Our book today is Robin Lane Fox's mighty, encyclopedic 1991 volume The Unauthorized Version, one of the most essential works of Biblical exegesis ever written and a walloping amount of good old-fashioned literary fun.
Fox has an almost unbeatable track record. His Pagans and Christians is an enduring work of scholarship, and his biography of Alexander the Great became the 20th century standard almost from the moment of its publication (Scarisbrick's Henry VIII volume did the same thing – a not entirely healthy procedure, but a toughly adhesive one just the same). The chief attraction in all Fox's prose can be summed up the way an old friend of mine used to do it: “He thinks on the page.”
As many of you will know, I have a sweet-tooth for biblical exegesis (I've even indulged in it here on Stevereads from time to time) – not biblical deconstruction, mind you, not in the sense of attacking the basis of anybody's faith – but biblical humanism, based on the assumption that whatever else the sacred texts of the Bible might be, they're also texts, able to be studied like any other written documents. Centuries ago, when humanism was in its perilous infancy, several of its most eloquent defenders pointed out the logical fallacies of objecting to such claims: if the Bible's various books are divinely inspired, they should be able to withstand a little textual scrutiny – and if despite their divine inspiration their human transmission has interpolated errors into their contents, well, then the divine inspiration isn't to blame, is it? Either way, humanists (at their best) argued, studying written texts cannot imperil true faith.
This is certainly the ethos behind The Unauthorized Version. Even though Fox wrote it as an atheist, he kept and open mind and heart (as he put it, he believes in the Bible, but not in God) – he's not out to attack anyone's faith, but even two minutes of studying biblical textual history is long enough to stumble into problems with the way most Jews and Christians today use and think about their sacred text. I see these people every day on the subway, complacently opening their Bibles with the exact thought in their mind that they're opening one book, written by one mind, moving toward one point.
It's an attractive thought, but as Fox amply demonstrates in The Unauthorized Version, it's a wildly inaccurate and inevitably self-deceitful way to deal with what Fox calls the “splendid incoherence” of the work as it's come down to us. That work can inspire many things, but complacent textual faith isn't – shouldn't be – one of them. As Fox puts it with doomed bluntness:
the prospects for one consistent and coherent construction out of this variety were precisely zero.
The main attraction of his book (which is so full of attractions it can literally be re-read every single year with new wonder, new discoveries … the acumen and sheer research necessary to have written it seem more impressive to me with every passing year) is the patient, open-minded, meticulous way Fox detonates that one coherent construction. In every text of the Bible, in every long-cherished received tradition of Judaism and Christianity, in every specific example, our author dives until he reaches the bottom, then presents us with a clear picture in sparkling, often very funny prose:
Historians are not so pedestrian that they cannot see how truth can be found even in an unintended fiction. A story may be wonderful evidence for what the narrator and his audience believed and assumed: it may help to hold their view of reality together. The beliefs may concern a god or an independent Satan (a late arrival on the biblical scene): they may be odd until we unravel them, like the curious story of Jacob in Genesis 30 who strips off the bark of fresh twigs, puts them in the water trough of his sheep and is somehow thought to have made them conceive speckled lambs as a result (it is not even that he had an speckled rams to father them: Laban had taken the speckled rams away). For centuries, scholars could still understand this story, as we have recently been reminded: it turned on the widespread belief that a mother's conception was influenced by whatever she looked at during sexual intercourse. In the water troughs, the stripped twigs looked dark and mottled; Jacob's ewes gazed on them and conceived mottled 'Jacob's flock', just as horse-breeders believed that a mare would conceive a fine foal if she saw her handsome stallion in a mirror while being mounted (in 1726 a woman amazed London society by claiming that she had given birth to rabbits after looking at a rabbit, but it emerged that she was wrong). Behind Genesis 30, which is story, not history, lies a widespread belief about conception and the facts of life. As late as 1950 there were commentators who claimed that it was true (which is another story and also part of history). It was left to Augustine to wonder why the ewes did not conceive twigs.
That emphasis on stories vs history is typical of Fox and a recurring note in The Unauthorized Version, which tries at every turn to strip away the accumulation of repetition and tradition that has filled up the holy books that comprise the Bible. In one delightful passage remarking on the fact that his contemporaries wondered if Jesus was King Solomon come back to life, Fox muses on how shocking Solomon would have found it, to come forward in time and see what the traditions of Judaism had done to his story:
Suppose that King Solomon had come back instead: he would never have credited it. Here were his descendants, venerating texts which he was supposed to have written and wondering whether or not they polluted people's hands: he had never composed a word of them. One of them said that he had 'uttered three thousand proverbs and his songs were a thousand and five': it was amazing to be thought so clever. There were even people who thought that he had written the Song of Songs: it would have looked to him like a collection of straightforward love poetry (his Egyptian wife had known plenty of bits like it). Why ever had people fallen for this book of the law in which Moses seemed to speak: why had they dreamed up a covenant with God or a future life? He and his friends had managed very well without any of them.
And yet, Fox allows, they weren't wrong to 'fall' for it, if it brought order and even comfort to their lives – the error happens when those same people, having been comforted, turn around and start to make untenable historical claims about the texts that gave the comfort. That's what historians like Fox can't tolerate – although The Unauthorized Version is in no way an intolerant book (you'll have to look to more modern pundits for the smallness of that). It's instead a fair and even loving one – but wry and unsparing too, and enormously worth your time regardless of your 'faith status.' Humanists everywhere should rejoice in it.