A tentative list of general LDS biases in approaches to the Bible

Scholars have a tendency to operate on shorthand and stereotype whenever they feel like they can get away with it. It is a somewhat ironic tendency, in that they general also insist on a more detailed and topic-specific discussion if it is something that they care about.  Of such are life’s paradoxes, no?  (That one’s for you, Frank)

In this, I don’t believe that scholars are being hypocritical; they just have to do a lot of thinking for a living and shorthand and habit quickly become important in any profession as they are necessary to get things done in a timely fashion.

Now, one of the ways that sholars operate on stereotypes is that they pay attention to a given scholar’s background.  If a scholar knows the school another scholar studied at, who they studied with, and, sometimes, they religious background and leaning of a given scholar, they can get some idea about what that scholar is going to say before they say it (in this, it also helps to be familiar with the scholar’s work 😉 ).  For instance, it is arguably rare for Evangelical scholars to take seriously the notion of an embodied god in some books of the Hebrew Bible.  Similarly, Evangelical scholars presumably will prefer readings that let the text stand as it is received and that, generally, promote the Evangelical view of things.  This is by no means always the case and I wouldn’t name it apologetics or anything like it.  Rather I would say that their religious outlook holds some sway over the problems they try to solve and may influence which reasonable solution of many that they prefer.   Other scholars know this and, for instance, understand that when they read a work of scholarship by noted Evangelical Egyptologist and Biblicist Kenneth Kitchen, it will most likely support the Bible as written and not argue against it.

Of course, there are problems with this: it can blind us to something new in Kitchen’s writings because we always expect more of the same old; it can lead us to ignore the important contributions of a student, because we expect the student to mimic the ideas of a given important teacher; and it can lead us to assume interpretations of the text that are not intended because they are what we think such a person would have said.  Nonetheless, stereotyping arguments, as the argument goes, stereotypically goes well.

So, assuming that Mormon Scholars are beginning to be able to address the greater world of Biblical and Religious studies at large, what assumptions should they insert into their shorthand for us?  What biases do we generally exhibit and strongly should they be read into our scholarship?  I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I believe that it would be useful to develop some.  Therefore, I am offering a tentative list of 10 “LDS biases” that one might usually expect to find in LDS Biblical and Religious Scholarship.  In so doing, I expect you all to critique the list, add to it, subtract from it, and argue about it.

I would think that at least the following 10 biases would be present in LDS Scholarship, to a greater or lesser degree:

  1. There would be a tendency to downplay the improbability of miracles and predictive prophecy.
  2. There would be a tendency to argue for a broader definition of prophetic action, one that would include the acts of Abraham and Moses, for example.
  3. There would be a tendency to allow for a heavy-handed editor of the text.
  4. There would be a tendency to prefer the historicity of historical figures (especially those involved in important covenantal relationships), but not a concurrent insistence on the historicity of historical events.
  5. There would be a tendency to assume the development of early widespread literacy in Israel
  6. There would be a tendency to prefer an earlier development of some aspects of second-temple judaism (apocalypse, a devil, synagogues, and so forth)
  7. There would be a tendency to view prophets as having a greater influence on the populace at large than is currently assumed
  8. There would be a tendency to assume that prophets had a greater influence in the religious bureaucracy than is currently assumed
  9. There would be a tendency to prefer earlier “final” renditions of the texts
  10. There would be a tendency to accept the incompleteness of the received text.

So, there you go.   What do you think?

37 Replies to “A tentative list of general LDS biases in approaches to the Bible”

  1. I should say that I see most, if not all, of these tendencies as arriving from a position that believes in some form of a historical Book of Mormon (ie. a Book of Mormon that reflects an ancient text).

  2. I think that most of these would be okay for someone like myself but I know too many bloggers here who are going into Biblical or related fields who don’t think this way to say that this is what LDS Biblical scholarship will look like as a whole. We have almost no one in the field (not really) right now and if some of our friends do manage to get jobs, I would expect that those who don’t think like this are more likely to get the available jobs. Short of BYU religion profs really getting into the mix of things, I don’t know that I see this happening.

  3. 11. There would be a tendancy to believe that God exists.
    12. There would be a tendancy to interpret the text through the lense of more modern information believed to be from God.

    In fact I believe 1-10 have these two underlying most of them…

  4. Not only does a belief in the historal Book of Mormon tie us in to many of these positions, but the D&C and Pearl of Great Price move us further away from mere allegorical interpretations of the bible text, particularly in areas of Genesis(Moses and Abraham), 7 thousand-year periods of earths temporal existence (D&C 77:6-7), and many other examples.

  5. Lxx,
    I am curious as to what in the list you would see as preventative to getting a non-BYU job. I don’t imagine that any of this would be a deal-breaker, so I am curious as to what you think would be.

    I was trying to focus on things that might be unique to LDS approaches. Your number 11 is certainly not (although, come to think of it, neither is my number 1). That said, I would modify your number to say “a tendency to acknowledge the value of modern revelatory information as an interpretive tool, appropriate for use in a denominational setting.” However, I don’t see this as remarkable either; or, at least, not more remarkable than a Protestant’s desire to consider the interpretations of Luther or Calvin in their denominational approaches.

    I think that I disagree with you. In fact, the tendency of that language to exist in the PGP and the D&C have no bearing of people’s ability to allegorize it. Depending on the incident, I allegorize with the best and feel no guilt in so doing.

  6. Well 9 and 10 aren’t that uniquely Mormon either, I wouldn’t think. They seem pretty practical. I think there is a difference between further light from Calvin, Luther, or even Smith, and Further Light from God himself… Maybe that is not uniquely Mormon in the perfect sense (Muslims use the Koran to inform there readings of the bible, I am sure…), but it is something that is going to be there.

  7. Matt,
    I am not sure that I understand all the implications of what you are saying, so I am going to respond to what I think you might be implying and we’ll see how it goes.

    There is no place in academic argument for revealed knowledge. Academic argument must be testable, or at least, reproducable and there simply isn’t a rigorous way to test or reproduce the reception of revealed knowledge. So, to the degree that an interpretation is based on one’s revealed knowledge of its inherent truthfulness, that aspect of the discussion should be downplayed. This doesn’t mean that it won’t influence what you choose to emphasize or study.

  8. Great list. I would have to ask for examples on the lack of a concurrent insistence on the historicity of historical events. Wouldn’t our insistence on the characters in many ways include insistence on the actuality of their actions?

  9. Hey, I’m an OT guy. And yes, I was looking to provoke NT responses.

    I think that we need to have a Moses. I don’t necessarily think that we need to have every plague or an angel looking to kill Moses. That doesn’t mean that those things didn’t happen; it just means that I don’t think we need them to have happened.

  10. HP: I think that my reaction was a NT reaction, at least in part. You downplay Jesus miracles or dismiss them entirely and you’re in doo doo if you want a BYU job but not necessarily if you want to work at a secular university. That’s the sort of thing I was thinking.

    You’d have to redact a couple of these to make them applicable to the NT.
    4.There would be a tendency to not prefer the division of the historical Jesus (from the Jesus of faith), and a concurrent insistence on the historicity of historical events
    6. There would be a tendency to prefer an earlier development of some aspects of high christology (premortal messiah, Son of God, a deity, and so forth)

    You get the idea.
    7.There would be a tendency to view apostles as having a greater unity in the church at large than is currently assumed

  11. Lxx,
    regarding your number 4, really? Do we consider every miracle or event in Christ’s life necessary? Some obviously are necessary, but why would we need every one? Having said that, I know that it would be painful to me to lose the ones that are particularly evocative for me (the adulterous woman, for instance). But aside from the personal pain that might erupt, are there historical/theological reasons to insist upon the historicity of every NT event?

  12. I don’t think that they have to be but I think that the tendency in LDS scholarship would be to think them all historical. And denying any of them puts your orthodoxy into question down here. Just asked actually.

  13. Matt W. (#4), the first one is a given. HP is bringing up situations that would be anomalies to outsiders within the scholarship; things that others wouldn’t really bring to the text unless they were exclusively (a generic?) Mormon.

    On your second point, it’s helpful to remember that Mormons have a very extreme view of revealed knowledge, almost to the point that it appears as if the one to whom knowledge is revealed suspends or even surrenders his or her agency and self-identity during the act of revelation (which I personally think is terribly erroneous on so many levels). From an outsider, the Mormon view of revelation is enigmatic, confusing, and odd, so there really is no place for revealed knowledge in the academy, which tends to avoid extremism (assuming more “orthodox” things like Jesus’ resurrection isn’t extreme). HP’s list is one that is helpful for Mormon interpretation as it is stacked up against the larger pre-conceived notions of the academy.

    And HP, you nailed the Evangelical interpretational filters; I totally agree based on my experiences among and within them. And I’m a fan of a little bias now and then, just not one that is too terribly Mormon all the dang time.

  14. I have a hard time thinking about this without getting into the “what is LDS scholarship” problem. Which is really something we have to work out. But in the meantime, here are some thoughts.

    First, I love it that in the list #3 and #4 are next to each other, to which should be juxtaposed #9. I assume that, by “heavy-handed editor” you mean the persons responsible for excising the “plain and precious things”. I don’t think we explore enough how these two things are interrelated, mutually exclusive, or how the heck we go about determining what has been excised and what is “authentic/historical.”

    What is more interesting to me is that about half of your list seems not to be too LDS-specific (#s 1, 4, 7, 8, 9, and arguably 6). It makes me wonder whether or not these are the things that we’ve simply inherited by sharing our oxygen with Protestants/Fundamentalists for so long.

    This observation, if valid, might help to map our own tension between radically liberal and severely fundamentalist claims about scripture. It’s something we continue to struggle with, and I think the situation is exacerbated by the stifled (but growing) discussion of such issues by an LDS intelligentsia.

  15. #9 is currently vexing me (with regards to Deutero-Isaiah and Abinadi and company quoting him). I think that I would lean towards interpretations that Isaiah was entirely written before the captivity. I think most LDS would too.

  16. #9 is currently vexing me (with regards to Deutero-Isaiah and Abinadi and company quoting him). I think that I would lean towards interpretations that Isaiah was entirely written before the captivity.

    It’s not vexing if you put the authorship of the Book of Mormon in the right context… 😉

    As far as the whole Isaiah being written before the captivity, the only people with whom you could find company are fundamentalists of the biblical inerrancy crowd. I’m not dolling out a “guilt by association” on you, I’m just stating that almost nobody holds that view anymore. I, for one, go with the scholarship on this.

  17. Jason,
    I know that some have proposed that Deutero-Isaiah did his work prior to the first Babylonian captivity (ie. that he was among the first captives taken). Since the D-Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon come from a solid block, this could explain their presence on the brass plates (consider also that the works of Jeremiah are on the brass plates, meaning that it was kept up to the minute)

  18. HP: I know that Nephi tells us that Jeremiah and his dad were tight like unto a dish (or something like that) and that many of his prophecies were on the plates but I can’t find a single time in the BoM where he is quoted directly. Only passing references are made. Now, I didn’t look too hard but I’m wondering how up to the minute they really were. And if they were up to the minute, the people working for Laban must have liked Jeremiah when Laban himself probably didn’t because Nephi and co. didn’t get a hold of said plates until they were already out in the wilderness. It’s a pretty amazing undercurrent of a story if Zoram or whoever was putting Jeremiah on the brass plates all the time.

    Now, without impuning me honor (I think the BoM is historical), how does that work? Isn’t that just a little bit fantastical? Unless Lehi was a scribe who worked on the plates himself.

  19. Lxx,
    It isn’t my argument, so I can’t give it a full rendering. However, it appears that the idea would have to be that Laban, while probably disapproving of Jeremiah’s politics, still kept records including Jeremiah. Perhaps it was a function of his role at court (assuming he had one). We know that Zedekiah respected Jeremiah’s opinion.

    A corollary to the above stated approach is that Lehi has to be fairly ignorant of written scripture prior to his acquisition of the brass plates. This is because Lehi and Nephi do not treat Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah as separate authors. Therefore, Lehi and Nephi must not have known that some of the Isaiah was 100 years old and some had been written fairly recently.

  20. some have proposed that Deutero-Isaiah did his work prior to the first Babylonian captivity

    How does that work? I thought D-Isaiah wrote after Cyrus had conquered Babylon, because he mentions Cyrus.

    Lehi and Nephi must not have known that some of the Isaiah was 100 years old and some had been written fairly recently

    Possible, but nowadays that would be like someone attributing something to Abraham Lincoln that was written by Clinton, wouldn’t it? …Unless of course Clinton put on a top hat, grew a beard, and pretended really hard… 🙂

  21. OK, I hate to threadjack here so you can totally ignore this if you want to HP but how does the whole one Isaiah, two Isaiah, three Isaiah more theory go? Why is it so convincing?

  22. How do we know that the Jeremiah and all the Isaiah came from the Brass plates? I mean we know some of it did, but couldn’t have some of it come via other means?

  23. Jason,
    I believe that the idea is that Lehi and Nephi were fairly ignorant readers of the Bible and did not notice the differences between the two authors (assuming that there were two authors). The quality of the language is not fundamentally different. The D-Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon comes in a block (48-54, I believe) that could have been written prior to the first exile, with the Cyrus mentions (which come before these chapters in our received text of Isaiah, but not necessarily chronologically) being written at the end of the exile.

    I agree that it is a very ad-hoc explanation, however it is not entirely improbable.

  24. HP, this is actually a better explanation than anything I could have come up with (like I said before David J, I’m biased to these sorts of explanations), but I do have some questions.

    not necessarily chronologically

    Is there any textual evidence that it wasn’t written in order?

    #21: that he was among the first captives taken

    Kind of like Daniel? If so, how did his writings find their way back to Jerusalem so quickly?

  25. I don’t believe that there is any evidence one way or the other regarding the chronology of production. FWIW.

    He would have to have written these passages when the invasion was still imminent.

  26. Matt W: couldn’t have some of it come via other means?

    You mean, like someone sailing across the ocean to give the new nephites a newer, more comprehensive version?

    I doubt that is what you mean. My guess is that you’re saying revelation, right? Doesn’t work though, since Nephi, Jacob, the priests, and Abinadi specifically say that they are quoting Isaiah. 3 Nephi 22 is the only time that Deutero-Isaiah can be explained away with an alternate delivery method (via Jesus’ ties to the old world).

  27. Actually, I think that he meant that maybe the Jeremiah came from some other written source than the brass plates. It is certainly possible (especially since Nephi runs off with the brass plates and never quotes Jeremiah again).

  28. What HP said. For DI, if DI was writing under the Pseudonym Isaiah, akin to much other pseudopigrapha we have seen, couldn’t this also be in the same area as Jeremiah? Nephi says he is quoting Isaiah, but does he say he is using the brass plates? Could he not have parchments, etc?

  29. It seems thatIsaiah 48 and 49 were on the plates of brass, from the text in 1 Ne. 19 and 22.. Is this DI? Sorry, I am inexpert in anything OT, and especially in DI.

  30. No, I meant your post, I need to really study it out and time is short now, but biases, that is really thought provoking. I think so many of our practices are colored, not by doctrine, by by culture. Well, I know what I’m talking about, but I can’t say it right.

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