BYUNTC Revelation

The Revelation volume in the BYUNTC series is back in the news, so I thought I’d say a bit about it. At last fall’s SBL Grant Underwood gave Richard Draper some advice regarding this volume. Since Draper’s work was not well-received by either LDS or non-LDS scholars, Underwood wrote: “Perhaps by drawing on the talented pool of younger LDS scholars trained in New Testament studies, [Richard Draper] and Michael Rhodes can extend their work in ways that more effectively bring LDS views into tough-minded conversation with biblical scholarship generally.”

This sentence indicates that the Revelation volume has two major problems. It does not adequately handle the existing scholarship on Revelation and it does not effectively bring the LDS tradition into dialogue with this scholarship. Underwood is not alone in his critique; the other three published reviews of the BYUNTC project and the available volumes amply bear out his thoughts.

Although Underwood’s critique is spot-on his remedy is a bit less helpful because it under-specifies the help actually needed. Young scholars do not themselves write major academic commentaries because what produces the seasoned insights that make for a respectable contribution is some good length of interaction in public academic discourse involving the text in question. Many of BYU’s religion faculty in the right age cohort for the needed experience have not participated in this arena and so are not well-prepared to either write commentaries or supervise those who are younger.

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The Part I Left Out…

I was blogging a bit over with Benjamin the Scribe, but didn’t get all of this first lesson quite done. So, I thought I’d just finish it up here, by reading the selection from the Johannine tradition. It consists of two of the three sections of the Fourth Gospel’s prologue:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This passage, thought by some to be an early Christian hymn broken up by parenthetical insertions such as vv. 6-8, is delivered by the Johannine narrator. The narrator is a reliable figure so readers are invited to understand the rest of the Gospel through this passage. The import of this is that when Jesus makes claims of an exalted status which are rejected by “the Jews” as blasphemous, readers know that Jesus is speaking only the truth, that is, he is a reliable revelation of God.

The sections assigned for this first week’s lesson describe the relationship between the Word and God, and between the Word and the world. As usual, I read for insight into the usual six questions:

 

What is the human condition? The human condition is roughly portrayed by “the world.” On the one hand, the world is a special place since it was created by God through the Word and remains the object of his love. On the other hand, the world is in darkness, that is, it is very much in need of a new and better revelation of God to give human life purpose and direction.

What is God going to do about this? God sends two characters as witnesses to provide light to this world that he loves. First, John the Baptist is “sent from God” as a witness to testify of the Word who has come in the flesh. Thus, in the Johannine tradition John is one of the five witnesses listed out by Christ (John 5:32-35), and far more important in this role than as the person who baptized Jesus (as he is in the Synoptics). The Word, who is everything God is, is the perfect revelation of God, having been with him from the beginning. His revelation of God is not a series of propositions about God, but is the perfect portrayal of God’s love.

Who is Christ that he can accomplish God’s intent? Christ is the Word who took on human flesh and lived among humans. The key point is that he is the sole entity capable of doing what needs to be done because he has seen and known God like no other. A bit farther on, outside of the selections for this week’s lesson, John will say that Jesus is the only person to have seen God. This does not mean that John has forgotten about the great theophanies of the Hebrew Bible, but that Jesus is the only one who is “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18 KJV), a position of intimacy claimed by none of the prophets.

What is the nature of the community that responds to this? The community formed in this tradition is illustrated by John the Baptist. He is the first witness, sent by God, to the Word made flesh. The community, then, is composed of those who first respond to someone’s witness by believing that Jesus is who he claims to be, and who then bear witness of this point themselves, thereby drawing others to Jesus, who reveals himself more fully. This idea of a community formed by and around a chain of witnesses is actually illustrated in John 1:19-51. After Jesus is resurrected, he will send his disciples out into the world just as his Father sent him: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Joh 20:21 NRS). Thus, the Johannine church is the extension of Jesus’ mission to reveal the love of God, which makes people who respond “the children of God” (1:12).

What behaviors are incumbent on this community, and why? Because this community is defined by a relationship, the primary ethical obligation will be what sustains a relationship: love. Thus, to get ahead of things, “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 NRSV).

What does this community anticipate in the future? This community sees a future that is dominated by conflict between light and dark: “ The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In the end they are confident that the light will prevail; this favorable resolution is foreshadowed by their witness of the glory of the Father’s unique Son, which they have seen. In the meantime, they enjoy a relationship with God as “the children of God” (1:12). This is not the relationship that Jesus has with God, because he is the Son of God, but it is not something enjoyed by the rest of the world, nor does it come by human desire or initiative (not of blood…not of the will…).

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The Future of Mormonism

As has frequently been noted by a variety of commentators, modern Mormonism seems to be entering what will be a very difficult cultural transition during the 21 century, where one of the defining issues will be whether the church will allow for greater cultural, social, and intellectual diversity among its ranks and still be able to maintain a sense of traditional communal identity or whether conservative forces will enact further retrenchment, thus leading to greater social fragmentation and disaffection at the margins.

So far it’s been a pretty rocky road. The church has lacked any kind of coordinated plan or definite vision about how to handle the democratizing Internet era and the relatively new empowerment of lay individuals to think, question, and doubt. Responses have been ad hoc, allowing for reactionary and authoritarian views to fill the void at various institutional levels.

So what do you think the future holds? For example, will there come a time when members of the church will not be marginalized for not believing that the BoM is historical? or to openly affirm different perspectives on God, history, the nature of spirituality, etc? Will the LDS church take more of an interest in so-called liberal causes, so as to appear less entangled in American cultural politics, or more positively stated, to show that it cares about the full gamut of human morality and social justice at the heart of both ancient and modern scriptural theologies? How do you see the church evolving this century?

The 144,000 PARTHENOI of Revelation 14

The story of the 144,000 who stand with the Lamb on Mt. Zion in Rev 14:1-4 is one of those “flashpoints” in the interpretation of John’s vision. Craig R. Koester’s new commentary in the Anchor Bible, vol. 38A, has something of a new approach. To begin with, here is Koester’s translation. The emphasis is mine, and it indicates the places at which I wish to further explain Koester’s approach:

Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion. With him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a sound from heaven that was like the sound of rushing water and like the sound of loud thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. They sang what seemed to be a new song in from of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders. And no one could understand the song except the 144,000, who had been purchased from the earth. These were not defiled with women. Now these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes are maidens. They were purchased from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb. In their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.

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New Kid in Town: Newest Anchor Bible Commentary on Revelation

This seems to be the year for commentaries on Revelation. And although there are a couple more on the way, Craig R. Koester’s work is such a good example of the genre that I’m crawling out from under my rock to write a bit about it.

First off, it’s the newest addition to the Anchor Bible, joining an earlier volume on Revelation by Josephine Massyngberde Ford, so it’s labeled as volume 38a. It was published September, 30, 2014, and weighs in at 881 pages plus 43 pages of lists and a preface. Tiny print, too: looks like 11 pt in the introductory matter and 10 pt in the body.

For those of you in the tl;dr camp: if you want one commentary on Revelation, this is the one you want to check out from the library because its list price on Amazon is $118. Used copies are available for a marked down price of $110, and third party sources go as low as $87.56.

That said, this is a well done commentary written from a more centrist Christian viewpoint than the Evangelical commentaries that have recently dominated the market. By this, I do not mean to suggest that this latter group are not fine commentaries, but that they have now been joined by another, and equally interesting, point of view.

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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.

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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):

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Some non-arguments against ordaining women to the LDS priesthood

I’m sure all these things have been said before and better, but in order to satisfy my need to respond to some of the assertions presented as self-evident arguments against opening the LDS priesthood to women, I collect my responses here. Here are my top five non-arguments [with a sixth I couldn’t resist]:

1. Men and women are not the same.

2. Women have moral authority.

3. There is no scriptural precedent for ordaining women.

4. There is scriptural precedent for the denial of equal treatment of women.

5. Women have had the priesthood since 1844.

BONUS: Protests and complaints have never resulted in change or revelation.

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