An Interview with Jared Ludlow

March 11, 2006 | 13 comments
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Jared Ludlow has been at BYU-Hawaii since 2000 and is an assistant professor in the History and Religion Departments. He earned his PhD in a joint program in Near Eastern Religions from the University of California-Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. He is the author of Abraham Meets Death: Narrative Humor in the Testament of Abraham.

I notice that you have lectured on the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls; I am sure you noticed that this month’s Ensign has an interesting article on the scrolls. What do you think the Saints should know about the Dead Sea Scrolls?

I think the greatest importance of the DSS to LDS and others is the fact that they contain the oldest biblical manuscripts we have discovered. They put us several centuries closer to the original texts. They also show us that there were variations in textual traditions and not one monolith text. Scholars used to think that the LXX [Julie's note: This is a reference to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. More info on it here.] was a little too creative in its translation, but where the LXX differs from later Hebrew Masoretic tradition, we have found Hebrew texts at Qumran that show similar differences. Thus the transmission of the Bible was very fluid during this period, which perhaps confirms what Joseph Smith stated in the Article of Faith about believing the Bible as far as it is translated correctly. Perhaps in using the word “translation� he also meant the copying and transmitting. I think the DSS are also of interest to LDS because they describe a group of believers who felt that “the establishment� was corrupt and they were trying to create a community of sanctified faithful that were preparing themselves for the presence of angels and ultimately service in the presence of God. Perhaps we have similar aspirations.

Can you talk a little bit about how Church culture is different in Hawaii than on the mainland?

That’s a tough question because I don’t want to offend anyone, and I’m sure I don’t fully understand church culture in either place, but here are some observations. I have been impressed with the “feeling� that is frequently present in church meetings and bearing testimony here. They don’t seem as concerned about intellectual issues here, and instead the focus is on spiritual experiences. Partly from the gospel and partly from their cultural backgrounds they are very giving and share their love freely. They seem to be less materialistic in their own lives as well as in their dress at church meetings, etc.

What advice would you give a non-specialist looking to have more meaningful scripture study?

I think the simplest way of having more meaningful scripture study is to simply slow down. We usually approach scripture study as a checklist to check off when we have completed something. Scripture study should be more careful and purposeful. Read closely, follow trains of thought/doctrine that interest you, and when needed use study aids and insights from church leaders and scholars. For those who want to dabble a little in the language but don’t have the language training, I think translations that include discussion of word choices in the notes can be very interesting. For example, Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis is very interesting not only for its translation, but also for his notes about why he used some of the words/translations he did.

You have specialized in intertestamental literature [Is this the best way to put it? Should I say apocryphal texts? Pseudepigrapha? Something else?] –a fairly uncommon choice for LDS scholars. What attracted you to this field? In what ways could (or should) what we learn from the intertestamental/apocryphal/pseudepigraphal/whatever literature affect how we read the canonized scriptures? What in it is important for the general membership?

The term “Intertestamental Literature� certainly fits, but it does show a Christian bias. The Pseudepigrapha is a much safer term for a lot of these texts, but it doesn’t include the Apocrypha or Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. Probably the most comprehensive term would be Second Temple literature. It is a fairly uncommon choice for LDS scholars (although not completely unique), but when thinking about the additional scriptural stories we have as part of the LDS canon between especially the Pearl of Great Price and the JST, it actually is a nice complement. I mostly went into this field because after a few semesters of doing Biblical studies I realized that the academic approach is very dependent on theories that can run contrary to my understanding of the gospel. I felt if I wanted to be professionally conversant and active in the field, it would go against some of my beliefs. By focusing on the extra-canonical literature, I could have an active professional field that is related and complementary to biblical studies, but not completely dependent on the same theoretical assumptions. There is also not as much secondary literature to wade through and because not as much work has been done on them, there is greater room for new work. My focus on the Pseudepigrapha almost started as a fluke in an intertestamental literature course, but so far it has turned out well for me professionally. I think there is a lot of information to be gleaned about ancient Judaism and early Christianity from these texts, and although they are not part of our canon, they were considered authoritative by ancient groups. I think it’s interesting to try to see how they might have used these texts and what these stories reveal about their context. Although they might not be as rich theologically (although there are interesting nuggets in them), their creativity and expansion of stories can give us greater insights about the canonical texts we know better.

And–I ask this question every chance I get because I am yet to hear a good answer–why do you think that the overwhelming majority of LDS scholars who specialize do the OT and not the NT?

Good question, don’t know if I have the good answer, but I think a lot of it has to do with the orientation of the teaching of these two languages. Almost all Hebrew is oriented towards the Bible, and other Near Eastern type courses complement the understanding of the background of the Bible. In the case of Greek, however, the focus is more on the classical world and Koine Greek is usually seen as inferior and rarely taught except by those specializing in NT. In addition, the secondary courses may also tend away from the Bible and focus more on Greece and its great thinkers and writers. More LDS students who want to go into Biblical studies seem to get exposed to the Near East and then naturally get led to Hebrew, whereas those who choose NT almost have to swim against the current (focus on Greece) and make the NT their own focus.

For those who go to BYU and have some aspirations of eventually teaching there, sometimes their choice can be guided by what the Religion Dept. perceives as future needs. I know I started more in Hebrew, but then veered towards the NT when the Dept. chair suggested they had more future need in NT.

One last thought: Hebrew is easier than Greek!

You wrote, Abraham Meets Death Narrative Humor in the “Testament of Abraham. Tell us about it.

This book started as a dissertation which started as a seminar paper in a graduate course in Intertestamental Literature. We all had to pick a text from the Pseudepigrapha on which to write a paper and make a class presentation, and for some reason (higher guidance?) I picked the Testament of Abraham. I didn’t do a very good job with the original paper, but I felt there was a lot to the text that I wanted to discuss through narrative theory. As I began working on my dissertation, the narrative focus seemed to unlock a lot of puzzles we had about the text. It’s an interesting text that describes Abraham’s approaching death and his reluctance to accept the invitations by heaven-sent messengers (such as Michael) to make a last testament and proceed to death. It seems to actually “poke fun� at the patriarch who in the Bible is portrayed as the example par excellence of obedience, but here he is constantly refusing God’s summons. In some way it picks up the characteristic of Abraham we see when he was “haggling� with God for the inhabitants of Sodom. In the midst of this narrative, Abraham takes a heavenly journey where he sees a judgment scene. The judgment scene seems to have been heavily influenced by Egyptian judgment scenes, thus probably pointing to its provenance in Egypt (Alexandria?). Thus overall it gives us a glimpse at the creativity and expansion Jewish writers in diaspora had with biblical figures.

What are your future research interests?

Although I don’t want to make the Testament of Abraham my life’s work, there are still little projects with it that I keep coming back to. Other texts in the Pseudepigrapha also interest me, but probably nothing in as much detail as with the Testament of Abraham. I would like to do more with early Christianity, particularly the transition to the bishops. Paul and Christianity developing out of Judaism is also an interest, but I have yet to really write in this field. I would also like to explore the concepts various Second Temple Jewish groups had of the afterlife.

What do you see happening in the future of LDS scholarship of the Bible?

I think more and more LDS scholars are being well trained in biblical studies, in the languages, context, and theories. I think increasingly they will be participants in dialogue with other biblical scholars of other faiths. However, I still think there will be boundaries where it will be hard (impossible?) to cross fully into all aspects of biblical scholarship without giving up too much of the restored gospel. I know it has derailed some LDS scholars in the past, I would hope it wouldn’t others in the future.

There is a new section at the biblical studies professional association, The Society of Biblical Literature, called “LDS and the Bible� which should be an interesting exploration into how LDS biblical studies might be different from other approaches and what contributions an LDS study of the Bible might make towards the larger field. It’s brand new, so I’m not sure exactly how it will turn out, but at least it should prove to be an interesting exploration which should raise some awareness mostly among our own, but maybe a little outside, about what things are unique in our approach to the Bible.

Is there anything you wish I asked that I didn’t?

Perhaps one issue that sometimes comes up is question of the value of scholarly biblical commentaries, particularly non-LDS, to our spiritual knowledge. I think I have learned very clearly, particularly from my grandfather, the importance and preeminence of revelation through the brethren. That is my first source of spiritual knowledge. In addition to that, I find it insightful and helpful to see what others have thought about the Bible and other scriptures. Though not as authoritative, I think commentaries, etc. can teach much, if for no other reason than to get us thinking about things and seeking answers through pondering and prayer. As for non-LDS commentaries, I would say they can also be very insightful. They have studied the Bible for centuries, can be inspired by God, and have tremendous knowledge of the background and context of the scriptures. I think their interpretations need to be measured against the standard of the revealed gospel, but if it augments and does not detract, it could be very useful. I guess I would compare it a little with the hymns in our hymn book. Most of our hymns were written by non-LDS religious people, and we have come to appreciate their insights and thoughts through music. We have been enriched by their interpretations, and subsequently we can build upon them with our own revelations and teachings.

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13 Responses to An Interview with Jared Ludlow

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 11, 2006 at 11:13 pm

    Abraham Meets Death: Narrative Humor in the Testament of Abraham (JSP Supplements) (Hardcover)
    by Jared W. Ludlow
    List Price: $130.00
    Price: $130.00 & this item ships for FREE with Super Saver Shipping. Details

    Is there a review of that book somewhere? The link didn’t have any information to go with it other than price and the fact it ships for free.

  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 11, 2006 at 11:18 pm

    “Is there anything you wish I asked that I didn’t?”

    One of my favorite questions.

  3. Guy Murray on March 12, 2006 at 1:08 am

    Julie,

    I’m the furthest there possibly can be to a Second Temple literature scholar; however, I very much enjoyed reading this interview you did. I enjoyed his discussion and the importance of the DSS, cultural differences between the islands and the mainland, and LDS Biblical scholarship. Thanks for conducting and posting the interview.

  4. Kevin Barney on March 12, 2006 at 10:24 am

    Great interview, Julie!

    I don’t know whether Jared will be participating here, but I am curious about his relationship (if any) to Victor Ludlow (son? grandson? nephew? none of the above?) If, as I presume, there is such a relationship, how did Victor’s studies in Hebrew and Judaism at Brandeis influence Jared’s choice of career?

    I think part (and only part) of the answer to the question as to why LDS students tend to gravitate to Hebrew rather than Greek has to do with the arch of the Restoration. Whereas early Mormonism originated as an early Christian primitivist project, much like Alexander Campbell and his reformed baptists, under the influence of Joseph’s continued revelations the fledgling Church kept pushing back in time, until eventually it began restoring institutions and practices from ancient Israel as well as those of the New Testament, such as priesthood, temples, and even (gasp) polygamy. Campbell almost went to the extreme of rejecting the OT as scripture; Joseph went the opposite direction, obliterating the artificial division between the testaments (witness the Christ-centric nature of the BoM). Joseph’s interest in ancient Israel led to our modern Mormon phil-Semitism.

    It may be a fluke that Joseph and the others studied Hebrew in Kirtland rather than Greek (they had looked for a Greek teacher, too, without success). But that circumstance does serve as sort of an interesting microcosm of the later preference of LDS students of scripture for Hebrew studies over Greek.

    Again, great interview, Julie; much appreciated.

  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 12, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Is MacKay still teach Greek at BYU? I had him for a branch president when I went on a mission. Enjoyed him then. Last saw him when I was in law school, he seemed the same. It has been over twenty years now…

  6. Kevin Barney on March 12, 2006 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t think Thomas Mackay is still at BYU. I only had him for a couple of classes when I was there in the early 80;s; one was a directed readings class I proposed, in which I read the first half of John and the second half of Luke.

  7. Taylor on March 12, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    Jared,
    Can you say more about “narrative criticism”? What is the value added from this particular approach and how do you see it affecting the way that we interpret authoritative texts?

  8. Jonathan Green on March 12, 2006 at 10:18 pm

    Julie, Jared, thanks for the interview. This was great. Jared, in case you answer any more questions here: where have you seen boundaries between biblical scholarship and being a faithful Latter-day Saint?

  9. Kaimi Wenger on March 12, 2006 at 10:32 pm

    FYI, since the book is quite expensive, note that a limited number of used copies seem to be circulating in the online used bookstores. See, e.g., http://campusi.com/bookFind/asp/bookFindPriceLst.asp?prodId=0826462049 and http://dogbert.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&an=jared+ludlow&y=0&x=0 .

  10. Jared Ludlow on March 13, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    Thank you for your responses. To respond to some of your questions. There have been three book reviews that I know of on my book:
    Allan, R. Source: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 27 no 5 Je 2003, p 176-177.
    Shannon Burkes, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 95, no 4 (Fall 2005): 697-699.
    Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 15.2 (2006): 148-150.
    I found it interesting that the two more lengthy reviews have come out recently quite a while after the book was published. Maybe I’m new at this and it really takes a long time, or perhaps the book is starting to get noticed a little more.
    As for the relationship to Victor Ludlow, that is my father. I’m sure his graduate training had a little influence on my choice of career, but probably more so was his taking our family to live in Israel a couple of times while I was growing up. Although I started BYU as an International Business major, I soon realized I loved the Near East too much to not pursue studies in it. Although we didn’t sit around talking about Isaiah every Family Home Evening (as some have asked me), those experiences in Israel and his constant focus on the region and Old Testament certainly had an impact.
    I have always like “narrative criticism” because it treats the texts as texts and doesn’t try to break them down into smaller and smaller segments that can stop making much sense. (I guess that reveals that I’m not much of a source or form critic). A lot of these stories were put together to influence and motivate and narrative criticism (and rhetorical criticism) tries to look a little more at what might have been the overall purpose of the author and what they felt was important to include in order to put their point across. I guess I would compare it to a Church lesson or talk that can bring together a lot of information from different sources, but they’re arranged in some overall manner in order to inspire listeners towards something. Narrative criticism looks at how these parts get woven together for the final product–which seems to be the real message that is trying to be presented.
    The “boundaries” question is a tough one because it has “changed” for me during my studies, and I’m sure it varies by people’s personal interpretations. I remember after my first year of graduate school in Biblical History going back to Provo to teach a summer term there in the Religion Department. I was really fired up about using new knowledge and interpretations I had gained from that year in my Bible classes. At the same time I was a little reluctant to teach Book of Mormon because I felt I didn’t have all that new background information. I soon found, however, that when trying to teach by the spirit, most of the stuff I had learned really wasn’t that useful and teaching the Book of Mormon brought its own strong spirit with it. Biblical scholarship can help enrich the background, but there needs to be a spirituality found in the text that is usually not the focus of a lot of biblical scholarship. The most difficult boundary I have struggled with is the Documentary Hypothesis (or related New Testament theories). Although I think there was certainly editing and so forth that went on with the texts, I also believe that prophets were behind the teachings and messages that were shared. If one subscribes completely to the Documentary Hypothesis, then one is basically saying that it was all written much later, by different people, for different purposes, and not under prophetic revelation. I have seen this attitude then carried over to the Book of Mormon where the BofM suddenly becomes a 19th century production of Joseph Smith without any words having come from prophets in ancient America. New Testament scholarship has eroded much of what Jesus might have said to simply later Christian traditions put back on Jesus. Again certainly these texts underwent historical processes through copying and transmission, but the spiritual value seems diminished when too much of the historical criticism, documentary hypothesis, Q-source, etc. are leading the interpretation of these texts. It gets very difficult to participate in the academic arena when many of these things are treated as hard facts rather than theoretical interpreations.
    P.S. The book is very expensive. Find a good academic library nearby and see if they have it.

  11. David Bokovoy on March 14, 2006 at 8:25 pm

    Just one important note to add—though Brother Ludlow is correct that Hebrew is a bit easier than Greek, a true Old Testament scholar must also be extremely well-versed in Akkadian which is much, much, more difficult than Greek.

    I enjoyed the interview—thanks David C. for emailing the link.

  12. Julie M. Smith on March 14, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    Jared,

    Your thoughts on boundaries interest me. I’ve usually taken this position when it comes to authorship issues: “We don’t know and I don’t care.” (It seems to me that nothing that comes out of the authorship debates will actually help anyone understand the text better, whereas narrative and/or literary criticism actually might, so that’s where I have preferred to focus my energies.)

    But, if I’m reading you right, I think you are saying that it _does_ matter if the texts are of a certain age and/or written by the person to whom they are traditionally ascribed. I wonder if you would be willing to flesh out your position a little more. It seems to me that if we commit to the historicity of the BoM (which does _not_ fall under the ‘we don’t know and I don’t care’ banner for me), then we can avoid one of the harms you mention. I also think it possible that we can assume a legitimate, accurate oral and/or written tradition for the NT before the gospels, meaning that we can date it later without arguing that it doesn’t reflect what Jesus actually said.

    In other words, convince me that my agnosticism on dating and authorship issues is misplaced–tell me why it should matter.

  13. Jared Ludlow on March 24, 2006 at 7:09 pm

    Julie,
    (Sorry, I was travelling and didn’t respond for a while). I actually take the same position as you do (“we don’t know and I don’t care”) about authorship issues on a lot of texts, especially for the Pseudepigrapha because it seems so much time and effort is wasted with so little evidence to support conclusions. It may make a difference if it came from a Diaspora setting or not, but with the recognition that Hellenization was present everywhere, maybe that’s not as big an issue as previously thought.
    But in the case of canonical Biblical texts, then maybe the issue is more important because the academic reasoning is to discount the original traditional author and merely see the text as a later creation. If everything is of a later _creation_, rather than just passed through some later editing, then we have no words from prophets and apostles. It’s hard to know how oral and written traditions were passed down, but I still believe revelation to prophets and apostles played an important role in the writing of the texts themselves. In an age without voice or visual recording, it seems that revelation and inspiration were necessary in the writing down of any sermon or oral teaching. Perhaps only copying down letters would be the exception to this where the actual letter could be in front of the writer. Maybe the average scribe was more inspired than I give him credit to be, but rather I think prophets and apostles wrote down the words they received from God and/or wrote down through revelation and inspiration the words given by others (perhaps augmenting and confirming oral and written traditions they had access to).
    Don’t know if I fleshed out my position anymore, but I’d be interested in hearing others’ views as well.