Authoring the Old Testament

This post is a review of David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014); 237 pp.  This book is the first of three projected volumes, which are meant in some measure to parallel the three parts of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh: Law, Prophets, Writings). The review is written in three parts: first, some personal reflections on my interactions with the Documentary Hypothesis (hereafter “DH”: the theory that the Pentateuch was not authored as a whole by the prophet Moses, but rather was created later by one or more redactors weaving together multiple documentary sources); second, a consideration of the first half of the book, chapters 1-5, specifically on the DH; and third, a consideration of the second half of the book, chapters 6-9, on the interaction of the DH with Mormon scripture.

If you don’t want to bother reading this review but are simply interested in my overall reaction, I will state here that I highly recommend the book.

A. Reflections on My “Reflections

I wish I could recall with specificity when I first learned of the DH.  I cannot; it’s all fuzzy in my mind.  A likely possibility is I learned of the theory as an undergrad at BYU in the early 80s.  But if that is true, I didn’t learn it in any classroom; the DH simply was not broached in BYU religion courses in those days.[1] Rather, I probably learned about it from my own reading. I took two Old Testament courses from S. Kent Brown, who would become one of my mentors and for whom I later would work as a TA. The coursework involved readings in scholarly (almost all non-LDS) introductions to and other works on the OT; he kept maybe 20 such titles on reserve at the library for the use of his students. I was genuinely interested in the subject and did a lot of extra reading that was not required by the class, and I’m guessing that’s how I first learned of the DH.[2]

14 years ago I published my article “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33:1 (Spring 2000): 57–99 [linked in the caption above]. This was when the Chandlers were the editors (if I recall correctly, I believe my main contact with the journal was Keith Norman, who was then an Associate Editor). The piece was solicited; it was not my idea.  They had an article by Thomas Dozeman set up to go, which was a non-LDS intro to the DH (published as Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Authorship of the Pentateuch,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 31:3 (Fall 1998): 157–66, available here) and were looking for a Mormon response to it. (Dozeman is now a Professor of Old Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.) I’m pretty sure I was not their first choice, and I suspect they were hoping for someone who would actually argue against the DH so as to foster some small “d” dialogue, but I got the gig because I possessed the most important qualification: I was willing to do it.[3]

I just finished reading David’s[4] book yesterday, and afterwards (largely out of morbid curiosity) I reread my article, which I had not revisited for a long time. What particularly struck me was how very cautious I was.  This was no doubt due in part to the fact that, at least if I recall correctly, I was pretty agnostic on the DH when I began the project.  I didn’t really know what to think about it; all I knew was that at that point in time I was badly under-read on the subject, so I did a boat load of reading to try to get up to speed, both regarding the DH generally and also pretty much everything I could find on the subject in prior Mormon literature. I would probably approach the subject a little more confidently were I to do so today, but I don’t regret my caution in writing the piece, as the DH remains a controversial subject, and better to err on the side of too much caution than not enough.

B. The First Half of the Book (Specifically on the DH)

If you don’t know anything about the DH and would like to learn, this is the way to do it. The book is simply outstanding in this regard. David’s years teaching high school students in all those seminary classes appear to have paid off; his explanations are clear, not overly technical, have a nice logical flow, and are persuasive. In my article I didn’t have to explain the DH to the uninitiated, as Dozeman had already done that and all I had to do was respond to him and focus on the Mormon side of things. I seriously doubt I could have explained the theory as well as David has done here.

This material is divided into five chapters, as follows:

1. Reading the Bible Critically

2. Documentary Sources in the Pentateuch

3. Identifying the Sources

4. Dating the Sources

5. Mesopotamian Influences on the Pentateuch

In Chapter 1, David begins, as is traditional, by pointing to the different order of events and vocabulary in Genesis 1 and 2.  He alerts the reader to various internal “time stamps” in the text (such as “to this day”) that point to the text dating to a period long after the events described therein. There are various problems with seeing the text as a single composition authored by Moses, through which he gently walks the reader.

David describes the classic formulation of the theory by Wellhausen toward the end of the 19th century as Chapter 2 begins. The concept of doublets (and triplets) in the text is then explained. (For instance, was Joseph taken by Ishmaelites or Midianites?) David walks the reader through two concrete examples–the flood story and the Joseph story–using different type faces to show how the original sources can be recovered from the redacted final form of the text. In their final forms, the stories are riddled with contradictions, but when you extract the underlying sources, the sources stand as parallel versions of the account and are coherent without internal contradiction. Toward the end of this Chapter David briefly addresses some of the attempts to counter the DH, such as a reliance on chiastic forms that cross the seams between the sources.

So far, this is all pretty clear.  But in Chapter 3 David tackles identifying the sources, and this is where things get complicated. Here we are introduced to P for the Priestly source, H for the Holiness School, J for the Yahwist source[5], E for the Elohist source, and D for the Deuteronomist source. Chapter 4 then uses diachronic analysis and other tools to date the putative sources. And in Chapter 5, David surveys some of the ways in which the Pentateuch is dependent on Mesopotamian sources.

When attempting to introduce the Saints to something challenging like the DH, I believe it is necessary to be strategic about the process.  One thing that makes it easy to introduce the DH to a Mormon audience is to point to the BoM, which explicitly is put together in exactly the same way the DH posits for the Pentateuch: multiple documentary sources interwoven by a redactor (in the case of the BoM, Mormon and Moroni).[6] In my experience, that kind of observation is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of a new and unfamiliar idea like the DH go down much more easily than it otherwise would. Similarly, there are various classic quotations from figures such as Brigham Young, John Widtsoe and B.H. Roberts that can be utilized to grease the skids for an understanding of the DH by a Mormon audience, and David uses those quotes both liberally and well. David also shows how Joseph Smith himself observed the very problems the DH seeks to resolve and correctly attributed them to scribal activity (as on p. 40).

C. The Second Half of the Book (the DH and Mormon Scripture)

The second half of the book features the following chapters:

6. Reading the Pentateuch Critically as a Latter-day Saint

7. Higher Criticism and the Book of Moses

8. Higher Criticism and the Book of Abraham

9. Higher Criticism and the Book of Mormon

Briefly, an application of principles of higher criticism to LDS modern scripture leads David to take the Books of Moses and Abraham as modern pseudepigrapha, and the BoM as either a modern pseudepigraphon or a modern expansion of an ancient core. Here I see things a little bit differently than David does.  The difference is not wide, but I would say I am perhaps one step to the right of where he comes down on these issues.

First, I prefer to use the word pseudepigrapha for material that, however intertextual with the Bible, is largely composed out of whole cloth.  Material that is clearly based on specific biblical texts I conceptualize as in large measure midrashic commentary and embellishment. So I would see the Vision of Moses (Moses 1) and the Joseph Smith Book of Enoch as candidates for pseudepigrapha; for me, the rest of the Book of Moses is better characterized as a midrashic commentary on Genesis 1 to 6. Similarly, while Abraham 1-3 is potentially a pseudepigraphon, I view Abraham 4-5 as different and as clearly a midrash on Genesis 1-2. This is perhaps a minor distinction, but I find it useful in conceptualizing what is going on in these scriptural texts.

I would characterize my approach to this material as both open minded and eclectic. Since with Joseph’s revealed “translation” projects we are not talking about conventional translations but textual productions grounded in the “gift of seeing,” I think it is important to remain open minded as to what that might mean in any given case.  Perhaps Joseph has restored material that is authentic to an ancient prophet; perhaps he has restored material that is authentic to antiquity generally if not that prophet in particular; or perhaps he has used the method of pseudepigrapha as the medium to convey his own prophetic insights. (David is of course correct that much of the Bible itself is pseudepigraphic, and that pseudepigraphy is a genuine method for conveying religious truth.) For me, just because part of the text appears to be modern does not entail that all of it is, and vice versa; as in textual criticism, I think eclecticism is an important principle in evaluating the Prophet’s revelations.

So I am perfectly open to the volumes in our triple combinations possibly being modern pseudepigrapha. Since I accept Joseph as a Prophet such a conclusion would not bother me, and for me personally being open to such a conclusion means it is very hard for me to lose faith in the Prophet and his scriptural productions, which I think is a good thing.  But I personally am loathe to give up on antiquity entirely on a global basis. A midrash or a pseudepigraphon can reflect more ancient elements, and it seems to me these have to be evaluated with a fine tooth comb and not globally. Even if a document is generally a midrash or a pseudepigraphon, that does not in and of itself entail that it cannot reflect within it ancient material.

I suspect David and I are not really that far apart here, because in these latter chapters he gives examples of things in Joseph’s modern scripture that restore “forgotten biblical constructs” (p. 173). So I suspect this difference in how I perceive these matters may just be an issue of slightly differing vocabulary or nuance. For me, remaining open to the possible antiquity in these scriptural productions makes them far more interesting to read and fun to study deeply.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify something. In the BoA chapter at pp. 172-73, David writes as follows:

Rather than diminishing the inspired nature of the work, approaching the Book of Abraham from this perspective could provide an even greater authoritative stamp upon the scriptural text. If one accepts the Documentary Hypothesis and the inspired nature of the Book of Abraham, then it must be either (1) a pseudepigraphic work of scripture written by an unknown (but possibly inspired) author in the fourth through first century BC, which was later lost and then restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith; or (2) an inspired pseudepigraphic work written by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The simple application of Occam’s Razor would  require us to cut out the unnecessary excess and accept the latter option.

This is I suppose in part directed at my article, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006), 107–130, in which I propose that a Jewish redactor (whom I fancifully labelled J-Red) may have repurposed Egyptian vignettes as illustrations of the Abraham story, a process that I illustrated by several examples from the Greco-Roman period where this is exactly what happened. What David (or anyone else) would have no way knowing was that this piece was in part intended strategically by me as a gentle way to prepare our people for the possibility that Joseph himself may have repurposed the vignettes in this way. In my recent blog post on the Book of Abraham I finally made this point explicit: “Now, in my published paper I did not go this far explicitly, but let me make the point here that if it was acceptable for Jews to adopt or adapt Egyptian iconography to their own purposes, making Abraham a Semitic substitute for Osiris, why would it not be acceptable for Joseph Smith to do the very same thing himself?” And if I do say so myself, I think my gentle strategic preparation has been quite successful, as illustrating these processes in a legitimately ancient context seems to have prepared people well for being able to see the same processes as possibly being undertaken by the Prophet Joseph in his own right.

At p. 204 et seq. I was glad to see David honor John Sorenson, who played a key role in first applying the DH to a serious study of Mormon scripture (even if David does not entirely agree with John’s conclusions). After I published my “Reflections” article I received a nice note from John congratulating me on the piece and opining that the Saints have long been too defensive where the DH is concerned, and I think John’s thought there is useful to keep in mind when reading David’s book.[7]

Also, at p. 89 David cites the effort of some Mormon scholars to adopt the principles of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and rightly points out how problematic that is.  I have a story to tell about that. Soon after my “Reflections” article was published, I heard from a man in Florida who was an institute director in what was then called CES. He and one of his Institute students were both pursuing graduate work in biblical studies at a university down there. He thanked me for my article, which had been very helpful for them in helping them to negotiate the faith issues in learning about the Higher Criticism of the Bible. He reported to me that some of his conservative Protestant classmates were having their faith hammered in that class; one fellow student was meeting with his pastor on a daily basis to try to preserve his faith in the face of the things he was learning in his university classes. So while inculcating a rigid adherence to scriptural inerrancy may on the surface seem like the more faithful position, in my view it is not the natively Mormon view of things and such a view has inherent dangers that are not present in a more pragmatic, natively Mormon approach to the scriptures.

I would like to congratulate both David and Kofford Books on the publication of this landmark study, which should become a foundational resource for serious LDS students of scripture.

[1]  My understanding is that some professors in some classes do talk about the DH at the Y nowadays, but it’s not a given and you’ve got to pick the right classes and professors if you want exposure to it.  I have a friend who was a contemporary of mine as an undergrad at the Y who is still upset all these years later that he went through four years of religion classes at BYU and never was taught anything at all about the DH.

[2]  I remember once when one of Professor Brown’s students was transferring to the University of Utah, and naturally none of his religion credits were going to transfer. So Kent sent copies of his syllabi to the U, and they promptly allowed the credits for his courses that the student had taken to transfer.

[3]  I was a Nibleyophile and admired his “a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread” spirit, so I agreed to write the piece.

[4]  Inasmuch as I consider David a friend, I am here eschewing the normal convention of using last names only.

[5] In German an initial J is pronounced like an English Y.

[6] In Chapter 9 David points out a difference, in that the “authors” in the OT are nameless, while they are very specifically named and identified in the BoM, which I thought was an astute observation, but that does not change the utility of the BoM parallel for this purpose.

[7] I will also observe here that both John’s article and my own on the DH were published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and that there is a preparation for a positive reception to David’s book that may not have existed had that journal not been in existence. So here’s three cheers for Dialogue!

Errata:

It was not my intention to proof the text for nits and typos, but I noticed a few. It is to be hoped that these were caught between the production of the ARC and the printed books; if some of these were not, perhaps they can be corrected in a future edition:

P. 2, fn. 2: vocals —> vowels

P. 58 J should be E

P. 71 Eiologies —> Etiologies and discuses —> discusses

P. 125 there lessons —> their lessons

P. 149 imatio dei —> imitatio dei (as correctly given on p. 171)

Comments

  1. Thanks for a great review, Kevin.

  2. Very interested in reading those book. I’ve greatly enjoyed the various interviews I’ve read and heard with David.

  3. “My understanding is that some professors in some classes do talk about the DH at the Y nowadays” It’s explicit in one of the required courses for ancient Near Eastern studies majors, now.

    Very nice review.

  4. Thanks, Kevin, for the thoughtful, kind review. My goal was to simply build upon the foundation you set in showing that a Latter-day Saint need not fear to engage these issues. I’m very grateful for the way you articulate the need for open exchange and the possibility of even disagreeing (though I really do think our differences are very minor) while engaging the evidence critically. I love your scholarship, appreciate how you have always encouraged LDS scholars to “think outside of the box.” I actually didn’t have your specific article in mind on the point you raised (was actually thinking more of Kerry and John’s views), since I know you’re simply suggesting well-thought-out possibilities to consider, all of which, especially your J-Red piece, are in my estimation “must reads” for this topic. Thank you, friend.

  5. marginalizedmormon says:

    I took some kind of Old Testament class from S. Kent Brown almost 45 years ago. I believe it was his first semester at BYU, and I found him refreshingly original. Thoughtful, cautious in scholarship, if I knew anything about that at the time, an excellent teacher. He had a distinctive speaking voice.
    What I remember about him is that he never said anything he hadn’t thought out thoroughly first. I was so intrigued by some of the things he said about “wisdom” that I went in to talk to him after class a time or two. I am afraid that I didn’t always understand everything he said, but I liked that, because it made me think, something that wasn’t happening at BYU very much around that time.
    At one point he thanked me for being a “student”, as in, really wanting to learn. At one point in a lecture I remember that a number of the other students seemed nearly asleep, and I felt as though he was speaking just to me, because I was listening intently. I had this very sad feeling that his scholarship was being wasted in that place. I knew I would never go on to study religion academically and get any kind of advanced degree in it, so I felt almost embarrassed that he had to teach “just me”, as so many of the others seemed not to be interested at all in what he was saying. But I listened even more intently, because I felt his words were not being heard by others. He is one of the few professors I had during those years whom I can even remember.
    That being said, I had never heard of “the DH”, but I appreciate hearing about it now.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    This is a really great review; thanks, Kevin. I thought a lot about you today as we worked through the Abraham material in Sunday School. Thanks for all your work.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    marginalizedmormon, thanks so much for the wonderful reminiscence. Kent is pure class. I’m grateful I was able to contribute an article to the Festschrift in his honor (titled _Bountiful Harvest_) that was published a couple of years ago.

  8. Bokovoy just did a fantastic summary and Q&A of the book on Dialogue’s podcast (https://www.dialoguejournal.com/2014/dialogue-podcast-12-wdavid-bokovoy/). That, plus this review here really make me want to read this now.

  9. Ryan Mullen says:

    I attended a lecture David Bokovoy gave in La Canada (LA area) last month. It was fantastic. Actually made me excited to read the Old Testament, whereas when I was at the Y I specifically avoided OT classes. I have eagerly been awaiting news that his book is published. Having not heard anything, I was miffed to see this review. At least I can be mollified that this based on an ARC.

  10. Thanks Kevin, and David. Looking forward to reading this book. I’ve bought it, which is the easy part. I hope it gets read and far and wide.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Ryan, yes, my review is based on an ARC, but I think I saw a picture of David on FB holding a couple of actual books, so I believe it may now be available.

  12. Great review, Kevin. Looking forward to reading the book.

  13. Cheryl McGuire says:

    This is certainly an exciting development. I actually introduced the documentary hypothesis in Gospel Doctrine class on Sunday. I am so past the time when this can be ignored . . . I did it pretty exactly as you have outlined above in this review: I related it to Mormon as redactor of the BOM, I spent a little time – very little – on Wellhausen’s 4 sources, and also mentioned that this was not universally accepted though it is pretty universally studied, and that others have built on Wellhausen’s theory . . . and I related the J source to the God we read about in the Book of Moses. . . The Yahwist (“j”) God who, in Genesis, walks with Adam and Eve, talks with them face to face in the 2nd creation story, sews/makes clothes for Adam and Eve, etc.seems to be the God of the book of Moses, and never more so than when he walks and talks with Cain. (Kind of brings into question the no unclean thing can stand to be in God’s presence theory.) So if you were using the DH, where would you place JS’ book of Moses? I suggested that the Book of Moses might be Yahwist, or as I said, “the J God” – at least you have this very personal down to earth . . . earthy . . . God walking the earth with the people he created . . .

    This was very basic and maybe even wrong so please don’t cringe, as I see you and others reading the Book of Moses and other POGP etc in a far more sophisticated manner, but I was so happy to introduce the DH in Gospel Doctrine. If nothing else, my class members heard the term, and applied it to Mormon scripture.

    (I asked at the beginning of class how many had heard of the documentary hypothesis, and unless someone was being coy, no one had, yet several class members have had classes in OT. I have to wonder where. . . )

    I know Professor Hayes of the open Yale University Courses has been mentioned in other places on the ‘nacle regarding OT study, but I’ll put in another plug for these free online classes here: http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145#sessions Especially sessions 4 & 5 deal with the DH, for those that are interested.

    Anyway, thank you for this review of David Bokovoy’s book. I totally look forward to reading it.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Cheryl, I too gave a very brief introduction to the DH in GD earlier this year.

    I’m interested in your poll of your GD class. I took a similar poll when I wrote my Reflections article, and then I took another one when I talked about the DH more recently. In both cases, the answer was no one had ever heard of it, so your results are consistent with mine.

  15. I am so stoked to get this book! Thanks for the review!

  16. Just a note to point out that there are several interesting, academic courses on the Hebrew Bible (OT) available for download at TheGreatCourses.com. There is also a set of free audio lectures by a Michael Satlow, a Jewish Scholar at Brown University, entitled From Israelite to Jew. While Satlow mostly addresses the Second Temple Period, there is some necessary background on the DH. Satlow’s lectures are available on iTunes, if not by direct download. In my opinion, one of the most fascinating books on the HB is How to Read the Bible by retired Harvard professor, James Kugel. For those who prefer audio resources, Kugel’s book is available at Audible.com and on audio CD.

  17. Mark D. Ellison says:

    Great review, Kevin! I think I might be the Florida CES guy you mentioned. I did contact you when I was the institute director in Tampa and was doing grad work in Biblical studies, and you kindly supplied your article and answers to some questions. I also recall some of my fellow students struggling to reconcile inerrancy and textual criticism, though the details are hazy. In any case, I continue to be grateful for the thoughtful approach you have taken, and I am pleased that my friend David has now made this contribution. Sound, cautious, open-minded scholarship fosters a climate in which faith can grow, and you two both exemplify that so well. – Mark Ellison

  18. Kevin, this really is such a good, useful, and true review. I have been eagerly anticipating the release of David’s book and even moreso now after reading your review.

    So while inculcating a rigid adherence to scriptural inerrancy may on the surface seem like the more faithful position, in my view it is not the natively Mormon view of things and such a view has inherent dangers that are not present in a more pragmatic, natively Mormon approach to the scriptures.

    I cannot stress enough how correct this is. Scriptural inerrancy is NOT the Mormon way to approach scripture. The Eighth Article of Faith addresses the issue of inerrancy in the Bible. The Book of Mormon itself internally rejects its own inerrancy, explicitly breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the reader to say that those who wrote it were weak as to writing (this arguably encompasses the redaction processes involved in whittling down whole rooms full of texts and scrolls from multiple prophets and scribes into a summary that needed to be laboriously inscribed on metal plates — a process that included choices about what to summarize or reproduce verbatim and what to exclude due to space or less relevancy for the purposes of the book) and politely saying that “if” mistakes are found, they are the mistakes of men, and that shouldn’t distract from Truth of the book’s message about the centrality, necessity, and universality of Christ’s Atonement.

    It is a real problem that, for whatever reason (a possibility is our apparent intense desire to make ourselves acceptable to groups with whom we seem to have decided that we need ally ourselves in their very temporal, often geographically specific political campaigns) we have been straying from such a self-confident Mormon approach to scripture (which, among all expressions of Christianity, should be the most friendly and open to the concept of the Documentary Hypothesis) for the last 50-60 years (roughly corresponding with the rise of Correlation?) and adopting a profoundly un-Mormon commitment to “scriptural inerrancy” that puts us into a posture of requiring hyper-literal readings and interpretations at all levels of study and teaching these texts, including our devotional uses of them in General Conferences or other Church meetings.

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