Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric

The open letter recently delivered by LDS church spokesman Michael Otterson to a variety of blogs has, unsurprisingly, generated a flurry of discussion covering the whole gamut of responses.* Two things stuck out to me (besides the ironic labeling of OW as apostates while simultaneously requesting higher-level discourse), specifically about his appeal to the scriptures. First, he completely glosses over the clear scriptural problems with priesthood and church organization. There is no New Testament record of Jesus ordaining anyone to the priesthood, much less organizing a Church. Even more surprising, the terms that are usually sought to tease out such an organization, such as apostle, prophet, and deacon, are clearly applied to women in the scriptures (see Judges 4-5, Romans 16, etc.). Otterson does not mention or explain these scriptures, not even to dismiss them; instead, he offers only an appeal without references to Jesus’ clear organization of a male-dominated hierarchy.**

The second thing that stuck out to me was the way in which the rhetoric of the historical denial of the priesthood to blacks was co-opted and pressed into service as a reason for the current denial of priesthood to women. Past rhetoric, to my knowledge, has simply asserted that the status quo is the way the Lord wants and has always wanted it. (Some, like “Mormon History Guy” Russell Stevenson, have even argued that the exclusion of Blacks and the exclusion of women are incomparable precisely because women have no Elijah Abelses—‘course Deborah and Junia might disagree.) But this letter is the first time I have seen the “we just don’t know why” stance applied to the context of women’s exclusion from the priesthood. Compare the recent revision of the Official Declaration 2 heading with Otterson’s open letter: Continue reading “Women, Blacks, and the Priesthood in Recent LDS Church Rhetoric”

Biblical Literalism, Literally

The increasingly common use of “literally” to mean something emphatic (but not literal) has provided much fodder for comedic monologues (language warning!), drinking games, BYUtv skits, running jokes, Oatmeals, etc. Last August Dana Coleman (at Salon) brought to our attention Webster’s Dictonary entry on ‘literally’, which now admits that, in addition to the ‘according to the letter’ sense, the word can mean “in effect; virtually”. In other words, it can signify both “according to the letter/actually” and “not according to the letter/figuratively”. If you understand ‘virtually’ and ‘actually’ to be opposites, ‘literally’ can then be a contranym,* or a word that is its own antonym, like ‘cleave’.

Does this have anything to do with what fundamentalists mean when they say the Bible is literally true? It’s a serious question, and one that struck me tonight as my friend at dinner reported that a General Authority told LDS Stake Presidents in a recent Utah Valley training meeting that we are to remember that the Bible is literally true.

Continue reading “Biblical Literalism, Literally”

Bill Hamblin on the Documentary Hypothesis

Bill Hamblin has done a great service in providing a detailed outsider’s critique, repeating some of the frequent objections to the Documentary Hypothesis that gives us a chance to discuss and hopefully to reach greater clarity on the issue. Since Hamblin has shut down and deleted comments for anyone whose names don’t seem real enough to him, and (more important) since his 20-part attempted takedown of the Documentary Hypothesis (the theory that the first 5 books of the OT are the result of the combination of 4 independent documents) is too unwieldy to treat all at once on his blog, I thought I could summarize the points here and treat it as a whole while providing an open forum where all of Jupiter’s children who behave themselves are welcome to participate—even, and especially, Bill Hamblin (if that is even his real name).

I will also reiterate here my invitation to host a roundtable looking at specific texts so that we are not just sending volleys of assertions about what the theory is and isn’t or does or doesn’t claim. Of course, anyone remotely interested in this topic should consult first Joel Baden’s excellent and eminently readable The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale 2012), which does both of these things, giving an overview of the method and then walking the reader through specific texts to illustrate it. One can see similar ideas treated here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

First off, I think there have been some misunderstandings about what the DH is, which have led to some of Bill’s attacks, and I will try to clear those up. Even with these clarified I imagine Bill and I will still disagree, but it might get us closer to a conversation about key issues instead of red herrings. Below I try to summarize Bill’s posts in a couple of sentences and then react to each claim. There are so far 20 posts, so this will be an inordinately long treatment to digest in one sitting. For those sane ones of you who don’t want to wade through each post and reaction, I will summarize my critique here (for details on any one of these, see the individual treatments below the general summary):

Continue reading “Bill Hamblin on the Documentary Hypothesis”

The Joseph Story in Genesis and the Documentary Hypothesis

A basic first step in grasping the meaning of a biblical text as it may have been intended to be understood by its original authors is to establish something of its literary history. Most biblical texts developed over a long period of time, beginning with the earliest forms of the texts that served particular ideological purposes in their original historical contexts, then undergoing a succession of various literary and editorial adaptations by scribes and priests for the purpose of creating new textual entities to meet the ideological and religious needs of later periods, and finally a standardization process that led to the construction of a canon of sacred literature in Second Temple Judaism.

Continue reading “The Joseph Story in Genesis and the Documentary Hypothesis”

Things You Wouldn’t Think Might Go Together…


About last Friday or so I was sitting under my rock reading from Ehrman’s and Holmes’ Text of the New Testament: Essays on the Status Quaestionis, which happens to be about textual criticism. I am not making this up – it was chapter 17, Wasserman’s essay on criteria.  So anyway, word filtered in that the Maxwell Institute had a new book collecting all the NT apocrypha and giving high quality pictures of the same, etc., etc.

 And I thought to myself:  This is good news!  Textual criticism is concerned with the recovery of the oldest possible readings of ancient documents, including those of the Bible.  It’s pretty important in Classics, as well. Before anybody can get their so-called higher criticism on, they have to have a text – the best one possible. And before the textual critics can work, they have to have the best possible copies (pictures or transcriptions) of the texts.  Although I haven’t seen it, I suspect (hope) that’s what this latest book features.

 Personally, I find textual criticism fascinating, but it is tedious, painstaking work and sometimes not everyone appreciates this the way they might.  Rarely do the textual critics make pronouncements about Life, the Universe, and Everything but the exegetes who do are in reality indebted to textual critics.

 However, what I really want to mention is this:  In addition to providing us texts to work on, some aspects of textual criticism are also an excellent window into the world of early Christianity and into THE ASSUMPTIONS AND BIASES that are part of ours!   Yep, I’ve moved on from Status Quaestionis and into Eldon J. Epps’ Junia: The First Woman Apostle.  It’s a fascinating book, and quite accessible, too.   I’m just a few pages in, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

 Anyway, Epps is making the point that, with the 1927 edition of the critical Greek text of Romans 16, the female Junia became the male Junias.  Why?  According to one Hans Lietzmann, writing in 1906, the name must be male “because of the following statements” identifying the person as an apostle.  Yep.  Can’t be a woman because we KNOW that women can’t be apostles!  And, it stayed that way until 1970 or so. 

 Why did it finally change?  Ah, well, textual critics, of course, because the exegetes mentioned so far seem to have been quite satisfied about the whole thing!   And there you have it:  textual criticism as a means to social justice…

Maimonides and a new Torah Scroll Controversy

My ears perked up when I heard the news that Mauro Perani, professor of Hebrew at the University of Bologna, has found what he believes is the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll. Perani was updating the University library’s Hebrew manuscript catalogue in February, when he realized the scroll had been wrongly dated by the last cataloguer in 1889.

The 1889 cataloguer, a Jew named Leonello Modona, had described the letters in the scroll as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices.” Perani, however, recognized an elegant script whose square letters were of the oriental Babylonian tradition.

Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ Di Bologna

The scroll doesn’t follow the rabbinical rules established by Maimonides in the late 12th century that standardized how the Pentateuch should be copied. It contains many features and markings that would be forbidden under those rules. Its script and other graphic notations are far older than the 17th century date that it had been assigned.

Two separate carbon-dating tests — performed by the University of Salento in Italy and the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — confirmed that the scroll dates from 1155-1225 CE.
Giovanni Garbini, a leading expert on ancient Semitic languages, said the discovery doesn’t change much about what the world knows about Hebrew manuscripts.

“It’s an example of an ancient scroll, but from the point of view of knowledge, it doesn’t change anything,” he said in a telephone interview.

But Stephen Pfann, acting president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem and an expert in ancient Jewish manuscripts, said if accurately dated, the scroll is a rare and important find. “We don’t have anything much from that period,” Pfann said.

I’ll admit that I’m not qualified or knowledgeable in this field, but I’d love to hear some of our Biblical scholars expound on Pfann and Garbini’s disagreement. I was surprised to read Garbini’s opinion that this discovery doesn’t change much. When an older scroll or manuscript is found, there are often changes to our understanding of scriptural passages. For example, just yesterday, June 2, 2013, Ha’aretz reported that a new interpretation of Genesis 9:22-24 has come to light due to a high resolution photograph of a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though the Dead Sea Scrolls date from an earlier period of time than the Bologna Scroll, there is not a complete Torah among them. For many passages, the newly discovered scroll is going to contain the oldest version of them which is now known.
Here are some of the questions that come to my mind:

Photo: Alma Mater Studiorum Universita’ Di Bologna

What is the extent of the existing collection of Torah scrolls from before the time of Maimonides?

What specific things were forbidden by Maimonides that were included in the Bologna scroll?

What were the reasons for the Maimonides strictures?

Have the graphic features, markings and script required by Maimonides made any difference in context or meaning?

Thoughts? Enlighten us!

An (Updated) Bible Dictionary?

Let me just say upfront that I don’t have a problem in theory with the idea of a Bible dictionary accompanying the LDS version of the scriptures as a study help for members. Reading the Bible in English (or any other modern language for that matter) for devotional purposes these days presents enormous interpretive challenges, as it represents a translation (in the LDS case, a largely 400 year old translation) of a heterogeneous anthology of ancient Israelite, Jewish, and Christian literature that developed in contexts far removed from our own–historically, culturally, and linguistically. A handy reference tool that briefly introduces general LDS readers to material whose purpose is to somewhat lessen that historical, cultural, and linguistic divide on the basis of the best of recent biblical scholarship and all from the particular theological perspective and needs of the LDS faith would seem to be an obvious desideratum.

The problem I have is that the BD appended to the LDS KJV since 1981 never filled that role very well, and the recently updated version looks to continue more of the same for the foreseeable future. From what can be gathered, those responsible for the new online BD have chosen to make only the most minimal of changes to the old BD’s content. The changes found in the expanded list of adjustments produced by the Church are limited to formatting, presentational, and typographical issues and the correction of a few historical and factual errors. While a close reading of the new BD suggests that some changes were made outside of these categories, including a handful of editorial additions and deletions that may represent subtle doctrinal or presentational shifts, on the whole the adjustments reflect no serious engagement with recent biblical scholarship whatsoever. The updated version of the BD is for all practical purposes the old BD. Apparently, the editors of the new version felt that their mandate was to finesse what was already a worthy and acceptable LDS reference work on biblical topics.

As a student of the Bible, I find this lack of engagement to be distressing and unfortunate. The biblical scholarship reflected in the Cambridge Bible Dictionary upon which the LDS BD was based was already old at the time it was appropriated during the 1970s, and needless to say, scholarship has changed significantly over the last forty years. As a result, much of the interpretive content contained in the BD, particularly that relating to Israelite religion and Old Testament historiography, history, and literary development (to mention only areas that I’m interested in), is almost totally useless and only serves to reinforce earlier (Bruce R. McConkie era) fundamentalist understandings and attitudes.

This is truly unfortunate because the first edition evinced a somewhat open and expansive attitude to academic scholarship of the Bible. The introduction claimed that it had been drawn from “the best available scholarship” and openly acknowledged that it was “subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries”, suggesting that the BD would be continuously revised as academic study of the Bible progressed.

But after three decades no revision has been forthcoming. The content of the BD has come to be seen as almost part of the stream of tradition, something that needs to be only tweaked here or there. Its dependence on the scholarship of the Cambridge Bible Dictionary has been gradually effaced and forgotten, while in the introduction to the new BD the suggestion found in the old BD that the reader should consult a more exhaustive dictionary if elaborate discussion is desired has been deleted.

Some might argue that the lack of substantive changes to the BD is nothing to make a fuss over, since the Church denies official endorsement of the material found in it. But I would argue in response that contrary to the BD’s claim to be non-official, this little reference work has exerted a powerful normative force on the average Anglo-American LDS reader of the Bible since its inclusion in the standard LDS version of the scriptures. It implicitly bears the approval of the church and speaks with an authoritative voice on a range of historical and doctrinal issues. For the vast majority of English speaking members over the last thirty years, the BD has been a basic scriptural resource used to gain an understanding of the Bible’s cultural world, history, and literary nature. Thus the decision to not revise has very real and practical consequences on the intellectual and ideological makeup of the Church.

In conclusion, it would seem that Philip Barlow’s critical appraisal of the 1981 BD as exhibiting strong fundamentalist, literalist, and harmonizing tendencies remains accurate for the 2013 BD as well. As he stated in 1991,  “the new ‘Bible Dictionary’ is not really a Bible Dictionary but a dictionary of LDS theology, conservatively construed, using biblical terms.” [1]

[1] Philip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion (Oxford, 1991), 210

Israel’s Past Without the Bible

It may come as a surprise to some that there are texts from ancient Israel, Judah, and its environs that are not found in the Bible. There are also a number of texts from (especially) ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia that make reference to Biblical persons, places, and events. Such epigraphic texts are important for many reasons. I want to discuss some aspects of why these texts are important in what follows, and to give some basic information with respect to some of the more prominent epigraphic discoveries that date to the period before Judah’s fall in 586/7 B.C.E. This latter task will be spread out over several posts, and I will proceed in roughly chronological order in my presentation of the material. Continue reading “Israel’s Past Without the Bible”