Ask students if they know who wrote the first book in the Bible. After they respond, invite them to turn to Genesis 1 and look in the title to see who wrote the book of Genesis. (You may want to explain that in addition to writing Genesis, Moses wrote Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price also contains Moses’s writings.)
Now, this is certainly traditional. But I think the manual’s reinforcement of the simplicity of the tradition creates problems, as per Julie’s excellent post on The Next Generation’s Faith Crisis. Moreover, it’s a tradition that we have not examined closely or often, with rare exceptions. It’s a tradition we have often shared with conservative Protestants and Jews, although with a difference.
I’ve been through a number of conservative scholars on Genesis recently in the process of working on my book, and those who assert Mosaic authorship greatly nuance that claim to the point that it’s mostly a conservative dog whistle. For example, Tremper Longman (How to Read Genesis) asserts Mosaic authorship, but explains that Moses adapted preexisting oral and written sources; that there is “[e]vidence of significant post-Mosaic redactional activity;” that “[i]t is not possible or useful to definitively and completely divide the pre-Mosaic, Mosaic, and post-Mosaic materials from each other.”
Asserting Mosaic authorship in that Protestant context, then, is less a scholarly argument about the actual authorship of the text as it exists today and more about declaring one’s allegiance of sorts to a certain school of thought, marking him as a faithful insider. I’ve found half a dozen others making similar declarations: Moses wrote it, but he adapted preexisting (Mesopotamian?) sources, and it’s been (heavily?) edited since he wrote. Heck, the LDS Bible Dictionary says as much.
The Pentateuch was written by Moses, although it is evident that he used several documentary sources from which he compiled the book of Genesis, besides a divine revelation to him. It is also evident that scribes and copyists have left their traces upon the Pentateuch as we have it today.
All of those nuances, I think, are improvements over the unnecessarily simplistic assertion of the new manual, which fails to account for or prepare students for the complexity of scripture. The manual could have said something like
“while Christian and Jewish tradition attributes the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy to Moses, different kinds of clues in the text strongly suggest that multiple authors and editors at different times contributed to these books as we know them today. Mormonism is not committed either to strictly Mosaic authorship nor to other views. As the First Presidency said in 1910, it is not ultimately authorship that matters, but whether the doctrine is correct.”
In speaking of LDS history, B.H. Roberts took some fire. His response applies a bit to my critique here.
After BH Roberts edited The Comprehensive History of the Church, he received some criticism for omitting what were called the “Martyrdom Miracles”, such as “attempted beheading of Joseph Smith at Carthage and a shaft of lightning preventing it.”
Roberts responded to one critique as follows.
“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from ‘pictures and stories’ and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods, what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated… might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?
Some felt there was no harm in circulating such stories, since many people believed them. But Roberts sternly replied: “because one repudiates the false he stands in danger of weakening, perhaps losing the truth. I have no fear of such results. I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”- Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, 363
I wish some of the things people need to unlearn hadn’t been learned from our own manuals in the first place (self-inflicted wounds?), particularly when they are not strongly based in revelation or scripture, but tradition. (On which, see my paragraph towards the end of this post, “What’s particularly infuriating” and this whole post on the role of tradition in interpretation.)
One major issue confronting OT scholars, particularly in Genesis, is the relationship between the various creation accounts, flood account, and other often-similar ancient Near Eastern accounts. Hugh Nibley wrote about this in the New Era in 1971, “Myths and the Scriptures” reprinted in Old Testament and Related Studies (now available online here.) With a few quibbles on my part, he captures it well.
A student confronted for the first time by classical and Oriental [read: ancient Near Eastern] myths that read like reruns of well-known Bible stories—such as the garden of Eden episode and the Flood—often goes into a sort of shock, emerging from which he announces to family and friends that he has just discovered a fact of life: the Bible is just a lot of mythology.
Such a conclusion may be the result of a faulty approach to the Bible as well as to the myths. The first thing to do in such a case is to apply cold packs and calm the student down, pointing out to him that such deeply religious writers as Dante and Milton not only were aware of many parallels between Christian and pagan lore and imagery, but also freely mingled the two together in constructing their faith-promoting epics….
The clergy, Christian and Jewish alike, have insisted before all else on the absolute originality and uniqueness of the teachings of Christ and Moses respectively, laboring under the strange illusion that if anything coming from any other source shows a close resemblance to those teachings, the claims of the founders to originality and hence to divinity are in serious jeopardy….
Secular scholars, on the other hand, have been quick to take any resemblance between heathen traditions and the Bible as absolute proof that the scriptures are simply ordinary stuff. The classic example of this was the Babylonian flood story, discovered by Layard in the mid-nineteenth century. It resembled the biblical account closely enough to show without doubt that they were connected, but before any search for the source of either version was undertaken, it was joyfully announced that the biblical account was derived from the Babylonian and was, therefore, a fraud. The experts were wrong on both points—the Assurbanipal version is really a late redaction….
such study as has been done shows us that the old myths are by no means pure fiction, any more than they are all history. As the Muses told Hesiod, “We know both how to fib and how to tell the truth”; and, as Joseph Smith learned of the Apocrypha, “there are many things contained therein that are true, and there are many things contained therein that are not true” (see D&C 91)—all of which means that we must be very careful in accepting and condemning.”
Kenton Sparks is a scholar I’ve recently discovered and read enthusiastically. I first saw his very important article “Enuma Eliš and Priestly Mimesis: Elite Emulation in Ancient Judaism” (Journal of Biblical Literature 126:4, 2007). Sparks argues that the author of Genesis 1 knew Enuma Eliš intimately, and emulated, borrowed from, and argued against it. Intrigued, I hunted down his “The Problem of Myth in Ancient Historiography” in Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters (You can tell it’s academic because they spell “honour” like a Brit, and it has a German sub-subtitle.) Also turns out to be quite relevant to my book.
I went looking for his books.
- Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture
- This is excellent. Aimed at laypeople, it explores the problem of scripture not being nice. Genocide, racism, tribalism, etc. In doing so, he examines the nature of revelation, prophecy, scripture, and a bunch of other things relevant to my book. Sparks uses the multivocality of scripture, its theological diversity (something that makes many Mormons and Protestants deeply uncomfortable) to show how the Bible itself deals with the problems within it. A few teasers-
How are Christians to understand Scripture when it directs God’s people to slaughter Canaanite families—men, women, and children—merely because they have false religious beliefs that could unduly influence Israel? And what are we to do with the many biblical texts that explicitly or implicitly support slavery, sometimes permitting slave owners to beat slaves or to treat foreign slaves more harshly? And what of those texts that regard women as property or as second-class citizens, in some cases forbidding women to speak in public worship? One can easily make this list very long.
if we carefully consider the most profound differences between the Old and New Testaments, we will notice soon enough that the biblical authors themselves were uncomfortable with the violent streak in some biblical (mostly Old Testament) texts.
In Scripture, God speaks to us through the finite and fallen perspectives of human authors and, thereby, through the limited and fallen horizons of human cultures and audiences. And the process whereby he accomplished this was and is very human, both in the production of the individual biblical books themselves and in the lengthy historical process—both Jewish and Christian—that finally produced our respective canons of Scripture (Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant).
When scholarship strikes us as an excessively esoteric pursuit of exotic meaning, this is mainly because historical and cultural distance has made the text’s ordinary (or literal, or natural) meaning more difficult to grasp than is the case for a modern newspaper or novel. Just as uninformed readers will mistake Gulliver’s Travels for a mere children’s tale (rather than the political and intellectual work that it also is), so uninformed readers will tend to misunderstand the Bible.
A more striking example of the redemption of Scripture is provided by the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. Like other early Christians, Matthew viewed Jesus as the “new Moses” prophesied in Deut 18:15: “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” This is why the life of Matthew’s Jesus closely parallels the life of Israel’s ancient lawgiver.6 Like Moses, Jesus was born as a savior. Like Moses, a foreign king tried to kill him. Like Moses, Jesus was hidden from the threatening king in Egypt. Like Moses, Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness for forty days and nights. Like Moses, Jesus returned from that desert experience and taught God’s people on the mountain. And in that Sermon on the Mount he presented his teaching as a new law that reversed and fulfilled the law of Moses. Also, in Matthew as p 69 a whole, the teaching of Jesus is presented in five sections, each ending with the words “When Jesus had finished saying these things.” This structure parallels the five books of Moses that stand at the beginning of the Old Testament. Once we realize that this was Matthew’s intention—to present Jesus as the new Moses of prophecy—then we are in a better position to appreciate the conclusion of his Gospel in Matt 28:16–20, commonly known as the “Great Commission.”Readers will probably recall that, because of his sin, Moses was not able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. At the end of his life, he stood on a mountain overlooking the land and said to the Israelites, “I cannot go with you, but God will be with you.… Go, and kill all the nations.” This parallels very closely what we find at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus takes his disciples “to the mountain” and there speaks his own final words: “Go, make disciples of all the nations … and I will be with you.” It is quite clear that Matthew wished to portray Jesus as a better Moses, who, because he was sinless, could address his followers from within the land and could extend the promise to be with them in their mission. Particularly striking, of course, is the profound contrast between the two missions: “kill all the nations” (Greek panta ta ethn?); “make disciples of all the nations” (again panta ta ethn?). Matthew apparently means to teach us that the true fulfillment of the command to kill the Canaanites is actually found in our efforts to convert the lost to faith in Christ. The Gospel is thus understood as a spiritual conquest in the name of Christ and for the good of the nations. So the Gospel of Matthew is a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Highly recommended, particularly if you struggle with the OT, as you probably do if you’re reading it closely.
- God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship
- This is a more technical version of the above, apparently. I haven’t read it yet, but some people I like highly recommend it.
- Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature
- This is a reference work of sorts dealing with different ancient genres. Also recommended, but as a reference book.
Two other accessible books have crossed my desk recently.
- J. Richard Middleton, Liberating Image, The: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1-11
- The phrase “image of God” occurs only three times in the whole OT, and all of those in what’s called the Primordial History, or Genesis 1-11. WE first find it in 1:26-27 where ‘adam or humankind is created in the image of God. Outside the Bible, typically only kings were said to be in “the image of (a) god”, and the Bible here is engaging in some democratization and polemics by applying it to all humanity.
- Robin A. Parry The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible (no apparent relation to BYU Hebrew prof. Donald Parry)
- Israelites thought of the universe in a radically different way than we do, and Genesis offers the primary, but by no means the only, evidence for this. People who want us to read Genesis 1 “literally” must, ironically enough, take great pains to argue that it doesn’t mean what it says. Parry’s book is a layperson’s guide to the Israelite understanding of the cosmos. (Most commentaries will also explain it a bit.)
- Basically, Israelites and their neighbors conceived of the universe as an inverted snow globe, with water on the outside, instead of the inside. Flat earth, solid dome sky, surrounded by water above and below. Please note, our different understandings of the cosmos do not imply anything about our relative intelligence, and attributing this cosmos to them is not an act of saying how smart we are or how dumb they were. Rather, as said elsewhere, “It’s a shock, sometimes, to learn how much rudimentary knowledge — things any child would know — was an utter mystery to past generations. This isn’t because past generations were stupid, but because current ones don’t know the work that goes into proving even the most basic facts. “See http://io9.com/heres-the-gruesome-way-a-doctor-first-proved-the-heart-1634917354
- For more on cosmology, see my posts here and here.
And my book? It’s progressing. I tell you honestly, though, after working on it for several years, and being interested in the topic for 15 years… trying to submit a complete manuscript by August 1 (my self-imposed deadline) still feels rushed. There is so much to read, so many questions to deal with, and trying to do it in clear, concise prose that doesn’t make you want to poke your eyes out just adds to the stress. Still, it’s something I’m passionate about.