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On being a Mormon biblicist

I live in two often mutually incompatible worlds. In the one, I pursue a scholarly approach to the ancient Near East, using the tools of history, archaeology and philology in an attempt to arrive at considered conclusions regarding the past. I do all of this at a prestigious East Coast university. In the other, I follow a religious faith and accept as true things that I have neither seen nor can empirically prove. Unfortunately there are those in each world who claim either that as a scholar my affection for Mormonism is eccentric at best, blind at worst; or that as a faithful Mormon I am not suited to the world of godless academia. I beg to differ.

I am only a quasi-biblicist as Hebrew is only my minor concentration (John C. should be writing this). Nevertheless I have been reading this semester the book of Job in Hebrew. It has been an exciting but challenging adventure. If the truth be told, Latter-day Saints are not very OT-literate and this was true for me until a few years ago. I had never read Job before, not even in English (apart from the odd verse or two). It’s difficult but rewarding stuff.

This week we read Job 19:25: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth”. We spent perhaps an hour discussing this one verse: what does Job mean? A Christian reading is clear—he is appealing to the intercession of the future Messiah, Jesus Christ. But such an interpretation will not do for a secular biblical program. Here are the problems:

- Most scholars don’t believe that a man called Job even existed, so to imagine what he was thinking is futile. The book of Job is a piece of sophisticated wisdom literature which ponders the great question of ‘why bad things happen to good people’ when most of the rest of the Bible suggests they don’t.
- There is a hint of resurrection imagery in this passage, but that cannot be taken literally because the Hebrew Bible does not believe in heaven or a Resurrection.
- How could Job (or anyone) know about a man who had not even been born?
- Christological interpretations are inherently bad because, well, they rely on evidence from religious faith which is anathema to secular scholarship.

So, what’s the burden of the Mormon scholar in all of this? Well, in many ways I agree with these points. That is, purely as a scholar pursuing a PhD. in Near Eastern Studies, I am bound by certain rules. Objective, secular scholarship demands that I reject the notion that this passage refers to Jesus. I would not write it or suggest it, and if I were teaching a class on it I would criticise any student who raised the idea. Why? Because the only way to make this passage refer to Christ requires an injection of religious faith, which cannot be allowed to color our judgements of history, theology or literature. This is the creed of secular scholars, whose number, whilst I am being paid by a secular university, I am among. In short, I am required to see the Bible as a completely different book than the Bible I read on Sunday.

But in my other world, this passage clearly refers to Christ! Even as I sat in class I felt a strong, personal feeling towards the Saviour. Job’s trial is immense and his hope is gone, so he appeals for a redeemer, a “go’el”, who in Hebrew law was often the kinsmen who bailed you out of trouble. Is this not Jesus, our own brother who satisfies justice on our behalf? Indeed it is. But is it exactly what Job is referring to here? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care. Jewish rabbis realised long ago that the greatest boon of the Hebrew Bible is that it lent itself to contemporary interpretation i.e. we can "liken the scriptures to ourselves." Which is what I do as I try to balance the demands of liberal scholarship (of which I am an an advocate) and the mysteries of religious faith (of which I am a believer). I’m not Job and I didn’t write his book, but “I know that my Redeemer lives”.

Such are the struggles and blessings of a Mormon biblicist, and the challenge for faithful scholars everywhere. To paraphrase England, “let’s maintain faith but remain true to reason”. It’s a little messy but it can be done.

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Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 06, 2004 4:39 PM) 

My problem is that people tell me all the time that I must have amazing insights into the Bible and the Scriptures in general because I study the things I do (Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East). The problem being that I have trained to read the Bible in such a way as to get no theological meaning from it, of necessity. I was not trained in a theological institution, but rather in areligious academia. There is no real place for religious interpretation under those conditions, because the conclusions I draw are meant to be equally valid for Buddhists, Methodists, and Mormons (for example). It is also not the place of academia to tell people how to live (the whole "apply-it-to-our-lives" approach). So, it is hard to define how my academic training enhances my reading of scripture in an LDS context.
I can say that I think it does enhance it. Knowledge of the contexts in which scriptures were written can always give clues as to how to best understand them (as can the Spirit, properly interpreted and confirmed). In reality, my academic training is most useful as a bridge for explaining secular research to Mormons and Mormons to secular research. It sets limits on my speculations regarding ancient history in Biblical contexts. And it gives me ideas for future research.
Ronan mentioned current scholarly approaches to Job. The good thing about studying the Hebrew Bible is that there really isn't much of a consensus regarding how to approach most of the works. So idiosyncratic approaches are still tolerated to some degree or another. So, one can cheerfully learn the current majority opinion while still stubbornly holding to one's own beliefs.
It is a bit like learning the rules to two games. The rules of games are separate and must be kept so, but lessons learned from playing one game can often be applied in playing the other. The fun is in getting as close as you can to your goal within the rules of each game. 

Posted by John C.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 06, 2004 7:03 PM) 

Job is good for people who like to read Job. 

Posted by Jake


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 07, 2004 4:27 PM) 

Great post, Ronan. Compartmentalization works, but at some point most people feel a need to integrate. If truth can really be circumscribed in one great whole, then compartmentalization can only be a temporary comrpomise (and I'm talking five or ten years, not an entire mortal life).

I've really enjoyed Friedman's books, first Who Wrote the Bible? and, more recently, The Disappearance of God. The problem with both Mormon and Christian readings of many OT passages and events is that they are not really "readings." Instead, they are rooted in beliefs or doctrines external, even entirely foreign, to the OT text. Seems like that's a problem you must grapple with on a regular basis. 

Posted by Dave


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 07, 2004 5:28 PM) 

Nice post Ronan. I think John C.summed up everything I wanted to say very nicely. I think in several ways, the more I learn, the more complicated it gets, especially when asked scriptural questions at Church.  

Posted by Ben S.


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