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70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important questioning, July 27, 2003
This review is from: Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Paperback)
The first time I picked up Robin Lane Fox's 'The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible', I was intrigued. While this was hardly the first time I had heard the historical information of the bible questioned in terms of accuracy or even plausibility, it was I believe the first time I had ever heard the word fiction applied in a serious way (the title, no less!) to consideration of the bible.
First, a note on the author. Robin Lane Fox is a fellow of New College, Oxford, and a University Lecturer in Ancient History. Among other popular and scholarly works he has produced are 'Alexander the Great' (a respected history) and `Pagans and Christians' (an interesting exploration of the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity). Robin Lane Fox explains in the preface to 'The Unauthorised Version' that this is an historian's view, not an exposition written from the standpoint of faith.
Robin Lane Fox is often discounted, particularly by Christians, because he purposely writes for Christian-dominated audiences, but does so from the stated standpoint of being an atheist. He does make a few historical errors in his framework -- he would say they are matters of interpretation, but I dispute that. For instance, he claims that his address to Christians rather than Jewish readers is because the Bible is a Christian creation. He discounts the Jewish influence in formation of the canon (both the positive and negative aspects related to that, yet another double-edged scenario in history). He reads the biblical texts as he would any other ancient narrative -- this is perhaps what he considers objective. However, I would submit that to write as an atheist is already to import certain judgements into the scheme of analysis and interpretation, rather like those early Enlightenment scientists and philosophers who assumed the aura of objectivity but then discounted the value of thing that didn't fit the framework of their approach.
Robin Lane Fox discounts the idea of getting beyond the translations of texts back to original documents for closer understanding. Almost in an ironic position, Lane Fox argues for the 'standard' versions over the scholarly reconstructions primarily because of the level of influence and acceptance they have gained through recitation, spiritual development, and liturgical use. This reminds me of Luke Timothy Johnson's arguments against the quest for the historical Jesus, although this is a parallel Johnson would perhaps not appreciate.
Robin Lane Fox concludes, after going through historical and literary analyses of many stories and principles in the text, that the scriptures are not unerring, and most likely only one view or voice among many (a curious claim, considering that he also speaks of the biblical text having too many voices, not just one).
I enjoyed this book. It challenges much of my faith and belief, not only religiously, but also historically and philosophically. That, I contend, is its primary value. While I certainly don't discount the need for reading spiritual texts for edification, I worry about those who exclude all but that kind of literary. Is a faith that is never challenged truly faithful? Is a faith that cannot stand up against the arguments of Lane Fox a worthwhile faith? Is the faith that cannot admit when, as much as one might not want to say so, Lane Fox has made some good points, truly a strong faith?
One of the problems with texts like these (and, ironically, their opposites) is that people rarely read enough or think enough to pull in the variety of interpretations and materials they need for sound judgement -- this is as true among those who wander the halls of seminary as it is among those outside, both in and out of the church. We naturally gravitate toward those things that are comfortable, and avoid those things which are difficult. For many, Lane Fox is discounted because of his beliefs (and yes, atheism is a belief, not merely the absence of belief). Others discount him because they 'already know his viewpoint or framework'. This, of course, is arrogance, even though it usually has a subtle cast to it (and I am guilty of this often myself).
I recommend this book. Do not look for truth of a religious sort here, but rather look for a text that will prompt thinking, both subtle and direct. Some things of value include an examination of the lack of triviality in the biblical text -- there is only one accidental death in the whole bible, and that is also to prove a point (indeed, the word 'accident' does not occur anywhere in the Bible, the King James Version or the New Revised Standard Version). The whole text is devoid of anything that does not matter, that does not have a purpose. How many readers have that kind of attention and faith to detail?
Lane Fox ends with an evaluation of the 'answer' to Pilate's question. He states (accurately) that the disciples are presented in all the gospels as often fallible and ignorant. They argue among themselves over trivial matters, and fail to understand the importance of what is happening. They also loose faith -- they fall asleep, they run away. No other religion has texts with such a human foil to its story.'
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 7, 2009 6:39:01 AM PDT
A. Rehm says:
I disagree that atheism is a belief, rather than the absence of it; that's a statement that only religious folks ever seem to make. But this is a great review, and I appreciate your openmindedness. We need more reasonable people like you, on both the religious and atheist side. Thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 1, 2010 11:56:24 PM PST
There is a fact of the matter with regard to whether or not atheism is a belief, or rather, there is an objective framework we can put it in. - There are those who believe, those who disbelieve, and those who are agnostics. That way of framing the discussion is missing the fact that there are some who lean one way or another. We could put each person on a spectrum, some being more and less confident than others and so on. Each person is on that spectrum somewhere. Say that total atheism is 1 and total theism is 100. Any number 1 to 100 is going to be a belief with regard to a certain proposition, in this case the proposition is "god exists." So, with this said, I think atheism is a belief, insofar as it is a mental reaction by a person with regard to a proposition.

Now, the idea is that all the religious people want to call atheism a "belief" in an effort to sort of say, "hey, you have beliefs, I have beliefs, and so there, end of discussion." So the atheist says "no, I resist the idea that we should equate our positions like that." Both are being a bit silly. The real meat behind the issue here, is - what are your reasons for your position (or belief, if you like) with regard to the proposition "god exists." That's what needs investigation.

I do not think that atheism is a blanket absence of belief. After all, if it were, wouldn't an atheist have an absence of belief with regard to whether or not he or she ought to be an atheist?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 2, 2010 6:08:59 AM PST
A. Rehm says:
Really great points, Michael. I enjoyed reading that. Reminds me of the old gay / straight argument that no one is 100% straight or gay.

I think the standard atheist response to this argument is to bring up Dawkins' Flying Spaghetti Monster. I don't believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, nor do I define myself by that absence of belief. It doesn't figure into my life at all. God is similar; the only reason we came up with the word "atheism" is that we're constantly asked to explain ourselves, so it's convenient to have a shorthand explanation for why we're not in church.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 9, 2010 7:48:40 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 9, 2010 7:49:34 AM PDT
M. Lannes says:
Pure atheism as an affirmation of a total certainty of the absence of god would be as unreasonable as the people who have faith that a god exists. I say I am atheist because in all practical matters, the idea of an intervening all powerful god who created the universe plays as much role in my life as, say, fairies or elfs. We cannot be 100% sure there is no god, yet, but this does not mean that we must have a totally neutral opinion. The amount of evidence for not believing is huge while believers base their faith on thin air. There is as much evidence for the existence of god as there is for Dawkins' Flying Spaghetti Monster. The same people, however, who believe in a god that can resurrect people and cause the sun and the moon to stop will laugh at the idea of such a monster.

Posted on Aug 8, 2010 1:49:46 PM PDT
To be precise, atheism is the state of absence of theistic belief. Theism is not merely belief or disbelief in God, it is belief or disbelief in a particular scriptural theistic framework for religion. Buddhism is an atheistic belief because it not only lacks a theistic statement of God, it contains the opposite, an adjuration for its followers not to concern themselves with or argue over God. Christianity, on the other hand, relies entirely on the acceptance of an immense body of scriptural theistic text as being <i>true</i> on the sole grounds of it being stated in an authoritative scriptural text.

An atheist -- whatever they choose to believe about God -- merely rejects scriptural texts as being authoritative. They are nothing special, just some of the many, many things humans have written collectively or singly over thousands of years since the invention of written language. The fact that most written texts are <i>ancient</i> and relied for centuries on manuscript transmission simply lower the probability that they say today what they originally said, and make it even less likely that they are in any sense authoritative truth.

One is then left assessing the probable truth of the manifold claims in any body of theistic scripture on their own merits. This is a process that takes any reasoning being roughly ten seconds to accomplish. The reasoning process in the particular case of Christianity might go like this. Jesus died, was buried, on the third day arose, and will one day judge the quick and the dead. Empirically we have <i>never</i> reliably observed anyone actually <i>die</i>, be truly dead for three days, and come back to life. Physically we completely understand why any such thing is impossible -- it would violate every single important law of physics and chemistry and biology and psychology. It is absurd.

So we have a choice. Do we reject the probable truth of the laws of physics, and chemistry and biology and psychology, all reliably reported and repeatedly confirmed in experiment after experiment and the entire wealth of human experience over a long life, where <i>nobody</i> comes back from the dead, where dead means dead, laws that we ourselves can at any time confirm through direct experiment and experience <i>ourselves</i>, or do we instead believe a document written by ignorant and superstitious men in a dark age in the human past that is known to contain falsehoods and descriptions of events that contradict history, science, and reason?

An atheist -- even an atheist who does not instantly reject the possiblity of existence of a pandeist monist God quite outside of all theistic scriptures if only because Hume long ago made it clear that judging this particular question solely on the basis of <i>either</i> pure reason or empirical evidence is impossible -- instantly rejects theism as being implausible, not as a "religious belief in the non-existence in God" but as the simple observation that theistic descriptions of God are <I>absurd</i>.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 8, 2010 3:31:13 PM PDT
A. Rehm says:
Well said, Robert. Great post.

Posted on Apr 9, 2014 10:59:35 AM PDT
>>He reads the biblical texts as he would any other ancient narrative --
>>this is perhaps what he considers objective. However, I would submit that
>>to write as an atheist is already to import certain judgements
The peculiar argument always puzzles me. It reminds me of the argument in California that a certain judge should recuse himself from the case challenging the gay marriage ban because he was gay and therefore prejudiced. It never seemed to occur to anyone on either side of the argument that by the same standards, all STRAIGHT judges were "prejudiced."
Your presumption that "reading the Bible by the rules for reading any historical narrative" constitutes "atheism" says it all. To equate the "prejudice" of refusing to treat the Bible as an inerrant religious document with the "prejudice" of refusing to think of it any any other way may seem on the surface, to be simple reasonableness. But frankly it's a bit like calling the American Indian distrust of white people "racism."

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 26, 2015 3:11:32 PM PST
David says:
Mick McAllister, excellent points.

I sometimes read literature of "faith" for insight on how the minds of the faithful operate. (Sunday school lesson plans from central church councils, for example, provide interesting material that seems to be simply made up out of thin air -- "what God wants us to do", "why God did this", etc.)

One time I picked up a book entitled How To Read the Bible, and in it found a key phrase: "One can ONLY understand the Bible by reading it through the eyes of a believer".

Paraphrased: Suspend reason, or you'll see the Bible for what it actually is.

As your comment stated in different terms, that is exactly what the reviewer was saying.

Paraphrasing him: Approaching the Bible objectively is a biased position.

Ah, the parallel universe of the faithful who exalt belief above evidence. Perhaps that was what Jesus REALLY meant by "being IN this world, but not OF this world".
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