How the New Perspective on Paul Illustrates the Science-Religion Creation Debate

conflict1(As with many of my posts, this is kind of trying things out, thinking them through in public and on the fly. It’s messy, so I welcome thoughts and substantive corrections.)

In order to keep track of my research, I’ve been making a timeline of three kinds of events relevant to our understanding of Genesis:

First, events in LDS history that impinge on the interpretation of Genesis, e.g. the 1911 BYU controversy or BH Roberts- Joseph Fielding Smith Debate (1930s).

Second, events that lead to the recovery of ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 1, such as the discovery/decipherment of Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) and the Enuma Elish (first published in 1876 in English)

Third, discoveries in the scientific world, such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), and the discovery of the function (1952) and structure (1953) of DNA. Although scientific influences are the best known, they are, conversely, the least influential on our understanding of Genesis 1.

As I was reading and reviewing today, I had several realizations.

rabbit god and duck godThe first was that the LDS statements sometimes marshaled as revelatory and authoritative opposition to Darwin and evolution were largely made when precious little was known about either science or the ancient Near East. For example, I came across someone citing John Taylor’s opposition to Darwin. John Taylor died in 1887, almost 70 years before we learned about DNA! The tentativeness expressed about the teaching of Evolution at BYU by the FP in, say, 1909 was largely due to its newness, and our (collective) lack of understanding. Several high-ups realized this, and expressed their reluctance this way. Notably, there is no such tentativeness today about teaching evolution at BYU, as BYU bio prof. Steve Peck will tell you.

Second, this realization led me to an understanding of how the two sides (reductionist, perhaps) of the argument have come to be so aligned and what they represent. I further realized that a historical parallel for this split already exists in a different area of biblical studies, namely, the New Perspective on Paul. Let me explain that first, and then use it to illustrate the science/religion debate in Genesis.

From the reformation onwards, Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul has been heavily influential. I’d bet that if asked what Paul means (or at least what Protestants think Paul means), most Mormons would unknowingly parrot Luther, though we would quickly follow up with James and “faith without works is dead.”

Luther interpreted Paul and Judaism in light of his own conflict with the Catholic Church and its indulgences. He took that kind of salvific legalism, and read it back onto the Jews in Paul’s day, interpreting “works” in Paul’s letters as actions, instead of the prescribed works of the Torah. For Luther, Paul taught salvation by grace alone, no works.

In the last 40 years, however, as scholars have matured in their knowledge and understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered 1947)  and other relevant Judaic material from the time, many scholars have argued that Luther got it very wrong. Sure, some Jews were legalist, but Judaism as a whole was not, nor did it predicate salvation on such.  Paul’s discussion of works is about the works required by Law of Moses. Salvation comes from a covenant relationship with God in which he grants humans grace, and obedience is the maintenance policy to that relationship. That was both the Jewish and Christian view of salvation, and differed only on the roles of Torah and Jesus within that formula.

Protestants are split between the New Perspective on Paul (which has the strength of being better scholarship) and the traditional view from Luther (which has the immensely powerful force of tradition, as well as weaker scholarship, in my view. Not technically my field, but that’s how I read things.)

tl;dr- Luther got Paul very wrong because he anachronistically read Paul as if he lived in Luther’s time, as if Paul’s Jews were Luther’s Catholics. The rediscovery of non-anachronistic contemporary Jewish views helped show that such an equation was incorrect. Thus, one party defends a largely anachronistic-but-traditional view as if it were not anachronistic, while the other defends a newer view with a stronger base.

How does this apply to Genesis?

The historical conflict in the last hundred years between science and religion is largely a historical accident, the result of the fact that we lost the context of the early chapters of Genesis and replaced it with our own, reading it as if it were modern. We unknowingly substituted the pressing questions and cultural issues driving Genesis (e.g. polytheism, which deity was truly deity, etc.) with our own pressing questions and cultural issues, which are largely foreign and irrelevant to it. (If you want to read about the attraction of polytheism in Israel, go to my post here, and scroll down to “We live in a society that largely takes monotheism for granted.”)
The conflict arose as discoveries began revealing both ancient context and secondary scientific information that seemed to clash with the traditional view. That traditional view, however, had been formed in absence of any serious contextual knowledge.
Thus, this conflict over Genesis is between those who insist an interpretation made in absence of ancient context *is* both the original and correct interpretation,

and those who accept the rediscovered ancient Near Eastern context, which happens to not conflict with science much if at all.

Often, those defending the traditional view rely on, or at least muster the long tradition of the Christian Church. However, that doesn’t get us very far, because the ancient context was largely lost by the New Testament period, and the traditional view had not yet developed or become dominant by then. While the “new” view doesn’t have the force of long tradition, it does have the very strong force of both integration with the rest of human knowledge AND tighter coherence with our knowledge of the ancient world.

Like Luther, we get Genesis wrong because we read it against the wrong background,namely, our own. Reading it against the right background, one that is not anachronistic, makes much more sense of the text and happens to remove scientific conflict. That, to me, is quite convincing.

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17 comments for “How the New Perspective on Paul Illustrates the Science-Religion Creation Debate

  1. Regarding the influence of the Dead Sea Scrolls on our understanding, I’m thinking particularly of scroll known as 4QMMT, miqsat ma’aseh ha-torah “Some works of the law.”

    From the Dictionary of New Testament Background

    4QMMT is important in that it shows that Luther’s reaction to Catholicism which has been traditionally projected onto first century Judaism is not supported by an examination of the only Jewish community of record which used the vocabulary reflected in Paul’s discussions of law and righteousness.


    E. P. Sanders concludes that the place of obedience in Qumranic literature, as for other branches of Palestinian Judaism, “is always the same: it is the consequence of being in the covenant and the requirement for remaining in the covenant.” In other words, obedience to the law is not the entrance into a relationship with God, but rather the maintenance policy to that relationship.
    In the light of MMT, then, several scholars are rethinking and rejecting the traditional Protestant understanding that by phrases such as works of the law Paul was challenging the theological teaching that salvation is earned by good works.

    James C. VanderKam and Peter W. Flint, The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity, 1st ed., p. 352

  2. This post could also be illustrated with some of those Dutch or Flemish (or, really, just about any) artists who painted Biblical scenes as if the events were set in the artists’ time, with their subjects dressed like then-contemporary Europeans, set against European landscapes. Anyone mistaking those paintings as accurate depictions of the ancient Near East would have a wildly distorted mental image. If it were religiously important to know how Moses looked, or what the scene at Bethlehem was, people could easily come to blows defending their distorted views.

  3. So maybe Luther misread Paul, but if he did, did he misread Paul any more than Nephi misread Isaiah, or was Luther just “likening” Paul’s writings to the controversies of his day?

  4. Nice post, Ben — the New Perspective on Paul deserves its own series of posts. I think the LDS position might be called No Perspective on Paul. He is strangely absent from the LDS script, which picks out obscure OT figures like Melchizedek and Enoch and highlights NT John the Baptist but ignores Paul. LDS seem to have take over Luther’s misunderstanding of grace versus works, although moving to the opposite end of the spectrum from Luther.

  5. On Sunday we had some family over from my wife’s side and her step grandmother mentioned how for her whole life she hated Paul, but now she really likes his writings. I imagine it came from his few verses that I’m sure someone loves to point out in Seminary, or Sunday School, and as a result none of the girls feel like reading any of the rest of his epistles. At that point in the conversation my mother-in-law says that Paul was a small, mean single man. I responded that we have no evidence that Paul was single to which replied “Well if he was married he wasn’t married for long”. So I agree with Dave in that there probably is no LDS perspective on Paul and that may be due to the fact that LDS women (I admit my sample size is 2) refuse to read Paul.

  6. As usual I enjoy your thought ad perspectives. I recently read an excellent book by John Walton. “The Lost World of Genesis 1.” He reminds us that the scriptures were written for but not to us and that we often make the mistake of trying to put them into our current cultural paradigm. We make the mistake of seeing Genesis as a description of material natural origins rather than functional origins. Walton suggests that stop trying force the text to fit science but see as a explanation of function and temple cosmology. An interesting approach. Thanks again Ben for you insights.

  7. @Bart, I think a better description would be that it forces us to admit that whoever Adam and Eve were, we have precious little knowledge of them. Their very names should set off alarm bells that any attempt at historical reconstruction without a great deal more revelation will be very fraught. I think this is one of the hardest things for LDS people to admit–that we know bupkis about all kinds of ?important? things in the gospel.

  8. Dave, I think Mormons have often had trouble with Paul precisely because of Luther and Calvin. I’m not sure it’s fair to say there’s total silence though. A lot of the BoM parallels Paul in key ways. While this is typically taken as either Joseph aping Pauline passages to translate similar passages or (for critics) just naive plagiarism I think the New Perspectives gives a bit more depth to the consideration. That is a very Jewish and not necessarily uniquely Paul way of viewing the ideas.

    Beyond that though we have quite a few quotes of Paul by Joseph Smith who seemed to see in Paul a person with similar experiences. e.g. May 26, 1844 sermon or then strongly suggesting Paul’s appearance as an angel. (Jan 5, 1841)

    It’s also interesting that Joseph sees in Paul a lot of work on making ones election sure. (This is something McConkie does in his New Testament Commentary as well – people complain about this with McConkie but McConkie was largely just following Joseph’s views or at least appropriation)

    Read through some of Joseph’s sermons and one quickly realizes just how key Paul really was for a lot of Joseph’s thought. And interestingly often in ways that make more since in a context of N T Wright rather than Calvin or Luther.

  9. Bart- Not necessarily, though it does strongly challenge the idea of a special creation of homo sapiens in the last few thousand years. I find it significant that Adam and Eve are both given universalist, typological names, i.e. Human and Life.

  10. Of course some Mormons have no problem with Paul, like, obviously, Adam Miller’s paraphrase of Romans…..

  11. Mormons don’t read Paul because we haven’t the faintest idea what they say. The epistles in the KJV are utterly incomprehensible. Switch over to another translation (NRSV, NIV) and it would open up a whole new world in Sunday School.

  12. Great thoughts, Ben.

    Once we realize that dead prophets had no stewardship over us and thus did not receive revelation for us, we can focus on living, contemporary prophets and the temptation toward anachronism simply never gets off the ground…. Well, maybe not totally (living prophets are fully authorized to anachronistically project things back onto the past (the New Translation of the Bible), but at least the everyday member won’t feel obligated to address every single quote from JD that any anti- on the internet might throw in their face. If we stick to the teachings of living prophets instead of dead texts, we’ll do just fine.

  13. Jeff,

    Is there a shelf life for recently deceased prophets or is “out with the old in with the new” immediately at death?

  14. Martin,

    I don’t want to get into a big thread-jack here since Ben’s posts are interesting enough on their own. I will just say that the teachings of any dead prophet are binding only so long as living prophets that actually have stewardship over us continue to quote and, thus, legitimize them. If people have to scrounge some quote up from the depths of the internet, we can probably bet good money that the living prophets aren’t discussing it much. (This goes for both pro- and anti-evolution statements.)

  15. Ok, I’ve edited one comment that was going even further afield. I appreciate the refrain from threadjacking Jeff G.

  16. Gaucon (12), while I’m a big advocate for reading alternative translations – especially ones that don’t break verses out as self contained units – I really don’t think the NT is that hard to read in the KJV. The parts of Paul that are hard to make sense of (Romans) are frankly nearly as hard in other translations. The issue is the social background rather than the words themselves.

    All that said, I do wish that the Church would at a minimum provide something like the New King James Version. Maybe there are issues with licensing but I think it’d be a nice middle ground – especially if the Church displayed text as paragraphs rather than verses.

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