Mormons and Biblical Scholarship II

Over at FPR, there is an excellent discussion of Mormon biblical exegesis. I am very interested in this topic, but what I wanted to say was more than a comment’s worth, so I just decided to post on it. The discussion centers on a recent Church News article by Prof. Kent Jackson at BYU who lays a brief foundation for the principles of Mormon Biblical Studies. I am certainly interested in the examination of the possibility and dimensions of this idea, but I am more interested in what are taken to be the models.

Inasmuch as Mormon Biblical Studies tries to model itself after Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish biblical studies, I think that it is doomed to fail. There are two reasons why. First, denominational biblical studies are routinely ignored by everyone outside of that denomination. Denominational biblical studies are not properly in the field of biblical studies. They are simply parasitic works that reproduce biblical scholarship in a repackaged, often apologetic, way for their audience. There is nothing new or interesting that comes out of these hermeneutical approaches. If Catholics want to translate biblical studies for lay Catholics, and Mormons for Mormons, that is fine, but this is not biblical studies. The result will be a continued marginalization of Mormons from the larger field and simply reinforce and reproduce stereotypes of Mormons who fail to truly engage the broader world.

The second reason that this approach will fail is because is doesn’t really represent the nature of the field of biblical studies. Denominational lines are essentially meaningless when it comes to evaluating the quality of other scholars’ work. Instead, the fault lines in biblical studies are drawn around ideology and theology, secular and faith-based approaches. You will find all denominations on all sides of these debates. That is to say, there are no real denominational lines in contemporary biblical studies, so why are we trying to enter the field in a partisan way that doesn’t map on? We would be better off dealing with the actual ideological tensions in the field rather than creating a new party that has no allies.

That said, the comments at FPR are correct in saying that Mormon Biblical Studies cannot survive outside of BYU. But I think that the reason is not simply the intellectual problems, but because the very model of denominational biblical studies is outdated and seriously flawed. Mormons who do biblical studies are better off engaging the broader field. I do believe that at some point in their careers they have the obligation of translating the wider world of biblical studies for their Mormon kin, but this is not the same as modeling oneself after another set of irrelevant biblical scholars.

16 Replies to “Mormons and Biblical Scholarship II”

  1. Interesting, TT.At the moment, I will need to wait to read Mogget. The FPR link doesn’t display for me.

  2. You know, I was trying to be nice and all that over on FPR. Parasitic?! Goodness gracious.My thoughts on the topic evolved as I wrote over three or four days. As you can see, I started out irritated by Professor Jackson’s arrongance in calling his own work “true discipleship” and “worship and consecration.” By the time I finished, I was amused at the futility of jamming the Bible (the Bible!) into the narrow 19th century world of LDS secondary sources.So now…do you think that this proposal will be a step along the road to a more realistic approach to the Bible or just another dead end?Myself, I think that it has the potential to be a waypoint along a longer journey. But I don’t think I really want much to do with it other than critiquing it as it goes by.

  3. I have to say, on the contrary, that Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish biblical studies are booming, both independently and within SBL itself. Hence the recent kerfuffle started by Berlinerblau over the lack of secularity in SBL (see summary and links here). His protest was largely ignored because, I expect, committed secularists are a distinct minority at SBL.Denominational biblical studies, as you call it, is enormously active, and probably sees more words in print every year, and certainly enjoys a broader readership, than purely academic biblical studies. Dismiss it on whatever terms you like, but you cannot dismiss it as culturally or religiously irrelevant. And in fact, many (religious) academic biblical scholars write both academic and denominational works on the bible. I’d be slow to blow off Joseph Fitzmyer’s or Walter Brueggemann’s popular work, or slag them for doing it (not saying you were, but you seem headed that direction). More importantly, I know that Catholic scholars like Fitzmyer, Meier, and Brown do not see even their most academic work as being secular rather than Catholic in character. Their academic books have regularly received an imprimatur and nihil obstat before publication (in our terms, a sign-off from Correlation). Their goals in scholarship are both academic and religious, and at least those three (all priests) have not and do not compromise their religious convictions for academic acceptance. While they have occasionally received criticism for their lack of compromise, they are generally accepted as they are and other scholars are happy to read around their denominational idiosyncrasies.I’ve always found progressive Catholic biblical scholarship a fine model for progressive Mormons. I think you can be an openly committed Mormon who both writes popularly for LDS lay readers as well as academic work for academics. I think both are valid activities. You seem to imply, if not state, that popular Mormon biblical scholarship is illegitimate, or at least is “parasitic” and produces “nothing new or interesting.” I don’t think this must necessarily be the case, even if it often is. We just haven’t produced a Fitzmyer or Brown yet.I have not yet gotten hold of Jackson’s piece, but I doubt he is saying that Mormon scholars cannot or should not do both denominational/devotional and academic work. He has himself done both, as have many others. His position is in fact fairly progressive (n.b. his comments on traditional authorship), but he is indeed advocating Mormon biblical scholarship that is recognizably Mormon. That has itself already found a place at SBL–we have a session for it–but, true enough, it will not be found in every session. Not a problem. If I speak in the NT Text Crit session, I play by that discipline’s rules, and they are well known. I think Jackson is articulating his personal canons for the discipline of Mormon biblical scholarship, which as he both a Mormon biblical scholar and one of the SBL session organizers, seems both legit and useful. There is certainly much more there than just that, but I’m not getting the sense he is articulating an either/or. Knowing him, I’d very much doubt that, though I also do not his commitment to orthodoxy.I guess I’d just ask, is there really a problem here?

  4. Bodhi,You do need to find that article. And as a student of Fr. Fitzmyer’s I can tell that this is nothing like the process under which he works.

  5. Great comments!I didn’t mean anything that bad by “parasitic”, only that it can never influence the larger direction of the field. As conceived here, Mormons would simply respond to larger trends rather than set them. As for Catholic biblical studies, I think that those scholars suggested are pretty good role models. I suppose that one could add LT Johnson for Catholics and NT WRight for Anglicans as other good models of “faithful” scholarship. However, what makes these scholars success (and known) is that they have not restricted themselves to the Catholic Biblical Studies sections (I don’t actually know if those exist off the top of my head…) at the SBL. They go out and mingle with the rest of the world. They set the trends. They don’t practice sectarian biblical studies, even if their readings are “influenced” by their commitments. Further, part of the success that Catholic and other religious scholars have is that they have a big base. We don’t have that, so I am not sure that we can really gain all of the benefits from that model.

  6. mogget: Currently a student? I thought he’d retired. Anyway, I was most definitely not meaning to imply that Fitzmyer and Jackson approach biblical scholarship the same way. I was only saying that he does not erect a division between Catholic biblical studies and academic biblical studies, as if they were two incompatible disciplines. That post-Vatican II generation of scholars fought precisely to establish the compatibility of Catholicism and the critical study of the Bible. Our generation of LDS scholars are starting down that same road, which is of course why we are having this discussion. I just think we have something to learn from them.I believe the Catholic scholars I mentioned (and all I know personally) subscribe to the tenants of Art. II of the CBA bylaws. Perhaps I’m wrong. As a Mormon scholar, though, I would have no problem subscribing to a similar set of bylaws, and I believe these scholars are (or were, requiescat in beatitudinem Fr. Brown) as faithful Catholics as I am a Mormon. Probably moreso. Again, I don’t believe I have to purge myself or my scholarship of every hint of Mormonism in order to converse academically with other scholars. That doesn’t mean I will converse with other scholars about the bible in the same way I converse with Mormon non-specialists, but I see no reason why I can’t do both.I won’t say anything else about Jackson until I read the piece. But if he’s saying saying it’s impermissible to do both, that would be a real volte-face for this past regional pres. of the SBL and student of David Noel Freedman.

  7. tt: I agree. I think, for example, that we need to keep from clustering in ghetto sessions at SBL and present in the regular sessions, though I have no real issues with the Mormons and the Bible section. It serves a purpose and a couple of the papers this year were quite good (others quite bad, alas). Of course many LDS scholars do present in other sessions, but they rarely give papers which show any debt to LDS distinctives and interests (at least on the SBL side). Which is fine, but are they then influencing biblical scholarship as Mormons, or simply as scholars? (That is a question worth discussing, imho.) I think more LDS-distinctive papers could be done, but there is no will. Most younger scholars just want to be mainstream, older scholars don’t much care what others think. But there are exceptions. Jack Welch’s paper in the Bible and ritual studies section 5 or so years ago went over great and landed him a book deal (if he ever finishes it). Very LDS, but not esoteric. He knew his audience. You certainly have to address your audience on subjects of mutual interest and in terms they understand. To give a fireside address as an SBL paper would be as meaningless and potentially offensive as the reverse.As for the LDS reader or at least “fan” base, I tend to see it as large and growing. You will not have an academic conversation with non-specialists about your topic, but they are hugely appreciative. That too is rewarding, at least for me.

  8. he does not erect a division between Catholic biblical studies and academic biblical studies…That post-Vatican II generation of scholars fought precisely to establish the compatibility of Catholicism and the critical study of the Bible.Exactly. Vatican II, but I think much more DAS established the situation in which Catholic Biblical studies have and do flourish. It’s not some strange, weird thing for them to do solid, critical, exegesis because it’s expected of them. And they are surely, surely, not bound to RC secondary sources as they once were. The CBA model is good; as a member of that organization I see no problems. I’ve not heard that Rome has ever intervened. It’s fun group of great people. Were we organized like that (and I have suggested it to my homies), it would be great.

  9. I should also add that I’ve never heard a paper read at a CBA meeting that was “Catholic.” In fact, I just read one myself.Every so often a talk will cover a topic of more interest to Catholics than to others (e.g. the deutero-canonicals), but I’ve never heard one that couldn’t have just as easily be given by an interested Protestant.The “Catholic” of the Catholic Biblical Association is a loose affiliation, not a requirement to come to a certain set of conclusions.

  10. FPR has moved to:www.faithpromotingrumor.wordpress.comLooking forward to seeing all ya’all over there.Mogs

  11. mogget: I appreciate your perspective. As I said, scholarship must be audience appropriate. A Mormon scholar can speak to very different audiences, but not at all at once. Or not usually. I did publish a biblical studies paper recently in an LDS publication that a non-LDS scholar, whom I do not know at all, happened upon. He wrote me a very warm appreciation and said it was sound work by any measure. Now, I must apologize for using myself as an example. I’m sure others have had this same experience. While not all good scholarship will be easily be appreciated on all sides, it can sometimes happen. It’s rare and wonderful serendipity.Somehow I doubt we’ll ever get the Mormon equivalent of DAS, but I also don’t think we need it. Biblical studies really is fairly innocuous for LDS, in the main, since biblical interpretation is of minor consequence for us as church. Of course at BYU there are still some sensitivities in some quarters, but even those are on the wane. I think when Dave Seely finishes his Anchor Bible commentary and Wayment gets a little further down the road, things will get that much better. Faithful saints doing notable work in the mainstream legitimates it.

  12. How much do you think what Prof. Jackson said was because it was said in Church News? I mean would we expect him to say not to found our scholarship on revealed sources where available?Not to say that he would teach such otherwise…

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