Holy scripture, holy myth (part III- the politics of the Bible)

This will be my final post in a three-part series about the way the Old Testament is, and perhaps ought to be, interpreted in the LDS Church. Here I will explore possible reasons why the Latter-day Saints and the Church have been slow to embrace new scholarly theories about the Bible and why this fact is not likely to change in the near future.

Keep your friends close…
My Hebrew Bible/Old Testament professor often refers to the “politics of Biblical studies.” This concept does not refer to American partisan politics (though it certainly may have some application there), but is equally if not more vehement in its division. The politics of Biblical studies has to do with how various parties use and interpret the Bible to (dis)establish its authority. On one side, you have the stalwart Bible fundamentalists, fearlessly defending biblical inerrancy and the God-given authority of the Bible to resolve all of our concerns in the modern age. On the other, there is another group, mostly secular academics, who are more willing to give naturalistic explanations for the Bible’s content and any number of justifications for why its authority on us today ought to be limited, if not eliminated completely. Of course, rather than simply being two camps, these groups form two extremes on a spectrum.

My question is why have Latter-day Saints been so slow to adopt new theories about the Bible and, in spite of a lack of belief in biblical inerrancy, tended to side with the Christian fundamentalists on issues of the Bible’s history, and therefore its authority in our individual and communal lives? My own answer is to say that the club that Mormons most want to join is the “mainstream Christian” club, not the secular intellectual club. The Mormon angst over the constant refrain of “Mormons are not Christians” echoing from the South and Midwest is practically palpable. The folks holding the veto power over our inclusion are of course the Southern Baptists and Evangelicals, precisely the people who want to maximize the Bible’s modern authority. Adopting new theories about the history and content of the Bible almost invariably tends to limit its authority (though I hope to have shown in earlier posts in this series why that is not absolutely necessary). Therefore, embracing any such theory would simply give the “Bible-maximalists” that much more ammunition to say “Just as we thought! We knew you weren’t Christian!” Accepting both the Book of Mormon, other modern scripture, and continuing revelation as sources of doctrinal authority on par or above with the Bible means that we already have two strikes against us. Any kind of rhetoric that would denigrate the place and the authority of the Bible among our people would, in the eyes of those so eager to make nice, be the final straw. This is, of course, what Elder Ballard’s talk at the April 2007 GC was all about. In my mind, that talk was entirely aimed at redressing an imbalance in scriptural emphases that had started with Ezra Taft Benson’s increased emphasis on the Book of Mormon in the 1980s. The pendulum had swung too far towards the Book of Mormon and the membership of the Church was neglecting the Bible. Our tenuous membership in the “Christian club” would be in serious jeopardy unless we gently coaxed the pendulum back in the direction of the Bible.

The BYU Connection

The foregoing was an example of the ideological reasons why I think that the way that ancient scripture, and in particular the Bible, is taught and interpreted in the LDS Church is unlikely to change in the near future. What follows is a related, but more practical, reason.Another facet of this issue is how the Bible is treated by Church educators. In my own mind, the most important sources for our doctrine on the scriptures and their interpretation are: 1) the General Authorities, 2) the Religious Education faculty at BYU, and 3) the Church Education System. (In one of my early posts on this blog, I explained how the BYU faculty and CES serve as separate loci of doctrine-making authority within the Church, alongside the General Authorities) What we receive in classes in individual wards and branches is almost certainly filtered in some way through one if not all of these sources.

Why the General Authorities do not adopt these secular theories is a no-brainer: most, if not all of them, are completely unfamiliar with such theories. Running the Church does not exactly leave a lot of time for “light reading” in scholarly journals and manuscripts in ancient languages. Besides, from a market-oriented perspective, demand for pure scriptural “knowledge” is quite low in the Church. We generally expect GAs to help us “feel” something rather than teach us facts. The same can generally be said of CES personnel, who in general are not required to have much if any training beyond a bachelor’s degree and some Church-sponsored courses.

However, we could expect more of those who teach in Religious Education at BYU, who presumably ought to have the advanced training and skills to learn and impart this information. First of all, as a general matter, this matter of their superior qualifications and training may not be true. Reviewing the qualifications of BYU faculty shows that not all have advanced degrees in relevant fields (OT, NT, other ancient studies fields), and fewer have those advanced degrees from institutions other than BYU (after all, you can’t teach what you don’t know). Further those who do receive advanced education from institutions other than BYU return to Provo and are routinely socialized into an environment where their secular qualifications and methods are devalued, if not looked at with suspicion and mistrust. Their fellow BYU colleagues are their most significant peers and since BYU Religious Ed faculty do not, as a rule, tend to move on to other colleges, they begin teaching and writing to the expectations of the Provo clique rather than to those of the scholarly world at large. Also, the College of Religious Education is currently directed by someone with a CES background, and thus he and the department he leads can be expected to embody the biases of that institution. Therefore, it may be unreasonable to expect that the members of the faculty will offer content that differs significantly from the CES-Correlation orthodoxy.

In my personal opinion, the ideas about the historical or mythical nature of scritpure that I have laid out in previous posts in this series are worthy of analysis and discussion by members of the Church, even stopping short of outright acceptance. (If I did not think so, I would not have written about them. I am emphatically NOT doing this simply to stir up unnecessary controversy.) But we don’t, at least not currently in any Church-sponsored forum with which I am familiar. Furthermore, those forums where such discussions might take place (Sunstone, Dialogue, the Bloggernacle, etc.) are looked down upon by those most in a position to change the status quo. I think that there are reasons, good and bad, for this, and I have laid out a couple of them here. I would be interested to see whether anyone else sees any merit in changing the way we teach ancient scripture and what the prospects are for such change in the near future (say, our lifetimes).

Post-script: I had this post half-formed in my mind as of last weekend’s General Conference, and I have left the above part as it was at that time. However, Elder Holland’s talk “My Words…Never Cease” would seem to refute some portion of my hypothesis. Here we have a General Authority, no less an Apostle, making direct or indirect references to two very scholarly ideas (albeit ones in no way antagonistic to LDS claims) in his address: Markan priority and Q (sayings of Jesus). For those who were previously familiar with such ideas, like myself, it was quite shocking to hear them over the pulpit, primarily as a result of my own deflated expectations. However, in the long run I doubt that it changes much. Those who were not familiar with those ideas previously may have simply ignored it. A couple of intrepid and curious souls may have the audacity to ask questions in Church settings or look up something on the Internet or at a nearby library. Hardly a revolution…

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11 thoughts on “Holy scripture, holy myth (part III- the politics of the Bible)

  1. You make some good points. It is a little strange that given that Mormons have a qualified belief in the Bible (“as long as it translated correctly”) that Mormons are not more critical as to whether the Bible was in fact translated correctly. Mormons seem to push against the very qualification that they proclaim.

  2. There is certainly some precendent for at least considering the question of authenticity. CES lesson plans use a reference to Job in the D&C (121:10) as “proof” that he was real. But even this is nothing like the academic review to which you refer.

  3. Ben, great point. Its quite easy to fall into the rut of talking about “Mormonism this” and “Mormonism that.” The longer I am in the Church and continue thinking about these things, I think we need to start thinking and speaking in terms of Mormonisms, which are separated temporally if not spatially as well. Though the Church has been continuously present, the different threads and emphases of thought in it have waxed and waned at different times. The Gospel as preached by modern prophets and apostles differs considerably from the way that JS or BY would have thought about it. Certainly there is a great deal in common with those earlier times, but also a good deal that is different. In short what I am getting at is that yes, it was not always so and it is my hope that it will not always be so. However, a hostility to secular modes of reading ancient scripture (or even to any knowledge that might be generated by secular methods) is prominent in the Church today, largely because of the last half century influence of those you mentioned.

  4. Brigham,I am becoming more convinced that the “as far as it is translated correctly” is a huge red herring for the way we think about scriptures. It tends to conjure up fantasies about wicked Catholic monks laughing maniacally and crossing out words in the scriptures and re-writing them wholesale. I am not denying that instances of this might have occurred, but I don’t think it is the huge problem that we sometimes make it out to be.Instead of talking about (mis)translation issues, we need to go a lot farther back and look into issues of formation, origination, and canonization. In my mind, when separating the historical and mythical parts of scriptures, this is where the action is really at. Example: instead of thinking about how the books of the OT might have been changed to erase traces of the restored Gospel, let’s have a discussion about who wrote these things in the first place(and I emphatically do not want to talk about Moses), why, and how. Let’s introduce the context of other ancient Near Eastern traditions and the kinds of stories they were writing, the themes they brought out, the kinds of gods they worshipped.

  5. Notwithstanding the “as long as it is translated correctly” qualification, Mormons tend to be quite literal in their views of scripture and religious history. Part of this may have to do with the desire for assimilation into the larger conservative Christian community (I think that is a major force in the Church these days), but I also suspect that it has to do with a worldview that places relatively little religious value on myth. For most Mormons, the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Exodus, Nephi getting the plates, and the restoration of the Priesthood by resurrected beings, lose much (if not all) of their value if they are taken as allegory or myth rather than historical fact. From this perspective, these events’ value is grounded in the belief that they actually occurred. Theories that chip away at scriptural historicity are therefore highly suspect. And given the widespread Mormon cynicism of “so-called intellectuals,” church members are already comfortable disregarding such claims without so much as a second thought.I agree with Ben’s comment that also this has to do with such figures as McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith. These men had a huge and lasting influence on Mormon thought, in my opinion.I also agree that it’s necessary to go beyond the (mis)translation issue. For me, a major reason is that the idea is founded on an inaccurate notion that, thousands of years ago, there existed “original” or “pure” versions of the books we call scripture. In reality, it was much messier than that. However, I don’t see this orientation changing any time soon. For one, the Book of Mormon appears to substantiate this model. Further, as this recent T&S post points out, several Mormon academics apparently still embrace the “diabolical Catholic translator” theory. If these guys still haven’t dropped it, I don’t see the lay membership doing so in the near future.Anyway, that’s enough out of me.

  6. Steve,Thanks for bringing up the T&S post. That was one of the things that triggered some parts of this post that had already been floating around in my brain for a while.I think that the Book of Mormon is a huge part of this puzzle. Our determined insistence on the historicity of the Book of Mormon tends to cause an increased emphasis on the historicity of all scripture. As far as the formation of the Book of Mormon as a single pure and original text, I agree that this is the popular notion among members of the Church. But I am not sure that the text itself would support such an idea. I mean, it is clear that Mormon had numerous other types of records on hand when he redacted them. The things that he picked out for inclusion in our Book of Mormon would have been what was important to him (or what he thought would be important for us), but would be far from a complete picture. I don’t think that the idea of successive drafts works well considering the use of gold plates, but I think there is room for the idea that Mormon wrote down his final version on the gold plates but had previous drafts on something less valuable and more perishable. To echo the T&S post, were those earlier drafts not the Book of Mormon? I also think you make a great point about the lack of emphasis on myth in our modern world. I think it starts in the schools. We tend to teach myths as “crazy old things that Greeks and Indians believed” and our own national tales (ex. Christopher Columbus was a really great guy) as history. Anyone have any good reading on myth and the significance of myth in the ancient or modern world (maybe a comparative work?

  7. Sorry, I don’t think I was very clear when I said that the Book of Mormon substantiates the idea that our modern scriptures are descended from pure, “original” documents. I actually hadn’t thought of the application of that idea to the production of the Book of Mormon itself.What I had in mind was the Book of Mormon’s apparent endorsement of the notion that the books of the Bible originally existed in purity, but have been corrupted over the centuries as devious (or at least imperfect) priests and translators made changes, removed “plain and precious” portions, and mistranslated the texts.I think the Book of Mormon endorses this idea in 1 Nephi 13:25-28 (please excuse the lengthy quotation):Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which . . . ha[s] taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.As the T&S post points out, scholarly research generally doesn’t support this model of biblical production. As the author of the post writes, “For epics as well as for Exodus, there is no original, pure, perfect text. . . . Textual unity comes only later through a process of canon formation.”And so, contrary to what many Latter-day Saints believe, the problem with the Bible is not merely that some portions of it are not “translated correctly.” Its production and compilation were messy business, and it’s apparent that it is a complex mixture of myth and history, and truth and error.

  8. OK, I understand your meaning much better now. I don’t want to set outside of my area of knowledge here, but I think that if there were errors/deletions in the Old Testament (as attested to in the Book of Mormon), some of them should be clearly evident from the Dead Sea Scrolls/Qumran material and from the Septuagint, which is a 1st-2nd century BCE Jewish translation into Greek (so no conniving Catholic priests here). I have not studied the issue closely, but surely someone out there has and can shed a little light on what differences there might be, if any.

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