Textual Criticism

Recent comments around the blogosphere on the publication of the new NIV reminded me of my first encounter with biblical textual criticism at age 14. Curt Bench,1 my youth Sunday school teacher at the time, took me aside as Ammaron of old and gave me a bible. “Son,” he said, “You are a sober youth of sound mind and so I give you this.” It was a hardbound NIV. “This is not the King James version, but it is a new translation made by believing Christians and not godless heathens.” My sentiments must have been something akin to what Tom Sawyer felt as he claimed his own prize Bible. I was grateful to have been so favored and entrusted. So much so that I’m presently wondering if sending a thank-you note 14 years late might not be too tacky.

Anyways, it was around this same time that I first learned of Joseph Smith’s having pronounced the Song of Solomon uninspired. Incensed at its surreptitious self-insertion into Holy Scripture and being the good Mormon boy I was, I ripped it out of my new Bible. If Brother Bench had known, I imagine he would have disapproved. And so it sits on my bookshelf to this very day, a testament to the zeal of my youth.

My current self respectfully disagrees with this kind of approach to the text. Or any text. Additionally, here are some more things I’ve changed my mind on since coming to graduate school:

  • AT BYU I thought most scholars of religion in the outside world were atheists or at least tongue-in-cheek about their belief. I was mistaken. At least in biblical studies, it seems that religious issues interest people who are more religious than otherwise. Even the most liberal scholars, it seems, have some kind of faith, even if it differs drastically from mine.

  • My goal in my first year of college was to write a book someday on the Apostasy — it’s causes, stages of development, culprits, etc. While I still have a personal interest in the Apostasy, I think my original idea is very problematic for a couple of reasons. When I had that idea, I had never even read the texts I planned to use. I had answered yet unformulated questions. I had already made up my mind without doing any research. As obvious as it seems, I now believe that research questions ought to arise from having studied the texts. I also struggle to place a work on the Apostasy in any career hoping to to live up to the adjective “academic.”

  • Surprisingly, post-modernism and gender studies are not scholastic tools of the devil, but rather interesting avenues of inquiry. They ought to have particular interest for Latter-day Saints although it’s true that both good and bad has been published in their names.

  • I have not moved as far to the left politically as I expected to. I know Chris H. is disappointed. :(

  • When I left Utah, many people told me that I would either lose my testimony or become gay or both. I don’t plan to do either, but I haven’t been away that long.

  • At a left-of-center divinity-theological school/seminary I have learned much about being a Christian from those who prioritize advocacy for the vulnerable and the marginalized. I view my own covenants with the Lord differently because of the examples of good friends I have met here.

  • Many more people are curious about the church than I expected. Talking about church history and doctrine is easy with people who do not shy away from religious questions. In fact I have had to initiate few of the many conversations I have had with outsiders about the church, and a few people have even come to church and met the missionaries.

Maybe you readers have had similar experiences and can find humor in some of my before and after stories. Admittedly, I bring up a few of these points to laugh at myself, but I am not interested in — nor do I deserve — self-congratulation.2 Rather, I hope to introduce someone still learning, wanting to learn, and learning to want to learn. I guess that’s what kept me lurking at FPR in the first place and I’m happy to be participating in this capacity.


  1. Curt Bench as presented in this account (with all his statements) should not be confused with the historical Curt Bench.

  2. Although I am pleased that I no longer rip sections out of texts.

  • http://openskyvisions.blogspot.com/ Steven B

    When my Anchor Bible copy of Song of Songs arrived in the mail I promptly returned it, all based on what I though a good Latter-day Saint should do. Unfortunately, I should have kept it ’cause they kept billing me, even had a collection agency try to collect. They ultimately ended my subscription and I had to type up letters of explanation to the collection agency. Such a hassle. My loss.

  • g.wesley

    “When I left Utah, many people told me that I would either lose my testimony or become gay or both. I don’t plan to do either, but I haven’t been away that long.”

    this made me laugh. especially the uncertainty of the end.

    thanks for the post.

    p.s. i wouldn’t necessarily recommend pursuing s of s and postmodern approaches at the same time.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Great post! I think these kind of spiritual autobiographies are really important.

    Favorite conference paper title of all time that did SoS and gender theory: “Schlong of Schlongs”

  • g.wesley

    tt,

    that is in fact the very combination i was (not) referring to. for my own clarification, is your endorsement limited to the title?

    (and before this thread can go any further, someone ought to page kurt)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    g. wesley,

    Do you have his email? :)

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com Chris H.

    I just saw the comment about moving to the political left. I am not disappointed at all. You are one of my favorite conservative foes.

  • MormonDeadhead

    Great Post! I can relate on many levels with your experience. I think back (with some embarrassment) about some of the Truths I was going to prove by studying the bible in grad school. Still working at it :)
    Great to hear part of your story, thanks!!

    TT, in light of conference paper titles, this one is to be presented in Atlanta in a few weeks at SBL:

    Roland Boer, University of Newcastle – Australia
    Too Many Dicks at the Writing Desk, or, How to Organise a Prophetic Sausage-Fest (15 min)

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com BHodges

    My goal in my first year of college was to write a book someday on the Apostasy — it’s causes, stages of development, culprits, etc. While I still have a personal interest in the Apostasy, I think my original idea is very problematic for a couple of reasons. When I had that idea, I had never even read the texts I planned to use. I had answered yet unformulated questions. I had already made up my mind without doing any research. As obvious as it seems, I now believe that research questions ought to arise from having studied the texts.

    Why not write a book on that for an LDS audience? It is needed. There are a few recent books that do a better job in this regard, but not enough.

    I also struggle to place a work on the Apostasy in any career hoping to to live up to the adjective “academic.”

    Oh that’s why, hehe. Well, do it anyway!

  • g.wesley

    m-d-h,

    that’s the same author. i guess some things never get old (for some people).

  • oudenos

    aliquis, you must be my Latin doppelganger. This post is pretty awesome and it nicely sums up many of my own experiences–welcome to the club.

    Oh, and we know each other. So you aren’t just some aliquis to me, you are at least an ille if not a hic. Vale.

  • aliquis

    MormonDeadHead As I understand it, Boer’s paper raised some concern.

    BHodges I sympathize with the need, but would be so hard to write a book like that for an LDS audience. I feel like part of it would have to explain that the Apostasy is not a historical phenomenon, but a theological phenomenon. I don’t think LDS readers would like that very much. Besides that, I feel like many of the difficulties facing an LDS study bible or commentary would also apply to a project like this.

    oudenos Yeah, I picked the name on purpose. I told Chris H. that “tis” was too short. I surmised who you were a while ago, and it looks like your IP address confirms my suspicions. :)

    I must confess though, I’m disappointed that Curt Bench or even the historical Curt Bench failed to make an appearance in the comments. Guess I’m not as funny as I thought I was. :(

  • anonymous

    “When I left Utah, many people told me that I would either lose my testimony or become gay or both. I don’t plan to do either, but I haven’t been away that long.”

    So true…I am a student in the ANES program at BYU and one ANES professor, when asked by another student in a class that he was guest lecturing in why so many people pursuing graduate studies in Egyptology leave the Church, replied with three reasons:

    (1) they idealize and mimic their secular mentor-professors so much that they are influenced to leave;
    (2) they don’t obey the commandments and are thus de-spiritualized; and, my favorite,
    (3) they began to have chastity problems that lead them away.

    All I could do was laugh; this type of reasoning is ridiculous coming from a professor with a background in Egyptology. Apparently there is no room for a little more nuance in the paths people pursue as they enter an academic career in ANES and related fields. Apparently the intellectual “issues” one encounters have nothing to do with it. Sadly, and for many reasons, the ANES program still has a lot of room for improvement–this being one of them.

  • anonymous

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    Aliquis, how do you separate history from theology? To say that the apostasy is theology not history seems pretty problematic in many ways.

  • oudenos

    anonymous of comment #12,

    If you gave me two guesses about which BYU “professor with a background in Egyptology” said these things I’m pretty sure that I could nail it. When folks say stuff like this I think that it says much more about them than about the people in their sights. Even though what he said is ridiculous, there is certainly a living graveyard of testimonies in my academic neck of the woods.

    This should probably be a post topic.

  • g.wesley

    “…so many people pursuing graduate studies in Egyptology leave the Church”

    so many indeed. mormon egyptology grads are truly plentiful.

    “…a living graveyard of testimonies…”

    what an elegant turn of phrase. i agree. the danger is real enough, if danger is the right word for it. but not for those reasons. and leaving byu is not necessarily a prerequisite to danger.

  • anonymous

    #15 – The purpose of the guest presentation was to discuss with students the difficulties (financial, religious, etc.) encountered in graduate school. I don’t think the student asking really knew that there were not a lot of Mormons pursuing Egyptology when she phrased the question, and the professor was including related disciplines. Sorry, I should have been more clear and probably removed the “Egyptology” phrase out of it.

  • Nitsav

    I think I would have asked a different prof to handle that discussion…

  • aliquis

    Clark I only meant that LDS claims about earliest Christian history are (or ought to be!) theological claims just as the evangelists communicated the life of the historical Jesus theologically. I did not mean to divorce history from theology.