The Problem of Claiming Liberal Bias in Biblical and Mormon Scholarship

Blake Ostler’s 1987 essay on the Book of Mormon as a modern expansion, by Joseph Smith, of an ancient source has been an important part of academic discussion within Mormon studies for over thirty years. Early responses were negative, leading Ostler to walk back some of his arguments in the original essay. Since those early criticisms in the late 1980s and up until the early 2000s it seems that Ostler’s theory has come to enjoy new life with both academic and lay Mormon audiences as a way to engage the Book of Mormon as history but also account for many of the historical issues in its pages as well.

Responses to Ostler’s paper are good examples, though, of a common flawed argument in Mormon studies that I would like to highlight. This regularly happens when scholars with a more traditionalist bent engage in knee-jerk reactions to new academic material that they are uncomfortable with. In this case, I will comment on the response to Ostler linked above, Stephen Robinson’s paper “The “Expanded” Book of Mormon?” First, though, a look at Robinson’s own scholarship on early Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha will help to both contextualize and problematize his response to Ostler.

Robinson was, as he mentions at the beginning of his paper, trained in biblical studies at Duke University in North Carolina, a prestigious institution known for rigorous training and academic standards. Because of Robinson’s training and engagement within his field he was a part of the important two-volume set edited by James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. He was one of the editors of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel and the editor of both the Testament of Adam and 4 Baruch. I cannot overstate the importance of these two volumes for the development and growth of the study of Jewish and Christian pseudepigrapha; Robinson was lucky to be involved in such a project and his work on each of the three texts represents good scholarship for the time that the volumes were published. Although many things have changed in the field since the 1980s, the volumes are still recommended and for the most part reliable. Anyone who wishes to understand early Jewish and Christian texts outside of traditional canons should own these books.

In his introduction on the Testament of Adam, for example, Robinson discusses the dating the dating of this text in standard, academic jargon. There are three separate sections to the Testament that were written at a different time by different authors, and in its final form the text dates to sometime around the middle or late third century CE. Robinson argues for a final “Christian redaction,” to the text because “the testament is familiar with the Christian traditions found in the New Testament and must therefore be dated after, say, A.D. 100” (Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:990). Robinson argues that the text’s original language is Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic used by early Christians. These are important notes for understanding the historical composition of a book that claims to have authorial connections, at least in part, to Adam, the first man of the book of Genesis.

The fact that Robinson uses the presence of Christian traditions in the New Testament as a key part of his argument about the dating of the Testament is key to understanding Robinson’s response to Ostler. I assume that it would be awkward for the reader if I were to argue that Robinson denies predictive prophecy in his essay. In this case, his application of the basic methods and tools of modern critical scholarship on the Testament of Abraham would mean that he was jumping to conclusions, that the “hidden assumptions” at the core of his argument were unfounded and therefore his entire dating of the Testament of Adam needed to be rejected. He wasn’t leaving any room for a divine element in the construction of the Testament, only human and natural elements, and therefore limiting the evidence he was willing to look at. Why should we also, then, take at face value the important work he and others before him had done toward understanding the multiple authorship of the text? The text doesn’t say it was written by multiple authors, it provides a prophecy whose authorship is explicitly tied to Adam.

I hope that to each person who reads this post the above seems absurd. The years of training and deliberations behind the scenes of Robinson’s writings would have included taking into consideration all kinds of different historical, literary, and textual considerations into account for him to make the judgment that the Testament of Adam was written not by Adam but possibly (although now very unlikely) first Jewish authors with later Christian redactors. Language, ideas, and texts do not appear in vacuums, they all grow organically within specific social, political, and historical moments, and it is clear from the evidence that Robinson’s dating of the Testament of Adam is grounded in sound historical scholarship. What does this suggest about Robinson’s response to Ostler, though?

The hypothetical responses to Robinson’s work above come directly from Robinson’s response to Ostler’s paper. According to Robinson, Ostler had a naturalistic bias which clouded his judgment. Ostler can’t be right in his observations because he hasn’t considered that if he were to reframe the anachronistic sections of the Book of Mormon as being “predictive prophecy,” then he would understand that characters in the Book of Mormon could easily have known the theological developments that occurred not in the New Testament but in the centuries after within developing Christian theology.

Robinson appears to cut down the strength of his own work when he says, “It should be noted that the rejection of predictive prophecy is characteristic of the secular approach to the scriptures, for the exclusion of any supernatural agency (including God) from human affairs is fundamental to the methodology of most biblical scholarship.” Maybe if Robinson was here to discuss this issue he would say that his work on the Testament of Adam is different because it isn’t canon; it isn’t the Book of Mormon and therefore it doesn’t require the same kind of treatment. That might be true for an individual within the Mormon faith community in a devotional setting, but for anyone who wishes to seriously engage the compositional history of any given text the fact that a faith community includes it in its canon is irrelevant to the question of when the text was written.

The major breaking point, then, between what Ostler was attempting to do in 1987—similar to what many scholars within Mormon studies today are trying to do—and what Robinson did in his response in 1989 are drastically different. Ostler was attempting to engage seriously with the problems of historical anachronisms within the Book of Mormon. Although he was also trying to make that work with his belief that the Book of Mormon is still ancient in its origins, the primary effect of his approach was to take seriously the historical issues in his understanding of the authorship of the Book of Mormon. Robinson’s approach was purely devotional and apologetic since he desired Ostler and his readers to read predictive prophecy eisegetically into the text of the Book of Mormon. He never demonstrated how the Book of Mormon characters came to understand Jesus’s atonement the way they did through predictive prophecy, he just assumes that this is the catch-all problem of liberal scholarship and once you apply belief in predictive prophecy then everything is taken care of.

On the contrary, this cop-out answer in certain traditionalist Mormon circles is too heavily applied as a response to sound historical scholarship. For example, Monte Nyman, one of Robinson’s contemporaries at BYU, used this cop-out (like others before him) to argue against critical scholarship on Isaiah. “Actually, the authorship issue revolves around one’s acceptance or rejection of divine revelation” (Nyman, “Great are the Words of Isaiah”, 254). This isn’t even close to being an accurate portrayal of the issue in regards to either Isaiah studies or work on the Book of Mormon. H. G. M. Williamson, one of the most influential scholars on the study of Isaiah (meaning that his work is meticulous, careful, and encompassing), responding to this line of reasoning in his study The Book Called Isaiah (page 2), that

“in view of repeated accusations, it should be emphasized that this opinion [multiple authorship of Isaiah] is not necessarily motivated by a wish to circumvent the possibility of predictive prophecy. Indeed, there remains plenty of ‘prediction’, both general and specific, within Deutero-Isaiah itself, for example, if the bulk of Isaiah 40–55 is to be dated before the end of the period of Babylonian exile, and indeed it has frequently been maintained that part of the purpose of the concluding chapters of Isaiah was precisely to answer the problems raised by the apparent failure of these predictions to be borne out by the experience of the return and post-exilic restoration.”

Just like the apologists of the middle of the twentieth century that Williamson responded to, Robinson himself assumes too much about the methods that Ostler employs in his essay. Robinson attacks the devotional and theological straw man that he constructs while acting like the conversation wasn’t about strict historical discussion. Unfortunately, it seems like some of the personal and intellectual attacks on Ostler made him move away from some of his earlier, more sound historical observations about the literary construction of the Book of Mormon. It is unfortunate that he did not continue on the more reliable path that he set out for himself and others in 1987, but this might reflect a shift more toward theological construction than historical and therefore a different project than his earlier paper seems to have been out to do.

In any case, Robinson’s accusations against Ostler were totally unfounded and could be used against his own sound scholarly work on early Christian pseudepigrapha like the Testament of Adam. The evidence within that text is clear that the author was engaging with a Christian audience in a post-NT world, incorporating texts, language, and ideas that grew organically in specific social and historical contexts that then influenced the composition of the Testament. No one should ever use Robinson’s own arguments regarding Ostler’s essay against his work on the Testament, but at the same time no one should ever take Robinson’s response to Ostler’s paper seriously either. Fortunately, over the last twenty years or so more and more academic and lay Mormons have found that Ostler’s essay is essential to their reconstruction of understanding the Book of Mormon the more they learn about its internal and external problems. I would hope, though, that the knee-jerk reaction within Mormon academic circles to claim that scholars studying biblical texts and scriptures unique to Mormonism would leave behind the idea that at the heart of the issue is a belief or non-belief in predictive prophecy. Not only is it not true, it is a distraction that enables scholars like Robinson and others to not engage with the actual substance of sound, historical scholarship. Scholars should be able to expect better.

3 Replies to “The Problem of Claiming Liberal Bias in Biblical and Mormon Scholarship”

  1. Ostler’s essay (and other work), is important and has been very helpful to many. I recall sitting in a 2000 Sunstone panel in SLC with Blake , in which nearly everyone in the room raised their hands to signify that they had embraced his approach. (Brent Metcalfe was a conspicuous exception). But much has been learned since 1987 (Ostler allowed me to quote some of his updated thoughts in an essay in The FARMS Review 16/1 (2004) pages 339-340). I don’t think of Robinson’s response to Ostler as the most significant persperctive to emerge. In 1987, not only did Ostler’s important essay appear in Dialogue, but Margaret Barker’s first book, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes form the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity also appeared, though it took a while before a critical mass of LDS scholars noticed her work and the implications. The last paragraph of the introduction to The Older Testament has this: “The life and works of Jesus were, and should be, interpreted in light of something other than Jerusalem Judaism. This other had its roots in the conflicts of the sixth century BC when the traditions of the monarchy were divided as an inheritance amongst several heirs. It would have been lost but for the accidents of archeological discovery and the evidence of pre-Christian texts preserved and transmitted only by Christian hands.” (Barker, 6-7). In 2005, at the Joseph Smith Conference, Barker herself spoke about the Book of Mormon. Among other things, she said, “The original temple tradition was that Yahweh, the Lord, was the Son of God Most High, and present on earth as the Messiah. This means that the older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah. Thus finding Christ in the Old Testament is exactly what we should expect, though obscured by incorrect reading of the scriptures. This is, I suggest, one aspect of the restoration of “the plain and precious things, which have been taken away from them” (1 Nephi 13:40). The Jehovah of the Old Testament is the Christ of the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 3:8; 3 Nephi 15:5).”
    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/joseph-smith-and-preexilic-israelite-religion

    1. Kevin, thank you for the comment. It seems that by around 2000 or so a lot of Mormon scholars and interested lay readers started to come around to Ostler’s theory, and I’m glad that you were able to get some updates and clarifications on where he stood regarding the 1987 paper in 2004. I think those notes are very helpful. I agree with you that Robinson’s response to Ostler is the most significant perspective, although it is representative of a school of thought in Religious Education at BYU that some there still hold to. Besides that, though, the reason I brought Robinson into this post was to highlight the problem at the core of Robinson’s response to Ostler’s paper. Robinson used the same basic methodology to date the Testament of Adam (i.e. the intellectual and textual dependence on the NT in the book) without any hesitation or qualifications, just as Robinson should have done. But, then only a few years later criticized Ostler for utilizing those methods to comment on the compositional history of the Book of Mormon. This same argument is still used by some Mormon scholars to argue against the multiple authorship of Isaiah, and it clearly and simply does not work as an adequate response to clear historical or literary evidence. So I agree with you, again, that Robinson’s response to Ostler was not the greatest or even the most unique provided in the thirty plus years since it was published, but it speaks directly to the issue I wanted to highlight (which is also related to my problems with Margaret Barker’s work).
      You’ll have to forgive me for not viewing Barker’s historical methodology or conclusions as very helpful for understanding first or second temple Judaism (e.g. the circular reasoning that “the original temple tradition was that [YHWH]…was the Son of God Most High, and…the Messiah…means that the older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah”). I’m glad that you have found her insights helpful over the years and that she has assisted many Latter-day Saints turn more toward scholarship on the Hebrew Bible, though.

  2. “Compositional history of the Book of Mormon” — now there’s a phrase to focus the argument. The whole topic and its associated assumptions (about how texts come to be) is entirely antithetical to the BYU Religion approach, which is more or less the same as the LDS senior leadership approach.

    It seems like there is a direct parallel here to how 17th- and 18th-century scholars began to examine the Bible using the same literary methods used to examine secular texts. Traditionalists demurred, objecting that the Bible was special and different and holy and could/should not be studied using scholarly methods. Of course, the whole standard LDS narrative of “the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” (the orthodox story of the composition of the Book of Mormon) makes an even more extreme specialness claim that the book should not be studied using standard scholarly tools. There is some merit to that claim: if the text resulted from supernatural creation or transmission, the text really should not be amenable to standard scholarly compositional analysis. But (surprise!) it is. The extreme reaction from BYU and LDS leadership to New Approaches to the Book of Mormon (Signature Books, 1993) shows how much resistance there is within orthodox circles to the idea that scholarly study of the book might actually be productive (in the sense of revealing something about its compositional history).

    While I admire Ostler’s attempt in his article to account for modern influence while retaining a claim to an authentic ancient source, I don’t buy the argument. I can see God working through a naturalistic transmission process where texts get edited and reworked over the centuries and emerge as the biblical texts we have today, with some aspects of the text retained from the earliest layers and some aspects showing evidence of late additions or changes. But that explanation of seeing God somehow work through a natural process of transmission doesn’t work for the orthodox LDS story of the Book of Mormon text (an entirely supernatural process). And it doesn’t work for Ostler’s theory (mixing natural additions by Joseph to a supernatural core of ancient material somehow transmitted to Joseph’s mind).

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