and suggests that the author of Acts is not a trustworthy historical source, but more ideologically driven.  (The author of the book of Acts seems interested in emphasizing the authority of Jerusalem as the center of the church, and in presenting a unified doctrinal church and smoothing over the various doctrinal quarrels present in Paul’s letters.)

            As for the Gospel of John, this Gospel shows an antagonism between Judaism and the followers of Jesus that did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime.  The Gospel of John repeatedly refers to the whole race of The Jews as being opposed to Jesus.  So it’s likely a much later Christian document.  (In the Yale lectures Dale Martin points out that John 9:34, where a believer of Jesus is expelled from the synagogue, is a straight up anachronism.  Nobody in the time of Jesus was going around checking for synagogue membership cards.)

          Fox is aware of all of these issues.  He raises each one briefly, and then just as briefly dismisses it.

          When addressing the other arguments, he writes: Many critics still dispute this awkward fact [that Luke and Acts were written by a travelling companion of Paul] partly because they think the author’s theology is late (there is nothing conclusive, here) and above all because they believe that his book clashes with the writings of Paul.  I do not find these clashes insuperable: some are felt to be factual (I share the view, however, that the council in Acts 15 derives from the events told by Paul more accurately in Galatians 2:1-9); some are intellectual (Acts does not contain all the theology of Paul’s letters); some suggest a different context (Paul’s letters appear to address Gentile Christians, but Acts tells how Paul began by preaching with some success in the Jews’ synagogues, often in the cities to which he later sent letters.)  (P. 209).
           
            Having brought up all of these factors, Fox dismisses them in the next few sentences. 
            We must not over-estimate the companion’s closeness; Acts’ author could well have made mistakes about Paul’s early career or about periods when they were apart; Acts does insist on the Jews’ hostility in most cities, including Thessalonica and Corinth to which Paul writes; successes in the synagogues may have been very few, so that the majority in Acts’ churches, just as in Paul’s letters, were Gentiles or Gentile ‘god-fearers’ who previously attended synagogues.  As for Paul’s theology, the surviving epistles are only a small part of his opinions, his ‘all things to all men’ and are directed to existing Christians, not to possible converts, like most of Acts’ speeches.  A travelling companion could well have missed the theology we now have in them (Acts’ author did not use the letters as a source); pupils, even, see masters very differently (Socrates taught both Plato and Xenophon, but their books about him are remarkably different.) p. 209.

              Fox doesn’t even address the other explanations for the we sections, and simply dismisses the argument.  Those who divide Acts’ author from Paul’s company have produced no other valid explanation of the first-person plurals which he used at odd moments in describing Paul’s career. (p.210)

            I won’t quote here the sections on the Gospel of John, but they follow a similar pattern.  Fox is aware of all the problems with John, but he has excuses for all of them.
            If one is inclined to make excuses for every problematic feature of both Luke-Acts and John, it is possible to make Fox’s argument. 
            Given what Fox had previously said about forgery in the Bible, I would have thought skepticism would be more appropriate for Luke-Acts and John, but I can still see his argument.

On the Canon
          Fox also has some sections explaining what a mess the evolving Christian Canon was.  To quote from part of it:

            Not until the fourth century do Christian authors list exactly the books which we now accept as the Christian Bible and imply that they are an exclusive list. In the Greek-speaking Churches, Athanasius, the great bishop of Alexandria, sent a letter to his Churches in the year 367 in which he cited the twenty-seven books of our New Testament: he described them as the sole ‘fountains of salvation’ to which ‘let no one add, let nothing be taken away’. In the Latin West, a similar list had hardened by the mid fourth century, and it is usual to appeal to Augustine’s exposition and two councils in North Africa (in 393 and 397) which endorsed our list. However, it is also evident that disagreement persisted, especially among thinking Greek speakers: councils in the East continued to rule on approved lists of scripture, while not always agreeing in their results.  In the 370s no bishop had a shaper nose for heresy than Epiphanius, a bishop of Cyprus, but he still classed the suggestive Wisdom of Solomon at the end of his list of New Testament books (perhaps he shared the view that it had been written by Philio, a Jewish contemporary of Paul). Even in the West the combined weight of Augustine and the various local councils did not extinguish the need to reiterate and reassert. Among the many Christians who lived elsewhere, the idea of a clear canon would have seemed odd. In the East the Syrian Orthodox Church still recognizes only twenty-two of our current twenty-seven New Testament books for reading in church: their early members also favoured a fake Third Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Belief in this text duly passed to the Armenian Church, from whose language the fake letter was translated into English by Lord Byron.   The Ethiopian Church,  meanwhile, continued to show evidence of two canons, one of which is broad enough to include an extra eight books in the Old Testament, like Clement or a book of the Covenant in two parts.
            These variant lists and local complexities could be multiplied, but they confirm two simple points.  No central authority ever fixed a New Testament for all the early Christian Churches, any more than a central authority fixed a Jewish canon earlier for the Hebrew scripture. Exclusive lists of New Testament books emerged rather late in the day when people sat down and started to look back at them: for three hundred years Christianity had coped without them, and even afterwards not every Christian acknowledged one and the same list.  The Old Testament books were even more contestable: the historic figure of twenty-two, known in Judaea before 70, took on a new importance, not least when Christians began by quoting from a wider range of books and their Jewish hearers complained at their weak authority.
            Obviously, it is implausible to cite the early Christians’ agreement on their scripture as a proof, or result, of guidance by their Holy Spirit.  Even an atheist can see the difference between one of their turgid or most sectarian alternative Gospels and one of the recognized four: as for the others, even early Christians who respected our four could quote sayings from some of the other Gospels, too.  As for the rest of the New Testament, it was never agreed definitively, unless the Syriac, Ethiopic and Greek Orthodox Churches are disqualified from a share in the Holy Spirit, along with the bulk of those Christians who wrote in Greek throughout the first seven centuries of Church history and made such subtle contributions to Christian theology. (p. 151-153)

            Since his focus historical and not theological, Fox does not harp on this point.  But it is an interesting one.
            To further complicate things, remember that the Protestants rejected the books of the Deuterocanon in the 1400s.  These books had been part of the traditional Christian canon up until then, and are still part of the Catholic Bible.
            So if you’re Protestant, you believe that for the first 1400 years of Church history, the Holy Spirit got it wrong.  It makes you wonder what other books in the Biblical canon the Holy Spirit may have made a mistake on.

And Other Things
          There’s much more to chew on in this book, but I’ll have to stop myself here.  If I commented on everything, I would end up making a book review as long as the book itself.

Other Notes:
* Via Phil, I became a fan of Steve Donoghue’s blog over at stevereads.com  A couple years back, Steve also reviewed this book on his blog, and his review is worth checking out [LINK HERE].  He has a much different take on this book than I do, but then that’s the beauty of a world with so many different opinions.

* Another one of Fox’s more annoying habits is constantly dropping references to Bible verses without giving the whole quotation.  He’s constantly citing chapters and verses, but never giving the whole quotation.
            If I was reading this book in my apartment, it wasn’t really a problem because I could just put the book down and get out my Bible to check the reference.  But if I was reading this book in a coffee shop, or somewhere else without my Bible, I just had to miss the reference.

* In the past couple years, a lot of people have gotten in a lot of trouble on the Internet for inappropriately using rape as a metaphor.
            Since this book was published in 1991, before the all that Internet furor, I suppose we should make allowances for Fox.
            Still, it grates on the ears a bit to read him constantly using the word rape to describe how Christians took Old Testament prophecies out of context.


*From a reviewer on Amazon.com

I couldn't, I think, stand, under the circumstances, this book. The constant, perhaps helpful, perhaps not, use of commas, with no real reason, was irritating: the use of colons added to that; sometimes colons are usefuls, and sometimes a period suffices.
Robin Lane Fox needs to learn how to write (and source his material, and write it in an organized and readable fashion).
- a secular humanist 

            Ah, yes, Robin Lane Fox does have a habit of putting commas in funny places.  (Is this a difference between British and American writing styles?)  I thought it odd, but it didn’t spoil the book for me.

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