Scripture Studies and Theory

With the arrival of Salt Press at the Maxwell Institute, we have finally entered an era of “theory” as part of mainstream LDS scripture studies. At the same time, we LDS have not fully processed the moves made in biblical studies. There was a short spurt of LDS feminist criticism in the 1990′s, but this did not engage the scriptures as a primary point of inquiry. Poststructuralism, cultural criticism, and queer studies have had almost no impact on LDS scripture studies.

The dominant way that LDS scripture has been studied over the past few decades in academic contexts has been under the influence of historical criticism. The “Book of Mormon Wars” of the 1990′s were largely fought on well-defined turf from secular and apologetic biblical studies. The question of “historicity” was a dominant question, and the issue of truth hung on this issue.

At the same time that “historicity” came to dominate LDS discussions of scripture, biblical scholars began to seriously question these approaches. Of course, historical critics did not go away, and even in the new theoretical approaches taken over from literary theory, historical questions remained center stage. However, in the 1980′s and 1990′s biblical criticism began to encounter “theory.” This revolution had come a few decades after the theory took over literary studies, but nevertheless it came.

When “theory” hit biblical studies, it came in the form of epistemic shifts from authorial intention to the reader, such as in reader response theory. Reader response theory in biblical studies was actually quite revolutionary in its mainstream acceptance, even if the product was ultimately quite conservative in its results. Poststructuralism and deconstruction had a more minor impact during this period. In the 1990′s, theory morphed into feminist biblical criticism, postcolonialism, cultural studies, and queer studies. Just as theory was in its height in biblical studies, Mormon scholarship about scriptural texts was reflecting a prior generation of debates about historicity of the Bible.

How do these larger shifts in academic culture map on to the tiny little corner of LDS scripture studies? The reason that the so-called “classic FARMS” approach has failed to convince many Mormon intellectuals in the status quo is not because of some ideological divide between conservatives and liberals (Hancock), or the “philosophies of men” of supposed secularists and singular methodology of true believers (Hamblin), or Marxists, Stalinists, New Speakers, or other references to dystopian fiction (Peterson). Rather, there are two main reasons that the so-called “classic FARMS” is losing influence. First, almost no new ground has been forged in two decades, and arguably longer in as much as what was produced then was often derivative of Hugh Nibley. The stagnation of content and redundancy of research has hampered this once vibrant intellectual movement. While many young scholars have benefited from the Nibley Fellowship, almost none who have finished a PhD have pursued a “classic FARMS” research agenda.

Second, the methodological approach of finding parallels between ancient near eastern culture, the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and modern Mormon practices like the temple has not only failed to advance ground, but actually lost a lot of ground as scholarship has advanced on these questions. The method and evidences put forward have been problematic. Often these comparisons are based on a selective reading and homogenization of the ancient or modern evidence, thrive on inexact appeals to “antiquity” when often crucial centuries separate supporting evidence, or appeal to missing evidence as a condition for the possibility of actual evidence that is simply unknown.

What the future holds remains to be seen. Whether this small subfield can ever be as robust enough to sustain serious poststructuralist, feminist, queer, postcolonial, and other approaches is doubtful in the immediate future. A more up to date Maxwell Institute could regain some intellectual relevancy in the contemporary scene if it can provide support for these enterprises. At the same time, such approaches may be too difficult for the Maxwell Institute to embrace. In any case, the mainstreaming of “theory,” in the various guises such a term encompasses, is certainly a positive direction for the health of the field. Even if it is a few decades late, the blossoming of new approaches is certain to proliferate.

  • David Bokovoy

    I strongly disagree with this essay. The notion that critical theory has somehow replaced historical-criticism in biblical scholarship is a serious misnomer. It’s actually an outgrowth of religiously inclined students who are either too lazy to learn the skills necessary to pursue historical criticism (including, for example, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, languages such as Akkadian and Ugaritic, in addition to a precise understanding of diachronic Hebrew), but of students who are afraid to address issues that counter their presuppositions. Trust me, historical criticism is alive and well in the most respected halls and academic journals of biblical studies. One of the points Professor Russell McCutcheon made in his recent lecture at the University of Utah was that in his opinion, organizations such as AAR have suffered as of late because those entering into the field of Religious Studies have not been sufficiently exposed to the traditional skills of linguistics and historical criticism in the way that from his perspective, serious biblical studies programs continue to train. I’m all in favor of critical theory, but the notion that it has or ever will replace historical criticism is simply incorrect.

  • TT

    David, thank you for your comment! I think that you have misread me if you think I am saying that theory has “replaced” historical criticism. That is not what I am saying at all. In fact, I said: “Of course, historical critics did not go away, and even in the new theoretical approaches taken over from literary theory, historical questions remained center stage. ” The hegemony of historical criticism is certainly still there, and even has an effect on theoretical approaches. I think that it offers serious critiques of traditional historical criticism, but that is not the same thing as saying that it is more dominant.
    That said, I think that your dismissal of “critical theory” as somehow connected to religious apologists, people who do not know the languages, and people who are too afraid to address their presuppositions is a serious mischaracterization of any of the movements I am discussing here, such as feminist, queer, poststurcturalist, postcolonial, and cultural studies.
    And don’t trust everything McCutcheon says about a field which he knows little about (or even some of the ones he does)!

  • Quickmere Graham

    “If you don’t do it like me you’re either lazy or frightened” is a pretty crappy way to frame a justification for anyone’s preferred methodological approach or guiding assumptions. Not too surprising to see from someone promoting Russell McCutcheon as a guiding light, I guess…

  • Robert C.

    Nice post, TT — well put.

  • David Bokovoy

    Thank you, T.T. for your clarification.

    “That said, I think that your dismissal of “critical theory” as somehow connected to religious apologists, people who do not know the languages, and people who are too afraid to address their presuppositions is a serious mischaracterization of any of the movements I am discussing here, such as feminist, queer, poststurcturalist, postcolonial, and cultural studies.”

    Fair enough. I admit that I have strong feelings on this matter. I really am all in favor of critical theory and am very grateful for the contributions that such studies have made to biblical scholarship. However, many in the field (myself included) have witnessed that such approaches, together with an academic focus upon the history of biblical scholarship rather than the Bible itself, are sometimes used as an escape by those afraid to uncover historical context and authorial intent.

    We also see this happening with both Mormon and Evangelical scholars wanting to specialize in Bible, yet not wanting to learn the traditional skills of scholarship necessary to actually work with the text from an historical-critical perspective pursuing degrees in Egyptology, Comparative Semitics, Assyriology, etc. They then return to their respective seminaries as experts in Bible and critics of historical criticism. It is a problem.

    Quickmere Graham,

    “Not too surprising to see from someone promoting Russell McCutcheon as a guiding light, I guess…”

    Nonsense. McCutcheon has some ideas that I find compelling and others with which I disagree. But it’s rather silly to suggest that pointing out in a Mormon blog an opinion he has recently expressed at the University of Utah that I believe that there is some truth to is the same thing as promoting him as “a guiding light.”

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com John C.

    And here we see why SBL and AAR have always been an odd couple. Both sides spend too much time chuckling behind their hands at the other.

  • David Bokovoy

    My point is not to belittle critical theory. I’m all in favor of the new theoretical approaches, and in fact, I really like what Salt Press has done, but I very much believe that historical criticism is still the foundation of serious biblical scholarship and maintain that by extension, it still have an important role to play in Book of Mormon studies. Thank you, T.T. for sparking such an important discussion.

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben P

    Just want to add that I think Quickmere’s description of McCutcheon is extremely unfair. He is one of the most important figures in the field, and his opinions, though strong, are smart and measured. It should be noted, though, that his primary research is religious scholarship, particularly in the modern scene, in and of itself, so I don’t quite know how it relates to biblical studies.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    I like AAR and SBL meeting at the same time. I am in the AAR camp, but I have more friends that are SBL…which, other than the book festival, is why I go!

  • David Bokovoy

    Ben,
    “Just want to add that I think Quickmere’s description of McCutcheon is extremely unfair. He is one of the most important figures in the field, and his opinions, though strong, are smart and measured. It should be noted, though, that his primary research is religious scholarship, particularly in the modern scene, in and of itself, so I don’t quite know how it relates to biblical studies.”

    I agree, Ben. To clarify. He made the comment in the context of a discussion on how he felt the separation of the two societies was very problematic for AAR since from his perspective SBL’s critical focus on textual analysis and the traditional skills of historical criticism gives AAR a much needed balance, even though, of course, Religious Studies covers far more than simply “Bible.” At least that is how I understood him.

    Best,

    -DB

  • Joe Spencer

    Very interesting thoughts, TT. I find myself wanting to clarify that “theory” has been defined very widely by Salt Press (referring more generally to the theoretically informed and not to critical theory specifically), but I’ll leave that aside.

    My comment is actually in response to David:

    I see the historical and theoretical approaches to the text as beginning from different convictions regarding the genesis of meaning, such that it’s impossible to make either the foundation of the other, or to make either the standard of seriousness. For the one approach, meaning is primarily generated by what originally produced the text—the historical circumstances, settings, actors, etc., situated at the text’s beginnings. For the other, meaning is primarily generated by what receives the text—the readers, political exigencies, theological interests, etc., situated at the point of the text’s contemporary reception. Neither approach, when it’s done well, claims that no meaning is generated at the end privileged by the other approach. And it might even be best to say, not that each approach takes meaning to be primarily generated at one end or the other, but that each approach gives itself to working seriously on the complexities introduced into textual meaning by its contact with one end or the other.

    Is this a productive way of thinking about these questions? I worry about the claim that historical criticism is somehow universally to be recognized as the foundational or more serious place to begin to understand texts. For one, we’d have to throw out most of the history of scriptural interpretation if we begin that way, since serious historical work on scripture is pretty recent. For two, most people will never have the skills necessary to read scripture in a strictly historical way. Theory has the benefit that it speaks more readily to average readers of scripture than historical criticism does. At the same time, it has to worry about the obvious temptation to forget what the historical critics determine about the meaning of the texts, and especially to impose on the texts a set of ideas or intentions entirely foreign to the text.

    A dialectic between history and theory seems to me to be most advisable. LaCocque and Ricoeur….

  • Bored in Vernal

    Second, the methodological approach of finding parallels between ancient near eastern culture, the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and modern Mormon practices like the temple has not only failed to advance ground, but actually lost a lot of ground as scholarship has advanced on these questions. The method and evidences put forward have been problematic.

    I agree with this. In my paper at the upcoming AAR/SBL meeting in Seattle I will engage a recent article in the Interpreter which follows in the Nibley tradition of basing Joseph Smith’s prophetic status upon his ability to parallel the Enoch pseudepigrapha without having had access to these ancient writings. My research and that of others shows just how likely it was that Joseph could have had access to these sources.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to reject the notion that Joseph Smith received revelation to produce modern scripture directly from God. But I agree wholeheartedly with your two main reasons why the “classic FARMS” approach is losing influence.

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator
  • Quickmere Graham

    David, thanks for the response. For the sake of it being off topic anyway I retract my disrespectful dismissal of McCutcheon and apologize for doing it. Perhaps you can focus on the other part of my comment. I wanted to point out that your response leveled accusations of laziness or cowardice at people who may disagree with you about the importance of your own preferred approach to religious studies with the intent of suggesting it may not be the best way to approach the conversation. Can you comment on that?

  • Bored in Vernal

    I adore Nibley. We stand on his shoulders in many ways. But let’s not just keep dusting off his old stuff and re-presenting it.

  • David Bokovoy

    Thanks, Joe, for your comments:

    “For the one approach, meaning is primarily generated by what originally produced the text—the historical circumstances, settings, actors, etc., situated at the text’s beginnings. For the other, meaning is primarily generated by what receives the text—the readers, political exigencies, theological interests, etc., situated at the point of the text’s contemporary reception. Neither approach, when it’s done well, claims that no meaning is generated at the end privileged by the other approach.”

    I agree that there is certainly value in both approaches. However, I strongly maintain that even a theoretical approach, to be truly effective, must take into consideration historical criticism. Historical criticism is not simply an effort to identify a text’s beginnings. It is an effort to uncover authorial intent. It’s the difference between studying text versus studying how that text has been interpreted by various audiences, which are typically (especially in the case of the Bible) different than the author’s original intent. Again, this has been a tool used for quite sometime by believers wishing to study “scripture” academically but not wanting to deal with issues that negate their religious presuppositions.

    In my opinion, a great illustration of how the two can and should work together would be James Kugel’s outstanding book The Bible as It Was where Kugel goes through and demonstrates the way that later ancient interpreters radically transformed the Bible by changing its original messages. Such studies are of course very significant. But they should not take the place of actual textual analysis for historical context and original authorial intent.

    I would hate to see Mormon scholarship follow the path of conservative religious approaches that substitute theoretical approaches for historical criticism. Moreover, we can’t kid ourselves into thinking that in so doing we’re following the greater academic trend. Again, historical criticism is very much alive and well and a central part of successful biblical studies programs.

  • Quickmere Graham

    Hasn’t most of the work on LDS scripture involving higher criticism in particular actually appeared in Dialogue? Did classic-FARMS spend much time on the DH, for example? Or arguing for a less-literalist reading of Genesis or something?

  • David Bokovoy

    Quickmere,

    “I wanted to point out that your response leveled accusations of laziness or cowardice at people who may disagree with you about the importance of your own preferred approach to religious studies.”

    I hope that I’ve explained myself on this matter for it is the way we see these types of issue happening in biblical studies and it’s problematic.

    I agree with McCutcheon’s basic view that in order to be taken seriously in the Humanities, Religious Studies should have academic rigor. Beyond that, I’m not arguing that Religious Studies cannot be used to make the world a better place or to suggest principles of application, etc. I do have some issues with his views. Here, I’m addressing the idea that comes across in the present essay that new-school textual analysis is “critical theory” and that historical-criticism has proven ineffective (thanks, T.T. for clarifying your intent).

    Personally, I think “Religious Studies” can be done effectively without historical criticism, but any textual analysis (including Book of Mormon) that ignores historical criticism is incomplete. To use an analogy that I have before, I think Robert Alter’s fascinating description of fire as a thematic motif in the Samson story is interesting to consider.

    But what happens when historical analysis shows (and it does quite clearly) that the Samson story stems from entirely separate historical sources? Should it matter that Alter has superimposed a motif upon the narrative that the original authors would have never recognized? I think it should.

    “Hasn’t most of the work on LDS scripture involving higher criticism in particular actually appeared in Dialogue? Did classic-FARMS spend much time on the DH, for example? Or arguing for a less-literalist reading of Genesis or something?”

    Indeed. And this is a serious problem in not only traditional LDS academic studies, but also religious education. I’m afraid I see this new movement towards “theory” as simply the latest effort to avoid historical criticism. I hope I’m wrong. Even if we don’t agree with the conclusions scholars reach regarding the Bible, it’s high time that Mormons stop pretending that they don’t exist.

  • Quickmere Graham

    It still seems like you’re saying you have the One True Way of approaching LDS scriptural texts, even if you acknowledge contributions other approaches might make. For clarity, then, maybe this question might give me a good sense of what you’re looking for: What would you propose in the way of historical criticism in dialog with Mormon scripture? Maybe come up with a handful of hypothetical article titles or something, or some guiding questions researchers might take up at a place like BYU as opposed to, say, Signature, Kofford or Dialogue.

  • http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com Gerald Smith

    This is a very good discussion. David B makes some good points, IMO. While feminist and queer studies are important, when it comes to ancient scriptural studies, they generally will end up steering far afield from the historical authorial intent. I see where we need to have an understanding of the original author’s intent as a basis for moving theory further down the road. Otherwise, it seems that we can theoretically make the scriptures say anything we want, and call it progress. I’m not sure if wandering aimlessly into the future, because we’ve cut ties with our FARMS past, is the best method out there. I do know that Joe Spencer produces some great theory to ponder, and hope that MI will move SaltPress-type publications forward, and not be overwhelmed by going in too many directions, etc., possibly stifling it in the long run.

  • http://prolusionsix.wordpress.com DLewis

    David, I know this is a comment message board, so I’m not asking for a thorough reply, but could you give us a brief idea of you think one could apply historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship to the BoM when you have neither the original text nor the original language? It seems like all that can be accomplished is to have the look and feel of the historical-critical approach without any conclusions that could be verifiable.

  • http://prolusionsix.wordpress.com DLewis

    “…of *how* you…”

  • TT

    David and others,
    This has been a great discussion. First, I think I know the kind of people David is criticizing, and I want to say that I share his criticism. However, that this not the kind of theory that I am discussing in this post, and I don’t think much of what he says about them applies.
    With respect to authorial intent, however, I do have significant critiques of this approach. First, I think that David is not quite fair to the ways that authorial intent has been used by conservative religious scholars to legitimate their claims. “Theory” is by no means uniquely adaptable to these purposes. If anything, the historical critical view that the authorial voice is authoritative has linked historical criticism with fundamentalism.
    Second, part of what, say, feminist criticism has suggested is a goal for historians is to recover the voices that are excluded by the author. This is very much a historical project that does not concede that the author is the centerpiece of scriptural meaning. I have discussed this issue off and on at FPR here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2007/06/what-is-an-author/ and I’m sure someplace else that I can’t seem to find. (At FPR I tend to be in the minority on this issue, I think).

    Gerald, none of the movements that I am talking about, even reader response theory, think that “we can theoretically make the scriptures say anything we want.” Frankly, this is a rather tired accusation at this point.

  • David Bokovoy

    Quickmere,

    “What would you propose in the way of historical criticism in dialog with Mormon scripture?”

    The “historical-critical method” refers to an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to read the text “historically,” meaning in accordance with its original historic setting, and “critically,” meaning independent from any contemporary theological perspective or agenda. As an expression, “Historical Criticism” is the label that we often use today for what John Collins has referred to as “mainline” biblical scholarship, at least for the past two centuries or so; see John J. Collins, Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age, 4.

    Thus, amongst “mainline” scholars, “Historical-Criticism” is already in constant dialog with Mormon scripture in terms of the Old and New Testaments. Since Historical Criticism simply refers to an effort to identify a text’s original historical setting and original authorial intent independent from any contemporary theological agenda, this technique can obviously be applied to the other texts that form part of the LDS canon.

    “Maybe come up with a handful of hypothetical article titles or something, or some guiding questions researchers might take up at a place like BYU as opposed to, say, Signature, Kofford or Dialogue.”

    Since BYU has a religious mission statement, I don’t know that articles could be published by the Maxwell Institute that are said to adopt this specific approach. This is not to say that the MI cannot publish articles that seek to identify historical context and authorial intent, but as long as the institution has a religious mission statement it cannot engage in Historical Criticism.

    This is a separate issue, however, from the fact that when teaching college level courses on the Bible, I maintain that instructors have a responsibility to expose students to the way scholars understand the historical development and authorial intent of biblical sources. I fully recognize that the focus of Religious Education is not truly academic, but this does not mean that courses and professors should continue to ignore these issues, or even worse yet, present the material as if it is impossible to reconcile religious convictions with critical theories.

  • Quickmere Graham

    Thanks, David. We have different views, but you’ve state your case much better in the subsequent comments, giving clarity here.

  • Robert C.

    David, I think you make excellent points. I do, however, think you overreach (and offend, and maybe show a bit of philosophical naivete) when you say ” historical criticism is still the foundation of serious biblical scholarship” (esp. since you, and other historical scholars, seem to use “authorial intent” in theoretically thin ways, at least compared to hermeneutic theory–cf., e.g., Paul Ricoeur as Joe mentioned above).

    But, again, your substantive points are well taken. So I’m happy to jump on board your call for more serious historical-critical textual engagements in Mormon scriptural studies, as long as these more brazenly (and hubristically) phrased claims are dropped. (And I’ll agree to drop my parenthetical digs….)

  • DavidF

    Forgive my ignorance, but why is “theory” important? Is it important because it’s new? Because it interests some people? Surely it teaches us new things, but does it teach us new things that are useful?

    Let me be transparent. I don’t know what a queer theory interpretation of the Bible would be. I’m assuming that it breaks down gender roles assumed about the text, or shows how the Bible could be read in a queer lens. Does studying the Bible through that way lead me to new, interesting approaches, or does it run right up into the brick wall of maybe-this-works-but-no-one-knows-since-we’ve-been-studying-the-same-text-for-centuries-and-we’re-running-out-of-new-things-to-say-with-old-approaches? (I don’t mean to be cynical, but I got out of Biblical studies in college after I got fed up with seeing “could” everywhere in the scholarship, as in “[blank] could mean that [blank]“).

    I agree that the Nibleyesque ways of doing Mormon scholarship are outdated. But do we really gain anything by applying trendy theories to Mormon scholarship that may have no real use in Biblical scholarship other than the fact that they are something new to talk about?

  • David Bokovoy

    Dear Friends, I sincerely apologize if my comments have come across as offensive in anyway. Again, I am very grateful for the contributions of critical theory to the field of biblical studies and am excited to see the fruits of such efforts in Mormon Studies.

    Like others in my field, however, I am deeply concerned that many of the younger generation of scholars are not only failing to develop the necessary skills to seriously engage in textual analysis, but even more troubling, that they don’t recognize how important the traditional skills of Historical Criticism are for biblical studies.

    For those interested in understanding these concerns, Dr. Marc Zvi Brettler’s classic SBL essay on the future of Biblical Studies is well worth considering. I’ve taken the liberty of quoting from three paragraphs that are especially important in the context of this discussion…

    “Unfortunately, the growing compartmentalization and overspecialization of most graduate programs, and their over-emphasis on methods rather than text-skills will make it more difficult to train scholars who can complete such studies [comparative analysis]. To complicate matters further, many American programs are not even making sure that their graduating Ph.D. students have strong knowledge of Biblical Hebrew. Unless corrective action is taken, there will be a chasm between the continental, British, and Israeli scholars, who generally know Hebrew well, and those in the States, who often emphasize methods that talk about the text rather than engaging it closely and carefully in the original language.

    “Borrowing methodologies can be good, and the field of biblical studies has been enriched significantly by using methods developed elsewhere. I fear, however, that young scholars are spending so much time on these methods, that they do not have enough familiarity with the biblical text to apply these methods to the text in a responsible fashion. Certainly, over the last decade, the result has been what I would call “the social-scientification” of the field, where the Hebrew text is being replaced by graphs and models. Too many of these studies reflect a better understanding of social scientific models than of the Hebrew texts that these models are trying to elucidate.

    “I am also concerned about the proliferation of literary studies of the Hebrew Bible, especially about the extent to which they are replacing, rather than working in tandem with historical-critical methods. Many scholars have either explicitly claimed that literary study and historical-critical study are incompatible, or they have explicated texts in a manner that suggests that they are. This is simply incorrect—literary methods may be used in conjunction with the historical-critical method. Why can’t we distinguish the literary technique of “real” Jeremiah from that of the Deuteronomic Jeremiah? Why can’t we discuss J as literature, and categorize how it differs from P as literature? Furthermore, I am very concerned that too many such studies reflect religious study of the Bible masquerading as scholarship, trying to show that the Bible is the best, most perfect book ever written.”

    http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=320

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com John C.

    I think that “theory” works best when it has a whole text, whose borders are undisputed. Working with something like J or P, where the origination of individual passages (or phrases, if you want to go all German) is in dispute. What would be the point of even starting a critical, interpretive project if half of your evidence is going to be disallowed on (shaky) source criticism grounds? It is easier to take a canonized text as a whole and use that as your corpus, than to get lost in the weeds of the received interpretive history of every passage being discussed.

    This isn’t to say that theoretical models can’t be applied to sources like J or Q, but rather to say that it makes more initial sense to apply them to complete narratives. Our constructed narratives (that may or may not have existed as distinct documents in antiquity) are just as artificial as a queer or reader-response critique. This doesn’t say a thing about their ability to reveal truth, of course.

  • TT

    DavidF,
    “why is “theory” important?”

    Because everything we do is already informed by some theory. We should investigate our assumptions.

    “Is it important because it’s new?”

    No.

    “Because it interests some people?”

    No.

    “Surely it teaches us new things, but does it teach us new things that are useful?”

    Yes.

    “I don’t know what a queer theory interpretation of the Bible would be.”

    That is fine. Generally I would say that if you don’t know what something is then you probably shouldn’t have an opinion on it. Try reading the edited volume _Bible Trouble_ for a recent treatment. For NT studies, see the classic text by Stephen Moore, _God’s Beauty Parlor_. For HB, see anything by Ken Stone.

    ” But do we really gain anything by applying trendy theories to Mormon scholarship that may have no real use in Biblical scholarship other than the fact that they are something new to talk about?”

    Yes.

  • RT

    I’ve really enjoyed this discussion. I sympathize with David B’s concerns about a younger generation of scholarship that is poorly equipped or not even interested in the traditional questions of historical-critical scholarship and on the other hand believe that literary theory and the ideology criticisms such as feminist, queer, and cultural studies have much to offer. Joe Spencer’s attempt to describe the value of a possible dialectic between the two is spot on, in my opinion.

    I have to say however, that as one trained in the historical-critical side of things that I have often been bothered by those who adopt literary theory and methods as a replacement for historical critical readings of scripture and then go on and act as if they can continue to hold on to their traditional historical-normative claims that derive from those scriptures as if nothing ever happened. For myself, I see a significant amount of contradiction here. Are we interested in history or are we not?

    Thanks for the post TT. By they way, if you have the time, I would be interested in hearing some possible examples or possible essay titles of the types of post-structuralist, deconstruction, feminist, queer, and cultural studies on Mormon scripture that you would like to see at some point in the future. I think this would help some of the others visiting this site to understand exactly what you are envisioning.

  • RT

    John C: I don’t understand what you mean by “Our constructed narratives (that may or may not have existed as distinct documents in antiquity) are just as artificial as a queer or reader-response critique. ” Except that they follow very different hermeneutics and are trying to get at different forms of knowledge. I don’t see how calling them both artificial helps at all in clarifying their relationship to each other.

  • David Bokovoy

    Hello John,

    “I think that “theory” works best when it has a whole text, whose borders are undisputed.”

    Why? The disputations on textual borders are half the fun! Moreover, each of the five documents in the Pentateuch very much can be analyzed successfully as whole texts. The concept of fragmentary sources in addition to documentary sources in the Pentateuch argued for by a few vocal European scholars had failed to convince the masses. The point is that the documentary sources very much can be read as “whole texts,” even though admittedly some of the borders will forever be disputed.

    “What would be the point of even starting a critical, interpretive project if half of your evidence is going to be disallowed on (shaky) source criticism grounds?”

    Then I would suggest strengthening your evidence so that your analysis rests on firmer grounds. The current academic debate amongst European versus North American and Israeli scholars over documentary versus fragmentary sources in the Pentateuch does not change the fact that virtually all scholars agree that there are separate historical sources in the Pentateuch. The debate is whether these sources were all entire documents not whether separate sources actually exist. They clearly do!

    In terms of historical criticism and the New Testament, there’s a lot more to the method than simply identifying and analyzing virtual Q. It’s paying close attention to the different views on Christology manifested in the Gospels, and the way Paul argues against theological views that appear in other NT books, etc., etc.

    And that’s really what it comes down to. Historical criticism is just that, it’s paying close attention to the actual text. Source criticism is simply a component of historical criticism.

  • https://mormonscriptureexplorations.wordpress.com/ William Hamblin

    Many scholars feel that “theory” is the bane of the modern academic. Just saying.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com John C.

    RT,
    I just mean that the history we reconstruct may or may not actually portray history accurately. We can’t know what actually happened, so what we uncover is always a best guess and that best guess is always determined by our assumptions regarding what a best guess would look like. Look at the historical-critical approach as a means of generating a certain type of data; in that sense, it can be broadly understood as just another interpretive model, like queer theory or ethnic study. How we value the data generated may differ, but all interpretive models are constrained by the data they find, at least as much as they are justified by it.

    David,
    I think you are overstating the case for the various sources as being whole. They are all modern constructs of potential ancient antecedents. We cannot say with any confidence if we even have the whole of any of them (aside, possibly, from D). If we limited ourselves to just blocks of text that contained undisputed portions from one source or another, I’m not certain that we’d have access to the majority of the narrative material in the Pentateuch. In any case, while we can speak of the conclusions of the historical-critical method with some confidence, it is harder to decide if they actually reflect history (or should be). Also, “The disputations on textual borders are half the fun!”; this is why you are a historical-critical scholar, rather than a religious studies scholar. :)

    I think you misunderstood me in that second paragraph. I wasn’t disputing the existence of the sources. I was disputing our ability to find and demonstrate the distinctions consistently. Even setting aside the vagaries of the maximalist/minimalist debate (or whatever the contours of the current debate are (I’m about 10 years out of my program and no longer current in the field)), any Pentateuchal narrative is open to historical repositioning and, depending on the nature of further interpretation, this could render said interpretation moot. Hence, it is with trepidation that the religious studies scholar enters into history. One never knows when the ground beneath your thesis will disappear.

    Dr. Hamblin,
    Some scholars are dumber than a bag full of hammers. What are you going to do?

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    It seems to me that one’s agenda in approaching the texts is really what is at issue. What are we seeking to find in scriptural texts and why are we approaching it? The “old” FARMS approach was aimed at answering and addressing a particular question: is there evidence to support Joseph Smith’s claims about the historical origins of the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses and Book of Abraham? There was a substantial group of scholars that thought the question was fruitful and to explore it using their various areas of expertise.

    I take what you are saying TT is that this approach isn’t fruitful because younger scholars find these approaches to not be fruitful. Is that because they have concluded that the attempt to support the historical claims is just not worth pursuing because they ain’t what they claim to be? (Just reading between the lines here like any good theorist would with respect to a text — in this case your post). Is it because they do not think these questions are important? Is it because they dislike the “old” FARMS guys? I do not know the answers to these questions — but they seem to be important questions to me.

    It seems fairly given that any approach to scriptural texts benefits from a broad historical-critical understanding of the texts. I’m not quite as sold on the theoretical approaches. I guess it I am just measuring what I get out of these approaches. They all seem to me to privilege one particular point of view over others as a basis of interpretation rather than taking a broad-based examination that acknowledges that these various points of view are just that — just one way of looking at it and that all points of view may have something to add to the mix. That said, some approaches speak to me more than others. I think that queer and feminist studies approaches are rather artificial ways of reading the text with a particular political agenda in mind. I also think that they are rather trendy. We see the same thing in philosophy all of the time. During the 30s and 40s verificationism was all the rage; during the 50s and 60s existentialism was all the rage, during the 80s and 90s post-modernism was all the rage (even if no one knew what it was).

    I guess my point is that particular theoretical approaches come and go, wax and wane, and they tend to be a reflection of political attitudes during a particular time. But the question of a text’s provenance, it redactional history and what those who wrote it intended to convey are always relevant. That necessitates learning the base languages and knowing the sitz im leben of the text. But maybe when we learn of all of that, the text is no longer interesting because our real interest in the text was to find some truth that oriented our lives or some connection to God or larger meaning in life. Maybe all of the theory and critical study ends up not meaning much because we have killed the life of the text for us so that it is no longer interesting. Or maybe these approaches just do not address the important question that is inevitably confronted in every reading of say the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham and so forth because no approach can ignore the historical-critical facts of the text and one has to address the issue of historicity assumed in the approach one adopts. Just as one cannot escape one’s own skin, no one can do more than pretend to escape the issue of what the actual historical setting of the text portends for interpretation and reading.

    FARMS had a particular mission — and it wasn’t merely to promote literary theory. I am not saying that promoting literary theory is bad, it is just that there are all kinds of places doing that. Where is anyone exploring the question of whether there is historical evidence to support the historical claims of Mormon scriptures? If all of the “new” and supposedly “improved” scholars believe that exploring that issue is a dead end, then we have lost something very valuable in the transition. Is that the case? I ask in all honesty because I do not know the answer.

  • RT

    John C:
    “I just mean that the history we reconstruct may or may not actually portray history accurately. We can’t know what actually happened, so what we uncover is always a best guess and that best guess is always determined by our assumptions regarding what a best guess would look like. Look at the historical-critical approach as a means of generating a certain type of data; in that sense, it can be broadly understood as just another interpretive model, like queer theory or ethnic study. How we value the data generated may differ, but all interpretive models are constrained by the data they find, at least as much as they are justified by it.”

    But that description of historical criticism is just another way of saying that there are interpretive problems in getting at something resembling historical reality. Because there are myriads of difficulties in reconstructing source texts or redactional layers and that previous scholars have disagreed widely over such things is not a justification for equating historical criticism with other interpretive models such as feminist criticism. You sound like you just don’t have much confidence in the whole historical-critical enterprise itself and view it as merely a bunch of guesswork.

    I think that’s overly pessimistic. While I can acknowledge that different assumptions will lead to any number of outcomes in our attempts at historical reconstruction, I see that as just greater reason for developing more methodological sophistication and control of our data.

  • RT

    Blake:
    “Where is anyone exploring the question of whether there is historical evidence to support the historical claims of Mormon scriptures?”
    Younger scholars recognize that there are serious methodological problems with this approach and are currently looking for other interpretive paradigms by which to productively engage with Mormon scripture. This doesn’t mean that these younger scholars are unanimous by any means in holding to a non-traditional or ahistorical interpretation of scripture, but there is a much wider range of views on such questions. Even those who do sympathize with the traditional FARMs approach understand that to be able to deal with questions of historicity they are going to have to first actually engage with the field of Biblical Studies as it stands and become much more sophisticated and nuanced in their discussion of the data.

    I myself believe that the approach that simply assumes as a matter of method that the scripture produced by JS must have been historical is a dead end and has contributed mightily to the intellectual stagnation that TT alludes to in the OP.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Well stated RT. But this is a two-way street. One cannot assume as a matter of method that what JS produced must have been 19th century or — worse yet — ahistorical either. The letter danger seems much more real and pressing to me. However, scholars have attempted (at least) to develop methodologies that address the question of historical provenance. Heck, the entire JPED is such an example! Delineating Q and its community(ies) is another. The pretense that such methodologies must be, as a matter of scholarly methodology, a “historical dead end” seems to me to ignore much of 20th century biblical scholarship. I know the limitations of source, form, redaction, redaction and even radical critical methodologies, but they seem to me to be useful tools nonetheless. All but radical critical methods (which DB seems to me to just naively assume as the basis of critical scholarship) all seem to be compatible with any current inquiry into the LDS scriptures and texts. Of course, what is a dead-end for you is an exciting field of study for others.

  • RT

    Blake: I can only speak for myself, and I never approached Mormon scripture in the way you describe. I began with a strong traditional assumption of historicity and in the process of developing the tools with which to investigate ancient biblical and near eastern texts eventually came to the conclusion that these texts were most likely not historical.

    “However, scholars have attempted (at least) to develop methodologies that address the question of historical provenance. Heck, the entire JPED is such an example!”

    Your association of the the classic FARMS method with the methodologies of contemporary historical criticism is ridiculous. No scholar worth his salt approaches a text within the OT biblical canon with an a priori assumption that it must stem from Mosaic times or that its author was attempting to describe historical reality as he knew it. We isolate texts, examine their textual shape and possible diachronic development and background, and then make informed hypotheses about when and under what circumstances they could have been written and likely were written. While a complicated and laborious process, it can provide much insight into our understanding of the origins of biblical texts.

    This is obviously not the classic FARMS approach. The latter begins with the assumption of historicity, and as a consequence ignores the bulk of mainstream biblical scholarship, selectively appropriates evidence when it suits its purpose, and fails to be self-conscious about its method because it really doesn’t have one in the first place

  • DavidF

    TT,

    Thanks for the recommendations. Again, I readily admit I don’t know much about these different theories that challenge traditional assumptions, but a red flag gets raised in my head when I hear about using a very artificial theory to challenge the assumptions of another. This smacks of trendiness. Blake pointed out that this is common in philosophy too, and I agree that, at least in that field, it has as much to do with following intellectual fads than it does with quality evaluations of old assumptions.

    Here is where I had a red flag jump in my mind when I read your post:

    “What the future holds remains to be seen. Whether this small subfield can ever be as robust enough to sustain serious poststructuralist, feminist, queer, postcolonial, and other approaches is doubtful in the immediate future.”

    “Can it” is a good question, but what about “should it”?

    ” A more up to date Maxwell Institute could regain some intellectual relevancy in the contemporary scene if it can provide support for these enterprises.”

    Maybe I’m devaluing the kinds of trendy theories going on in Biblical Studies right now. But I know what trendy theories in intellectual methods look like, and they die out when they aren’t cool anymore. Do we really do ourselves a service by riding the wave?

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    RT – I guess I am just confused at your comment in #40. Where did I say that the critical methodologies that I adopt are some “classic FARMS method”? Since I never referred to it, and since I do not even believe there is such a thing, I am pretty sure I didn’t make the argument or assertions that you appear to want to foist upon me. I acknowledge that Nibley adopted a diffusionist view that accepted the Mosaic authorship of some of the Pentateuch, but that was a very prominent scholarly view in his day. Who else simply assumed Mosaic authorship from FARMS for the entire Pentateuch or any portion of the biblical texts? FARMS was much more eclectic than you assume and I tend to believe that your criticism here is a mere straw-man that hardly reflects reality. I am sure that there were those who accepted or assumed Mosaic authorship, but none come to mind as I write. Surely not DP, Jack Welch or Bill Hamblin or even John Sorenson.

    I have explored the issue and come to a different conclusion than you. We have had this discussion before, but your approach always seems to me to ignore and mis-state the arguments and evidence. I am sure you believe the same of my approach so we are at a stand-sill. However, your pigeon-holing of a very eclectic group of authors who adopted some mythical “classical FARMS approach” is surely not merely an over generalization. It is a myth of your own creation. Exploring historicity is hardly the same as assuming historicity. I have given the reasons for arriving where I did after employing critical methodologies. I believe that is both an honest and responsible. Of course, the scholarly language-game being played always leaves room for counter-arguments and disagreements.

  • David Bokovoy

    “All but radical critical methods (which DB seems to me to just naively assume as the basis of critical scholarship)…”

    Again, Blake, to clarify, the fact that I accept the scholarly consensus that an Israelite written system did not exist prior to the 9th century B.C.E., and that the Pentateuchal sources were first composed by Judean scribes during the Neo-Assyrian time period, that Moses could not have possibly written the Book of Moses, and that Abraham could not have possibly have written the Book of Abraham does not make me a “minimalist;” though I admit that no matter how “radical” a position may seem to a traditionally minded believer, if the evidence weighs in favor of a specific historical model that counters my religious presuppositions, I won’t shy away from adopting such views.

  • TT

    DavidF,

    ““Can it” is a good question, but what about “should it”?”

    The burden of proof on those who want to stay with older methods of scholarship is on them. New scholarship comes along because it is a critique of what has gone before. We cannot simply close our eyes and say these are “trends” when they are entering their fourth and in some cases fifth decade. There are established chairs and graduate programs in all of these fields. My entire point with this post is to show that we are already lagging three decades behind conversations that started in the 1980′s in biblical studies, which was two decades behind approaches that started in literary studies.
    The fact is, historical critical scholarship is not some objective neutral, but rather arises out of its own historical trends–some of which are not all that great.

  • RT

    Blake (42): I was referring to your comment, “The pretense that such methodologies must be, as a matter of scholarly methodology, a “historical dead end” seems to me to ignore much of 20th century biblical scholarship,” which seems to have been responding to my comment that approaching the Book of Mormon from the perspective that it “must have been” historical is a “dead end”. I was not referring to an assumption for Mosaic authorship or anything of the kind. The latter was simply an analogy for OT scholarship for the kind of thing happening in the classic FARMS approach to the BOM.

    “It is a myth of your own creation. Exploring historicity is hardly the same as assuming historicity. I have given the reasons for arriving where I did after employing critical methodologies. I believe that is both an honest and responsible. Of course, the scholarly language-game being played always leaves room for counter-arguments and disagreements.”

    Come on, Blake. Show me the variation in terms of approaches to the question of historicity among classic FARMS scholars over the last two decades. Show me someone who has really taken up the torch that you started with in terms of “motif criticism” and taken it further. Show me someone doing this so-called “exploring” the question of historicity with all the options open. What happened to David Wright? Need I go on?

  • RT

    TT: “The fact is, historical critical scholarship is not some objective neutral, but rather arises out of its own historical trends–some of which are not all that great.”

    Sounds like an objective statement derived from the interpretation of historical data. :)

  • secco

    At the risk of bringing the hypothetical into the actual – always a dangerous thing when talking about academic approaches to a topic – would it be a useful exercise to contrast _Lehi in the Desert_, which is perhaps a classic “old FARMS” approach, with _Understanding the Book of Mormon_, which actually does bracket the issue of historicity and take some of the more up-to-date approaches in its analysis? The latter doesn’t discard the former, but also moves forward in a helpful and valuable way. And if the editors of OUP are to be considered as reasonable arbiters, it is within the modern academic range of methodologies.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    David: #43 – It is pretty clear to me that you do not know what radical criticism is. It is none of the things you mention (nor that I have mentioned here). It is, rather, the assumption that scholarship must proceed without any preconceived theological agenda or biases and must proceed with no assumptions. That is extremely naive in my view and it hasn’t been widely followed for that very reason. It is true that some of those who have adopted the radical critical stance have been minimalists, but that is a different question from the methodology. As a critical methodology, radical criticism is not any of the conclusions you cite. Indeed, everyone comes to the text for some reason, with some prior question to be addressed and answered. We all bring our biases to the text and often simply read them into the text without intending to do so. The fact that secular scholars have different biases than religious scholars does not mean that they do not have biases. Your position seems to me to be a less-than-aware stance from the perspective that we cannot escape such stances.

    DB if you think that I am a “traditionally minded believer” then I suggest you don’t know much about what I believe. In fact, how anyone could read what I have written in say, Of God and Gods, and still make that assertion is really remarkable to me. I accept the new-Assyrian dating for the present redactions of the texts as much as you do (though I am far more open about what writing systems were available to pre-monarchical Israelites than you are). So what? I have never asserted that the LDS scriptures are merely translations word-for-word from an ancient text. You do get that, right?

    RT # 45 – there you go again with the “classic FARMS scholars.” There just ain’t no such. I asked you to identify folks who made the assumption tout court of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch to support your claims, and your response did not address that at all. Instead, you ask for anyone who is essentially still open without prior commitment who wrote for FARMS. Like everyone else, they obviously have commitments and biases. They were, after all, writing as Mormons exploring the historical claims made for and by Mormon texts. But to suggest that for that reason everything that is written can be dismissed is fallacious on several levels (I am not even going to list the several logical fallacies involved because they are rather obvious).

    As you well know, there are folks who contributed to FARMS using several widely different methodologies that they bring to text. The Wordprint studies show attempts to follow wherever the evidence leads. The issues related to chiasmus have been fairly assessed and explored. I don’t share the fondness for the writing of Margaret Barker that at least one or two writers for FARMS do, but I am open to the possibilities that she has presented (though far from convinced). I think that the studies related to names in the Book of Mormon, form-critical studies of King Benajamin’s speech as a covenant renewal (among others) and legal procedures in the prophetic rib form are important to assess. I find them much more persuasive than you do. Each argument must be taken on its own merits rather than dismissing everything with a waive of the hand and a reference to “classical FARMS”.

  • RT

    Blake: Discussion derailed… You have a flair for not responding with your responses. Maybe you think, the more you speak and the more strongly you say it, the more people will forget what they asked you to respond to in the first place.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    RT – look, I like you. I am just not quite sure what the purpose of your last comment was. It is ironic that you once again failed to respond to the request to identify FARMS writers who simply assumed Mosaic authorship while asserting that I somehow derailed the discussion by asking you to do so. Funny how that works, don’t you thing?

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    secco: There are numerous instances in Understanding the Book of Mormon where Hardy does assess the historical melieu of the text. Indeed, he first assumes the text from an ancient perspective and then from a modern stance (or vice versa) on more than two dozen instances. I assume that he just found it impossible to discuss the meaning of the text without some context. We can try to the read the text in a historical vacuum, from the perspective of the possibilities offered intra-textually, but context is really essential to assess which possibilities make sense (which is exactly why Hardy refers to the historical context).

  • RT

    Blake: I didn’t respond because Mosaic authorship had nothing to do with my original comment. My original comment was about non-Mormon Old Testament scholars, “No scholar worth his salt approaches a text within the OT biblical canon with an a priori assumption that it must stem from Mosaic times or that its author was attempting to describe historical reality as he knew it,” and using that as an analogy or example of how the classic FARMS approach privileged the assumption of historicity for the Book of Mormon, BofM, or Book of Abraham.

  • DavidF

    “The burden of proof on those who want to stay with older methods of scholarship is on them.”

    Since when has the burden of proof ever been on those who uphold the status quo? Regardless, that’s not my position.

    “New scholarship comes along because it is a critique of what has gone before. We cannot simply close our eyes and say these are “trends” when they are entering their fourth and in some cases fifth decade.”

    Sure we can. Any theory attached so closely to political motivations counts as trendy. Much of post-structuralism is nothing but.

    “My entire point with this post is to show that we are already lagging three decades behind conversations that started in the 1980′s in biblical studies, which was two decades behind approaches that started in literary studies.”

    Okay. My entire point is that I’m not sure there is a good reason why we should be having the conversation they are having. Don’t get me wrong, I am as tired of the old formula as anyone else, the old formula being: X is in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith couldn’t have known about X, therefore the Book of Mormon is true. And, of course, the Biblical criticism doesn’t vary far from that mark.

    That’s a shallow discussion, and I’m always pleased to see new scholarship in Mormonism that gets away from it. So I welcome fresh scholarship, but I don’t see why Mormon scholarship should apply trendy theories taken from Biblical scholarship. If there is any burden of proof to be shown, it is from those who advocate that position.

  • TT

    Hamblin @34
    Many scholars think those scholars are wrong. Just saying.

    Blake @36,
    “Is that because they have concluded that the attempt to support the historical claims is just not worth pursuing because they ain’t what they claim to be?”

    I have some concerns with the nature of this question, which is part of the low quality of the discussion these days. The implication is that anyone who think that previous scholarship on the Book of Mormon is problematic is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a secret apostate, or some such. My point is none other than what I said. First, these attempts to support historical claims seem to have stalled out in the past few decades. Second, a lot of the methods used to make these historical claims are less compelling starting points today.

    “Is it because they do not think these questions are important?”

    In some cases, yes. They certainly are not the only questions that one may ask.

    “Is it because they dislike the “old” FARMS guys?”

    I can hardly imagine that this would be a reason. Some of those guys are practically like teddy bears. In any case, though some want to think that these intellectual shifts are simply driven by grudges of some sort, they simply aren’t paying attention to broader shifts in academic culture that are at work. How one was trained in graduate school and the kinds of scholarship that one is in conversation with is far more salient here, and the persistent attempt to personalize these issues is getting silly.

    “I guess my point is that particular theoretical approaches come and go, wax and wane, and they tend to be a reflection of political attitudes during a particular time.”

    Yes! That is what I am saying about the previous generation of scholarship. It’s time has come and now a new time is emerging. The prior era is not the arbiter of some pure version of scholarship that is without any trends of fads, but just as dated as anything else. This isn’t a bug, it is a feature of scholarship. There is something profoundly naive about saying, “I am going to ignore broader shifts in the academy because those are just fads, while the thing I am doing is tried and true timeless scholarship.” That is a recipe for delivering scholarship that is DOA–which is precisely what is happening in some circles, and has been for far too long.

    “But the question of a text’s provenance, it redactional history and what those who wrote it intended to convey are always relevant.”

    If only 150 years of scholarship had definitively settled these questions for us, and if only we accept the once trendy and now pretty much dead notion that an original context can be arrived at in some objective manner, that original context is the source of meaning, and the whole ontology of authorial intent.

    Blake @50,
    Not to jump in between the middle of you two, but RT distinctively did not say that he thought “classic FARMS” authors believed in Mosaic authorship, but rather that their belief in the historicity of the BoM was akin to believing in the Mosaic authorship, hence making them not real historical critics. RT, do I have that right?
    For my part, I think that the approaches of FARMS over the decades, including the form critical approaches of chiasmus studies, the word print analysis, and historical paralleling are all species of a broader historical critical approach which shares some fundamental assumptions around the value of historicity, the methods for verifying it, and the centrality of the author in interpretation.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    RT – I’ll just accept that your comment about Mosaic authorship were merely an analogy. How does the analogy remotely apply? Are you suggesting that if one approached the text with the hypothesis that the texts of e.g., the BofM may be historical (ancient) and can be explored from that perspective, then any such exploration is thereby simply assuming the ancient background? If that is the analogy, it isn’t a good one. Are you suggesting that the FARMS arguments were all made from the perspective of simply assuming that the BoM is ancient and thus begged the question by assuming what had to be proved? If that is the assertion, I do not believe it is accurate. Do you have examples of this kind of assumption that shows it is the controlling characteristic of all FARMS scholarship?

    Look, let’s just agree that being as careful and honest with the evidence as one can is a good thing. While we’re at it, let’s admit that we should not assume where the evidence has to lead before we get to it, that “the evidence” is not self-interpreting, that it has to be organized and assessed and almost always can support a number of differing hypotheses and that all of the evidence is never in. Let’s admit that the way we organize it to form hypotheses is subject to our own points of view and biases and is always tentative. Let’s admit that the only question we can pose to the text is not always all about its historical origins and setting to divine the meaning of the text. There may be any number of theoretical approaches that may enlighten the text. Because they aren’t mutually exclusive, we don’t have to choose between them, we can explore them all.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT @ 54 – I don’t see anything anything in what you say that I disagree with except what seems to me to an underlying assumption that histotrical-critical methods and new theoretical approaches are mutually exclusive. Why couldn’t one do both or all of the above (assuming adequate time)?

  • RT

    TT #54: Yes, you’ve understood me correctly.

    Blake: I hate to keep rehashing this, but if classic FARMS had been interested in anything approaching a critical or historical approach to understanding the origin of the Book of Mormon than it would have done a much better job of acknowledging and attempting to deal with the substantial amount of countervailing evidence against historicity and entertaining alternative scenarios for the development of the Book of Mormon text.

    “Do you have examples of this kind of assumption that shows it is the controlling characteristic of all FARMS scholarship?”

    Like I said, can you show me any significant variation among classic FARMS contributing scholars on the subject of their approach to the question of Book of Mormon historicity? excluding of course those who were pushed out of BYU and/or the Church for their views?

    “Look, let’s just agree that being as careful and honest with the evidence as one can is a good thing.”

    Amen, brother!

  • Allen

    To be honest, I feel that literary theory often gets in the way of literature.

  • secco

    blake @51: I completely agree with your assessment that _UtBoM_ indeed repeatedly examines the historical context, this is one of the reasons I selected this example. As I read TT’s original posting, he postulated two reasons for the intellectual stagnation of the “old FARMS” approach: (1) presumption of historicity, and (2) parallels with the ancient as the dominant method of defending LDS scriptural veracity. The beauty of _UtBoM_ is that it moves beyond both of these, just as TT hopes the field will, without neglecting the historical-critical thinking that DB suggests is required. Nor does _UtBoM_ denigrate the “old FARMS” approaches – as you suggest, in more than one way, it builds on those approaches.

    Neither TT nor DB seem to be advocating “to read the text in a historical vacuum” – I’m not sure where this critique comes from.

    blake@55: “There may be any number of theoretical approaches that may enlighten the text. Because they aren’t mutually exclusive, we don’t have to choose between them, we can explore them all.”

    This seems to be just what the original post was saying, with an added listing of additional approaches that were missing in the “old FARMS” days. Perhaps you read TT as discounting the Nibleyesque, but to me he is instead saying, that was fine for the 1950s, and stagnation is the term for not moving beyond those methods.

  • TT

    DavidF @53,
    “Since when has the burden of proof ever been on those who uphold the status quo?”
    You are not defending the status quo, but arguing that 20-50 years of critical scholarship be ignored because you think it is too trendy. The status quo is theory, in its various forms, as a well-entrenched and mainstream approach to scriptural texts. I think that the burden of proof is on those who want to go back to earlier forms of scholarship, not the status quo. I am defending the status quo. The proof of its worth is found in reading it, engaging it, and wrestling with it. That can’t come from ignoring it.

    “Any theory attached so closely to political motivations counts as trendy. Much of post-structuralism is nothing but.”

    Actually, poststructuralism in the form of deconstruction was heavily criticized for being apolitical. But the point is that what feminist scholarship, queer scholarship, reader response theory, and numerous other approaches have shown is that the supposedly non-political, objective historical criticism is anything but. Look, to say that something like feminist criticism, which is literally been around since the 19th c. with Elizabeth Cady Stanton is a political trend, or even queer approaches which are well into their third decade are just fads, you are not only being extremely liberal in your definition of what counts as a trendy fad, but also ungenerous to this scholarship, which you admittedly know little about. I have no problem with people critiquing these movements–I even think queer criticism may be unproductive relatively to more traditional gay, lesbian, and trans approaches for LDS thinking, but these critiques are substantive, rather than dismissive out of ignorance. My point is that saying something is a trend as a reason to dismiss it is lazy.

    Blake @56,
    It depends, of course, on what kinds of historical critical scholarship one is talking about, and what kinds of theory one is talking about. Some are more simpatico than others. I am not advocating any singular approach, but hoping for the flowering of a diverse, healthy conversation about these issues, and looking at how biblical criticism has dealt with this, sometimes in more and less productive ways. The point of this post is to reflect on the mainstreaming of theory in LDS scripture studies, and to imagine what forms that might and might not take in the future. I don’t think traditional historical criticism or even traditional apologetics are going away, but that space is being made for new discussants. So, I think we agree? Yay!

  • David Bokovoy

    Dear Blake,

    “It is pretty clear to me that you do not know what radical criticism is. It is none of the things you mention (nor that I have mentioned here).”

    The challenge I face with trying to communicate with you on these issues, Blake, is that you often use terms like “radical criticism” “minimalists” and even “historical-criticism in a manner inconsistent with the nuances associated with these expressions in my academic field. Hence, when you make public statements, like you have in the past, that I subscribe to the “minimalist school” or that I adhere to “radical criticism” I feel a need to correct these assertions.

    We’ve already addressed the term “minimalist” that you’ve applied to my views in the past. Let’s here deal with historical-criticism versus “radical criticism.”

    Here’s what you wrote:

    “[Radical criticism] is, rather, the assumption that scholarship must proceed without any preconceived theological agenda or biases and must proceed with no assumptions. That is extremely naive in my view and it hasn’t been widely followed for that very reason.”

    Blake, this is not “radical criticism;” at least not in my academic field. As naïve as it may seem, what you are describing is what biblical scholars refer to as “historical criticism.” For a basic introduction to this issue, I would highly recommend reading the chapter entitled “The Modern Study of the Bible” in the Jewish Study Bible edited by Adele Berlin, Marc Brettler, and Michael Fishbane. This essay is also very helpful as an introduction to some of the other issues addressed in this thread, including literary theory (another helpful introduction to historical criticism versus literary theory in my opinion is Norman K. Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction pp. 10-34.

    The first section of the Study Bible explains what biblical scholars mean by the expression “historical criticism,” an expression that we believe in terms of biblical studies dates from the 17th century. Here is their explanation:

    “General philosophical developments of the 17th and 18th centuries prompted an approach to the Bible that is often characterized as ‘critical.’ It was critical in the sense that it was free of presuppositions, especially those derived from either theology or tradition. To fully understand the Bible, scholars increasingly adopted an inductive approach, interpreting the Bible as they interpreted secular literature, setting aside views of its authority and authorship…

    “The overriding goal was ‘historical’: to determine what had actually taken place, and to recover the actual persons and events of the Bible as they had been preserved in the various stages of biblical tradition. The nature and development of these stages were to be understood through the historical-critical method.” (p. 2084).

    And now I’ll provide Dr. Marc Brettler’s definition of “historical criticism” as found in the book How to Read the Bible (an outstanding introduction to this type of academic analysis):

    “What is the historical-critical method? ‘Historical’ refers to the view that the main context for interpretation is the place and time in which the text was composed. ‘Critical’ simply means reading the text independently of religious norms or interpretive traditions—as opposed to accepting them uncritically” (p. 3).

    So in other words, in my field, i.e. biblical scholarship, the term “radical criticism” does not mean interpreting the text “without any preconceived theological agenda or biases.” That is what we mean by the term “historical-criticism.” It is the method that I have been trained in academically and that I employ in terms of my professional research.

    As I explained when you once described my views as “minimalists,” again, in an academic discussion such as this, I believe that for clarity sake we should stick closely to the standard scholarly definitions of such terms rather than following anyone’s own unique definitions, no matter how logical they are from the author’s perspective. I believe that will help avoid confusion. Thank you.

  • DavidF

    “I think that the burden of proof is on those who want to go back to earlier forms of scholarship, not the status quo.”

    Huh? You said before “The burden of proof on those who want to stay with older methods of scholarship is on them” (#44). So is it stay with older methods or go back to them? Because those are two different arguments. In Mormon scholarship, the older methods are the status quo (if I’m reading your OP right). You’re saying that Mormon scholarship should change to reflect what’s going on in the broader academic realm. That means that the older methods are the status quo in regards to Mormon scholarship, which is the issue at hand. Correct me if I’ve misunderstood you, but you can’t have it both ways.

    I am defending the status quo. The proof of its worth is found in reading it, engaging it, and wrestling with it. That can’t come from ignoring it.

    “Actually, poststructuralism in the form of deconstruction was heavily criticized for being apolitical.”
    Really? Where?

    “But the point is that what feminist scholarship, queer scholarship, reader response theory, and numerous other approaches have shown is that the supposedly non-political, objective historical criticism is anything but.”

    Well, we’re probably dancing around with different ideas contained in term “political.” In saying that, my reaction has more to do with a frustration in post-structural approaches to scholarship in general than any of these particular theories. Again, coming from a philosophy background, I see the epistemological foundation for poststructuralism as incredibly wanting, so I find myself skeptical of theories coming from it or that have been heavily influenced by it. But to be fair, instead of continuing this argument, I’ll sit myself down and become a little more familiar with these theories. Then I can give a better explanation of why I think the undergirdings to these theories causes me to doubt whether there is any good reason to apply them. I grant you that we need to challenge our assumptions, and that Mormon scholarship needs new approaches (and I admitted this up front), but I’ll leave it there for now.

  • DavidF

    Oops. I was going to respond to one of your statements, but I forgot to put it in quotes, so it looks like I wrote it (the I’m defending the status quo…). But it’s not important, so just ignore that blunder.

  • Robert C.

    DavidF #62, although I suspect TT has someone more like Nancy Fraser in mind, Habermas is one writer who has criticized poststructuralism for being apolitical. See, for example, Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity. Diana Coole’s essay, in particular, has a nice summary of Habermas’s criticism on this score (much of which is found in Habermas’s essay in that volume — Coole criticizes Habermas’s position).

    In short, Habermas takes the project of modernity to be politically emancipatory (via rational discourse); so, inasmuch as postmodern or poststructural discourse distances itself from modernity (and rational discourse), it also tends to become non-emancipatory — and hence apolitical.

  • Robert C.

    (I tracked down the reason I thought TT might have Nancy Fraser in mind: I read about Fraser’s criticism of Foucault as being too apolitical in Todd May’s book The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism on p. 123. And, since Fraser’s written a fair bit feminist criticism, I thought TT might be familiar with her argument against Foucault. Fraser’s argument can be found in her essay “Foucault on Modern Power. But after looking up this reference, I suspect TT has a different kind of argument in mind, perhaps more like the criticisms of Derrida’s early writing, before his so-called political turn….)

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com John C.

    RT,
    I do indeed think skepticism regarding our ability to recover the past is called for. Studies of eyewitness reports, reviews of memory generally, the presumptive and actual sources and their tendency to recreate historical narrative as it suited their needs, all these things should give us pause before we talk about uncovering history. For that matter, Biblical history in particular is apt to enjoy radical change with the next turn of a teenage volunteer’s shovel. Not that we shouldn’t engage in it, nor avoid sharing the results of our investigation or interpretation; I just don’t think that we should kid ourselves regarding our ability to piece through the piecemeal, scattered, incomplete, and mostly acontextual evidence and create History. Not that anything I’ve said here is anything new to anybody who’s studied history, the bible, literary history, and any number of other things in academia.

  • RT

    John C: No doubt “skepticism regarding our ability to recover the past is called for”. I agree completely. I was simply objecting to what I saw as an overly-pessimistic glass half empty kind of attitude, which I generally encounter among people not actually engaged in the practice of history and historical reconstruction.

    Some “synchronic” literarily oriented critics of the the Bible, for example, argue that because historical criticism as disagreed so widely over the last two centuries on how to recover redactional layers or sources in the biblical texts that the whole enterprise is useless and ill-founded. While I can understand to a degree why they feel this way, I actually see a lot more agreement among critical scholars through time on a whole range of issues than they seem to be aware of and believe based on my own experience that it is possible to reconstruct something of the literary history of a text (ie when it was written and how it developed through time) that likely reflects historical reality. Maybe its just my personal temperament.

  • TT

    DavidF @62,
    I see where the confusion arose in what I was saying. Rather than untangle what we both meant by status quo, it seems easier to just explain where I think you’ve misunderstood the OP: “You’re saying that Mormon scholarship should change to reflect what’s going on in the broader academic realm.”

    No, I am saying that Mormon scholars has changed already, and thinking about how it will change. My post is more about making observations . I start my post with an observation about the new status quo, the mainstreaming of theory in LDS scripture scholarship and the lack of progress in the older methods. I talk about why this change has happened, consider how it fits with broader trends, and think about what the future may hold and where the limits of this new situation lie. That is it. I am trying to explain the new reality in LDS scripture studies, and situate it historically.

    With regard to poststructuralism. Robert C., thanks for those references. I was not aware of those in particular. I was, in fact, thinking of early Derrida, but especially the way deconstruction was used in literary studies in previous decades. It was attacked by traditional liberals for undermining their politics. Books like _St. Foucault_ were written in part to counter this accusation. Even for someone like Butler, Nussbaum lays into it for undermining feminist politics. In biblical studies, feminist scholars like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza really dislike “postmodern” interpretations because of what she sees as its lack of political grounding. That is to say, at least in 1980-90′s biblical scholarship, reflecting the arguments taken over from literary studies, this was once a pretty common charge.

    If you’re interested in some of these issues, an oldie but a goodie is _The Postmodern Bible_. It reflects the rise of theory in biblical studies in the 1990′s, and shows the rift between more conservative and liberal approaches to theory. For a more updated read, see Steven Moore and ?forgetting?, _The Invention of the Biblical Scholar_.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    David: I am so grateful that you have directed me to first grade books in biblical criticism. I am sure that I would not know any of the works you cite if you had not cited them – that is, if I had not read them already. I appreciate that your treat me as a neophyte in the area of biblical criticism and I bow to the notion that only a newly minted Ph.D. could possibly qualify as one to grasp the nuances of critical methods. So I will reciprocate by quoting the widipedia about what radical criticism is as opposed to general biblical criticism: “At the end of the 19th Century, there have been advocates of higher criticism, who strenuously tried to avoid any trace of dogma or theological bias when reconstructing a past reality. This has led to the branch of Radical Criticism, pursued by historical critics most skeptical of ecclesial tradition and dismissive toward sympathetic scholarship.”

    Radical criticism lead several critics in the Dutch School to the view that there is no objectively reliable evidence that Jesus ever existed, or that Paul wrote anything. It was primarily a methodology applied to the New Testament and had very little to do with your areas of study regarding the Hebrew Bible. So your comments only reinforce my suspicion that you have no idea what “radical criticism” referred to a methodology. Radical criticism is not the same as general biblical scholarship — no matter how much you want to now equate them. So any person informed in critical methods will distinguish the attempt to see how various theological views of the text have influenced the scholarship about the text and the historico-critical methods which are merely inductive methods based on objectively accessible evidence.

  • David Bokovoy

    Dear Blake,

    I’m not trying to offend. My recommendation of the sources I cited was because of the need to be on the same page for communicative purposes. More important, when you describe my views as “minimalist” or a reflection of “radical criticism” these carry specific meanings in my academic field that are an inaccurate description of my approach. I can assure you, no matter what the wikipedia article you cited states, “radical criticism” is not the same thing as “historical criticism” in biblical studies. “Radical Criticism” is typically associated with a specific school of thought within New Testament scholarship. The meaning of “historical criticism,” the expression that best reflects my personal approach, can be identified from the sources I cited. Thank you.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    David: You just said again in #70 what I stated in # 69. You do realize that in #69 I had just identified Radical Criticism with a particular Dutch School of New Testament criticism based on avoiding any trace of preconceptions and theological biases, right? I had just distinguished between them. So I am more than confused when you attempt to correct me by pointing out that Radical Criticism is associated with a particular school of New Testament criticism that attempts to avoid any theological biases or preconceptions that must be distinguished from general biblical scholarship. You just parroted what I said. In contrast, in #61 you were one who equated radical criticism with general biblical scholarship. Here is what you said: “Blake, this is not “radical criticism;” at least not in my academic field. As naïve as it may seem, what you are describing is what biblical scholars refer to as “historical criticism.” Somehow I get the feeling that we are destined to just speak past one another.

  • DavidF

    TT,

    Thanks. I’ll put these on my Summer reading list.

  • RT

    Blake: Don’t mean to but in, but I got the same impression as David that you were using the term Radical criticism in association with him in an inappropriate way.

  • http://www.bycommonconsent.com John C.

    RT,
    I don’t disagree that there is a consensus and a reason for it, nor would I argue that the whole process is fruitless and should be thrown out. I’m just frequently reminded that we are often, to use Lambdin’s phrase, “working with no data” and that we should consider our conclusions tentative as a result.


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