BYUNTC Revelation

The Revelation volume in the BYUNTC series is back in the news, so I thought I’d say a bit about it. At last fall’s SBL Grant Underwood gave Richard Draper some advice regarding this volume. Since Draper’s work was not well-received by either LDS or non-LDS scholars, Underwood wrote: “Perhaps by drawing on the talented pool of younger LDS scholars trained in New Testament studies, [Richard Draper] and Michael Rhodes can extend their work in ways that more effectively bring LDS views into tough-minded conversation with biblical scholarship generally.”

This sentence indicates that the Revelation volume has two major problems. It does not adequately handle the existing scholarship on Revelation and it does not effectively bring the LDS tradition into dialogue with this scholarship. Underwood is not alone in his critique; the other three published reviews of the BYUNTC project and the available volumes amply bear out his thoughts.

Although Underwood’s critique is spot-on his remedy is a bit less helpful because it under-specifies the help actually needed. Young scholars do not themselves write major academic commentaries because what produces the seasoned insights that make for a respectable contribution is some good length of interaction in public academic discourse involving the text in question. Many of BYU’s religion faculty in the right age cohort for the needed experience have not participated in this arena and so are not well-prepared to either write commentaries or supervise those who are younger.

Could this sort of expertise be developed? Certainly. In fact, I am now assured that tenure does require some sort of interaction with public academic discourse. However, I am also told that participation in the BYUNTC does not contribute to a tenure. Why BYU’s stakeholders would allow a commentary series to bear its name, and yet not require that it be written to the basic standards of a tenure portfolio, is a bit of a mystery.

This also has implications for the participation of Underwood’s targeted “help.” A “talented pool of younger LDS scholars trained in New Testament studies” should protect their current and/or future employment options. This means that those who wish to have the option to work outside of BYU are wisest if they forgo involvement with any effort that does not meet the standards of public academic discourse, such as this project.

Nevertheless, in what appears to be an attempt to follow Underwood’s advice, the BYUNTC project has gathered a groups of Mormons interested in scripture to participate in a seminar. Does this group fit Underwood’s prescription of talented, young LDS scholars trained in the NT? Not really, and especially so if Underwood’s emphasis on “trained” is taken seriously and so implies post-docs or ABD in NT. In fact, the only folks with NT specialization appear to be BYU undergrads.

Now you might ask about folks who are kind of in the generalist category.After all, Craig Koester wrote two excellent volumes for the Anchor Bible and Joseph Fitzmyer wrote three. True, but I know of no one who wrote for the AB in both NT and Hebrew Bible. And let’s face another fact: scholars such as Koester and Fitzmyer aren’t common. Until the right specialists are involved the product is very unlikely to be an academic commentary.

Given, then, that the project appears to have again failed to set the likely conditions for critical discourse, it is time to admit that the intended audience is something other than the academic world adjust the contents of the Revelation volume accordingly:

Re-define the target audience to LDS laypersons. The “right stuff” to do more is just not there. The rather uniform lack of support for the project from LDS exegetes with PhD creds in NT/EC is probably the strongest indication that this is so.

Take out the Rendition, which is unneeded by professionals and mostly useless to those who aren’t. Use the NRSV to point up issues with the text of the AV. Alternatively, get the Church Translation guys on board and listen to them—do a scholarly translation or don’t translate at all.

Re-do the introductory section or get rid of it. Right now, it is too closely paraphrased, confused, or unexpectedly missing important elements. Update the sources rather than following Seven Seals. Also, using some version of Collins’ definition of the genre of apocalypse can help ease readers into edifying applications that do not require strange end time calculations.

Removing most of the introductory material is also a good choice. Replace it with a footnote in the author’s introduction steering readers to readable and responsible sources for more information. Just to be clear, such a source will present the arguments both for and against traditional positions on the historical context. Enough LDS bloggers have presented balanced arguments that by now it should be safe to imitate them.

Take the text seriously. For example, Revelation opens with a very plain statement about the implied audience: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). Thus, the primary literary and historical context, and the starting point for critical exegetical interpretation, is the first century Mediterranean Basin, not 21st century America. Explain the implications of this to LDS readers, who may not have considered the nature of biblical prophecy with sufficient nuance.

Strengthen the dialogue between the LDS tradition and biblical scholarship. There are places where various points in LDS tradition differ from, or expand upon, the historical and literary record. In addition, the LDS tradition is not monolithic; trying to present even a singular “JS reading” of Revelation is not faithful to the historical record. This is probably the elephant in the living room because it is precisely this dialogue between the LDS tradition and wider biblical scholarship that is so poorly done now and yet of significant interest. Draper was critiqued by both Blomberg and Muow at the last SBL on this point, so the sort of thing that works for easy-going LDS laypersons is not going to cut it—which is what Underwood means when he calls for a “tough-minded” conversation.

Cull the herd and cut out the eccentricities. For example, when writing about historical events, follow the canons of historiography. Consider this passage:

The Apostles scattered over the Parthian and Roman Empires proclaiming the gospel, John among them. Eventually he took up permanent residence in the city of Ephesus in present-day Turkey. This was the capital city of the province of Asia. The church had seen tremendous growth in the whole area. By the time John moved Church headquarters there, the gospel message was forty years old.

This would prompt a “re-do” for an undergrad. It should distinguish between historically documented information (Ephesus was the capital), traditional narratives (the work of the disciples of Jesus once they dropped out of historical sources), and ideas that have no basis other than the LDS tradition (John moved Church headquarters). There are so many excellent commentaries for laypersons available right now that finding one whose tone and voice are appropriate can be imitated is no problem.

Align the methodologies with public academic practice. Undergirding the integration of LDS scripture and other elements of the biblical canon in the present work is the assumption of unity of scripture and a rather rigid prioritization of certain strands of the LDS tradition. This sort of an approach must inevitably produce readings that unduly warp the biblical text, so those who are keeping their options open for employment outside of BYU, or who wish to participate in public academic discourse from within BYU, will avoid it. If it is used, the authors owe their readers enough of an explanation to ensure that they are clear about the implications.

Finally, limit the length to two hundred pages. Gather insights from those parts of the LDS tradition that are still fruitful and in use by the leadership. Key them against a decent translation of the text and a paragraph- or chapter-level commentary narrative. This is the sort of thing that the folks involved are most capable of doing well, and it is closer to the sort of thing expected by LDS laypersons than a full-on academic commentary. Leave the field for academic commentaries to the next generation.

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