REVIEW BY KEVIN BALDEOSINGH
The sub-title of this book is Truth and Fiction in the Bible and, given the season, this review starts with British historian Robin Lane Fox's statement about Christmas.
"We can argue with renewed confidence for the date when Jesus died (March 36 AD) but, like early Christians, we do not know when he was born," he says. Some of the first Christians, Fox notes, argued for November 3, others for May or April. Not until the fourth century were Christians recorded as celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25 � a date used by pagans to mark the birth of the sun god in the winter solstice.
It's also important to note what Fox means by calling his book an "unauthorised version" � he is not primarily concerned with the factual nature of the Bible nor its lack thereof, but with figuring out what the Bible authors originally intended to say, "insisting that it can undercut what Churches, literary critics or modernising readers now claim that the scriptures meant."
However, as a historian, Fox is faithful to the facts, as measured by the standards of historical scholarship. "Whereas scientists have tested the stories of Creation to see if they correspond to facts, it is for historians to test the stories of the Nativity to see if they correspond to historical truth," he writes.
For example, he cites Luke's Gospel recording King Herod and the governor of Syria as contemporaries around 6 CE, but historical records show that occupied their two offices ten years apart. In fact, Herod was already dead when Luke has him ordering that every first-born male be killed.
There are also translation problems inherent in interpreting Biblical texts, even from a non-historical and theological viewpoint. Fox points out, for example, that Hebrew has no future tenses, so a present tense statement could easily be interpreted as a future tense one. "Translators, perhaps, make the prophets seem more prophetic than they meant to be," he wryly notes.
As another instance of drawing moral lessons from the Bible, Fox also exercises his own theological authority, using the story of the Garden of Eden to comment on capital punishment. "Having threatened the gardener with the death penalty, he relents and expels his couple to a life of hard labour," Fox writes, concluding that "when first used as a deterrent, so the Bible tells us, the death penalty fails and deters nobody."
He highlights the difficulties of treating the Bible as a reliable source.
"None of the books of our Bible existed in more or less its present form before the eight century BC," he notes, so five centuries had passed since the Israelites supposedly left Egypt for the Promised Land. Similarly, the New Testament is a list of books which some Christian bishops gave the stamp of approval three centuries after the death of Jesus, so does not reflect the full views of the original authors of various documents which had equal claim, historically, to be included among the books of the Bible. Fox's prose is very good, nicely paced and lively.
Robin Lane Fox.
Penguin Books, 2006.
ISBN 0141-02296-5; 478 pages.