The Unauthorized Version by Robin Lane Fox

The Bible ( is the most widely distributed collection of literary texts in human culture. The Greek word βιβλία (biblía) means ‘books’. Its two parts, The Old and New Testaments between them comprise 66 books. This number itself is contentious because there is no one ‘Bible’. Different faith traditions have fixed their ‘canon’ of Scripture in different ways. It is nevertheless the literary foundation stone of Christian civilization and is revered by believers to be divinely inspired.

A large, rich and fascinating tapestry of the written word, the Bible offers genres of literature which cover chronicle, narrative, poetry, song, creation myth, prophecy, wisdom sayings, and apocalyptic vision. The texts were compiled approximately between 700 BC to 100 AD (a period of 800 years) ( To not know anything about the Bible is, frankly, to be ignorant about the civilization in which we stand. Predictably, the secondary literature about the Bible is vast. This study by Robin Lane Fox ( casts the cool assessment of a modern classical scholar on the texts of the Bible, and makes for a worthy introduction for anyone wishing to learn some biblical historiography.

With the forensic intentions of a historian seeking the truth about the past, Fox analyses the texts. Within the first few pages he points out that the Bible contradicts itself. It declares in Genesis 1:12 that on the third day “the earth produced growing things: plants bearing their own kind of seed and trees bearing fruit,” according to the Revised English edition; and then stating in 2:4 and 2:5, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, there was neither shrub nor plant growing on the earth, because the Lord God had sent no rain.”

There is a kind of impish sport in quoting the historical contradictions in Scripture. It is a sport which can become tiresome. Read further here: Some Reasons Why Humanists Reject The Bible – American Humanist Association Scholars have known about these contradictions for centuries. There are, though, subtler meanings of the word ‘truth’. Much can be learned in an exercise that might show the Bible to be historically doubtful, yet bearing moral insight. So Fox asks two subordinate questions about truth: Does the Bible cohere with itself in the general thrust of its meaning? And does it correspond to reality? He sets about to answer these as exhaustively as he can.

The author begins by sketching in the historical background of the Bible from the dawn of history down to the life of the Apostle Paul. One may be surprised to learn that there is no historical record of Abraham, Isaac, Joseph or Moses outside of scripture. Nor is there early independent evidence of any Covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites.

To judge from concurrent records, the idea of monotheism emerged only gradually. It is disorienting to grasp that if the early patriarchs did exist, they were probably unaware of the Ten Commandments. Next, Fox traces the development of the Old and New Testaments. This history too can be confounding. The Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament from Genesis to Deuteronomy, was probably amalgamated into our single body of narrative and law about the fifth century BC. As for the entire Old Testament: it seems to have taken longer to compile the earliest full copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, the so-called Leningrad Manuscript, written in A.D. 1009, than it did to produce the first standard New Testament, the King James Bible, printed in 1611. But neither can be called the last word, in any sense. To work back to ideal original texts would be impossible, even if all variants were available to scholars. Fox relates that the Old Testament was written mainly by ‘J’, the ‘Yahwehist’; ‘E’, the ‘Elohist’; ‘P’, the ‘Priestly’ author; ‘D’, the ‘Deuteronomist’, as well as the later, less reliable ‘Chronicler’. He insists that the four Gospels were composed by four different authors, the most reliable version being the Gospel according to John, which was based on the eyewitness testimony of a man referred to as Jesus’ ‘beloved disciple’.

But as recently discovered scrolls come to light, they reveal contradictory texts that may be based on alternate traditions, both oral and written. As Fox presents it, the provenance of Scripture is endlessly confusing. When scientific scholarship tracked down a more accurate version of the Sermon on the Mount, it came out not as the King James Bible has it — “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin” — but instead as follows: “Consider the Sternbergia of the field: they neither card nor spin.”

All this shows the question ‘Is the Bible true?’ to be naive in the extreme. The Bible seems to simultaneously endorse charity to the poor, the practice of slavery and outright genocide. Contradicting not only itself but also the slowly accumulating records of ancient near eastern history, it doesn’t neatly fold together.

Having acknowledged this, one is certainly not warranted in jettisoning the Bible. Fox commends it for its ‘human truth’.  As he writes: “The Bible is teeming with human authors, first authors and later editors, letter-writers and revisers. They are witnesses to ideas of God to which the modern world still has many heirs”.

The events and stories presented show us truths about the people of Israel and of the first Christians. If it is not ‘The Word of God’, the Scriptures confront us with the mirror of man in all his grandeur and frailty. Such a judgment may seem anticlimactic, but the path by which Fox has arrived at it is informative. It’s an educational journey worth taking.

Enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.

Continue an introduction to the Bible with:

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. ISBN 0-13-948399-3 (

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. (1990). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-614934-0. (

Armstrong, Karen (2007) The Bible: A Biography. Atlantic Books ISBN 978-1843543961 (

Barton, John (ed.) and Muddiman, John (ed.) (2001) The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199228850 (

Ehrman, Bart D. (2011). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th edition. New York: Oxford University Press (

Bibliographies in the above should launch you into a lifetime study of the Bible. Amen.

480 pages in Viking

First published 1991

ISBN  978-0670824120

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Professor Robin Lane Fox

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