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.