10 Reasons to be Excited about the Study of Religion at BYU

In the spirit of the 10 tidbits series at FPR, I offer (for once!) a positive outlook on Religious Studies at BYU. Good things (too) are happening in Provo! In no particular order, and with no pretensions of comprehensiveness:

1. Recent publications from Ancient Scripture faculty: young Ancient Scripture faculty are advancing an active publication agenda outside the BYU bubble, including recent volumes by Thom Wayment on New Testament Apocrypha (T&T Clark) and Lincoln Blumell on Early Christian Letters (Brill), in addition to a couple of forthcoming articles in top journals, such as the Journal for the Study of Judaism.

2. Archaeology at Tel Huqoq. RelEd has sponsored for the last couple of years the excavations at Tel Huqoq, a site in Galilee that has yielded some spectacular mosaics related to Samson that are refining understandings of varieties of Judaism in late antiquity. Matthew Grey (BYU Ancient Scripture) is the field supervisor of the area in which the mosaics were found, and he has published articles in important venues documenting the findings and their importance for the study of late antique Judaism.

3. Faculty hires in RelEd that are increasingly dominated by people with training in some aspect of religion. The most recent round in Ancient Scripture, for example, resulted in exactly 0 CES hires. This means that not only is the pool of applicants with relevant PhDs growing, it means that a growing number of current faculty recognize their importance to the study of religion. While one would still like to see greater numbers of people who deal in core areas like Religious Studies, Bible, or Theology, this is a clear step in the right direction!

4. Standing Apart. In 2012 Miranda Wilcox (BYU English Department) and John Young (Flagler College) convened a groundbreaking conference at BYU on the concept of the Great Apostasy. The results have just been published in a remarkable Oxford University Press volume, and are by and large excellent. That this happened at BYU cannot be overemphasized. Kudos to Miranda and John and their colleagues!

5. Middle Eastern Texts Initiative: It has been known for awhile that this series is outstanding, and only gets better. Currently directed by Morgan Davis at the Maxwell Institute, this series has published crucial texts in Medieval Islamic, Christian, and Jewish thought, including an upcoming edition of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. It shows what can happen when the substantial resources of LDS donors make it into the right hands. Great work!

6. Mormon Studies Review: Boasting a who’s-who of Mormon Studies scholars on its board, the MSR, led by Spencer Fluhman in the BYU History Department (formerly Church History and Doctrine), the Mormon Studies Review has become the premier home for discussion of current work in the field of Mormon Studies.

7. Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World: Organized by Matt Grey and Lincoln Blumell (BYU Ancient Scripture), this 2-day conference gathered what I assume to be an unprecedented lineup of scholars to take a careful look at the relationship between Joseph Smith and the study of the ancient world. Many of the talks are up on YouTube (see link above), and most are great. The results will likely be published soon, possibly at a non-LDS press.

8. Dead Sea Scrolls Conference: A recent conference at The Leonardo in Salt Lake attached to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit brought together preeminent Dead Sea Scrolls scholars Emanuel Tov, Gene Ulrich, James Vanderkam, as well as BYU profs and former students. Though this is noteworthy in itself, it is perhaps the culmination of BYU involvement in the Dead Sea Scrolls project that has provided students and faculty experience working on millennia-old texts of major importance for the study of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism.

9. Studies in the Bible and Antiquity: Launched in 2009, SBA, which is dedicated to the study of the Bible and related topics, has by and large eschewed devotional topics (reserved for the Religious Educator) and sought to become a forum for LDS scholars talking about the Bible and related issues. It is published under the auspices of an intriguing new initiative, Christianity and the Bible, directed by MI research associate Carl Griffin. Rumor has it that there are big announcements from this journal on the horizon. Onward and upward!

10. Maxwell Institute move toward scholarship: Many of the above changes and positive developments have been enabled by the University’s (and the Church’s) green-lighting of the Maxwell Institute’s move toward a more academic approach to the study of religion. Besides the journals mentioned above, the MI has hosted conferences and “think tanks” on LDS topics, which will bear good fruits in the near and distant future.


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