The Rise of Biblical Criticism and the Mormon Response

“The rise of biblical criticism” is the title of a section in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages (Viking, 2005). Those pages are a short and objective introduction to what is variously called biblical criticism, historical criticism, higher criticism, or the historical-critical method. This discussion is sort of a set up for my upcoming review of David Bokovoy’s new book Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis — Deuteronomy (Kofford Books, 2014), which I will be posting in two parts over the next couple of weeks.

Pelikan summarizes the origin of biblical criticism in one sentence:

When the invention of printing was combined with the zeal for biblical doctrine in Reformation theology and with the zest for literary and historical knowledge of the Bible in Renaissance humanism, the combination was responsible for an intellectual explosion and a scholarly revolution. (p. 183.)

Pelikan notes that the development of the Talmud — in specific historical circumstances and over a long period of time, which no one disputed — was suggestive for how the Torah and Tanakh might be approached. That did not, however, lead Jewish authorities to embrace Spinoza’s unorthodox conclusions about the Torah (he was excommunicated in 1656). Catholic scholar Richard Simon (in Critical History of the Old Testament, 1678) likewise argued that “the ‘Five Books of Moses’ could not have been written by him … but were derived from multiple earlier sources” (p. 193).

But Protestants outnumbered both Jewish and Catholic scholars. Protestants like Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791) “could claim to be following in the footsteps of Luther and the Reformation,” using the same sort of “historical-critical scrutiny to which Luther and his fellow reformers had subjected the cherished traditions and doctrines of the medieval church” but applying it more broadly, all the way back to the first centuries of Christianity. More than the controversial results of biblical criticism, however, it was the method itself that became the long-term issue. This remains true right up to the present day. As Pelikan relates:

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nevertheless, several Protestant denominations were torn apart over its legitimacy, with those who eventually acquired the somewhat loose designation of “fundamentalist” rejecting not only the answers but even the very questions of the historical-critical method. (p. 195.)

Two points of interest here. First, this is not a 20th-century problem for the LDS Church or Christianity in general. It goes right back to the dawn of the modern era. Erasmus published the first printed Greek text of the New Testament in 1514, exactly five hundred years ago. The issue of higher criticism is essentially the question of how to read and interpret the Bible in the modern era. It is a question that cannot be avoided, although there are different reasonable answers that one can arrive at.

Second, unlike some denominations, the LDS Church was not split apart by the controversy, which came late to America and even later to the LDS Church (which had other things to worry about in the last third of the 19th century). There was no split because LDS membership and leadership were almost all squarely within the fundamentalist camp, generally rejecting biblical criticism wholesale, notwithstanding the LDS belief in biblical errancy (“as far as it is translated correctly”) and an expanded LDS canon. Philip L. Barlow devotes an entire chapter to the LDS encounter with biblical criticism in his Mormons and the Bible (OUP, 1991). He describes the Mormon response to biblical criticism in the first half of the 20th century using a spectrum, with William H. Chamberlin, a professor at BYU who incorporated biblical criticism into his teaching, on the left; B.H. Roberts, a broad-minded self-taught Mormon intellectual and leader, in the middle; and Joseph Fielding Smith, the long-serving conservative apostle and Church Historian, on the right.

Among the relatively few Saints attuned to the issues, the dominant reaction was negative, accompanied by a sense that the faith of the people was threatened — as, indeed, some traditional conceptions were — by the new thinking. This negative reaction was split between total condemnation of modern methods as “satanic” and a more ambivalent position that was almost half-acceptance, one that allowed higher criticism an important role. In addition, a smaller but disproportionately influential minority applauded the new critical approaches as crucial tools in discerning the permanent from the transient in the religious impulse. (p. 135)

Barlow (writing in 1991) notes that “the center of the spectrum has shifted to the right since Roberts’s generation.” He concludes: “Contemporary LDS views more nearly resemble Southern than Northern Baptists” (p. 143, 145).

Jumping back to Pelikan, here are a few issues that symbolize the support or rejection of biblical criticism.

  • Authorship. Why is questioning traditional authorship so controversial? For Christians, the problem is compounded when the New Testament affirms traditional authorship, and for Mormons even more so given statements in LDS scripture. But as Pelikan notes, “if the Holy Spirit of God is the real Author of the whole of Scripture, why should it matter as much as it obviously did whether it was Moses himself who actually wrote the account …” (p. 195).
  • Credibility and Historical Accuracy. Inerrancy raises the stakes; if a few biblical statements or claims are shown to be inaccurate of false, the remaining claims are then subject to doubt. Which explains why conservative Christians fight so hard against evolution and higher criticism. But Mormons, rejecting inerrancy, should not be compelled to adopt the same response. But, for various reasons, we tend to do just that. We seem to reject inerrancy in theory but embrace it in practice.
  • Historicism. To what extent are the various scriptural writings products of their time and place? To what extent are the ideas and doctrines expressed in those writings similarly products of their time and place? To what degree can inspired writers of scripture transcend their historical circumstances?

That short discussion give some context to the topic. For a good introduction for the general reader, see Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (HarperOne, 1987). For a series of posts criticizing the documentary hypothesis in particular, written by an LDS scholar (in fact, written in response to Bokovoy’s book), see here.

13 comments for “The Rise of Biblical Criticism and the Mormon Response

  1. Clark Goble
    April 21, 2014 at 12:46 am

    I think I understand why Mormons would take a default position of the burden of proof being on those seeing a more complex text. I even understand why around the 30’s you start seeing them embracing conservative proof texting of scripture against higher criticism and even things like evolution. However I’ve never quite understand why the Old Testament’s text is given such privilege. Joseph cast out whole books and there were serious claims that the text was very faulty (missing books in the Book of Mormon, evidence of problems, the whole uninspired compilation process post-exilic). Yet the old testament by most Mormon doctrine is textually very flawed with lots of missing doctrines. Why does this trust of the text persist so much?

    That’s not to say there isn’t tons valuable in it as well as the problem of burden of proof issues when you adopt a secularist position. (What do we keep? What do we exclude? And if we do it from a secularist position isn’t that theologically undermining?) The difficulty is keeping most of the important stuff yet maintaining that fallibilist view of the text. And of course unless God reveals it to us we can’t tell what is or isn’t problematic. (Well some egregious historical or scientific errors maybe but that’s not much)

  2. JMS
    April 21, 2014 at 5:29 am

    In addition to Barlow’s book, another interesting source for some history on LDS responses to these issues is the BYU Studies article, “The Chicago Experiment: Finding the Voice and Charting the Course of Religious Education in the Church.”

  3. April 21, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Dave, thanks for the review, and I’m looking forward to the next installments. One of the things that makes textual criticism a difficult topic is that a vanishingly small fraction of even well-educated adults has any contact with its methods. The average high-school student is much better grounded in evolutionary biology than the average humanities Ph.D. is grounded in textual criticism, at least outside of a few fields. That makes it difficult for educated lay members to put its methods and findings in context. Even some of those who are enthusiastic about biblical criticism and want to communicate its findings don’t have a good sense of what authorship means before modern times, leading to needlessly antagonistic and overly confident statements about biblical authorship. I’ve had reasonable success as a Sunday School teacher, when I’ve brought up the topic, by emphasizing the basic compatibility of textual criticism with the gospel message and by presenting it as a useful if still unsettled scholarly insight, rather than as the final statement from Mt. Sinai.

  4. EFF
    April 21, 2014 at 9:51 am

    “Barlow (writing in 1991) notes that ‘the center of the spectrum has shifted to the right since Roberts’s generation.’ He concludes: ‘Contemporary LDS views more nearly resemble Southern than Northern Baptists.'”

    This rightward shift has occurred with respect to virtually all questions of theology, doctrine, history, sociology and politics. And we are a poorer church as a result.

  5. Kevin Barney
    April 21, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Kent, you may find pp. 58-71 of my article on the documentary Hypothesis useful, as there I elaborate on Phil’s spectrum of approaches to Higher Criticism in the context of the Documentary Hypothesis specifically:

  6. annegb
    April 21, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Big words and ideas aside, active Mormons that I know tend to dismiss the Bible when it’s convenient for them. Most recently, a few were men who spat and sputtered when I told them about the prophetesses in the Old Testament. Personally, and in some contradiction to what I said first, I think we go too far in worshipping scripture, be it the Book of Mormon or The Bible. There are too many contradictions in what we as Mormons accept as scripture to believe they are all inspired by the Holy Ghost. I use an AA slogan when I study scripture: “take what you like and leave the rest.” I interpret “like” to mean “believe to be valid” because of course I don’t like a lot of it. I keep my own counsel.

  7. Steve Smith
    April 21, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Great insights. You are right that the LDS church has not been split over the controversy of higher Biblical criticism. Why is this, especially when there have been all kinds of different splinter groups from the LDS church over time?

  8. Joel
    April 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Perhaps one reason there has been no split in the LDS church over higher criticism is that we have a lay clergy, and even our general authorities receive no academic theological training. It’s hard to have a split over Biblical criticism when the vast majority of your leadership is unfamiliar with it. Also, our formal scripture study very rarely introduces outside sources or approaches, relying mostly on LDS statements and interpretations. Not a condemnation, just an observation.

  9. April 21, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Joel, that’s pretty much how I see it. Apart from the actual split of a denomination over doctrinal or scriptural interpretation, there sometimes emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries a split between pew and pulpit, driven by theologically trained clergy viewing scriptures much differently, perhaps more skeptically, than some lay members in the pews (even if they did not preach in that manner on Sundays). In the LDS Church, by contrast, the membership is often more liberal than the leadership and a certain slice of the membership is likely to be more acquainted with biblical scholarship than the leadership. The only group within Mormonism that parallels theologically educated clergy in being perhaps familiar with biblical scholarship is LDS scholars, and then only those who have obtained training in theology, religious studies, philosophy, or a related field.

  10. Goran
    April 22, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Doesn’t historical criticism question the authorship of Isaiah? Supposedly deutero Isaiah wrote his part of Isaiah after lehi supposedly left Jerusalem and some of the deutero Isaiah chapters are in the Book of Mormon. So for the LDS this poses a problem if you still believe the Book of Mormon is historical.

  11. April 22, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Goran, historical criticism questions the authorship of just about every biblical book, which affects both how the Bible and the Book of Mormon are read. [More directly: authorship and composition are issues for both the Bible and the Book of Mormon.] Bokovoy talks about authorship in his book, of course, but the focus is on the Pentateuch. He defers discussion of the authorship of Isaiah, including the Isaiah texts in the Book of Mormon, until the second volume, which will cover the Prophets.

  12. Leonard R
    April 23, 2014 at 7:14 am

    I like your comment use “and not from Mt. Sinai.”. Its worth remembering that higher criticism is a tool and a perpetual work in progress. So things like deutro-Isaiah are not “final words”, but part of this process. And as annegb says, when it comes down to our own faith, we all need to keep our own counsel. We can engage in cafeteria higher criticism as well, as our own world-view of how God works (or doesn’t) with his children will influence how we interpret the findings of various scholars. It is worth remembering that none of them all agree on everything either. I for one find my understand of the scriptures enriched by it.

  13. June 16, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I Nephi 5:10-11 which the BOM chronology states as occuning “Between 600 and 592 B.C.”
    calls the Pentateuch “the five books of Moses.” Is this historically accurate insofar as we know?
    Apparently it may be refened to as the “five fifths” book in Jewish literature, but I’m not sure
    how far back. John Sailhamer has this to say in his The Pentateuch as Narrative:
    “Though we often think of the Pentateuch as a collection of jive books, viz., Genesis, Exodus,
    Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it was originally intended to be read as a single book.
    References to the Pentateuch within the OT itself show that from the earliest times it was
    considered a single book. For example, subsequent OTwriters call the whole of the Pentateuch a
    “book” (2Ch 25:4; 35: 12; Ezr. 6: 18; Ne 13: 1). The NT also considered the Pentateuch a single
    book. For e;ample, in Mark 12:26, the Pentateuch is called “the book ofMose:r”
    The name “Pentateuch, “which means simply ”jive-part book, “came into use in the second
    century A.D., apparently as a translation of the Hebrew expression “the jive-jiflfls of the Law.”
    Though this Hebrew expression is known only from the later talmudic period, the division of the
    Pentateuch into jive parts is known already by the time of Josephus (c. A.D. 37-100) and Philo
    (c. 20 B. C. -A.D. 50). It is commonly held that the jive-part division of the Pentateuch is as early
    as the Greek (Septuagint, or LXX) translation (3d century B. C.) ,
    The case for this assumption, however, is inconclusive, since we do not have early evidence
    concerning the structure of the Greek Pentateuch, and the shape of existing manuscripts reflects
    a much later period. Moreover, the earliest references to the Greek Pentateuch Clearly regard it
    as a single book. In any event, it is saft to conclude that the jive-part division is early and no
    doubt reflects a custom of writing large works on multiple scrolls. It is equally certain, however,
    that this division was not original. The original work was written as a single book.”

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