Posts Tagged ‘Debunking Mormon Apologists’

Margaret Barker lecturing at the University of Nottingham in 2014.

compiled by Fred W. Anson
For those unfamiliar with Margaret Barker here’s her official biography:

Margaret Barker has developed an approach to Biblical Studies now known as Temple Theology. Margaret Barker read theology at the University of Cambridge, England, and went on to pursue her research independently. She was elected President of the Society for Old Testament Study in 1998, and edited the Society’s second Monograph Series, published by Ashgate. She has so far written 17 books, which form a sequence, later volumes building on her earlier conclusions.

Since 1997, she has been part of the symposium Religion, Science and the Environment, convened by His All Holiness Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch. This work has led her to develop the practical implications of temple theology as the basis for a Christian environment theology.

In July 2008 Margaret Barker 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.’

Margaret Barker is a mother and grandmother, a Methodist Preacher and was involved for over 30 years with the work of a Women’s Refuge.

Margaret Barker DD has no connection with website Temple Illuminatus.”
(Margaret Barker website, retrieved 2017-08-19)

She is the darling of Mormon Apologists and Liberal Christian Theologians the world over as her work can be used to undermine confidence in and the authority of the Bible. What follows are the two finest debunkings of Margaret Barker that I have found to date. If you find any newer, or better ones let me know and I’ll do a follow-up to this compilation:

First, from a Latter-day Saint scholar who is somewhat “less” than enamored with Barker’s scholarship:

TT, “My Margaret Barker Experience”
I first heard about Margaret Barker seven years ago and have watched from the sidelines as LDS scholars have fallen all over themselves after her ideas. However, I have never read her work. My avoidance of her work changed when a friend of mine sent me one of her lectures for comment (this is a great way to maintain a long-distance friendship, btw). It was worse than I imagined. I listened to the 35-minute lecture probably 10 times and just got more frustrated every time. I am slightly embarrassed by this episode of LDS intellectual history. It represents a step backward in dealing with the contemporary critical evaluation of biblical texts and ANE [Ancient Near East] religion.

The lecture in question is called “What Did King Josiah Reform?” She delivered it at BYU some time ago. The main thesis of the paper is that Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms were a major departure from earlier Israelite temple worship and that many people strongly opposed these changes. This seems perfectly fine and uncontroversial, and I have absolutely no problem with this argument. The problem is in her imaginative reconstruction of this earlier ritual and other religious themes that she thinks were reformed.

Barker reconstructs earlier Israelite religion as consisting of, among other things: Asherah worship (the temple Menorah was the Asherah), child sacrifice as atonement, the ability to experience a vision of God, the belief that God’s son is the God is Israel, a Melchizedek priesthood, angel worship, that the temple rooms corresponded to the days of creation, and a scattering of true believers who resisted Josiahan reforms and maintained “authentic” worship. It is easy to see why LDS readers are attracted to many of these ideas (though Asherah worship and child sacrifice don’t seem all that helpful). But this is exactly the reason that we need to critically investigate these claims. They are too easy.

There are essentially two problems with her argument. First, Barker’s historiographical method relies on texts and accounts that are far removed from the historical period she is reconstructing, which makes it extremely unlikely that these texts contain reliable historical data. Second, she is working on a number of hidden assumptions about the consistency of interpretation of pre-Israelite religion. She only has two views of this history. There is an “authentic” worship which can be recovered by her and the Josiahan reform. This assumption masks the rather obvious fact evident in the texts that she is studying that there were numerous interpretations of what the “authentic” version of ancient Israelite religion was. Both of these problems cause her to overlook what is actually interesting about the material that she is studying, namely, that diverse ancient religious parties appealed to an idealized view of pre-exilic religion in order to give their own views authority.

First, the thesis suffers from a series of truly unforgivable historiographical sins. The most obvious is that the majority of her sources for this reconstruction come from many centuries after the fact and from groups who have a vested interest in controlling a particular view of Israelite history. For instance, she uses Christian texts up through the fourth century CE frequently in her reconstruction, which unsurprisingly makes early Israelite religion look like and prefigure Christianity. Further, the texts she uses rarely actually attempt to represent ancient Israelite religion, it is simply her extrapolations. The Christian views are better explained by their own immediate historical context rather than appeals to a secret tradition from a millennium before.

Barker’s use of Jewish texts is equally problematic. She uses DSS and Enochic literature to reconstruct what was happening in the First Temple, even though these texts were written hundreds of years after the First Temple had been destroyed. She conflates Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and the Damascus covenant as if they represented a shared view of the temple. But most egregiously, she fails to note that the critiques of the temple in these texts have to do with Second Temple politics, including disputes over priestly families in control of the temple, not with the First Temple at all. Additionally, she attributes the loss of the Menorah and Ark of the Covenant to Josiah’s reforms rather than the Babylonian conquest. No ancient texts ever even insinuate this, but it is a major part of her argument. Finally, her appeal to the fictional Recabites (she offers a rather Christianized reading of this text) as evidence for concrete historical information is highly problematic and what she chooses to identify as the historical kernel of that account is arbitrary at best.

When she starts looking to Islamic texts and early 20th-century missionary accounts to Tibet, we are in serious trouble. The argument loses even more credibility. The principle historiographical problem with her reconstruction is precisely that it relies on so many different texts from different time periods without any acknowledgment that these accounts are historicized by their own environment. Rhetorically, it appears that she is mounting evidence for her case, but in reality, it is smoke and mirrors. There are no texts that include all of these descriptions of ancient Israelite religion. The reconstruction involves taking elements out of context from diverse religious groups in ancient Judaism and Christianity and cherry-picking how those pieces get put back together. For instance, she concludes that since one of the DSS is about Melchizedek, that “Melchizedek must have been a part of the earlier religion.” There is simply no reason to make this assumption.

The more likely explanation is that 2nd c. BCE separatists developed theologies out the holes and gaps in the biblical text in order to make appeals about new teachings and give them authoritative status. Many of her other ideas don’t even have one text to back them up since she relies on inference or silence to make her claims. In other cases, she starts with her conclusions and then attempts to interpret the texts on that basis. For instance, because 4th century CE rabbinical texts make one statement about the temple symbolism related to the creation, she asserts that all previous Jewish texts about creation must be talking about the temple.

This is the basis of the second major problem: her complete lack of any historical analysis. There is no sense that traditions change and develop over time and that different contexts will provide different interpretations of the past and the present. She doesn’t seem to have any critical evaluation of why these religious elements were changed, or why they were “preserved.” Instead, the narrative theme of the changes is that of apostasy from a pure, original, true worship. While this theme will sound familiar to LDS readers, it represents an unsophisticated view of historical developments. A more responsible historical approach would be to see the multiplicity of claims to authority and authenticity, and that there were more than two views of the temple which survive from ancient Israel. This problem I think is repeated frequently in her historical method, which can best be described as parallelomania combined with a vivid imagination. At best, she is simply uncritically repeating the historical imaginations of pious ancient Christians and Jews. At worst, she is producing her own pious imaginations and attempting to attribute them to early Christians and ancient Jews.

The missing link in her evaluation is that the information that she actually surveys really tells you how early Christians, Muslims, second temple Jews, and 20th-century missionaries appealed to First Temple Judaism and to ancient Israelite religion as a basis for legitimacy and authenticity. There is no reason to suspect that what they actually said about that has any historical basis whatsoever. In the same way, Barker and many LDS thinkers are engaged in the same kind of project, to appeal to pure “origins” of Israelite religion in order to produce authenticity about contemporary beliefs and practices. Such an approach is necessarily partial and selective. Instead of learning about ancient Israel, we learn about those who are attempting to recount its history. If Barker’s work has any value, it is in the exposure of this theme in various religious traditions up until today.
(TT, “My Margaret Barker Experience”, Faith Promoting Rumor website, November 9, 2007, it has been very lightly edited to both fit this venue and format and correct grammatical and spelling errors that were in the original. The bracketed words were added to clarify and define the author’s undefined acronym.)

Margaret Barker speaking at BYU on November 9, 2016.

This second debunking is from Christian Apologist Rob Bowman:

Rob Bowman’s Debunking of appeals to Margaret Barker by Mormon Apologists
Kevin Christensen is the main Mormon author who has brought into LDS apologetics this notion of the Deuteronomists being responsible for the extant text of the OT conflicting with LDS theology. Christensen specifically appeals to the way this idea was developed by Margaret Barker, a Methodist scholar whose interpretations are decidedly non-Methodist. Christensen’s main writing on this theme was Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and its Significance for Mormon Studies, Occasional Papers 2 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001). See also his article “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 59-90, which specifically argues that the OT was explicitly Christian before the Deuteronomists got hold of it.

I’ve been working on a serious rebuttal to this line of argument for several years. I can see that I need to get something done on it soon as this argument keeps coming up. Let me summarize some of my findings here with the understanding that I’m still working on it.

First, let me summarize Barker’s theory and how Mormons are using it. The basic idea is that during the period of the First Temple (roughly the tenth through the seventh centuries BC), Judaism was essentially a polytheistic religion in which the gods included Elohim, his son Yahweh, other divine sons, and a goddess named Asherah. Mormon apologists have seized upon this theory as somehow correlating with their belief that Elohim is the Father, Jehovah is his firstborn son, and Jehovah and his spirit siblings were the offspring of the Father and a heavenly Mother.

According to Barker, around the time of the Exile (beginning not long before it) some Jews overthrew the earlier polytheism that had historically been taught in the Jerusalem temple and replaced it with a monotheism in which Elohim and Yahweh were one and the same and in which there was no room for goddesses or any other gods. These narrow-minded men, known as the Deuteronomists, reworked the Jewish Scriptures to support their new theology. Josiah’s reform is typically understood as the work of these Deuteronomists, on the basis that the book that the OT says was found in the temple during Josiah’s reign was Deuteronomy and that it was actually written at that time (a fairly standard view in liberal scholarship).

The theology of the first temple (the one destroyed by the Babylonians) was thus polytheistic, whereas the theology of the second temple (the one built after the Exile and destroyed centuries later by the Romans in AD 70) was monotheistic. Barker claims to find vestiges of the First Temple theology (the good, polytheistic one) in isolated verses in the Old Testament (which the Deuteronomists somehow missed), in extrabiblical Jewish literature (especially in the Enoch literature), and in the New Testament (which usually calls Jesus “Lord” and the Father “God”). Again, Mormon apologists see Barker’s position as validating the Mormon claim that important “plain and precious things” were removed from the Bible by conniving apostates.

Now with that foundation laid, please consider this bullet-point commentary on Barker’s theory and on the Mormon use of that theory to validate Mormon theology.

• The Canaanites and anyone else, including at times many Jews, who accepted this Near Eastern pantheon also practiced idol worship as part of that belief system. Polytheism and idolatry went hand in glove. You want to claim the ancient Canaanite religion as a precursor to Mormonism, you are stuck with the idolatry that goes with it.

• The Enoch literature dates from well after the Babylonian Exile, and of course, so does the New Testament. So Barker’s theory depends on claiming that literature that has traditionally been understood to date from the First Temple period actually represents Second Temple theology, while literature that dates from the Second Temple period actually represents First Temple theology. You can come up with all sorts of fascinating theories if you’re allowed to play with the source documents like this.

• The people of Canaan in the First Temple period who believed in the goddess worshiped her, whereas Mormons teach that people should not worship Heavenly Mother. Worse still, those ancient believers viewed the goddess as the consort of Yahweh, not Elohim. In other words, if we correlated Mormon theology with this reconstructed First Temple Israelite theology, Heavenly Mother would be married to her son Jehovah (Jesus).

• The Deuteronomists, if they existed, did not merely edit the Old Testament to make it more monotheistic. The stock secular and liberal critical view in Old Testament studies is that the entire sequence of books from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings is “Deuteronomic.” One cannot accept those books as Scripture but merely in need of some minor theological editing; the critical theory treats those books in their entirety as Deuteronomic. Thus, the Mormon who entertains Barker’s theory is actually flirting with the idea that roughly a quarter of the Old Testament (at least) was written to teach what was from a Mormon point of view false doctrine.

• There are roughly a thousand statements in the Old Testament equating Yahweh with Elohim in a variety of ways: using the compound name “Yahweh Elohim,” affirming “Yahweh is Elohim,” referring to Yahweh as “our/my/your/his/their Elohim” or “Yahweh the Elohim of Israel,” and so on. Not only are there many such statements in the OT, but they are spread throughout the OT. Statements referring to or identifying Yahweh as Elohim occur in all but five of the books of the OT (Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, and Obadiah). Of these five short books, Esther uses neither name even once, Ecclesiastes uses only Elohim and never Yahweh, and the other three books use only Yahweh and never Elohim. These five books, then, never have the opportunity (lexically speaking) to identify Yahweh as Elohim or to distinguish Yahweh from Elohim.

The other 34 books, however, do have such an opportunity, and they all identify Yahweh as Elohim. Most of them do so repeatedly; the longer books typically do so dozens of times each. It would not be an overstatement by any means to assert that the primary message of the Old Testament, at least as it has come down to us, may be summarized by the three words “Yahweh is Elohim”! If this aspect of the Old Testament is deemed the work of apostates, you might as well just throw the whole thing out.

I know that Mormons would like to dismiss what I am saying here on the grounds that I am assuming the inerrancy of Scripture. They would be mistaken, not about my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, but about that belief having anything to do with the issue here. If Yahweh is not Elohim, the Old Testament is not merely errant but is hopelessly misleading on the most basic of theological issues from Genesis to Malachi.

• In effect, the Mormon use of Barker’s theory turns the Old Testament upside down. The Old Testament consistently presents the monotheists as the good guys and the idolatrous polytheists as the bad guys, as the ones who corrupted Israel and who brought divine judgment on Israel. The Mormon apologists claim that the polytheists were the good guys and the monotheists were the bad guys, the ones who corrupted the Jewish religion.

• About that: Which prophet was called by God to warn apostates in Jerusalem of divine judgment? Jeremiah, of course. But Jeremiah was a “Deuteronomist”! That is, Jeremiah identified Yahweh as Elohim well over a hundred times in his book, and not once distinguished them as separate deities. Here again, the Mormons have things exactly backward. The prophets who warned Jerusalem of apostasy were warning against accepting the Canaanite polytheism and exhorting the Jews to worship and serve Yahweh alone as Elohim.

• The New Testament (NT) clearly accepts the identification of Yahweh as Elohim, at least in using equivalent language in Greek. For example, both Luke-Acts and Revelation use the compound name “the Lord God” (Greek, kurios ho theos) as a designation of God (Luke 1:32, 68; Acts 3:22; Rev. 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 18:8; 21:22; 22:5). This is a stock designation for God in the Septuagint, appearing over 900 times (translating both Yahweh Elohim and Adonai Yahweh). The NT also quotes OT texts in which the titles kurios (representing the Hebrew YHWH, Yahweh) and theos (representing the Hebrew Elohim) are used for the same referent (Matt. 4:7, 10; 22:37; Mark 12:29, 30; Luke 4:8, 12; 10:27; 20:37; Rom. 14:11; Heb. 8:10; Rev. 19:6; 22:6; see also Luke 1:16; Acts 2:39). These include the famous Shema, the OT affirmation of Jehovah as Elohim that became the Jewish “creed.” The NT writers seem oblivious to any alleged problem with the theology of the Jewish Bible. Yet if any “conflation” of Jehovah with Elohim took place in the Hebrew Bible, it was a done deal long before the NT writers came along.

• The primary objection that Mormons raise to this argument is the distinction made in the NT between the Father as “God” (theos) and Jesus as “Lord” (kurios). A superficial reading of the NT may seem to support the view that the Father is God (=Elohim) while the Son is Lord (=Jehovah). There are some serious problems with this line of reasoning. First, the NT in several places identifies Jesus as “God” (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20). Second, at least some NT texts speak of the Father as “Lord” in contexts where this designation represents the OT name Jehovah (e.g., Luke 1:32; 2 Cor. 6:17-18). Third, it appears that the NT writers usually used “Lord” for Jesus and “God” for the Father to avoid confusing Jesus with the Father, not in order to designate them as separate deities.

• Finally, the Mormon use of Barker’s theory ignores the Book of Mormon. The name Jehovah appears only twice in the Book of Mormon. In both cases, Jehovah is simply another name for God (2 Ne. 22:2; Mor. 10:34). Like the NT, the Book of Mormon uses the compound name “the Lord God” as a designation of the deity (1 Ne. 1:14; 10:4; 13:30, 32; 14:25; 19:11; 20:16; 21:22; etc.) as well as such expressions as “the Lord our God” (1 Ne. 2:7; 7:21-22; 16:20, 22; 17:30, 45, 53, 55; 20:17; etc.). It also has such direct affirmations as “I, the Lord, am God” (1 Ne. 17:14; cf. 2 Ne. 6:15).

This is all so-called Deuteronomic language. Arguably the Book of Mormon is even more consistently “monotheistic” in its language than the OT. The plural form gods occurs only twice in the Book of Mormon, the first referring to the Fall as resulting in human beings becoming “as Gods, knowing good from evil” (Alma 12:31), and the second referring to “idol gods” (Morm. 4:14). In short, not even once does the Book of Mormon use the term “gods” in a positive sense. The Book of Mormon never suggests that “the Lord” (Jesus the Son) is a different deity from “God”; to the contrary, the Book of Mormon repeatedly refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God (2 Nephi 31:21; Mosiah 15:4-5; Alma 11:44; Mormon 7:7).

To sum up: (1) Margaret Barker’s theory is a flimsy reconstruction of the history of ancient Judaism and early Christianity based on idiosyncratic speculations and dubious interpretations of isolated texts; (2) it makes mincemeat of the Old Testament; (3) it does not support the idea that the Jews ever held to a belief system comparable to Mormonism; (4) the Mormon use of Barker’s theory renders the Old Testament essentially valueless, viewing things quite backward (the good guys are really the bad guys, etc.); (5) the New Testament assumes the reliability of the Old Testament text and doctrine, and it affirms the monotheism of the so-called Deuteronomists; and (6) the Book of Mormon is also “Deuteronomic”!
(Rob Bowman, compiled from a series of posts in the Preaching From An Asbestos Suit (PFAAS) Facebook page starting with this post, I have very lighted edited Mr. Bowman’s original Facebook posts to fit this venue and context.) 

Margaret Barker (left) with Mormon Apologist Daniel C. Peterson (center), and the late Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Stephen H. Webb (right) speaking at an Interpreter Foundation event in Orem, Utah on August 8, 2015. Like Barker, Webb is another Theologically Liberal Christian Scholar whose heterodoxy Mormon Apologists like Peterson often appeal to.