Kevin Christensen on Margaret Barker: Part 1

I asked Kevin to respond to several questions about Barker’s work. His latest discussion of Barker can be found in the FARMS Review.

Part 1 is an introduction to Barker and details Kevin’s view of her importance to Book of Mormon studies. I have closed comments on this post but subsequent posts will offer the opportunity to discuss and critique her work.

Who is Margaret Barker?

Margaret Barker lives in Derbyshire England. She is a Methodist preacher and has published 13 books of Biblical scholarship. In July 2008 she was awarded a DD by the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘in recognition of her work on the Jerusalem Temple and the origins of Christian Liturgy, which has made a significantly new contribution to our understanding of the New Testament and opened up important fields for research.’  Her work is primarily concerned with developing what she has aptly labelled, ‘Temple Theology’ which ‘traces the roots of Christian theology back into the first Temple, destroyed by the cultural revolution in the time of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE.’

From an LDS perspective, that she offers an unconventional picture of Jerusalem and 600 BC invites curiosity. We have our own unconventional picture of that milieu, composed via a radically different method, and a very different set of sources. By 1994, a few LDS scholars started quoting passages from her fourth book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, which was published in 1992.  In 1999, a member contacted her and introduced her to the world of LDS scholarship. In late 2001, FARMS published ‘Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies.’  As direct consequence, she was invited to BYU in 2003 for a 5 day seminar.  One of her talks from that week, ‘The Great High Priest’ was published in BYU Studies. The other talk, presented at a BYU devotional, ‘What King Josiah Reformed’ was published in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem.  Her 2004 book, An Extraordinary Gathering of Angels, closes with an interview with Professor John W. Welch on the LDS view of angels.  In 2005, she came to the Joseph Smith Conference in Washington DC, and spoke on the Book of Mormon.  In 2006, she wrote a paper for a Tree of Life conference at BYU.  In 2008, she read a paper on the Melchizedek traditions as part of some LDS focus sessions at the SBL Meeting in San Diego.  And this October she has a collaborative paper that will appear in a book on Reassessing Joseph Smith, edited by Terryl Givens and Reid Neilson, coming from Oxford University Press.  During the summer, William Hamblin made a video of a dinner conversation with her, and that has been posted on his uTube site.

Tell us more about her work on the Jewish temple, specifically its relationship to the 7th century BC Lehite milieu of the Book of Mormon. Can you elaborate?

In her descriptions of the First Temple priesthood, we immediately find references to the tree of life, council visions, associations between stars and angels, El Elyon as the High God and Yahweh as his son, the Holy One of Israel, Melchizedek priesthood, the Mother of the Son of God, and detailed evidence of specific plain and precious things having been removed from the Hebrew scripture. So LDS readers should immediately start to feel intrigued. Even 1 Nephi 1 alone takes us immediately into her world.

But she is not just reaffirming what we believed, confirming our preconceptions. We can’t just read and nod and say, ‘Yep, I knew that.’  We have to think, and re-read our own scriptures, and think and read some more. For example, her view of the reforms of Josiah and the Deuteronomists is very different from what any LDS scholars were saying. But when we look more closely at our own texts in this light, we find the Book of Mormon fits beautifully.  For instance, she argues that there is evidence that the reformers changed the role of the high priest from having been ‘the anointed,’ which is what Messiah means. And she points out that Deuteronomy 16 leaves the Day of Atonement from the sacred calendar, and she observes that the objects that Josiah removed from the temple were previously accessible only to the anointed high priest, only on the Day of Atonement. With those observations in mind, we should notice more significance in that Lehi’s first public discourse testifies of ‘the coming of a Messiah’ and ‘the redemption of the world.’  This messiah would be the anointed high priest, who, she observes, wore on his turban a metal plate with the tetragrammaton, to make it inescapably obvious who he represented while performing the atonement rites.  And the redemption of the world was ritually enacted on the Day of Atonement. So the context she provides illuminates just why Lehi’s discourse got him in trouble. He was commenting on the very recent, very violent changes made by the reformers. In light of her work I now see that Lehi’s son Jacob, in chapter 4:14 speaks directly about the reform when he speaks of the blindness and looking beyond the mark.  The reformers rejected the idea of visions and the anointing of the high priest, which is exactly what the mark must have been.

Her work on Isaiah is also very interesting. She argues that the world of First Isaiah is most like that of 1 Enoch, concerned with anthropomorphic visions, fallen angels, a Heavenly Mother, and not much interested in Moses and the Law. One of the long-standing issues for the Book of Mormon has been the Second Isaiah.  And much of her argument in her first book depends on her reading that Second Isaiah wrote during the Exile in response to the destruction of the Temple, and the fall of the monarchy.  She sees Second Isaiah as being the first to declare that Yahweh was El, a revolutionary change from the First Temple, where Yahweh was a son of El Elyon.  What is particularly interesting is that the Book of Mormon does not quote the chapters that contain that argument, nor does it contain that theology. In 2000, she published an essay providing argument and archaeological evidence that the Fourth Servant Song was inspired by Hezekiah’s having come down with bubonic plague, and interpreted in light of the Day of Atonement ritual. Serendipitously, this means that that chapter would have been written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, and would therefore be available for Abinadi to use. There are still some tensions regarding Isaiah, and elsewhere. But even since I wrote the Isaiah section in ‘Paradigms Crossed,’ what she has done since, I think improves our case and helps reconciles our views.

And it’s also fascinating that when she spoke at the Joseph Smith Conference in Washington DC, she spoke publically and directly on the issue of whether the revelations to Joseph Smith were ‘consistent with the situation in Jerusalem in about 600 BCE.’  She said ‘yes,’ and gave her reasons.  We had no idea what she was going to say until she spoke, and it was amazing to hear it there. BYU Studies published an even stronger version of the talk in the issue reporting the proceedings.

Her paradigm generates lots of questions.  For a few, LDS or not, those questions become obstacles to appreciating her work.  For others, those questions become fruitful lines of inquiry. For instance, along with making comparisons to LDS scripture and scholarship, I got interested in Jeremiah’s relationship to the reform, and Jeremiah’s relationship to Enoch.

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