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.