A Mormon on the Nihil Obstat

I like books. I own lots of them. Far too many of them in fact. Most of my books are on law, philosophy, or history. I also dabble just a bit in biblical criticism. By and large, I can’t stand Mormon commentaries. They tend to be a vacuous collection of GA quotes largely unrelated to the text they are purportedly commenting on. So I have turned elsewhere.

Looking at my bookshelf last night, I was struck by an interesting fact. All of the non-Mormon books that I own on the Bible are written by either Catholics or Jews. Thus, I have Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament as well as The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Both of these books have the “Nihil Obstat,” which means that an official from a Catholic archdiocese has read the books and certifies that they are “free of doctrinal or moral error,” although the giver of the imprimatur goes on to clarify that “No implication is contained thereine that those who have granted the nihil obstat and the imprimatur agree with the content, opinions, or statements expressed.” In a post-Vatican II world, I doubt that the nihil obstat requires much deviation from mainline biblical scholarship, but I do find it interesting.

On the Jewish side I have The Poetics of Biblical Narrative and I used to have Rashi’s commentary on the Pentatuach. These, of course, are very different books. Poetics is a modern attempt at literary analysis of the Old Testament, and Rashi was a medieval rabbi. Both of them, however, have a wonderful focus on textual detail.

I don’t know that there is any broader significance to this, but I do find it interesting that consciously or unconsciously I have banished Protestants from my (admittedly small) biblical library.

19 comments for “A Mormon on the Nihil Obstat

  1. Grasshopper
    January 14, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    Have you read any Spong?

  2. lyle
    January 14, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    I have read some Spong.
    While I disagree with him 100% re: the non-literal nature of Scripture…
    his points re: the figurative language/study of “semitic” scripture are rather compelling.
    Sum: I think his is both right and wrong.

  3. January 14, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    Not a full commentary, but Atler’s _The Art of Biblical Narrative_, _The Art of Biblical Poetry_, and _The Literary Guide to the Bible_ are all must haves in my opinion. Levenson’s _Creation and the Persistence of Evil_ is also a must have for Mormons although it is primarily a commentary on Genesis 1 and related texts.

    Finally, if you can afford it, the Anchor Bible Dictionary is amazing. It tends to present all sides on any debate and has very good brief commentaries on many points. (It even has some Mormon contributers in it)

  4. Nate
    January 14, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Alter has been on my “to read” list for some time. Who are the Mormon contributers to the Anchor Bible Dictionary?

  5. Kristine
    January 14, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    Another book which I love, something like the Literary Guide to the Bible, less scholarly (though no less learned, really) and more personal is Gabriel Josipovici’s _The Book of God: A Response to the Bible_. I also really like James Kugel’s stuff. I use the Harper’s commentary a lot, too–it seems to have a variety of perspectives. But I have to admit that I feel like a complete idiot when I go looking for biblical criticism at the bookstore. I hate not knowing who’s who in the world of scholarly exegesis and how to sort out what’s useful and what (like Spong) is just too agenda-driven to be really helpful. I always end up thinking “I’ve just *got* to go to Div. School right away.” (Usually I just lie down till the feeling passes ;) )

  6. JWJ
    January 14, 2004 at 2:42 pm

    Nate, do you own any Maimonides? He is much more confusing and difficult than Rashi, but his work on the Bible is of course very interesting. Problem is that it’s scattered throughout the Mishneh Torah, the Guide of the Perplexed and other works.

  7. Nate Oman
    January 14, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    I actually do have the Guide to the Perplexed and I went through the whole thing with Dan Peterson at BYU in my Islamic Philosophy Class. You are right, he is very interesting. Another Jewish commentator that I own, and forgot to mention, would be Philo Judeus.

  8. Taylor
    January 14, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    When I was an undergrad studying religion, all of my profs were Catholic or Jewish. Now, at Divinity school, they are Lutheran, Calivinists and Episcopalian. In the end, it all looks pretty much the same since scholarly biblical criticism doesn’t break down on denominational lines, but methodological ones.

  9. January 14, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    Nate, Griggs has at least one article. Unfortunately I’m not at home so I can’t check. I believe the entry on pseudopigripha is written by a Mormon as well.

    Not a commentary, but if we are including Philo and Maimonides then a little Kabbalism can be a very interesting read. Their exegesis techniques are very intriguing structurally. The main texts are difficult to read unless you already have a pretty strong background in their symbols and meanings so I’d avoid a lot of those. But Idel’s _Kabbalah: New Perspectives_ is very interesting. The best way to get into the symbolism and way of reading is Tishby’s three volume _Wisdom of the Zohar_. It’s only excerpts from the Zohar but has extensive commentary and explanations on symbolism. You can pick up the way they read scripture and it is interesting. (Very close to what Derrida does with texts, btw)

  10. Nate Oman
    January 14, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    The elusive and enigmatic Historian of the Metaphysical Elders had a post a while back on how as a Mormon he felt a close affinity with Philo:


  11. January 14, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    I put the link to that Philo parallel. It really isn’t that strong a parallel in my mind. God “plans” creation but the planning is actually more a Platonic emmanation than I think how most Mormons who adopt Genesis 1 as a planning meeting would be comfortable with. I don’t think *within* Moses there is a platonizing tendency. Rather there are some structural parallels to platonizing writings.

    Here’s Philo’s writings:


    Of course to be fair, what “platonizing” means is much wider than most realize. I think most are like me in college and assumed “platonizing” meant abstract thoughts existing “out there” somewhere. Whereas the range of interpretations of Plato is much wider than the readings biased by 19th century German idealism.

  12. Susan
    January 15, 2004 at 12:07 am

    Anyone read Mieke Bal on the Old Testament?

  13. January 15, 2004 at 1:02 am

    Like Nate, I find myself more drawn to Jewish and Catholic sources than to Protestant ones, but there are some good Protestant commentaries, especially on the New Testament.

    RE the Anchor Bible Dictionary: I have an electronic copy of ABD, so I did some searching. I didn’t find Griggs as a contributor, but I did find that David Seeley was an assistant to one of the editors, David Graf, and S. Kent Brown and Stephen E. Robinson have articles in it. Brown’s is the Graeco-Roman section of the larger piece on Egypt, and Robinson has pieces on the Testament of Adam, Book 4 of Baruch, and the Prayer of Joseph.

    By the way, I highly recommend the electronic ABD and the similar Bible study products from Logos Research (http://www.logos.com).

  14. January 15, 2004 at 1:31 am

    Whoops. My bad. That’ll teach me to post without first checking. Charlesworth wrote the entry on the pseudopigrapha.

  15. Nate Oman
    January 15, 2004 at 9:54 am

    I’ve never heard of Mieke Bal. What is his take?

  16. Kristine
    January 15, 2004 at 10:36 am

    Uh, Nate, that would be HER take. I haven’t read any of her biblical stuff, but I dimly remember that she works on semiotics and theories of narrative–Susan, help us out here!

  17. Nate Oman
    January 15, 2004 at 11:13 am

    I reveal my ignorance. English needs a good ungendered, third person singular pronoun. In Korean we have “Ku-bun” and “Ea-bun” which are usefully genderless. Oh the trials of speaking an Indo-European language!

  18. Grasshopper
    January 15, 2004 at 11:28 am

    Margaret Barker also has some very interesting perspectives and seems to be gaining popularity at FARMS.

  19. Nate Oman
    January 15, 2004 at 11:34 am

    Meike Bal seems to have written the following books on the Bible:

    _Lethal Love: Feminist Readings of Biblical Love Stories_

    _Death and Dyssymetry: The Coherence of Death in the Book of Judges_

    _On Story Telling: Essays in Narratology_ (discusses the New Testament)

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