Scripture and Mormonism: A Brief Look at Some Useful Ideas.

I want to point out some good reads in scriptural understanding here, and I’ll focus on the Bible since it’s the primary book of scripture on which other Mormon scripture comments, quotes, or critiques.

Probably the most familiar books in the Bible for Latter-day Saints are Genesis and the New Testament Gospels. Genesis is part of the Pentateuch or the first five book of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The current state of scholarship in the Pentateuch consists of three main approaches.

1. Arguing for the five books as a single source/author text, such readings require the use of considerable literary harmonization techniques. This is a classical reading (sometimes called the pre-critical perspective) and a position that many conservative Jews and Christians may still hold. But this position has little support among scholars of the text. It’s one that some Mormon thinkers argue for, but I believe that kind of thinking is based largely on an unwillingness to consider other ways of thinking about the nature of revelation and scripture. In spite of a few adherents among scholars, it has not been effective in providing a helpful critical understanding of the Bible in the large, and most examples of the idea are confined to relatively small sections of text.

2. The Documentary Hypothesis (DH), a popular title for what is the employment of “source criticism.” Source criticism is a fascinating exercise in trying to understand the nature of text creation, though it is not without its difficulties. For the Pentateuch, source critics have generally identified preexisting texts that were at some point combined to give the present text of the Pentateuch. The generally agreed on sources are designated J, E, D, P, for Yahwist, Eloist, Deuteronomist, Priestly. For example, Genesis chapters 1 and 2 have sources respectively in the P and J traditions.[1]

3. Another approach to the first five books is the supplementarian methodology. The idea to hunt down the smallest sections of text that function as coherent literature. Then these independent units of text are traced outward to the final form of the Pentateuch. That is, one examines how these bits are expanded (supplemented) over time. These expansions are seen as textual shifts resulting from some ideological position that seeks to incorporate its view into the text. The Abraham story and Joseph story are examples. The method has been used to provide an analysis of the entire text.

Though there are fundamental differences in these theses, they agree on a number of things. For example, 2 and 3 postulate a P source and a D source. These approaches are hypotheses because (for example) no one has found an ancient P text. Its existence is inferred.

There are some really great and accessible books and articles here that a reasonable-sized library will have, or you can buy on Amazon, say (though these sorts of volumes can be expensive). I’ll just point out one that I’ve read a few times (it deserves multiple readings I think):

Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Baden’s book is a very reasonable read for the interested non-expert, though critiquing many of his claims probably requires some good background in biblical studies. In other words, Baden’s book has its own difficulties, but it’s a wonderful introduction to some of the modern methods in the critical reading of scripture.

Before approaching Baden, I highly recommend some material from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship at BYU. Namely two excellent podcast interviews by our own Blair Hodges. One is a conversation with Jewish scholar Marc Brettler. Blair helps Marc explain some of the ideas and terminology in modern scripture study.[2] The next interview is with Evangelical scholar Peter Enns. Blair’s questions that guide the discussion are really (though mostly implicitly​) helpful in situating scripture study from a Mormon point of view.


[1] Have look here for more details. The current version of the DH is called the “neo-documentary hypothesis” since it differs from the classical theory first expounded by German scholars of the late 19th century. Another great source for an LDS audience is David Bokovoy’s Authoring the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). See Kevin Barney’s review here.

[2] Many of these ideas have application well beyond biblical issues. For example, they form very useful templates for discussing and understanding early Mormon literature, like sermons!


  1. Thanks for the overview and suggestions, WVS.

  2. I would also highly recommend “Introduction to the Bible,” by Christine Hayes (part of the Yale Open Course Series), and Friedman’s “The Bible with Sources Revealed” and “Who Wrote the Bible.” Each deals at length with “higher criticism” and the documentary hypothesis. Though I thoroughly enjoyed Bokovoy’s book and think highly of his work, I prefer works on biblical scholarship that are not targeted at an LDS audience.

  3. You should have also said: “Before approaching Baden, you may need to work a second job.” His book costs 85 bucks!

    I did read his more reasonably priced “The Historical David,” which is a critical examination of the manner in which David’s life is portrayed in the books of the Old Testament (1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st Kings, Chronicles). It serves as a healthy reminder, during this election year, that spin doctors are not peculiar to American politics. (Spoiler alert: David probably didn’t kill Goliath.)

  4. FarSide. Bokovoy’s book, being aimed at an LDS audience, is the best place to begin making a recommendation. I consider it (along with others, including the BYU New Testament Commentary volumes–imperfections and all) to be “gateway” books. Just as LDS history has been opening up, so has LDS biblical scholarship. That’s why I have really appreciated what Greg Kofford has been doing. LDS readers will be getting the introductions that have been badly needed for a long time and they lead to works such as those you’ve cited. (Although Friedman is a bit more opinionated for me). Baden’s book is one of the better entries in the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. Most of them serve as “gateways” to more thorough studies on the same topics. Another fairly recent release (2013) in the series on a similar vein is Timothy H. Lim’s Formation of the Jewish Canon. So far, the best volume in the entire series for me has been Scott Hahn’s Kinship by Covenant. It really opened my eyes and was an incredible addition to my gospel understanding.

  5. FarSide. Good point. That always has to be something that’s pointed out, especially to those just getting interested. It helps to be independently wealthy (not likely for most of us) or to be close to a good library. The Oxford Handbooks are pretty expensive. A good pricing rule of thumb is that books published by Cascade, Baker, and some Eerdmans (especially softcovers) are fairly reasonable (20-30). The next rung up is Eisenbrauns, the rest of the Eerdmans, Fortress are next level (35-60). Then you get the Anchor Yale Reference, etc. along with typical University Press books (Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, Yale), (60-90) then Anchor Bible Commentaries and Hermeneias are above those (50-100) . Then you get to Peeters, and Mohr Siebeck (120-150) and then Brill is pretty much the apex (175+).

  6. Terry H, you make a fair point, though it’s been my experience that when these topics are approached through a Mormon prism, there is a tendency to soft-pedal difficult issues regarding the origins of our scriptures. And proof-texting all too often rears its ugly head. (Bokovoy’s work, to his credit, does a better job than most when it comes to avoiding these pitfalls.)

    I realize that given the Church’s long history of anti-intellectualism, especially when comes to its own history and a critical analysis of the scriptures (heck, our manuals still talk about Moses writing the first five books of the OT), it may be necessary to approach these topics delicately for fear of frightening members who, for generations, have been reared on Correlation’s thin gruel. But in doing so, we my simply be engaging in a slightly less innocuous form of infantilization.

    Thanks, by the way, for the other recommendations from the Anchor Yale Bible series. I’ll start saving to buy them today!

  7. Wonderful post! I enjoy your discussions of biblical scholarship. May I quibble with you over one issue?

    There seems to be a strand of thinking sometimes repeated in LDS circles that bible “scholars” or “academics” necessarily take the critical/liberal approach you’ve mentioned above, implying that those who don’t take that view are neither scholars nor academics. This summarily dismisses all the outstanding work done by conservative evangelical scholars, for example, who tend to work in seminaries rather than religious studies departments. The tomes they produce are erudite, lengthy, footnoted, and scholarly in every sense other than the fact they aren’t liberal/critical.

    Rather than the approach of liberal scholars of defining “scholarship” to mean “liberal historical/critical scholarship” that they produce, I prefer one that prefaces the word with the adjectives “conservative,” “moderate,” or “critical,” thereby at least acknowledging that the different paradigms exist.

    I agree with you that LDS culture takes a very conservative, literal position regarding the Bible. If one wants LDS culture to engage with biblical scholarship, however, it is not necessary to change the entire paradigm through which we view scripture. A much simpler starting point would be to have LDS start engaging with scholarship that already shares some of its worldviews, i.e. conservative scholarship, often done by evangelical scholars.

    I’ll end by monologue with the observation that the Documentary Hypothesis has received its share of criticism in recent decades, often from conservative scholars. I don’t think it’s essential to agree with the documentary hypothesis to engage in biblical scholarship, but it is essential to at least understand it in order to participate in current conversations about the old testament.

  8. Thanks. Also for the additional references in comments. And then a comment and a question —

    Comment: This relatively dispassionate three-way division makes matters seem calmer and neater than I believe they really are. As a most casual observer I pick up my quotes from Wikipedia rather than original sources, but this one sticks in my mind:
    “The verities enshrined in older introductions [to the subject of the origins of the Pentateuch] have disappeared, and in their place scholars are confronted by competing theories which are discouragingly numerous, exceedingly complex, and often couched in an expository style that is (to quote John van Seter’s description of one seminal work) ‘not for the faint-hearted.'”

    Question (about the state of affairs in a typical LDS Sunday school): If I were to posit the Pentateuch as a ‘composition’ — which would not fit the single author five Books of Moses tradition, but would generically but not specifically include almost everything else — would I get nods and general acquiescence? Or would that be controversial? My guess (but I’m probably living in a bubble) is that, so long as we avoid specificity, critical approaches have been around long enough that some idea of a composite is now part of our western Judeo-Christian culture. Manuals and study guides don’t necessarily tell the whole story, including that until there’s a generally accepted alternative (not two, not dozens) there will forever be a draw to the old ‘safe’ ways when writing.

  9. FarSide, yes these academic books can be expensive. Sometimes they are available as Kindle books, generally much lower in price.

  10. Good, an important point. I probably marginalized the conservative view unjustly, or more precisely, un-usefully. For example, Serge Frolov’s The Turn of the Cycle: 1 Samuel 1-8 in Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives.

  11. Terry H, good suggestions and information.

  12. christiankimball, good points. Enns mentions some of the problems of interfacing scholarly approaches with the devotional near the end of Blair’s podcast. It’s not the only way (say if you happen to Kevin Barney as your gospel doctrine teacher), but it’s one point of view that may be can be helpful.

  13. Hi WVS,

    Thanks for your reply. The Frolov work strikes me as unusually dense and confusing; most likely I’m just not at the right level for it. Biblical studies is similar to math; you need to learn your pre-algebra first before tackling differential topology. I think in biblical studies, lay readers are served well by the progression of study bible or textbook (“Intro to Old Testament), to full length commentaries. In the commentary range, there are also gradations: devotional, intermediate, and technical.

    Ben Spackman has put some nice lists together about recommended books. A comprehensive resource for the curious is “A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works” by John F. Evans, which gives annotated descriptions of thousands of resources, and is money very well spent.

  14. Yes, Frolov is a thick read. But it does represent some careful modern scholarship, that was my only point. In fact, even a lot of pre-critical work is worth reading and recognizes the complexity.And good call on Ben’s work.

  15. I agree with Good. I recently discovered John Evans’ book and can’t recommend it highly enough. When Good says annotations, its really where this “conservative” evangelical scholar talks about the aims and specific audiences of the volumes. Obviously, there are those commentaries (like in the LDS versions) aimed at a more devotional audience rather than a scholarly one. Good articulates nicely which of these goes to which. Its also available on Kindle & Nook.

    In talking cost, I forgot to mention that the print volumes of BYU’s New Testament Commentary are incredibly cheap for the level of commentary they provide (although they’re not top of the line biblical commentaries per se). The Revelations volume (released electronically 3 years ago) is finally at press. Julie Smith’s Mark should be out by the end of the year and the next one is Hebrews, probably early next year (if not shortly after Julie’s).

  16. Looking forward to the Hebrews volume in the BYU commentary. Curious about the contextual historical approach it might have.

  17. Speaking of cost, the Maxwell Institute Podcast is free! Thanks for the nod, Q

  18. Clark Goble says:

    WVS they sometimes pop up on Logos cheaper than the Kindle, although not usually. The Logos versions have better integration into Logos tools though some if you use it as a reference then that’s a big benefit.

  19. If you have lots of money, logos software can’t be beat. I personally use Olive Tree, which has a smaller selection of titles at a fraction of the cost of logos. Check out their summer sale going on right now – Anchor Bible commentary volumes for about $10 each as a package.

  20. WVS. Craig Blomberg has provided a review essay of the Revelations volume in the new Robert Millet Festschrift and is was positive about certain areas, including the one you’re curious about.

  21. David Bokovoy’s book was pretty accessible to me, having never read documentary hypothesis commentaries on the Bible. He also touches lightly on the other standard works with the same DH analysis, which was interesting. As far as cost, it’s pretty inexpensive, and my county library even has a copy.

  22. Bro. B., great to hear about your library!

  23. Our library got a copy of Cornelius Van Dam’s Urim and Thummim when I requested one way back in the day. Most libraries are fairly co-operative about ordering and there’s also inter-library loans. I’ve been told that for expensive books, there is sometimes a deposit (refundable) requested.

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Wow. I’d not heard of Olive Tree but they have the Anchor Bible Dictionary for only $125. That’s an amazing deal. If someone wants to buy my printed copy I’ll sell it cheap…

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