The Unauthorized Version

Robin Lane Fox is an eminent classical historian; his previous works include a much-praised life of Alexander the Great and, more recently, the massive PAGANS AND CHRISTIANS—a book in which the author’s sympathies are conspicuously with the pagans. In the preface to THE UNAUTHORIZED VERSION, Lane Fox describes his new book as “a historian’s view of the Bible. It is a book about evidence and historical truth, not about faith.” Nevertheless, as Lane Fox himself acknowledges, his arguments clearly pose a challenge to the vast body of Christians whose faith is grounded in the belief that the Bible is the Word of God. Accordingly, hestates at the outset, “I write as an atheist.” Having said that, he unapologetically pursues historical truth, with no fashionable waffling about the impossibility of objectivity.

To undertake this ambitious project, however, Lane Fox had to venture outside the field of classical history. Thus he moves from an analysis of the historical improbability or impossibility of a given biblical narrative to evidence of a much different sort—for example, regarding the composition of biblical texts, or canon formation (the way in which the books that make up the Bible were selected and accepted by the community of believers). The range of evidence discussed and the arguments used to assess it belie Lane Fox’s claim to be evaluating the Bible primarily from the perspective of an ancient historian.

Fundamentalist Christians, who insist on what they term the “literal” truth of Scripture, will not read THE UNAUTHORIZED VERSION in the first place. Unbelievers, and Christians who have already abandoned the truth-claims of historical Christian orthodoxy, will endorse most of Lane Fox’s conclusions but will wonder what the fuss is about. (They are even likely to find Lane Fox too conservative in his reading of the Gospels, where he sees a plausible, unified historical narrative overlaid with dogma rather than the infinitely fragmented text of much contemporary New Testament criticism.) The audience most likely to profit from THE UNAUTHORIZED VERSION —against the author’s expectations—will be found among Christians who are neither fundamentalists nor theological liberals; from an encounter with Lane Fox they should emerge with a sharpened sense of precisely what they affirm when they recite the Apostles’ Creed.