Why Mormons Love Margaret Barker

Several years ago, a Latter-day Saint friend encouraged me to read British Methodist theologian Margaret Barker’s books. Now I understand why.

BarkerA cautionary note. Barker has a large corpus of books to her credit, including The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God and The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy. I have only read her much briefer summary, Temple Theology: An Introduction. Not being a biblical scholar or a scholar of either ancient Judaism or early Christianity, I am not prepared to critique Barker’s work. As far I know, her most significant arguments have not found broad support outside of Mormon circles.

Analyzing biblical texts, a broad range of pseudepigrapha (such as the Book of Enoch), and an equally broad range of early Christian sources, Barker argues that “the original gospel message was about the temple, not the corrupted temple of Jesus’ own time, but the original temple which had been destroyed some six hundred years earlier.” The “original temple” in Jerusalem was that built by massive conscripted labor under King Solomon and stood until its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in the early sixth century BC. Barker labels this lost building “Melchizedek’s temple.” When the Persian Empire allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple, the Second Temple — dedicated around 516 BC — lacked key items such as the Ark of the Covenant, previously in the Holy of Holies. The Second Temple had a tumultuous history, desecrated by the Syrians and then rededicated by the Maccabees in the second century. Shortly before Jesus’s birth, Herod the Great massively expanded and rebuilt the temple. Roman authorities then destroyed the temple in the year 70 CE after the failed Jewish revolt.

James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, ca. 1886-1894
James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, ca. 1886-1894

Barker argues that “the temple roots of Christianity” explain the rapid acceptance by some first-century Jews of Jesus as the Son of God. Many scholars believe that the ancient Israelite journey to monotheism was long and gradual and incomplete until after the destruction of the first temple. Barker argues that earlier Israelite religion had known as at least three gods: the God Most High, Yahweh, and El Shaddai, the latter being a divine Mother and wisdom of God. Thus, an ancient Israelite Trinity of Father, Son, and Mother. According to Barker, King Josiah attempted to stamp out these ancient practices and beliefs and replace them with “the ‘Moses’ religion and the Aaron priesthood.” Barker notes the presence of “hundreds of small female figurines” found in Judah, which she believes relate to the worship of a goddess connected to Asheratah, the Great Lady of Ugarit.

However, Josiah’s purge was only partly successful, leaving Jews expecting the appearance of a Son of God in the order of Melchizedek, a high priest who could “carry away the sin and uncleanness of the people.” Moreover, those Jews whose faith focused on the older temple reviled Herod’s temple. It is no accident that Jesus predicted its destruction. According to Barker, Jesus identified himself as the “LORD” of the scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), which is also how many early Christians understood Old Testament passages, as appearances of the pre-incarnate Savior. Thus, some Jews anticipated the messiah as “an anointed High Priest who would proclaim the kingdom and make the great atonement.” In a nutshell, there was no need for a long period of theological development or an infusion of Greek philosophy for Christians to make sense of Jesus as the Son of God.

Skipping way ahead, Barker contends that when Constantine ordered the construction of churches on Calvary and the presumed site of Jesus’s tomb (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), the relics treasured by Christian pilgrims were connected to the first temple: King Solomon’s ring, the horn of oil, etc. (Early Christians sometimes referred to the cave they believed to be Jesus’s tomb as the “holy of holies.”

Also, Barker notes the significance of the Hagia Sophia, the Constantinople church dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, another sign for her of Christian attachment to the lost world of the first temple.

One can readily surmise why many Latter-day Saints find Barker’s work compelling.

First, I presume Mormons like the mere suggestion that the temple was of central importance to early Christians. Early Christians, like nineteenth-century Mormons, aimed to restore corrupted practices to their pure, ancient form. She suggests that “it may be that the familiar story of Eden originally described how the older priesthood had been expelled from their Eden temple, and lost access to their tree of life. Adam was remembered as the first high priest.” Latter-day Saint scriptures identify figures such as Adam and Enoch as ancient believers in Christ, with Adam having priesthood access to the same temple ordinances later corrupted, lost, and eventually restored by Joseph Smith during the 1830s and early 1840s.

Second, Barker argues that “theosis, the transformation of a human being into a divine being … was at the heart of the temple tradition, together with the belief in a resurrected anointed one, a resurrected Messiah.” The high priests who stood in the holy of holies became angels, were “resurrected, and then sent back to earth.” This ancient idea of theosis correlates with the Latter-day Saint doctrine that human beings obedient to divine commandments and ordinances can become like God. Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision of three tiers of heavenly glory promised that those who reach the celestial kingdom would be “gods, even the sons of Gods.” Brigham Young once pithily summarized the Mormon belief in the essential similarity between God the Father and men: “As he was, so are we now / As he is now, so we shall be.”

Third, Barker’s emphasis on divine wisdom as a separate deity within ancient Judaism resonates to some extent with the Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother. Latter-day Saints tend reverently allude to Heavenly Mother instead of worshiping her, praying to her, or even describing her divine role in any detail. More generally, Barker’s conclusions conform much more readily to the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Godhead than to Nicene Trinitarianism.

There is much more that one could say in this vein. For instance, Barker’s suggestion that the deuteronomistic editors of the Jewish scriptures removed many precious truths fits with the Latter-day Saint understanding of the Bible.

Of course, these broad correlations between Barker’s temple theology and Mormon doctrine do not mean that they cohere in the details. That early Christians or ancient Israelites believed in theosis (and one can find New Testament passages and many quotes from early Christian theologians to support the concept) does not mean that the Mormon doctrine of theosis exactly resembles what those early Christians believe. Nor does the fact that the temple was of great significance to early Christians mean that the Latter-day Saints restored ordinances as they were practiced by those early Christians (or by ancient Israelites). What Barker describes in terms of ancient Israelite worship of El Shaddai / Wisdom is nearly as foreign to contemporary Mormonism as it is to other contemporary streams of Christianity.

 

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  • Rob Bowman

    John, I was interested to find your article. I will make some brief comments. (1) First, a minor point: most Mormons will disagree with your view that it was Brigham Young who came up with the couplet you quoted rather than Lorenzo Snow. It ran, “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” You should at least mention that the statement is traditionally attributed to Snow.

    (2) You seem to have conflated quotations from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Joseph wrote in D&C 76:58 that those who reached the celestial kingdom could become “gods, even the son of God” (not “of Gods”). Every version of this text I have been able to check has the singular form, including the Joseph Smith Papers. Years later, Brigham Young famously asserted, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of Gods, are those who enter into polygamy” (Journal of Discourses 11:269).

    (3) You are correct in surmising that Barker’s views have not found much acceptance outside Mormon circles. That is because Barker’s method depends on layers of speculation, since her work amounts to a kind of grand, almost Dan Brown-like, conspiracy theory of biblical origins.

    (4) Barker’s views may seem suggestive for Mormon theology but are simply incompatible with the Book of Mormon, which is as “Deuteronomic” as the Old Testament if not more so! The Book of Mormon is thoroughly monotheistic; there is no hint of a female deity, no distinction between Jehovah (the Lord) and El/Elohim (God), and nothing along the lines of a doctrine of deification (whether Mormon-friendly or not). There are temples, but the Book of Mormon does not reflect a temple-centered form of Christian religion. This is all because the Book of Mormon reflects Joseph Smith’s views in 1829, before he swung radically away from his traditional Christian roots and developed the creative theology found in the later sections of Doctrine & Covenants as well as the Book of Abraham.

  • John Turner

    Thanks, Rob. Wonderful comments.

    To the first, see my post on the couplet:
    http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/11/13/brigham-youngs-couplet/
    The source for the Lorenzo Snow couplet is much later, so I surmise Brigham’s is original. Can’t prove it, of course.

    To your second, that was a typo (maybe I was subconsciously trying to emphasize Joseph Smith’s stated belief in a plurality of gods!). Thanks.

  • Pacumeni

    Lorenzo Snow is the original source. He came up with the couplet before the King Follett and somewhat hesitantly mentioned it to Joseph Smith who suggested it was a valid insight. I think this was mentioned in the Lorenzo Snow Preisthood/Relief Society manual, though I may have read this elsewhere. I know that I have seen multiple sources attributing the couplet as originating with Lorenzo Snow in Nauvoo.

  • John Turner

    Yes, but I think that may be because no one has previously noticed the Brigham Young source from the late 1840s. The Lorenzo Snow source is from a publication in the 1880s. None of this means he wasn’t the original mouth/source, but I’m inclined to at least consider Brigham Young’s more contemporaneously documented statement.

  • Pacumeni

    Joseph was dead by the late 1840’s, so Lorenzo Snow could not have gotten the idea from Brigham in the late 1840’s if he discussed the idea with Joseph prior to the martyrdom. In any case, accounts of his discussing it with Joseph frame it as an original inspiration of Lorenzo Snow that was verified as valid by Joseph Smith.

  • John Turner
  • Pacumeni

    The Book of Mormon opens with a dream in which a Tree is equated with the mother of Christ. The figurines that were ubiquitous in Jerusalem in Lehi’s day were part woman, part tree and signified Asherah, typically cast as the wife of El. See Dan Peterson’s “Nephi and His Asherah.” For someone who came out of Josiah’s Jerusalem, the meaning of the tree/mother of God association would have been a completely obvious rejection of Deuteronomist reforms and an affirmation of the divine family with Father, Mother, and Son. The tree theme remains potent at least through Alma 32. The Book of Mormon figures who are most clearly Deuteronomist are Sherem and the Priests of Noah. Since knowledge of Christ had to be restored to Benjamin and Abinadi, it looks like Sherem carried the day in the Land of Nephi even though Jacob temporarily seemed to triumph in their contest. So yes, there are thoroughgoing Deuteronomists who reject the idea of a Son of God, but that is not the main doctrinal thread in the Book of Mormon. And trees get a lot of attention and multiple mentions as mothers in the first three books in the Book of Mormon.

  • David Tiffany

    Brigham Young once pithily summarized the Mormon belief in the essential similarity between God the Father and men: “As he was, so are we now / As he is now, so we shall be.”

    “The Father is a glorified, perfected resurrected, exalted man who worked out his own salvation by obedience to the same laws he has given to us so that we may do the same” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, pg. 64).

    Yet these Mormon beliefs are refuted by the Scriptures. Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should change His mind.”

    Psalm 102:27, “But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”

    1 John 1:5, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2013/07/false-prophets-and-their-motivation.html

  • Guest

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and
    goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk
    to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly
    tempted to worship.”

  • trytoseeitmyway

    The article mentions, “That early Christians or ancient Israelites believed in theosis (and one can find New Testament passages and many quotes from early Christian theologians to support the concept) does not mean that the Mormon doctrine of theosis exactly resembles what those early Christians believe.” While I suppose that the New Testament passages being referred to don’t anticipate Mormon theology in detail, neither are they incompatible with them as Mr. Tiffany claims here. Mr. Tiffany regularly quotes some verses of scripture to support a point, while exaggerating (or even inventing) their meaning and while entirely omitting any that point in a different direction. The comment here is clearly an example. The Catholic Church would not have articulated the concept of theosis (or divinization) if it were not a widely held belief from the early days. (Catechism of the RCC, Art. 460 (“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods”)).

    C.S. Lewis was pithy himself when he declared, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a
    creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to
    worship.”

    (I encountered technical issues posting this comment, so if you see a stub version of it, that’s why. Apologies.)

  • David Tiffany

    (“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods”)).

    Where is that verse in the Bible?

    Here’s a verse I found in Scripture that has to do with men becoming gods:

    Isaiah 43:10, “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Your comment nicely demonstrates the truth of my observations about your comments here and elsewhere, thank you.

  • David Tiffany

    Your welcome. By the way, do you happen to have where that saying is in the Bible? I’d be very interested in reading it.

  • RestoredGospelEvidences

    As for Isaiah 43:10, & others like 46:1-9, 47:4, the historical situation in Isaiah’s day shows us that the Lord was concerned with how the people were forming idols as their “gods” rather than accepting the true saviour as their God. The makers of idols have no knowledge for they set up the wood of their graven image, and pray unto a god that cannot save. (The World Of The Bible, p. 76-77, etc.)

    If there are no other gods, then that would mean that Christ is not the son of God, because even though he is identified as such, if not literal, because he alone is that God, then there couldn’t have been a Father-God. That would also mean that all those passages about the heavenly family, & about our Father in Heaven, Christ being God’s son, etc, would have to be reinterpret to make them all unliteral, which is what later Christendom seems to have done. If Christ only had a literal mother, & his & our Father in heaven was not his literal Father, that would also mean all those references to he being the only begotten son in the flesh, & us being spirit sons & daughters unto God the Father, would then mean what? Symbolic? If so, then what would have been the point of all the early anti-Christian charges that Christ & the early Christians were saying that God the Father had sex with Mary to have Jesus as the son of God. They knew of the literalness of the early Christian beliefs & mocked them. The Jews didn’t like the doctrine too, & looked upon Christ as a man-godmaker, so they wanted to stone him, (John 10:30-39). Christ cites either Psalm 82, or Perhaps Isaiah 41:23, to point out how the Jews’ law said “Ye are gods.” Thus setting the example for early to later Christians to follow, who cite it too in defense of their own versions of deification, theosis, Christian moral perfection. Even the early anti-Christian Celsus, 2nd cent., knew of the belief that the creator of the universe, Christ, had come down into the body of a man, walked around like a man, etc., & he mocked the idea. Plus the one about early Christians teaching each other they can become perfect, (Matthew 5:48). Which was later illustrated in hundreds of art works as ladders, where each rung represented a Christ like trait, love, etc., mastered. At the top, Christ, or the crown of Godhood is depicted. Christ thus clasps the wrists or hands of those being raised up into Godhood. John Calvin, 16th cent., knew of this monkish belief & rejected the ladder concept. John Climacus, Ascent up the ladder, google image that. There are also many bible passages that early to later Christians quote while expounding of being godmakers too. Perhaps we could explore those. Athanasius, 4th cent., who took part in the Nicene Creed era, where the Godhead doctrine got messed up, changed a lot of things into unscriptural babblings enforced by an non-Christian Emperor, Constantine, admits that the language of the creed forced down Christendom’s throats, was not found in scriptures. When early critics asked why God became a man in Jesus, the answer echoed throughout the centuries, as given by Godmaking Anthanasius, was: Christ became a man so you can learn from a man how to become god(s).

    The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers series.

    Anna D. Kartsonis, Anastasis, The Making of An Image, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986). Shows iconography of Christ raising the first in many to deification by hand & wrist clasping.

    A. S. Garretson, Primitive Christianity And Early Criticism, (Boston: Sherman, French & Company, 1912).

    Darell Thorpe, Ye Are Gods… Children of the Most High” (Kindle version on Amazon).

    John Rupert Martin, The Illustration Of The Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).

    R. Joseph Hoffmann, (translator) Celsus On The True Doctrine, (A Discourse Against the early Christians), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

  • David Tiffany

    In Psalm 82 God is not calling His people Gods, but gods (thus the little “g”). They were put in their positions to represent God and His righteous judgments before the people, yet they weren’t representing Him.
    It’s sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? With Joseph Smith? Except he was never called by God to be a prophet. He claimed to represent God by changing His Word. He claimed to represent Jesus, yet introduced a different Jesus. And he claimed to “restore” the Gospel, though the Gospel had never been lost: Ephesians 3:21, “…to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
    Throughout all generations.
    It still stands that God says there are no Gods before Him nor will there be any Gods after Him.

  • RestoredGospelEvidences

    That’s your interpretation of Psalms 82. My point is in how many early to later Christians, including Christ, interpreted & used Psalms, & many other passages, as they expounded on their own versions of deification, theosis, Christian moral perfection (becoming God(s). It is a belief that has been tracked through the centuries now. It’s all over historic biblical Christianity, in the Eastern church, in the west, all over. (The Ante-Nicene, Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, series).

    https://archive.org/details/PhilsTalk-EarlyChurchFathersOnDeification

    https://archive.org/details/FirstGodmakersWereEarlyChristians-Collection1

    https://archive.org/details/FirstGodmakersWereEarlyChristiansCollection2

    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL87AC6F2DB243A3F6

    You should also take some lesson from the early anti-Christians, they rejected the prophets, Christ, & the restoration presented by Christ during his day. But they put their polemics in a better way than what you’ve attempted to do.

    https://archive.org/details/primitivechristi01garr

    Origen Against Celsus

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/coxe-ante-nicene-fathers-volume-4

  • David Tiffany

    Isaiah 43:10, “”You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”
    What’s your interpretation of this verse?

  • John Kammeyer

    Barker’s theory assumes the following about the Old
    Testament during the 1st Temple period: a plurality of gods, human
    deification, continuing revelation, and an open canon of scripture. The Book of
    Mormon claims to stem from the 1st Temple period, so ought to
    reflect these details. Barker developed her ideas without knowing about the
    Book of Mormon, so the BOM is an excellent test of her validity. It works, I’ve
    matched concepts in the BOM item for item with Barker’s writings, and they fit.
    Check out Paradigms
    Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and its
    Significance for Mormon Studies
    by Kevin Christensen.

  • Hillary Spragg

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