Why Margaret Barker is Right

It is no secret that in the past I have not pulled many punches when it comes to the assessment of Margaret Barker and her attempts to reconstruct lost Old Testament beliefs (that dovetail nicely with particular LDS concepts) from much later texts. Equally culpable, in my view, were (mostly untrained) LDS thinkers who jumped on the Barker bandwagon, culminating in a university-wide forum at BYU and other talks to faculty and students in 2003. I wondered on other blogs whether her lack of a PhD (at least one earned in the traditional manner) made her more creative but also less rigorous (in terms of sound method, not in terms of productivity–she is prolific). I delighted to hear an advisor of mine call her “diachronically crazy”.

But all that changed for me when I realized that Margaret Barker is right.

Why should history matter, (or methodology, while we’re at it)? This is not entirely a tongue-in-cheek question. Really, what dog do we have in the historicity fight? Whether Josiah reformed a Temple cult that had been more in line with the Restoration matters about as much as whether or not Job (or the Good Samaritan for that matter) was a historical figure. What matters is the story we tell ourselves. And Margaret Barker facilitates that story in new and intriguing ways for Latter-day Saints. Historicity is grease for the narrative wheel, but such historicity need not conform to academic standards.

What we see with the acceptance of Barker and her theories is the phenomenon of belief in a truth via a fiction, not unlike that outlined by Jon Levenson in his Sinai and Zion. He asks if it’s really an all-or-nothing question for Jews when it comes to Mosaic authorship of the Torah: “Can it not be the case that the literary form of the Torah conveys a truth which is not historical in nature? Is not fiction a valid mode of knowledge, a mode of which God himself may have made use?” (p. 8).

You might counter, but what about truth claims? The Book of Mormon cannot be a 19th century production and still be inspired because it claims not to be. If it is such, it is lying and therefore not true. But do not fictions all make similar claims? (The Name of the Rose comes particularly to mind.) And can God not work wonders through fiction? What is important is the sway it holds on us. Job is a fiction, one that asks us to go along in the face of outlandish claims to knowledge and events in order to make a sublime point. Margaret Barker’s fiction is no different (though far less sublime) for Latter-day Saints who seek to add to their constellation of evidences for an ancient Mormonism. What is important is not whether there was an ancient Mormonism, but that we see it there. Margaret Barker helps us with that.

By the way, Dan Brown was right too.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Do you think that it is important to recognize the fictional nature of the work in accepting it?

  • http://blakeostler.colm Blake

    Well, Margaret Barker thinks she is giving us an account of what actually happened in Israel and early Christianity — no some warmed over mythology that functions as story. So she is literally wrong and misleadingly wrong.

    Can fictions teach truths. I hope so. I like Beowulf — but anyone who can’t tell the difference between fiction and real history has missed a lot of the value of the truth.

  • Mark D.

    The Book of Mormon cannot be a 19th century production and still be inspired because it claims not to be

    This assumes that something is either completely inspired or completely uninspired. A better question is how can anything that any substantive value be completely uninspired?

  • Mark D.

    Correction: “of any substantive value”

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Jacob J

    Also, Nostradamus was right.

  • DavidH

    “but anyone who can’t tell the difference between fiction and real history has missed a lot of the value of the truth.”

    Where does inaccurate history fit in, including inaccurate history believed by people of a religious tradition? For example, it is commonly believed among many LDS that Joseph Smith clearly taught during his lifetime the doctrine of pre-mortal existence of spirits born of Heavenly Parents, clothing in spirit bodies pre-existing individual intelligences that had agency. As some scholars have pointed out, it is not that simple. (I really enjoyed your articles on this subject, y the way, and sent links around to my high priests group when I taught a lesson on the pre-mortal existence.)

    Now that doctine may or may not be true, and it may or may not have been believed and taught (albeit not recorded properly) by Joseph. Is it “real history” because it might have happened (although not recorded)? Or is it “myth”? Or is it faith promoting fiction?

    Or what about commonly told and believed stories that none of the members of the Martin and Willey handcart companies never apostatized? Or that a group of 18 year old boys effectively had their calling and election made sure because they carried some of the survivors across a very cold river? Does it make a difference that some of these stories of questionable historical basis have been told in conference, making them quasi-authoritative?

  • smallaxe

    For those unfamiliar with some of the problems with Barker’s work see the discussion here:


  • Matt W.

    The problem comes when we have expectations of reality based upon what we have read, if it is fictional. For example, as I believe the Book of Mormon not to be inspired fiction but actually history, I have certain expectations of reality regarding my relationship with God, Jesus, and Miraculous happenings. My world view is shaped as to what is and is not possible by the Book of Mormon in ways I can not claim to be shaped by stories I clearly recognize as fiction.

    Personally, my biggest frustration with the Barker texts is that they were used heavily in the “Second Witness” series, weakening what is otherwise perhaps the best Book of Mormon commentary to date.

  • jupiterschild

    Thanks to all for comments.

    TT: What do you mean by “to accept it”? I hear you saying that Barker is unacceptable (to scholars?) as indicative narrative unless you believe what I have outlined above.

    Blake and Matt W.: How do you define “real history” or “actually history” and is the distinction that simple? How does one tell the difference? And to what extent is the mechanism that allows one to derive value from Beowulf vs. BofM the same?

    David H: Your comment raises some of the same questions I’m trying to ask. What is inaccurate history? Depending on how you define it, all history is inaccurate. What may be more important is to recognize the acceptance of competing narratives and what it says about those who accept it.

  • Mark D.

    All history is inaccurate, but some histories are more inaccurate than others. Either that or fire all the historians.

  • Matt W.

    jupiterschild, I think I was pretty clear when I said history to be actual has to have occured within reality. The people performing the history have to do real things, and the things they’ve done have to actually have been done by them. I am not sure what your motivations are in stating otherwise.

  • smallaxe

    I think I was pretty clear when I said history to be actual has to have occured within reality. The people performing the history have to do real things, and the things they’ve done have to actually have been done by them. I am not sure what your motivations are in stating otherwise.

    If I’m reading JC correctly, his motivation isn’t to deny such a thing as “real history”, but rather 1) Reflect on our (limited) ability to describe real history. 2) Question how ‘meaning’ is generated by doing what people claim as real history versus doing self-confessing fiction.

    One could argue, for instance, that our ability to describe real history is very limited due to the complexities constantly involved in any situation; but since the process of creating meaning in our lives tends to be the same regardless of how “real” the description is, we shouldn’t fret about certain kinds of inaccuracies. For example, a story that recounts a “real” event of LDSs stocking up on food storage and then needing it in time of a disaster, may be just as meaningful as Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, as the hearers of both stories would inspired toward the same end–don’t wait to prepare. This paradigm basically claims that the “truth” of any situation is less important than the outcome of hearing about the situation, and justifies it on the basis that truth is too difficult to discover in the first place.

    Personally I’m not sure where I stand in relation to the paradigm described above, but I do think it’s worth taking it seriously.

  • jupiterschild

    Matt W.: Thanks for commenting. smallaxe said well what I was getting at with the post. To be fair, I should say that I’m coming from a school of thought that is less than optimistic about our ability to recover history “as it actually was” (as Leopold von Ranke famously put it (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”)).

    A good analogy might also be made to the reconstruction of a crime, where the prosecution is at least theoretically committed to discovering what “actually” happened. A friend of mine is a prosecutor, and he says it’s a common occurrence to find himself telling an eyewitness that they (the prosecution) have a better knowledge of what happened than the eyewitness. This is because they are making sense of multiple streams of narrative, privileging some, suppressing others, and ultimately coming up with their own narrative that usually takes into account more information than any one witness could perceive at one time. But theirs is still one narrative among many, and, clearly, it’s still fairly uncertain. So I wouldn’t negate the idea of some “actual reality” as much as I would our ability to get at it–even our supposition of a reality is heavily dependent on our own assumptions, biases, etc. that make it theoretically impossible to describe. The fact that we try to, however, is the interesting thing for me.

  • mondocool

    Barker is not “trained for the ministry;” i.e., no PhD, and, therefore, suspect. Let us all remember, the “method” is the ultimate.

  • rey

    I don’t see how you can read the Bible and not see that Barker’s history is clearly more historical. For that matter how come people don’t connect the Recabites who had a command from their father to never build a house or plant a vineyard or drink wine with the 40 year wandering in the wilderness. Yes we are told the Jews wandered 40 years because God got mad that they didn’t have the guts to go commit genocide against the Canaanites right away. But isn’t it more likely that Moses’ Law originally contained Recabite-like instructions to dwell in the dessert as nomads, and that they tried it for 40 years and just got bored of it? After all, the Law says not to covet your neighbor’s land, not to steal, not to kill. How could the same lawgiver teach not to covet your neighbor’s land, not to steal and then tell you to covet the Canaanite’s land, to steal it, and to kill them? Is it not obvious that what we read now is not historical, that what really happened is after 40 years they got bored of Moses’ law and changed it to suit their greedy desires? Its a big duh, but people are too stupid to see that conquering Canaan was never originally part of the plan.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Rey, I admit that not a single thing that you’ve said strikes me as obvious.