Jesus Said . . .

July 5, 2008 | 19 comments
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I’m reading a commentary on Psalms and in the section on the authorship of the Psalms, the writer has this to say:

A major argument that influences Christians in assuming David wrote the Psalms is the impression that Jesus refers to them as David’s. . . . I take it that Jesus is actually speaking conventionally, as when he speaks as if the sun goes round the earth, or refers to the mustard seed being the smallest of seeds, or takes up the traditional story of the rich man and the poor man in his parables about Dives and Lazarus. In such cases he is not pronouncing on questions of cosmology, botany, eschatology, or authorship, but taking up the way people speak abot these matters in his culture and making his point by means of these ways of speaking. And in each case his argument does not depend on his adoption of this conventional way of speaking; it works without that.

Are we OK with this?

19 Responses to Jesus Said . . .

  1. Ivan Wolfe on July 5, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    I don’t see why not. Joseph Smith referred to Paul as the author of Hebrews a few times, but I don’t think that means we have to believe Paul actually wrote Hebrews – even our McConkie influenced Bible Dictionary allows for Paul to not be the author of Hebrews. It seems likely JS was doing what this quote talks about it. Most people JS knew/associated with thought of Hebrews as written by Paul, and he likely received no special revelation one way or the other.

    Unless there was something else in the quote you were referring to?

  2. Ivan Wolfe on July 5, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    On a second read, I suppose that the principle behind that quote could, if taken to some extreme, could eliminate revelation from our cosmology entirely. But I don’t see anything wrong with the basic principle, depending on how far it’s taken.

  3. Jonathan Green on July 5, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    Perfectly OK, and I think it’s an important point.

  4. DavidH on July 5, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    I think that evidence is quite definitive, just as I think Isaiah and the Book of Mormon definitively demonstrate that the world is flat (and four-sided), since they refer to the “four corners of the earth.” See 2 Ne. 21:12 (quoting Isaiah).

  5. Todd Wood on July 5, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    No, Julie, I am not.

    And at one time in the very beginning of the university’s history, I don’t think Fuller’s evangelicalism was comfortable with this either.

  6. Kevin Barney on July 5, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    A lot of Mormons used to read casual ascriptions by Joseph Smith of various books of the NT to their traditional authors as in some sense revelatory, but even conservative Religious Education professors at BYU are moving away from such a position (see the recent Sperry Symposium volume on the coming forth of the NT, for example.) So yes, I think we’re good with this concept.

  7. Julie M. Smith on July 5, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Todd, that puts the burden on you to come up with another explanation for the phenomena observed above.

  8. Ray on July 5, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    If a sponsor paid for an artist’s work, that work legitimately could be called the sponsor’s work or the artist’s work. If everyone called it the sponsor’s work, and if the artist’s name became lost to future generations due to everyone calling it the sponsor’s work, I see no problem in accepting that designation – despite the fact that the sponsor didn’t create it.

    I don’t see this as even a minor issue – no matter the actual authorship of the Psalms.

  9. Ben on July 5, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Definitely, yes. I explored some of the assumptions inherent in this another site, from post #5 downwards.

  10. Ben on July 5, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Read “some of the assumptions inherent in this argument on another site, from post #5 downwards.”

  11. DavidH on July 5, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Ben,

    Ben, well spoken on the site.

    I suppose this is largely rhetorical, but (1) out of curiosity, given the time that lapsed from Jesus’ ministry until the gospels were written, and given the lack of stenographic or other exact recording of his words at the time he spoke them, how do biblical literalists believe that any of the texts containing Jesus’s words were written exactly as he said them? And (2) how does Jesus’ being divine and our Savior imply that the things that were written about him and compiled after His death are word for word as if God had written them? Jesus bore no testimony of the New Testament; it did not exist. Paul (if he indeed authored 2 Timothy) asserted that all scripture was inspired, but, again, much of the New Testament did not yet exist when he wrote. Moreover, a claim that scripture is inspired is not the same as that it is inerrant.

  12. Steven B on July 6, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    And then there is God telling Joseph Smith that he is not as bad off as Job. . . .

  13. Jacob J on July 7, 2008 at 12:59 am

    Yes, of course.

  14. Adam Greenwood on July 7, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Well . . . I don’t think the revelation that refers to 1830 AD was meant to convey that Christ was born exactly 1830 years prior, so I guess I am OK with that. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss scriptural assumptions.

  15. Matt Donaldson on July 8, 2008 at 1:22 am

    I agree that we must avoid using scriptural statements that don’t directly address a particular point as proof for that point. For example, the statement in the Doctrine and Covenants that it was “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh” was not intended to reveal the actual date of the Savior’s birth (D&C 20:1). Instead, the purpose of the statement was to formally establish the date on which the church was to be organized. To use the statement that doesnt’ directly address the question of the exact date on which the Savior was born as proof of a particular date may be wresting the scripture.

    I don’t think that’s the case, however, with the Savior’s statements about David being the author of the Psalms. In one such instance, the point the Savior is making is completely dependent on the David’s literal authorship. Jesus asked the Pharisees whose son Christ is. They answered, “the son of David.” Jesus responded by asking, “How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt. 22:41-45.) When the Savior cites David, he is quoting from Psalm 110:1. If David was not the literal author of that Psalm then the Savior’s point would be invalid. So, in this instance, I think it does serve as proof that David was the author of the Psalm.

  16. Ben on July 8, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Matt, even that case requires several assumptions, which I listed in the post linked above.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 9, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    In the practice of law, and argument over the meaning of a court decision as applied to a different case, attorneys assume that there are two levels of writing in court opinions. The writing that specifically addresses the questions placed before the court for decision, and which must be answered to come to a conclusion, are the “holding” of the case. Statements that are not essential to the chain of reasoning are called “dicta”, meaning “mere words”. The dicta are not considered to have precedential value for other cases.

    The problem with this distinction is that judges do not bother distinguishing the dicta from the holding when they write their opinions. They don’t put all the dicta in footnotes, they don;t use a distinct typeface for dicta, they don’t put it in parentheses or brackets, and they don’t insert a subheading for dicta. There is no opportunity for a judge who wrote an opinion to offer a statement as to what the opinion meant or which parts of it are more precedential and which are dicta, since by definition, anything that the judge says outside the boundaries of the fomral opinion ARE dicta, in fact the only thing that is definitively, 100% dicta and that no one could possibly assert is the Holding.

    So we have a typical legal rule: a standard that promises answers to our quandaries, but really only is an invitation to argue even more. Clarity is the enemy of ambiguity, ambiguity is the ecosystem of argument, and argument is what attorneys are paid to do.

    Nevertheless, the distinction between “holding” and “dicta” is a concept that could usefully be applied in interpreting the scriptures. Some of the words said by Christ and the prophets and apostles mainly serve the function of giving us a picture to see, supporting the main thrust of an argument or assertion. They may not be that important in and of themselves.

    This view is obviopusly opposed to conventional notions of what “inerrant” scripture consists of. The concept of inerrancy seems to assert that there is no dicta in the Bible, so that we have to accept every single sentence in scripture as a definitive statement describing the nature and characteristics of the thing refered to, rather than supplying a context to support the main thrust of meaning of the speaker. If we interpreted court decisions this way, there would be a lot of casual rhetoric enshrined as unquestionable precedent. It would force us to twist the meaning of words in order to escape being unreasonably bound by statements that were never intended to be binding and enforceable. We create similar problems in trying to understand the scriptures if we embrace inerrancy and reject the distinction between “holdings” or doctrine and the dicta that were never intended by the speaker to be viewed as inerrant or even important.

    This is especially true of statements in the Bible that appear to assert the boundary conditions of space and time. “In the beginning”, “all mankind”, “the whole earth”, “the whole land”, etc. maybe be only approximations of the facts, dicta rather than absolute enforceable rulings. The creation, Noah’s flood, the extent of Nephite and Lamanite colonization of the New World, are all scriptural assertions of completeness in application that are likely dicta to a great extent. Statements that assert universal application are easy to disprove with a single counterexample. The scriptures would be more robust against attack if we understood them to contain some dicta along with the statements that were meant to be taken seriously.

  18. quin on July 9, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Very interesting stuff.

    David H. in post number 4-
    Yes, but if you go there, then you have to refute the other (more numerous) references to “the four quarters” of the earth and it all dissolves into a messy math lesson. :-)

  19. Nitsav on July 9, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    What Raymond describes above is more-or-less what James Kugel calls “omnisignificance” in his How to Read the Bible, which I’ll be reviewing on FPR (along with some other similar books) in the next few days.