The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition: A Review

The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition, published by University of Utah Press, is an impressive collection of information about Bible studies and how Latter-day Saints interact with the Bible.

The volume is a collection of 31 essays by various authors aimed at bridging a gap between Bible Studies and Latter-day Saint thought. Topics vary from translations of the Bible; Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; how the Book of Mormon interacts and the Bible; theology; early Christian literature on the Bible; the Pentateuch, etc. Authors include Philip Barlow, Thomas Wayment, David Bokovoy, Deidre Nicole Green and many more. Each chapter is about 10 pages on average, so not a full in-depth discussion of the topics at hand, but still rich with information that can help Latter-day Saints become more familiar with various threads of Biblical scholarship or Biblical scholars to better understand various threads of Latter-day Saint thought about the Bible.

Personally, I found it fascinating. I fall into the category of a Latter-day Saint who needs to know more about Biblical studies and learned a lot from reading the book. I will note, though, that it is a lot of information in a pretty big book, so it wasn’t the type of book I could have sat down and finished in a day (in other words, don’t plan on it being a fast read). That being said, chapters were generally interesting and came from a variety of perspectives.

Not every chapter was a home run. For example, I was surprised that Taylor Petrey didn’t mention Adam Miller’s Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan in his summary of Latter-day Saint engagement with Paul in the New Testament. Carl Griffin and Kristian S. Heal wrote a chapter about “Early Christian Biblical Interpretation” that announced at the outset that it would present a better way for Latter-day Saints to engage with the Bible (“an authentic biblical hermeneutic”) based on how early Christians did it, but as far as I could tell, didn’t end up offering perspectives that I haven’t encountered in the Church in discussions about reading the scriptures. These types of misses, though, were usually the exception rather than the rule.

The vast majority of the book was very insightful. Out of it, though, I think my favorite chapters were “Prophets and Prophetic Literature” by David Bokovoy, “Orality, Literacy, and the Cultural World of the Bible in Ancient Near Eastern Scholarship and Latter-day Saint Reception” by Eric A. Eliason, and “Medieval Bibles” by Miranda Wilcox. 

The Bokovoy chapter on prophets was fascinating in discussing different categories of prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the ways in which they functioned in producing the text of the Bible. Particularly fascinating to me was the role that professional prophets played in western Asia, including in the Israelite kingdoms’ king’s court. Call me naive, but I’ve never realized that some prophets were in that role as a career choice rather than a divine call that didn’t align with their chosen profession. 

Eliason’s chapter discussed a lot about the differences between oral-based and writing-based approaches to passing on history and how the oral histories may have played a role in shaping the Bible. I.e., many variations in stories found in the Bible can probably be traced to different storytelling traditions that capture the essence of the same story, but not the exact specifics when they were fossilized through writing. It opened my eyes up to how differently things can function in an oral-centric society and how universal literacy is a relatively modern ideal. It particularly struck me when he described earlier semi-literate societies viewing literacy akin to how we might see “computer programming or auto mechanics” today – it is useful for a portion of society to know how to do it, but not everyone has to be professionals in that area in order for it to be important to society. The literate members of society are able to share with the community, after all. Along those lines, my mind was blown by his discussion of how Martin Luther’s statement that everyone has to experience the Bible by reading it personally (and that clergy were deliberately withholding the text from the community) would have seemed “as bizarre as it would be today to suggest that the only legitimate way to experience a play or a movie would be to read the script alone in one’s room–theaters being a massive plot to deprive us of this authentic experience.” It was very mind-opening and underscored the old phrase about “the past is a foreign country”.

Wilcox’s chapter focused on describing how Medieval clergy were very interested in making sure that the Bible was known and accessible to Christians rather than engaging in a conspiracy to keep it hidden away and distorted. Part of the issue in not having it available for everyone to read in their own homes was the cost of producing a Bible before the printing press was a thing in Europe – the entire thing had to be copied by hand on parchment, which in turn had to be produced from livestock. (She noted that one of the rare productions of the entire Bible text required slaughtering over 515 calves to produce the 2,060 pages of vellum necessary for all of the text). Part of it was that many of the European societies were only partially literate, with most encounters with written documents happening through public readings by the members of the community who were literate. Part of it was legitimate concerns about some of the content in the Bible being… not the most uplifting reading available, as was recently discussed in Davis County School District in Utah. As a result, some clergy wanted to “maintain control over how biblical texts were taught and interpreted.” And there were many efforts to create institutions and technologies that would make direct access to the text easier in the future, including producing common-language translations (we just tend to overemphasize the times when it wasn’t well-received by people in power). The chapter provided a lot of insights that I wasn’t acquainted with before.

Anyway, The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition is a very worthwhile read, especially if you are a Latter-day Saint who is looking to get some bearings on Bible Studies. I recommend it.

1 comment for “The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition: A Review

  1. That looks like an awesome collection of articles from topnotch scholars.

    I love David Bokovoy’s work. I wish he’d come back and give us more delicious insights from the scriptures.

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