Take 2: Blumell, New Testament History, Culture and Society

Review of Lincoln H. Blumell, ed., New Testament History, Culture, and Society (Provo and Salt Lake City: RSC and Deseret Book, 2019).

In a recent blogpost (May 26, 2019), Kevin Barney published a favorable review of Lincoln H. Blumell, ed., New Testament History, Culture, and Society (https://bycommonconsent.com/…/review-of-blumell-nt-history…/), that was contextualized by its application to Kevin’s Gospel Doctrine teaching experiences and needs. I would like to offer a different perspective on the volume that seeks a context within a larger academic narrative and probes the quality of the book. This is not because the editor explicitly sought out such a context, but because of the fact that much of what comes out of Religious Education parades as scholarship and takes advantage of a receptive and believing community that wants support for its theology, practice, and belief. Many readers are not aware of the inner workings of Religious Education at BYU-Provo and its Ancient Scripture department, and many will be surprised to know that the department and indeed the college itself are cannibalizing its own believing scholars. The timing of this volume is particularly important because the editor of the volume is asserting pressure on the department of Ancient Scripture to eschew academic discussions in the classrooms as a type of blind devotion to faith tenets. The department has launched a series of lunch discussions that have as their intent an interest in defining orthodox positions on topics like the authorship of the New Testament, the tripartite authorship of Isaiah, the historical foundation of the biblical narrative and other topics. This editor is poised to leave a lasting imprint on the LDS community by presenting us with mostly underinformed historical discussions that avoid current academic work and withhold information in the hopes of presenting a faith-affirming narrative

     Formally, the book is 836 pages long with a two-page introduction by the editor that lays out how the book is divided into seven section. Following the editor’s lead, it appears that the book was meant to be similar to the Oxford handbook series, “it is more of a handbook that readers can consult topically.” Unfortunately, the editor does not situate the work within already existing LDS scholarship on the topic nor does he gesture towards academic interests or indebtedness.

     This book is a wake-up call to the Latter-day Saint community, and it has caused me more than a moment’s reflection and pondering. At its most basic level the book is deeply dishonest in its approach to the New Testament, its history, culture and society, and when painted in its most positive light the book should serve as a clarion call to ask religious education to stop publishing this type of work without careful review. The book appeared in print in 2019 after having been rejected by two other major Latter-day Saint publishers. It was then submitted to the RSC, which did an expedited review after having communicated to the author that the book had been accepted for publication! I know because I have emails from the editor to prove this claim. This is perhaps not a major issue for some, and I acknowledge that publishers all have their own needs and audiences and so the issue was perhaps one of fit. However, the expedited review and publishing efforts led to dozens if not hundreds of typesetting and typographical errors that could easily have been fixed. In one instance, Hebrew text is printed in reverse direction. But why quibble about minor issues. The larger issue is that the book lacks a cohesive and unifying interest.

     The book itself is a testimony of sorts to an absolute embarrassment of riches. In chapter 3, Tyler Griffin published an article describing his virtual tour of Jerusalem and its environs. What the unsuspecting reader does not know is that this project has a price tag well into six-figures and may have well passed into seven-figures. The work is based off the for-profit Ritmeyer Archaeological Design efforts with almost no reference to academic work on the temple mount and not even a single archaeological report. The author, who holds a Ph.D. in instructional design according to his own bio, has no archaeological training or expertise and yet he has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into a project that is deeply flawed in its reconstruction and approach (see some of the specific notes below).

     A second issue is that the articles are lazy in their academic efforts. For example, David Seely, Dana Pike, John Welch, Andrew Skinner, Robert Millet, Noel Reynolds, Lincoln Blumell, Gaye Strathearn, and Frank Judd put together articles that are much simpler and less thoughtful than previous articles they had earlier published on the same topics. Skinner and Millet cite almost no academic sources written in the past twenty years, while Pike and Seely offer meandering surveys that would have been better had they simply said, “See my other work on this topic.” Kent Jackson cites only his own work, apparently unwilling to recognize any other studies on the topic of the JST. In these same articles, Latter-day Saint authorities are cited as academic sources for history, culture, and society as though that would not further confuse the LDS community in the long run.

     The most disconcerting item, however, is the academic dishonesty on display. The articles on authorship by Frank F. Judd Jr., Lincoln H. Blumell, and George Pierce lend the impression that the authorship of certain biblical books is a simple matter of assertion and that they do not need to engage the scholarship on these topics. This almost utter rejection of academic conversation occurs throughout the book in chapters by Daniel L. Belnap, David Rolph Seely, Matthew L. Bowen, Avram R. Shannon, John Welch, Andrew C. Skinner, Robert L. Millet, Eric D. Huntsman, Noel B. Reynolds, Gaye Strathearn, and others. The authors may assert that they are simply supporting faith and building the kingdom by offering faith-positive discussions, but they are in reality obscuring evidence that has the chance of surprising the faithful when they come in contact with it later and in other contexts. Poorly executed faith-leaning scholarship is as destructive as intentionally misleading scholarship. There is no reason to hide behind laziness, pre-conceived answers, and apologetic interests. Our community deserves better, it deserves quality peer-review, and if our message has a foundation in truth then it should also move beyond the echo-chamber of BYU campus publishing. As a parent, I am tired of poorly thought out responses being given to the genuine questions of faith my children have raised. I want their questions treated honestly and openly, even if the answers are historically sound but simultaneously disrupting. Hiding information is a poor long-term strategy.

I offer here some more specific review notes that preserve the highlights:

Matson, chapter 1
This is a solid survey and it serves the purpose of inviting the reader into the inter-testamental period. The maps and diagrams are helpful and make the contents more accessible to the reader. For academic readers, there is some concern that this chapter is almost entirely a synthesis of Josephus, but for the stated audience this is perhaps okay. I believe that the editor should have demanded more from this chapter and author by pressing him to situate his reconstruction within LDS discussion of this topic (some authors are cited in the suggested readings) and within the larger academic discussion of these topics. Several good introductions to this topic already exist, and it felt like this short one did little to move the discussion forward. Rather it was a re-introduction to an already introduced topic.

Belnap, chapter 2
     This chapter has potential for the LDS reader, but it is construed in a way as to make its value almost irrecoverable. The author sets the stage by placing the Mosaic law in the context of early Christianity, as an object of Jesus’s narrative interest, and as a single idea that could be critiqued and judged separate from the larger concept of Mosaic law(s). The author then hits his mark by dissecting the law as a composite concept that grew up over time, a discussion that is informed by text critical issues. The author then concludes by returning to the law. The confusion is that the paper fundamentally misunderstands Galatians 3:24–5 and frames the entire discussion as if everyone in the NT saw the law of Moses as a “schoolmaster” that would lead them to Christ. The author fails to follow through with the issue of divergent views in the NT, how NT authors treated the composite parts of the law of Moses differently, and how sacrifice ceased and was then subsequently deemed emblematic of the cessation of the law. The author seems unaware of the challenge of supercessionism, two covenant theology, and the simplicity with which the Book of Mormon frames this issue. Overall, the author’s descriptive work is quite competent, but it remains unclear to this reviewer why this paper would be included in a NT volume without real engagement with the NT. In the end, however, the NT section was confusing, and the author seems to assume that all Christians viewed the law as a gentle, positive teacher that would bring them to Christ.

     Note, 20 The “law of the gospel” (cited by the author) is not a NT term. The term is placed in juxtaposition against the Mosaic law as though one could entirely replace the other. The author notes that the Mosaic law prepared people as a disciplinarian, but the author sees replacement theology as the only reasonable option. This is followed in the conclusion (31) where the author seems to see the law as functioning only as a “schoolmaster” (KJV) without dealing with what that term really means. Schoolmaster is a poor word choice, and the author is completely unaware that Paul was criticizing the nature of the law when it disciplined the adherent. The author should be applauded for citing divergent views on the documentary hypothesis and for nodding towards the neo-documentarians such as Baden.

Griffin, chapter 3
     This is a highly unfortunate chapter that promotes a project that has costs hundreds of thousands of dollars that is designed by a person who has absolutely no training in Bible, archaeology, or the ancient world, and who has produced a product that can be used by wealthy Latter-day Saints who can afford this product or the means to view it. It is unfortunate that BYU Religious Education would pour so much money into a project that has no truly qualified collaborators and that seems underinformed in so many details.

     Note, 40 The author states that John 5:4 is “absent from all early manuscripts of the New Testament.” I suppose that Codex Alexandrinus, one of the most important NT witnesses” does not qualify as an early manuscript! One would have thought that the general editor (Prof. Blumell) or the RSC review would catch such misstatement.

     Note, 50 The author declares, “There could have been other tombs in the vicinity of the Garden Tomb, however, that were newly carved by Joseph of Arimathea.” And just like that the author has offered an apology for a site without evidence and against the existing archaeological record. The editor should have struck these from the book.

Chapter 4, Seely
     This chapter is thorough, well-written, and based on primary and secondary literature. The author is certainly qualified to be publishing in this area. Readers will note that the article lacks a thesis and is in reality a summary of the Herodian temple, a subject which the author has published on previously. Unfortunately, the author has not engaged the larger question of how this information fits into the overall book project, although the author does gesture towards NT texts at times. This chapter does not include a further reading section, which is peculiar given that the other authors have done so.

Chapter 5, Hatch
     The discussion offered here is informed and detailed in new ways for an LDS audience. The author offers a post-exilic date for Daniel, engages the notion that messiah is a royal term rather than religious, and at times seems willing to think of the Hebrew Bible as offering diverse opinions regarding a messiah. The author polls several punches, arguing that anachronistic Book of Mormon concepts about the Messiah are “revealed” (73) or that there was such a thing as a belief in a “premortal, divine figure.” The author does a commendable job reading several New Testament passages in light of the conversation he has offered. The author ended the discussion abruptly without fully dealing with NT nuances regarding a Messiah. One gets the impression that the category of Messiah was the most important way to believe in Jesus and to fail to see him as the Messiah would be catastrophic to belief. I appreciate the quality of sources the author has used in offering this survey.

Chapter 6, Bowen
     This article engages the text of the New Testament directly by analyzing the sayings of Jesus and other NT authors using Hillel’s so-called rules of biblical hermeneutics. The effort is productive for the author who can pick and choose a saying at random to interpret while not engaging the larger questions of whether any NT author consistently adopts a pharisee approach, whether the sayings of Jesus consistently adopt such an approach, or whether any author does. They each, according to the author, use various hermeneutical strategies in deploying their messages, but what this means for the overall text is left unanswered.
     Some assertions are particularly troubling for the unsuspecting LDS reader. The author states that “Mark was one of Jesus’s early disciples, an early church leader, a possible tradent and interpreter of Peter, and probably a Jew.” Unpacking such an assertion with its problematic claims is beyond the scope of a single review, but evidence for his early discipleship is confusing unless he means that Mark is present in the first Acts-described Pauline mission, what is meant by an “early church leader” is foundationally askew since there is no such tradition in the NT and what is meant by “church” is an issue, and finally, does the author use “tradent” to mean what NT scholars mean by this term or does he simply mean a Petrine translator-advocate similar to Eusebius. I wish that the editor and reviewers would have forced the author to engage what has been implied in sentences such as this. The author concludes the chapter by asserting that his discussion has helped us be “better prepared to appreciate and understand the intra-Jewish debates and discussions not only ongoing throughout Jesus’s mortal ministry, but also present in the texts of Acts, Revelation, and the New Testament epistles” (104). This is a fine conclusion to make, but I’m not confident after reading the chapter that it has done anything like that. It has helped us identify a methodology or hermeneutic strategy, but the paper has done nothing to situate NT texts within a hermeneutically rich environment.

Chapter 7, Pike
     Like the chapter by Seely (chapter 4), this chapter has no thesis and is effectively a summary of matters that can be found in any competent introduction to the scrolls and also by this author himself in earlier publications. The author flirts with the old hypothesis that John the Baptist was an Essene preacher, but he fails to offer an opinion or deal with why this thesis has been abandoned by many. I’ve read the other introductions to the Dead Sea Scrolls by this author, and this one is short and lacking in the depth and clarity of his earlier publications. Perhaps, however, another general introduction to the topic was needed.

Chapters 15–16, Skinner and Millet
     One can only be embarrassed by Andrew Skinner’s footnotes. Apparently current and modern weren’t matters of emphasis in this volume. He even cites the whole “little dog” or “puppy” nonsense. Apparently, Millet doesn’t know there is scholarship done on the idea of Mediator apart from a few evangelical friends of his and some early 20th century sources.

Chapter 25, Blumell, Judd, and Pierce
     This chapter is academically unsound while absolutely avoiding any larger discussion of current issues. There is almost no awareness of the differences in the quality and style of the epistles 1 and 2 Peter, nor the differences between 1–3 John and the Gospel of John. The authors give the impression that these letters can easily and reasonably be assigned to their traditional authors. This is an almost embarrassing assertion given the wealth of scholarship on these topics, and these authors should and do know better. It is misleading to not at least work through the issues of authorship rather than simply assert that there aren’t any real obstacles to traditional authorship. The same challenges arise with Judd’s treatment of Ephesians and Colossians and the Pastorals.

Chapter 38, Blumell and Martin
     Before listing 50 errors in the KJV translation, of which there are many more, the authors state “While the translation appearing in the New Testament of the KJV is mostly accurate, perhaps at time even exemplary….” So, 50 errors makes a translation exemplary. This list, BTW, doesn’t even deal with textual issues.

Chapter 40, Jackson
     This chapter is a summary of work that Jackson has done elsewhere. In fact, he cites only himself and Matthews in his footnotes, apparently unaware that others have worked on the JST. It’s disingenuous to say that the JST provides “a great portrayal of the Master” without evidence. It’s a tired assertion that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The author seems unaware of the challenges his own study faces, such as why Matthew 24 and Mark 13 were revised in the same ways, but Luke 21 (the same discourse) was left untouched. The author seems to be wholly unaware of challenges facing JST researchers, such as a forthcoming work on the parallels to Adam Clark, and seems to want to live in a 1980s cave where no one is asking hard questions about the construction of scriptural text within the LDS tradition.

5 Replies to “Take 2: Blumell, New Testament History, Culture and Society”

  1. I’d love to hear more specifics regarding the numerous bombshells the author drops in the paragraph “Many readers are not aware of the inner workings of Religious Education at BYU-Provo and its Ancient Scripture department…”

    Can we here more specific details re these claims? My impression from the outside was that BYU was hiring more and more actual Biblical scholars…

  2. Though I share serval of DT’s concerns, for my part I would like to go on record saying that in the end I was given the scholarly autonomy to be just about as academically critical as I wanted in my chapter on Greco-Roman religion and the NT, despite however much Lincoln and I may see things differently. I appreciate that.

    Also, I would like to point out that the blame for the Church’s overall failure to grapple with mainstream biblical scholarship does not only lie with the choices of this or that Rel Ed faculty, of course, who may be at least partially bound by their need to keep their job. The college, the board of trustees, CES leaders and other general authorities are just as responsible, if not more so. And, ultimately, we would not be in this tight spot if it weren’t for Joseph Smith. His intentions in the Book of Mormon et cetera were sincere and noble, but when it comes to challenges from biblical criticism, we have been living on borrowed time for a couple hundred years now. In my opinion, it would take a coordinated effort, from the top down, just to begin to create the space and latitude necessary to sketch out some ways forward.

  3. Were only LDS authors selected for this book? If they were going to select LDS authors like g.wesley who think Joseph Smith was a pious fraud, why not select non-LDS authors?

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Just want to point out that ‘pious fraud’ are your words not mine. Fraud implies a knowing misrepresentation, and I’m not sure we can say JS knew the BoM was his composition. In fact, I don’t think he did know, at least not fully, given the complexity of the nature of religious experience.

  4. Another Take on Take 2

    Oh my, a negative review from an anonymous reviewer skulking in anonymity! In fact, I would not have expected anything less given the venue and the cloak of anonymity. The reviewer clearly has an ax to grind with Religious Education and is looking to find fault everywhere (and has perhaps left their discernible fingerprints in a few places!). While there is little point fully engaging with this anonymous reviewer whose overt animus is present in a number of places, I will indulge with a few observations and counterpoints.

    • Despite the reviewer’s claims, there is a unity and cohesion with the volume even if it treats a wide variety of topics. As stated, the volume was not put together with a view to be read cover to cover sequentially, but rather topically as the reader would like more information on a particular subject.

    • When the ms. was submitted I noticed that all of the Hebrew got flipped, so I informed the publisher to have this rectified and did my best to ensure it. So, if there is only one example of this I am rather relived (even if I wish all of it could have been correct).

    • CHAPTER 3: While the reviewer is highly critical of this chapter, it needs to be kept in mind that matters dealing with the archaeology of Jerusalem can be highly contested with different models being offered. While the reviewer apparently does not agree with the model put forth in this chapter, or at least certain parts of it, this can only be taken from inference as the reviewer rarely makes any specific arguments but simply resorts to ad hominem attacks on the author that are then extended to Religious Education and the virtual reconstruction project that is the main focus of the prolonged tirade. Here the reviewer is simply misinformed and their caustic comments have no basis whatsoever. In the reviewer’s tirade they claim about the virtual reconstruction project that it can only “be used by wealthy Latter-day Saints who can afford this product.” This is patently false. The virtual reconstruction is FREE!!! Anyone can have access to it; it costs nothing to download and anyone, anywhere has access! Here I invite the reviewer, or anyone else reading this blog for that matter, to go and download the Virtual New Testament App: https://virtualscriptures.org/virtual-new-testament/. It is a remarkable tool, but do not take my word for it, see for yourself.

    • CHAPTER 7: The author was asked to provide a general introduction for an LDS readership on the DSS and its relationship to the NT. To that end the author provided a useful chapter that summarized the issues; the chapter was responsible and warned against fringe theories and tenuous connections.

    • CHAPTERS 15: The purpose of the chapter was never designed to give an overview of the “historical Jesus” that detailed all the trends and the “quests” of Jesus of Nazareth. While the reviewer complains that the footnotes are not “current and modern,” this is an overstatement. While every chapter could have certainly included many more references, this is not damming like the reviewer would have one believe. Finally, the reviewer quips: “He [author] cites the whole ‘little dog’ or ‘puppy’ nonsense” (cf. Matt 15:26; Mark 7:27). If the reviewer had bothered to look at the Greek they would realize that the word for dog is in the diminutive (κυνάριον vs. κύων). In fact, in the BAGD (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early [sub verbum]) it expressly makes the same distinction that the author of the chapter is making! Thus, while the reviewer laments the lack of modern scholarship in this chapter, I would encourage the reviewer to familiarize themselves with what modern lexicons are saying about this term.

    • Chapter 16: Yes, chapter 16 was more devotional in tone and purposely so. But I personally felt that it was a fine chapter based on what it was trying to do. Here the reviewer’s summary dismissal of the chapter missed the point and reveals far more about the reviewer’s bias than it does about the chapter at hand.

    • CHAPTER 25: While the reviewer rages that the authors did not give proper attention to issues of authorship in the general NT epistles, in fact, it was expressly stated multiple times in the chapter that the authorship of every letter treated in the chapter was contested in scholarship. It is true that the authors did not attempt to address or even work through every issue surrounding authorship, but to do so would have occupied the entire chapter without ever getting into the letters themselves. As stated in the chapter, the focus was on the content of the letters.

    • CHAPTER 38: The reviewer complains about the list of the 50 translations errors in the KJV NT pointed out in this chapter by saying that there were “many more.” NO DUH! As we pointed out in the chapter, we only focused on a selection of the more significant ones. Likewise, the reviewer laments that we did not take into account textual issues along the lines of textual criticism. Why then did the reviewer not address the TWO chapters that dealt explicitly with NT textual criticism and the text of the KJV that also included lists of textual variants?

    • CHAPTER 40: Among other things the reviewer complains that this chapter did not take into account a forthcoming article showing parallels between “Adam Clark” (it is actually spelled Adam Clarke) and the JST. This is true; however, the author of the forthcoming piece on Clarke and the JST was approached and understandably did not want to circulate the article in advance of its publication. I therefore think it unfair to criticize a chapter for not engaging with scholarship that has not yet been published or is available.

    • On a more general note, the reviewer insinuates that many authors were “dishonest” and seems irritated that it proceeded with certain assumptions about the New Testament that are not shared in contemporary biblical scholarship. In full disclose there were certain assumptions in the volume, for example, as the editor I proceeded with assumptions like there was a literal resurrection, there were eyewitnesses of the resurrection, and that some eyewitness testimonies are preserved in the New Testament, to name just a few. So, if this came through in various chapters I do not apologize.

    • One final point I find troubling with the review (besides its overt animus) is a fundamental lack of critical self-awareness by the reviewer as it relates to scholarship and the field of biblical studies (broadly speaking). Among other things, it leaves me with the impression that the reviewer sees the field as monolithic and anyone who does not agree with their view is either dishonest or incompetent. Here I would be willing to engage with the reviewer at a more substantive level; please email me if you would like: lincoln_blumell@byu.edu

    • In other news, I had a book just published with Brepols last week. Here is the link: http://www.brepols.net/Pages/ShowProduct.aspx?prod_id=IS-9782503583709-1
    I wonder if the reviewer will be similarly troubled by the fact that I think that Didymus the Blind was the author of this text even though certain NT scholars have speculated that it might actually be Ps.-Didymus. If the reviewer would like to review this book, please send me an email and I would be happy to send you a complimentary copy for review.

    Lincoln H. Blumell
    Department of Ancient Scripture

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