Book Notes: David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament

05.30.2014 | Blair Hodges

Latter-day Saints have always had a complicated relationship with the Bible. Joseph Smith signaled his deep reliance on the holy text even while challenging its authority. While he accepted many of his era’s common assumptions about the Bible, he also emphasized that it was only true insofar as it was “translated correctly.” ((See Articles of Faith 1:8. As with all blog posts, this book note represents the views of its author and not necessarily that of the Maxwell Institute or Brigham Young University.)) He made revisions through prophetic inspiration but also labored to learn Hebrew in order to wrestle with the most ancient form of the text available. Joseph employed spirit and mind in his scriptural study. He translated the Book of Mormon and issued many of his own new revelations, but the Bible remained his most-referenced sermon source.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Latter-day Saints likewise  relied more on biblical proof texts than their new books of scripture. ((See Noel B. Reynolds, “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon in the Twentieth Century,” BYU Studies 38:2 (1999): 7–47.)) During the early 1900s, however, Mormon readers of the Bible sensed a storm on the horizon—the rising tide of “Higher Criticism.” A flood of scholarship began pouring forth—scholars produced study after study examining questions like Who wrote the Bible? When was it written? Is it scientifically reliable? The rains of Higher Criticism gave way to the downpour of various methodologies couched under the name of “historical criticism” generally and a number of other scholarly methods of Bible research. Many LDS Church members took to the protection of an ark being built to protect them from what they assumed was the acidic rain of unbelief. The ark was constructed from books written for LDS audiences which either ignored or disparaged new academic methods to biblical study. ((The best exploration of LDS reactions to biblical criticism is Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013 [2nd ed.]) See especially pp. 112–61. Bokovoy sometimes uses the somewhat outdated “Higher Criticism” label to refer to “historical criticism,” arguments about this terminology are evidence of strong feelings on this matter among scholars themselves. Wikipedia actually has a usable overview. Bokovoy seems to favor a method commonly called “Source Criticism.” Readers should keep in mind it is only one of several different methodological approaches employed by scholars and has its own serious limitations.))

After a century or so spent hunkered down in the confines of this ark, some LDS scholars sent out doves. A few of these returned bearing not merely leaves but rather full-grown fruit, suggesting that the previous century’s rain of scholarship didn’t drown everything after all. In fact, there was nourishment to be had for many faithful and critical readers. While a few prominent LDS scholars still attack scholarly approaches to the Bible others discreetly appropriate its methods to good effect here and there. By and large, Mormons today remain unaware of how scholarly approaches won’t only complicate their relationship to the Bible, but can also enrich it. David Bokovoy is a solid scholar of the Hebrew Bible whose goal is to help Latter-day Saints as they step out of the ark into the broad daylight of serious scriptural engagement. His new book Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy is the first part of a much-needed introduction for Mormons to the academic world of historical criticism (criticism not in the negative sense, but in the “critical thinking” sense).

While Bokovoy says he is neither critic nor apologist, ((Bokovoy, xvi.)) he openly professes belief in LDS tenets and alternately dons both caps. ((Of course, being a practicing member of the Church neither confirms nor rules out any particular perspective arrived at using scholarly approaches to scripture.)) On the apologetic front (in the sense of defending a certain faithful belief system), Bokovoy’s book is undergirded by a theology of revelation interpreted from D&C 1: 24, ((Cf. D&C 90:11; 121:26–28, scriptures which Bokovoy offers as reasons to accept that scripture as revelation is not perfect—that in addition to its divinity it also includes “error; there is weakness, there is flesh. Historical Criticism allows Latter-day Saint readers to identify both attributes in the written word,” (219). An interesting comparison would be between Bokovoy’s theories about Joseph Smith’s revelatory process with Barlow’s description of how Smith “barauifies” or  reveals scripture using pre-existing materials. See Barlow, ibid., xxxii, and Gerrit Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous Are the Revelations of God,” Ensign (January 2013), which discusses Joseph’s editing and revising his own revelations.)) which states that revelations are “given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” “Scripture,” Bokovoy explains, “is never produced in a cultural vacuum,” ((Bokovoy, 122.)) and understanding its context can make scripture reading much more challenging and interesting: “By reading scripture critically [that is, according to these particular scholarly methods], a believer in the text’s inspiration can gain an increased understanding of the various ways in which God has touched the hearts and minds of his children.” ((Bokovoy, xviii.))

Perhaps the best part about Bokovoy’s treatment is that it will introduce Latter-day Saints to the methods and assumptions of mainstream biblical scholarship while encouraging a deep respect for and belief in their sacred scriptures. For instance, he peppers the book with examples of how historical criticism can actually enhance Mormon understanding of the Book of Mormon. ((See pp. 20, 82, 113, 120, 155, etc.)) Bokovoy is perhaps most helpful when he meticulously states his case that multiple authors contributed to the Hebrew scriptures by quoting full biblical passages to emphasize the proposed different sources. He shows that many interesting insights can be gleaned by highlighting the themes, patterns, and evidences scholars use to determine authorship. ((Bokovoy’s approach here is similar to Richard Elliot Friedman’s useful The Bible with Sources Revealed (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005). Friedman’s and Bokovoy’s books work like mini-classrooms.))

I think a word of caution is also warranted. Some of Bokovoy’s arguments will appear unsettling and challenging. Some apologetic critics of Bokovoy will object to his understanding of the Book of Moses as Joseph Smith’s own inspired revelation, while other scholars will be bothered by his religiously infused use of the tools of historical criticism. But Bokovoy’s book is profitable as a guide for regular Latter-day Saints across the barest surface of historical criticism as one among many possible different perspectives. Bokovoy’s views invite discussion and dialogue at any given point. Above all, many readers simply want to understand the variety of perspectives that exists among the scholarly trained and faithful membership of the Church on this subject, and Bokovoy’s book can be welcomed as one voice in that ongoing conversation. BYU professor John W. Welch, who contributed the book’s Foreword, best exemplifies a charitable approach to Bokovoy’s project: “While resisting, as I do, some of [Bokovoy’s conclusions], readers will be positively served and firmly impressed by the many strengths of this book, coupled with David’s genuine dedication to learning ‘by study and also by faith.’” ((Bokovoy, xi.))

Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy is a promising start for Bokovoy’s multi-volume set. ((As well as Kofford Books’s “Contemporary Studies in Scripture” series more broadly.)) It represents Bokovoy’s best effort at presenting the fruits of his education to his fellow Church members in order to help them better understand and appreciate their scriptures. Members of the Church will be introduced to some of the results of over a century of biblical scholarship they’ve likely never heard about as they emerge from the protective ark to enjoy discussing things in the sunshine.

David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). xxiii+248 pp. Read a free excerpt here or pick up your copy from Deseret Book or Amazon.