God, the Necessity of Scholars, and the Old Testament: A Long Post and a Short Announcement.

December 15, 2013 | 25 comments
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EscribanoAmong laypeople, one sometimes finds a distrust of scholarship as it applies to the Bible, particularly if that scholarship runs against a traditional interpretation, or if tells you an obvious face-value reading you favor doesn’t really mean what you think it does.

LDS have competing traditions towards serious scripture study. On the one hand, we are not a Bible-based (or even Book of Mormon-based) religion, where doctrine comes primarily through exegesis and interpretation. No sir, we’ve got prophets! We make an end run around all that stuff. We don’t believe you must attend college and be trained for the ministry to preach the orthodox religion! If you’ve read the Ensign and served a mission, or you grew up in Utah, most weeks you don’t need to bother preparing anything at all to participate fully in our Sunday lessons. A great pity, indeed.

So there can certainly be an anti-intellectual strain, the expression of which varies greatly by ward and geography.

In tension with that, LDS have “the glory of God is intelligence”, “study out of the best books” “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, and laws of God and man.” “Thy mind, O Man… must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse.” Joseph Smith thought it worth the cost and trouble to import a Hebrew teacher to Nauvoo, and studied German and a little Greek besides. His soul delighted, he said, in reading the word of the Lord in the original. He read Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews while in Carthage jail. He went back to scripture again and again, thinking, praying, and revising (which means we get some multivocality in uniquely LDS scripture).

Sometimes, out of anti-intellectualism, defensiveness, or just innocent puzzlement, people ask, why should we need scholars to understand what scriptures mean? Or, put another way, does God prefer PhDs? Why does he make scripture so hard for us to understand? Shouldn’t the obvious face-value meaning be the right meaning? Why would he bury the REAL meaning, and only make it accessible to specialists?

I think there are several valid responses to that, but let me focus on the assumptions behind the question.

1) God wants to communicate and be understood. 2) God communicates via scripture. 3) Scripture was written for us.

#1 is, I think, very true, and leads to a central principle I’ll come to in a minute. #2 needs serious unpacking. Scripture is not revelation itself (with rare exceptions) as much as a record, an account, an echoing reverberation of revelation. Scripture is revelation’s secondary mode. Practically speaking, it couldn’t be primary for the Israelites, because a) few of them could read b)even if they could, cheap scripture couldn’t be bought, because there was no printing press and c) because “scripture” as such didn’t really exist yet as a canonized collection. For us today, who have inherited that ancient, now-canonized now-collected, ta biblia (“the books”), the anthology known as the Bible (and other LDS scripture), certainly God can speak through it to us. But that is an accident of history, not what it was “designed” for. Which brings us to #3

“scripture was written for us.” Except, it wasn’t. We can liken it to ourselves, but that’s taking it out of context. Mormons in particular get spillage of this idea from the Book of Mormon, which, as President Benson said so often, was “written for our day.”
I’d like to attenuate that a bit. Mormon and Moroni edited it for our day. At least, our general modern period of say, 1820-2013 and who knows how many decades/centuries beyond.  But the most read parts of the Book of Mormon, 1st Nephi and the Small Plates, were explicitly not written for us. Nephi et. al wrote those “for the instruction of [his] people” (1Ne 19:3). Whatever other mysteries plans God had for them, he didn’t know. The point is, Nephi didn’t see the modern day, or have Joseph Smith in mind, he was writing for his contemporary audience with very definite purpose. He was concerned about the problems besetting his people, then, at that time. His revelations were of contemporary importance. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be of historical importance later on as well, but he was focused on their immediate socio-religious/political/cultural issues, not the vague and distant future.

And this is what we find the  Old Testament as well. Prophets were concerned with their current issues, and that is what they sought revelation on. When God chose to speak to them (this is the central principle I mentioned before), he had to do it in a way they understood. That meant, largely, condescending to speak to them in their own language, using their own cultural conventions, and their own contemporary people and places. It’s D&C 1:24 “I am God… these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Yeah, God has to condescend a bit to do this. He accommodates revelation to our weakness so we can understand. That’s not to say he doesn’t challenge or teach, but if an angel appears to me, she’s going to speak midwestern-accented English, not Aramaic or Adamic. And this is the case in the  Old Testament, recognized by many LDS and non-LDS authorities.

Although we might disagree with the doctrinal points on which they felt this principle evident or necessary, John Wesley, Augustine, and others made arguments supporting this principle of accommodation  Calvin, for example, described this accommodation as God “lisping.”

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accomodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness

Gallileo thought that “[such] propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, who are rude and unlearned.”

Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, and others referred many times to the necessity of God descending, accommodating, holding back fulness and perfection, speaking to us as children.

Ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. (D&C 50:40) Ye cannot bear all things now; (D&C 78:18) “The Lord deals with this people as a tender parent with a child, communicating light and intelligence and the knowledge of his ways as they can bear it.” “It is not wisdom that we should have all knowledge at once presented before us; but that we should have a little at a time; then we can comprehend it.” “ When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities.” “If [the Savior] comes to a little child, he will adapt himself to the language and capacity of a little child” “He who gives the law is perfect, and reduces it to the capacity of finite beings in order that they may understand it and then receive more: thus the infinite being gives line upon line, reveals principle after principle, as the mind of the finite being expands…. When an infinite being gives a law to his finite creatures, he has to descend to the capacity of those who receive his law.” “I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many that God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principles so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak unto us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities”

George Q. Cannon also made some good statements to this effect.

The revelation we may get, imperfect at times because of our fallen condition and because of our failure to comprehend the nature of it, comes from God…. Man is but the medium, but the instrument, is but the conduit through which it flows… This is the position occupied by the Latter-day Saints. We believe in revelation. It may come dim; it may come indistinct, it may come sometimes with a degree of vagueness which we do not like. Why? Because of our imperfection; because we are not prepared to receive it as it comes in its purity; in its fulness from God. He is not to blame for this.

So, when God speaks to the Israelite prophets, he’s going to be addressing their concerns, in their linguistic and cultural idiom. When we read scripture, then, we are eavesdropping on revelation directed to someone else, not us. Of course, we can benefit from it, we can receive inspiration from reading it, but we were not the primary recipient. And since the audience of that revelation, in the case of the Old Testament, lived thousands of years ago, in a very different culture, languages, and worldview, we are essentially in need of a tour guide, someone who knows those languages and culture and can explain it to us. Sure, you can visit on your own, but you’re likely to misunderstand many things, miss others completely, commit a few faux pas, and generally not get as much out of the trip as if you had a guide. And who will tell you where the best noodles are?

Even Elder McConkie, who famously did not like commentaries, grudgingly admitted “It is true that we oftentimes need an inspired interpreter to help us understand what Apostles and prophets have written for us in the standard works….I am not rejecting proper scriptural commentaries; I know and appreciate their value and have written volumes of them myself.”

Acts 8:30 records the story of the confused eunuch.

“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.”How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Of interest is that this is exactly how scribes came to be, needing someone to explain. Once Hebrew was no longer the native language of the Jews, they could no longer understand their own scriptures. I don’t mean “they didn’t make sense” or “they couldn’t figure them out.” They literally did not understand them, because the writings they had were in Hebrew, but the native language was now largely Aramaic. This was a problem. One of our earliest mentions of scribes is Nehemiah 8:8, recording a public reading of scripture (which is the way scripture was read), and the new role of scribes, like Ezra.

[the scribes] read from the scroll, from the Torah of God, making it clear [translating?] and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

I’ve been solicited to write a weekly Old Testament column this year at Patheos. In spite of time constraints, I’ve decided to do it, for a few reasons. First, I have strong pastoral instincts. As I’m not teaching Institute or Gospel Doctrine, or at BYU, this is my opportunity to teach and reach people. Second, this is probably my strongest year of the Gospel Doctrine cycle. If not now, when? Third, much less nobly, money is tight. I’ve been a student virtually my whole life, and I have another 4-5 years to go. If my skills can be helpful to people this year AND put some bread on the table, so much the better.

The column will be called Benjamin the Scribe, wherein I will try to “make [the Old Testament] clear and giv[e] the meaning so that the people understood what [is] being read.” Once we’ve finished the design, I’ll post and cross link from Times&Seasons so people are aware of it. I can’t promise that it will always be lengthy and brilliant and the best thing since sliced bread, but I hope you’ll accept “regularly published” and “generally not bad” instead.

25 Responses to God, the Necessity of Scholars, and the Old Testament: A Long Post and a Short Announcement.

  1. Dave on December 15, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Great announcement. Patheos is doing so many good things.

  2. Steve Martin on December 15, 2013 at 10:18 am

    “Jesus loves me, this I know.

    For the BIble tells me so.”

    It’s so simple. And yet it is not.

  3. Robert C. on December 15, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Excellent thoughts and even more excellent news, Ben. I’ll follow your posts with much excitement and interest!

  4. Craig H. on December 15, 2013 at 11:14 am

    Great Ben, I look forward to it. And the best thing is I won’t have to study after all, all those books you recommended.

  5. WVS on December 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks, Ben. Good news.

  6. Akash on December 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Whew, I was afraid I’d have to come up with original material for Gospel Doctrine in 2014. You’ve saved me!

    Oh, and I uh, look forward to your insights. :)

  7. sterflu on December 15, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    I appreciate the continuing thoughts on culture and the scriptures. I hope we will gain insight as we study the Old Testament into the extent to which prophets are culture-bound. Should we accept the limitations imposed by the cultures in which they operate? Or should we celebrate those who strive to transcend their cultural context?

  8. EFF on December 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    “When we read scripture, then, we are eavesdropping on revelation directed to someone else, not us.”

    Although I am probably raising an issue that is beyond scope of this post, nevertheless I believe we should not forget that some of what we find in scripture is not revelation from God but rather the thoughts, opinions, and historical perspectives of the author, which are often slanted. This applies even to modern day revelations as well.

    Yes, I know that every prophet brings his own life experiences, cultural biases, and limited intellect to the enterprise of composing scripture, but that’s not my point. I guess what I’m trying to say is that not every verse of scripture should be labeled “revelation.” Some of what we find in the Old Testament and other books of scripture is of questionable pedigree, bearing more human than divine characteristics. It is up to us, as individuals, to mine the nuggets—and there are many—in the standard works.

  9. Ben S. on December 15, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I don’t disagree, EFF, but the end result is the same. We’re still eavesdropping on something not directed at us and require “translation.”

    I often write this stuff as if I’m presenting it to the hardest crowd, rigid 60-somethings raised on McConkie and JFieldingSmith. I find writing that way reaches more people than those who already agree with me and just need a good way to express it.

  10. Felix on December 15, 2013 at 11:14 pm

    Thanks for writing this. I am mostly in agreement with what you you say. But I would have liked to have seen some more textual evidence to support your claims about the Book of Mormon. Even Mormon seems to me to be writing primarily for the Lamanites (see Mormon 9:35-37), and Moroni 10:1-23 is explicitly written only for the Lamanites! And there are even a few passages which indicate that Nephi had a latter-day audience in mind (I can’t remember where they are). But then you have chapters like Mormon 8 that are pretty clearly intended for a latter-day audience.

  11. EFF on December 16, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Ben S., I literally laughed out loud when I read your response: I turned 60 a couple of months ago.

    I understand and respect your use of tact and discretion when you compose these pieces. Walking a fine line between those reared on McConkie/JFieldingSmith and heretics like me is not easy, but your efforts and insights are much appreciated.

  12. JMS on December 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Regarding Nehemiah 8:8, there was an interesting change in the footnotes of the 2013 edition of the scriptures.

    Nehemiah 8:8: “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and *gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”

    *Nehemiah 8:8 footnote (1979):
    “OR expanded the meaning. It is held by some that the explanation was in Aramaic; thus the first translating (Targum) of the scriptures occurred.”

    *Nehemiah 8:8 footnote (2013):
    “IE gave a commentary by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

  13. Ben S. on December 16, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Heh. Correlation at work!

  14. Doug P on December 16, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Can I get a source for those quotes from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and George Q. Cannon? I’d like to note them for future reference. Thanks!

  15. Ben S. on December 17, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I’ll post them Doug, but you’ll have to wait a day or two. I have two immediate finals…

  16. Doug P. on December 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

    I understand. Thank you!

  17. Stephen Marsh (Ethesis) on December 17, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    This is one of my favorite themes. Thanks for your intent to share it and write on it.

    BTW, are you going to address Ba’l as a rain god (rather than a sun god — we are far past the Egyptologists of the 1890s). You know, he rides on storm clouds, has two hammers, thunder and lightning, is banished by the summer droughts, the god of irrigation pretends to his throne and he returns with the winter storms.

    Adds so much to the Elijah story when he challenges Ba’l to send fire from heaven on a mountain top (where lightning strikes) and challenges his authority by sealing the rain from the heavens.

  18. Stephen Marsh (Ethesis) on December 17, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    JMS — how extensive are the footnote changes? Worth buying a new set of scriptures to get?

  19. JMS on December 17, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    The majority of the footnote changes did not affect meaning (I’m only speaking of the Bible here, it’s the only one I’ve looked at in detail). They capitalized pronouns referring to deity, for example, or changed abbreviations like “Heb. MSS” to “Hebrew texts.” Some are rewritten to be a little more clear (e.g., Gen 30:11b, “paronomasia” changed to “word play”). They added about 27 new JST footnotes, which one can see listed here:

    http://www.lds.org/bc/content/shared/content/english/pdf/scriptures/detailed-summary-of-approved-adjustments.pdf

    You will find more substantial footnote changes (new ones, deleted ones, changes in meaning) when you compare the 1979 and 2013 versions of:

    Gen. 6:6a; Lev. 19:14e; Deut. 27:2b; 2 Chron. 15:9a; Neh. 8:8c; Job 9:7a; Isa. 9:3c; Isa. 34:7a; Isa 38:12b; Isa 45:11c; Ezek. 47:11a; Hos. 5:8a; Hos. 6:9a; Mal. 4-end; Luke 1:63a; 1 Thess. 5-end; 2 Thess. 3-end; Heb. 5:7a.

    “Worth buying a new set” depends on one’s preferences, I suppose. There are hundreds of very subtle changes, so combined it might be worth it to you unless the set you have is full of years of notes or something like that. Some of the most substantial changes were in the headings to the Doctrine and Covenants:

    http://www.lds.org/bc/content/shared/content/english/pdf/scriptures/scripture-comparison_eng.pdf

    There are also some formatting improvements, such as increasing the font size in the JST appendix or un-italicizing Book of Mormon book intros that are part of the translation.

  20. Gavin on December 17, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    Ben,

    Looking forward to reading your column. I’ve forwarded this to a few friends that will also be interested.

  21. Ben S. on December 21, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Doug P.-

    “The Lord deals with this people as a tender parent with a child, communicating light and intelligence and the knowledge of his ways as they can bear it.” JS- History of the Church 5:402 (which means it’s likely someone expanding something Joseph Smith said)

    “It is not wisdom that we should have all knowledge at once presented before us”- History of the Church, 5:387; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on May 14, 1843, in Yelrome, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff. In the Teachings manual. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?hideNav=1&locale=0&sourceId=86d720596a845110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=da135f74db46c010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

    “When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities…. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings.”
    Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:311. [13 July 1862]

    If he [the Savior] comes to a little child, he will adapt himself to the language and capacity of a little child (Joseph Smith, 8 August 1839, in Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 12).

    He who gives the law is perfect, and reduces it to the capacity of finite beings in order that they may understand it and then receive more: thus the infinite being gives line upon line, reveals principle after principle, as the mind of the finite being expands…. When an infinite being gives a law to his finite creatures, he has to descend to the capacity of those who receive his law
    (Brigham Young, 6 April 1845, Times & Seasons 6/12 [July 1 1845]:954).

    I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many that God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principles so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak unto us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities (Brigham Young, July 8 1855, JD 2:314).

    A bonus- [In teaching those who are unlearned] you are under the necessity of condescending to their low estate, so far as communication is concerned, in order to exalt them. You have to use words they use, and address them in a manner to meet their capacities, in order to give them the knowledge you have to bestow. If an angel should come into this congregation, or visit any individual in it, and use the language he uses in heaven, what would we be benefited? Not any, because we could not understand a word he said. When angels come to visit mortals, they have to condescend to and assume, more or less, the condition of mortals, they have to descend to our capacities in order to communicate with us (Brigham Young, July 8 1855, JD 2:314).

    Both of the Cannon quotes are from George Q. Cannon, October 5 1879, JD 21:76-77.

  22. Ben Huff on December 23, 2013 at 4:35 am

    Ben, there is a lot to be said for thinking about what scripture meant at the time it was delivered. But to do that does not require us to minimize its importance for later audiences. Nephi says that he makes his plates because “the Lord hath commanded me to make [them] for a wise purpose in him” (1 Nephi 9:5-6). So, he is intentionally making them for a purpose that goes beyond what he knows. That is to say, the purposes he is aware of are not their full purpose, even in his own mind. Nephi says this explicitly, but we should take it as a standard feature of prophecy that when we are acting through inspiration (as we believe prophets and scriptural authors do), we are acting for divine purposes that will regularly go beyond what we can formulate ourselves.

    Moreover, even Nephi’s own notion of the purpose of his record includes speaking to the Gentiles in the new world, as well as to the remnant of his descendants, as he sees in vision in 1 Nephi 13:34-41. So, to read the Book of Mormon as having been written for us is quite in keeping with its original intent.

  23. Ben Huff on December 23, 2013 at 5:20 am

    To take things a step further: Nephi specifically leaves things out of his record because they are to be written by John, “the apostle of the Lamb of God,” 600+ years later, on the other side of the world (1 Nephi 14:24-7). His family and immediate descendants will never see these writings. Indeed, as far as we know, none of the descendants of Lehi or anyone else in the New World saw any part of these writings until after the time of Columbus, over 1000 years after the last calling themselves Nephites are destroyed. Granted, this wasn’t Nephi’s idea, it was God’s, but he follows the instruction not to write, given to him with this explanation. So, Nephi crafts his record in a way that doesn’t really make sense except insofar as we see it as being written for “our day,” i.e. for post-Columbian readers of both the Book of Mormon and the Bible. He is writing with a global, multi-millennial career in mind for his book.

    So this post is a good illustration of why Mormons are suspicious of scholarship, and for good reason. We scholars get so attached to all the obscure things we (think we) know that we too often fail to take proper account of what has become common knowledge among those who just keep reading those same familiar scriptures, in English.

    That said, I appreciate the irony of the title for your series, “Benjamin the Scribe.” Tasteful self-deprecation can cover a multitude of missteps.

  24. Allen on December 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    There is a great quote from Georges Florovsky, one of the great Orthodox theologians.

    “This is not the place to treat in detail the basic questions of Biblical exegesis. Nevertheless one thing must be unconditionally stated. Scripture can be viewed from a double perspective: outside of history or—as history. In the first case the Bible is interpreted as a book of eternal and sacred images and symbols. And one must then unravel and interpret it precisely as a symbol, according to the rules of the symbolical or allegorical method… The Bible appears then as a kind of Law Book, as a codex of divine commandments and ordinances, as a collection of texts or “theological loci” as a compilation of pictures and illustrations. The Bible then becomes a self-sufficient and self-contained book—a book, so to speak, written for no one, a book with seven seals… One need not reject such an approach: there is a certain truth in such an interpretation. But the totality of the Spirit of the Bible contradicts such an interpretation; it contradicts the direct meaning of Scripture. And the basic error of such an understanding consists in the abstraction from man. Certainly the Word of God is eternal truth and God speaks in Revelation for all times. But if one admits the possibility of various meanings of Scripture and one recognizes in Scripture a kind of inner meaning which is abstracted and independent from time and history, one is in danger of destroying the realism of Revelation. It is as though God had so spoken that those to whom he first and directly spoke had not understood him—or, at least, had not understood as God had intended. Such an understanding reduces history to mythology. And finally Revelation is not only a system of divine words but also a system of divine acts; and precisely for this reason—it is, above all, history, sacred history or the history of salvation [Heilsgeschickte], the history of the covenant of God with man. Only in such an historical perspective does the fulness of Scripture disclose itself to us. The texture of Scripture is an historical texture. The words of God are always, and above all, time-related—they have always, and above all, a direct meaning. God sees before him, as it were, the one to whom he speaks, and he speaks because of this in such a way that he can be heard and understood. For he always speaks for the sake of man, for man. There is a symbolism in Scripture—but it is rather a prophetic than an allegorical symbolism. There are images and allegories in Scripture, but in its totality Scripture is not image and allegory but history.”

  25. JMS on January 14, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    FYI, the new Institute Manual covering the New Testament Gospels was just put up in electronic text on LDS.org:

    http://www.lds.org/manual/new-testament-student-manual?lang=eng