Reading Scripture in the 21st Century

space the final frontierI recently read Thinking Through Our Faith: Theology for Twenty-first-Century Christians (Abingdon Press, 1998) by C. David Grant, a professor of religion at TCU. The book might be described as a short prologue to a 21st-century approach to theology, one that takes full account of science, historical criticism, and pluralism — in short, the sort of book you probably would not encounter in a BYU undergraduate religion class.

While there are chapters covering cosmology, evolution, postmodernism, and feminism, it is the the chapter on historical criticism and historicism (two separate topics) that seems worth discussing. I think everyone agrees that a cultural and historical gulf separates us from the 1st-century world of the early Christians and the ancient world of the Old Testament. Can we bridge that gulf and fully understand what ancient writers and texts are saying? And to what extent can or should a 21st-century reader discount ancient claims in light of modern understanding?

Reading critically. Historical consciousness is a term that refers to our present awareness that we view the world through the lens of our own culture, language, and worldview. Earlier eras were less aware of that problematic process. Those with other cultures, languages, and worldviews — either contemporaries or those in earlier ages — view (or viewed) the world differently. “The revolution in historical consciousness has shown us that the social and intellectual worlds we inhabit are incorrigibly culturally and historically specific” (p. 17). There are two aspects to this recognition. First, the recent emergence of critical history. Historians no longer take prior narratives or sources at face value. Modernly, “a simple reporting of what someone tells us does not make for adequate historical work. The testimony of those whose reports we recount must be critically evaluated, must be judged as to whether we think them credible” (p. 19).

Different Worlds. A second facet of historical consciousness is historicity (no direct connection to the LDS use of the term referring to Book of Mormon narratives). “To be human is to have a history and a culture. This discovery of the sociohistorical character of being human is the discovery of our human historicity” (p. 24). The problem isn’t merely that we view the world differently than ancient writers, but that to understand what they intended to communicate in their writings we must somehow be able to enter into their culture, language, and worldview. So reading ancient texts with a critical eye is not quite enough — if we do not or cannot enter into their way of thinking and their way of seeing, it is unlikely we will properly understand what they said or wrote.

The Bible. So how are these two ideas — critical history and historicity — relevant to 21st-century Mormons? The Bible, like other ancient texts, adopts an uncritical approach to history: it includes accounts of events that we are unlikely to accept at face value. Even most conservative Mormons will reject a literal reading of Balaam’s talking donkey, the wife of Lot being turned into a pillar of salt, and an angel stirring the waters at the pool of Bethesda from time to time. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all practice a certain degree of critical evaluation in deciding which biblical accounts to accept and which to bracket. The only question is what criteria we use and whether we apply those criteria systematically or arbitrarily. Since the topic is never addressed in LDS public discourse, few LDS have any sense of what criteria guide (or should guide) our reading of biblical events.

LDS scholars weigh in. A full discussion of what criteria should guide our reading of ancient texts is for another post. A better way to end this post is with a couple of quotations from LDS scholars showing agreement with the notion that ancient writings are historically situated and cannot be understood without comprehending that earlier culture, language, and worldview. Both are from the book How the New Testament Came to Be (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2006), the published papers from that year’s Sperry Symposium. I find these statements rather encouraging. Here is Kent P. Jackson, from the first paragraph of his article “Asking Restoration Questions in New Testament Scholarship“:

Like other scholars of the Old and New Testaments, Latter-day Saints who engage in academic research of the Bible seek to come to understand its context, history, meaning, and application to the lives of believers. In doing so — if they are to do it right — they must seek out the best possible professional training, use the best academic tools, examine the best available ancient evidence, be aware of the best of current scholarship, and ask the same hard questions that others ask. Ideally, this means Latter-day Saint Bible scholars must master the historical and cultural sources that pertain to the world in which the Bible came to be, and they must know the languages of the original writers so they can study their words without having to rely on the scholars who translated those words into modern languages.

Voicing similar thoughts is Jennifer C. Lane, in the first paragraph of her article “Jews and Greeks: The Broader Context for Writing the New Testment“:

Understanding the broader philosophical and religious setting for the writing of the New Testament allows us to make more sense out of the topics Paul and other writers chose to address. In examining the key assumptions Jews and Greeks may have had about the doctrines of Christ, we can better understand New Testament writing, modern-day resistance to the gospel, and the essence of the gospel itself.

The bottom line is that modern criticism gives not just scholars but also informed readers the tools to make us all better readers of ancient texts and ancient scripture.

Now, back to those criteria of criticism and when to apply them …

18 comments for “Reading Scripture in the 21st Century

  1. Jax
    April 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    “Even most conservative Mormons will reject a literal reading of Balaam’s talking donkey, the wife of Lot being turned into a pillar of salt, and an angel stirring the waters at the pool of Bethesda from time to time. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all practice a certain degree of critical evaluation in deciding which biblical accounts to accept and which to bracket.”

    As you say, we all have different criteria to decide which stories to read literally and which we should not. So how did you choose this list of stories to include as easily rejectable?

  2. Jax
    April 16, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Also, any else ever have trouble bringing up possibly better interpretations based on more NT times context/viewpoints and then being greeted with aggression for straying from the “common” understanding of the text? Why is there some push-back against recent research and historical (non-religious) background?

  3. Bob
    April 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Let me put my opinion out simple and curt: If the Bible was caused to be by God as a guide to man, then the common man only needs to be able to read it, have an open heart, and a candle. All your scholar stuff is unneeded.

  4. DavidH
    April 16, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    To Jax’s point, my perception is that by and large the rank and file Mormon believe that Balaam’s donkey did speak and that Lot’s wife did become a pillar of salt. On the other hand, I think most Mormons don’t believe that a snake did the talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

  5. Chuck Whicker
    April 17, 2011 at 3:49 am

    The thing that is very impressive to me, about the Old Testament, is the behavioral and economic standards of the law of Moses. The apostle Paul referred to this law as “holy” many times; and the more I look at it, the more I can see why. For one thing, it included no prison system — all misdemeanor crimes were penalized either by personal restitution or by a quick whipping, which caused great pain but ended quickly so that the offender could return to his life and contribute, rather than draining upon, the economy. Penalties were more severe and reasonable for gross crimes such as adultery and 1st degree murder, but easier and more reasonable for misdemeanor crimes. It was a law designed to keep the society pure. The law of the sabbath would preserve and ensure the consistent economic production of the land. Under these high and holy laws, the nation of Israel was promised everlasting endurance and dominion, and unbreakable protection against all enemies, forever.

  6. Stan Beale
    April 17, 2011 at 6:15 am


    Simply put, research can correct not only bad translation but also weak interpretation; historically incorrect “facts” and myths; determine what was added later to the Bible, and attempt to recconcile contradictions in the Bible. Let me give simple examples of each

    1. Mathew 19:23-24; Mark 10:24-25; Luke 18:24-25. This is the oft quoted “camel through the eye of a needle” story. The Aramaic word for rope and camel are the same and the Greek writers of the gospels confused them. The “rope” interpretation is more logical and avoids the pitfalls about the eye of a needle stories and focuses on what immediately follows in each of the gospels.

    2. Some of you may have heard the idea that the Eye of a Needle is a narrow gate in the Jerusalem wall and camels either had a “tricky”
    time or great difficulty getting through it. One version continues with the camel having to kneel to get through (as man must kneel before God) and another has the camel must be unpacked (we must rid ourselves of our worldly goods). The problem with these stories is that there was no such gate, neither archeologists or historians can find any evidence of it. In addition these stories did not appear for centuries and apparently written by people who had never been to Jerusalem in the first place.

    3. One of the key Biblical Arguments for the Trinity is 1 John 5:7-8
    The difficulty? Historical research has shown this part of the King James Bible had its origin in the 4th century in Gaul. None of the early Greek gospels had it. It is ironical that we who do not accept the Trinity are one of the few Churches who still include this passage in our version of the Bible.

    For an illuminating an interesting discussion of the issue read Bart Ehrman’s account in Lost Christianities. The book also gives a plain explantion of how historica nand textual anaysis works.

    4. There are a fair number of cotradictions, real and assumed, in the scriptures. Good research helps us deal with them. A simple example Mark 2:26 and 1 Samuel 21: 1-7. Supposedly Christ gets the names of High Priests confused. Linguists and logicians have been able to show that it may have been an awkwardness in translation, not an error on the part of Jesus.

    As much as I respect and honor good research, I must admit there are some dangers inherent in bad research and unintended consequences of good research. Le me list three.

    1. Individuals, especially those growing up as biblical literalists, can be overwhelmed by the problems of historical innacuracies and contradictions, losing their faith in the process. Bart Ehrman is often cited as an example of this.

    2. There is a ton of bad schoarship out there. People can fall for it. Glenn Beeck has been touting David Barton as a great American historian. Mike Huckabee has said everyone should be required to read him, even at gunpoint. No serious American Historian has any respect for his efforts. To get an idea of his bad scholarship look at Chris Rodda’s videos on You Tube. I am fearful we have too many admirers of “The Beckster” in our midst and are buying this crap.

    3. A lot of Mormons I know are enthralled about Nag Hamadi and the Gnostics. Unfortunately, we get a lot of Faith Promoting Rumors and cherry picked information that supposedly backs up Mormon Theology. I’m afraid we do not have a good “crap detector” as Ernest Hemingway and Neil Postman have argued we should. We, in many cases, prefer
    these semi fables and try to justify them with a pseudo professional imprimatur of a scholar or authority (e.g. a professor at BYU has found that. . . .)

  7. Bob
    April 17, 2011 at 9:00 am

    @Stan Beale,
    Thank you for responding to my comment. But I know all of the things you have said, and agree with most.
    But at some point it must be asked: Why do we have a Bible? Is it the poor efforts of man, or a guide from God? Is it a simple message to the common man, or a “DeVinge

  8. Bob
    April 17, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Sorry Stan_ wrong button……

  9. Bob
    April 17, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Repair: Or a “Da Vini Code” given to the elite scholar or Priest to only read (a sealed book)?
    I do not know__just my ponder.

  10. April 17, 2011 at 9:30 am

    @Bob. IMO the purpose of the Bible or any scripture is essentially to testify of Christ. It may hit people on many different levels of spiritual and intellectual development as each use it as a guide to draw closer to the Lord. It is certainly not a checklist for any kind of orthodoxy to be applied by each of us to each other. For that, I’m going to seek out those authorized by God rather than some guy interpreting scripture on a blog – as entertaining, and sometimes as enlightening as I find these discussions. The thing that really disturbs me is the proof-texting to justify some pre-conceived notion. I love to hear and share insights and ideas, but please spare me the definitive declarations of doctrine on a blog.

  11. Chuck Whicker
    April 17, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Interesting stuff, Stan. I always wondered about the eye in the needle thing. To Bob — I think the Bible has its appeal both to the poor, uneducated man, because of the simple, saving principles recorded there, and also to the man of research. The Book of Isaiah is one that can’t be understood by research alone; but one must have the spirit of prophecy and understand the “language of the Jews” as Nephi put it. Avraham Gileadi has done an exellent job with that book; the only one, in my opinion, that has even come close.

  12. Chuck Whicker
    April 17, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Never get offended at someone quoting scriptures. That’s when you know you’re slipping.

  13. April 17, 2011 at 10:09 am

    “Even most conservative Mormons will reject a literal reading of Balaam’s talking donkey, the wife of Lot being turned into a pillar of salt, and an angel stirring the waters at the pool of Bethesda from time to time”

    I don’t believe this is true. As for me I believe that Balaam’s donkey did talk, that Lot’s wife did turn into a pillar of salt, and I am not sure about the angel’s stiring the waters at the pool of Bethedsa as Jesus never actually refuted that. Conservative Mormons are for the most part more literal than you think, and less literal than most liberals think. DavidH is correct in his observations of what Mormons believe about the few subjects he mentioned. Your point in that paragraph is correct enough, but the examples were not.

  14. Ben S
    April 17, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Bob, the reason we need specialists is because the Bible was not addressed to us. The common Israelite could understand it just fine, but we’re not Israelites. If you want to think and hear like an Israelite, it’s the historians and linguists who can recover that for you…

  15. Stan Beale
    April 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    I have often argued that there is a Brady-Jefferson continuum in terms of belief in the literalness of the Bible. Most of us reading this blog are probably at neither extreme, but closer to the middle.

    The Brady end is based on the character Mathew Harrison Brady from Inherit the Wind. That character believed that every word in the Bible is literally true (William Jennings Bryan was apparently not totally literalist, thus the Brady end and not the Bryan one).

    The Jefferson end is based on the Jeferson Bible. TJ created a Bible by cutting and pasting the moral lessons from Jesus and elinating all references to miracles and divinity of Christ. It is, in Jefferson’s own words, “a wee little book.”

    What unites both ends is the desire to learn moral lessons from the Bible and to apply those teachings to our own lives. I would propose, however, that there are several corollaries to the continuum. Among them are

    1. The Rushdoony Resolve: Mousas Rushdoony inspired many Christian Reconstructionists whose beliefs center around restoring God’s law. This includes, of course, the 613 laws o the Torah. Rushdoony even had a cost saving plan for government-make capital punishment quick and cheap by having the community cast stones on the miscreant.

    2. the Schlaffly Syndrome: Andrew Schlaffly (son of Phyllis) is generally known for denying Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Young Earth rants, managing a badly performing home schooling outfit and helping start The Conservapedia. In most cases he is a literalist but he also believes that liberals have infected the Bible. He, for example, believes John 7:53-58 (let he who is without sin cast . . .) should be eliminated because it is a left wing addition as it indicates sins can be forgiven.

    Frankly, the reason I include this relates to the internet. Too many students looking for conservative views on controversial topics don’t know legitimate sources and go the The Conservapedia and get his garbage instead.

    3. The Liberation Theology Libation: A friend has described this as the “Christ is Che” movment. I see it as “I will cherry pick what I like and ignore that what does not agree with my world view” school of biblical study.

  16. Bob
    April 17, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    @ Ben S: “Bob, the reason we need specialists is because the Bible was not addressed to us..”?
    The Bible came thousands of years after ‘The common Israelite’. Prepared by King James for his people.
    But each man is to try to understand his own thinking on this. If you feel the Bible’s messages were made only be passed on by specialists or a priestcraft, you have that right, and you may be correct.

  17. Ben S
    April 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Leviticus and Isaiah were written for Israelites Bob. King James just gave us our current English.

  18. April 19, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    My Institute teacher was helpful in teaching us symbolism that was known in the ancient Jewish culture. This helped us in understanding the scriptures.

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