Christensen responds to a set of critiques arrayed against the work of Margaret Barker and the use of her work by Latter-Day Saints, arguing that she is often dismissed—not because of the weakness of her ideas–but because they fail to align with the prevailing historical paradigm.
In this article, which is continuation from an essay published by Interpreter in November 2022, Kevin Christensen provides responses to three entries critical of Margaret Barker and arguments drawn from her work by Latter-day Saints: (1) a 2007 blog post from an anonymous Latter-day Saint post-grad; (2) posts from Rob Bowman, a Biblical Studies scholar; and (3) a 2021 BYU Studies editorial by BYU professor Eric Eliason. In doing so, he relies on the framework of scientific paradigms outlined by Thomas Kuhn, and highlights aspects of Restoration scripture and theology that facilitate interest in Barker’s approach and findings.
Christensen’s discussion of Kuhn highlights the gate-keeping nature of scholarly worldviews and how dissenting views are often treated in that context. These scholarly worldviews, in part because of their perceived legitimacy and strength, color the way the world is seen and how findings inconsistent with the worldview are treated. Christensen’s key example of this is the story of Nicodemus’ conversation with Christ. Nicodemus is unable to accommodate Jesus’ understanding of being “born again” into his scholarly worldview. (A fact which ironically helps to demonstrate Barker’s primary thesis—there are scriptural texts that should have helped Nicodemus understand what Christ was saying, but this learned Pharisee seems unaware of them, perhaps because they appear to have been modified at some point centuries prior.) The Pharisees are similarly confounded by Christ’s healing of a man born blind, too puzzled by their defied expectations to consider its fatal implications for their system of beliefs.
Because of this, the process of moving from one paradigm to another is a social process involving loyalties and community ties rather than an open and unbiased consideration of the facts. The main question at hand—which theory actually does a better job of explaining the evidence—thus can’t be left entirely to the stewards of the dominant paradigm, highlighting the importance of independent researchers like Barker.
In that light, the critiques leveled against Barker include:
- The suggestion that “No one I know takes her seriously”, which Christensen humorously rejoins by suggesting that the critic must not know a number of rather important people.
- Complaints that she infers earlier theology from what is generally assumed to be later-authored documents (e.g., First Temple theology from the Dead Sea Scrolls). Barker contests earlier dates of origin for the documents and/or the ideas they contain, on the grounds that manuscripts are often written much earlier than the date of the earliest extant copy, that Enoch 1 includes an accurate description of the geography of Jerusalem in the First Temple period, suggesting an earlier date, and that apocalyptic literature often includes themes and forms from much earlier time periods (along with indicators of later political disputes).
- That Barker’s insistence on separating Yahweh and Elohim is countered by many explicit associations between them in the Old Testament. Barker, in return, cites passages and texts that do distinguish between them, suggestive of an earlier theology that didn’t combine the two figures
- That Barker’s work is “fringe” or “not mainstream”, to which Christensen cites Barker’s explicit reasoning for working outside of academic instructions. He also notes a defense of Barker that from Professor John McDade which notes that mainstream views of Jesus are often contradictory and are heavily dependent on which aspects of Jesus’ life and context are emphasized. Since none of these perspectives can be pinpointed as the “objective” one, it doesn’t make sense to exclude Barker’s on the grounds that it differs from the mainstream.
- Charges that Barker’s evidence is “limited and ambiguous”, relying on unsupported inferences across texts, and that Barker’s work is characterized by “the assertion that possibility is fact”. In response, Christensen argues that Barker’s substantial bibliography should be treated as a serial, progressive effort, and that critics’ dissatisfaction on this score may be due to looking at specific arguments or works in isolation. Also, Barker has been careful to frame her ideas as theories worthy of consideration and further testing, rather than proven facts.
- Assertions that Barker’s work has not undergone peer review, with Christensen countering that much of Barker’s extensive CV includes peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and that her qualifications roles comprise a variety of positive assessments of her expertise (e.g., from the Society of Old Testament Study). He also reminds readers of the jeering and dismissive peer review received by Christ himself.
- That Latter-day Saints have accepted Barker’s work uncritically. Christensen notes that it’s fair to be concerned about how apologetic works treat text-critical methods inconsistently (i.e., rejecting it in many cases but embracing it when it aligns with their preconceptions). He implies that there may have been “mistakes and excessive enthusiasm”, and acknowledges that Barker’s work should be engaged with an appropriate understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.
- The Barker appears to have an explicitly Christian agenda that is implied to inappropriately color her reading of the Old Testament (Eliason maintains that “this is not a criticism”, but it certainly reads like one). Christensen indicates that having a Christian perspective does not prevent an accurate understanding of the Old Testament, that this perspective has had the effect of expanding her vision to situate the Old Testament in a much broader context of ancient texts, and that her perspective allows her to attempt to answer important questions that others avoid.
- That associations with Barker and her work will reflect poorly on Latter-day Saints. Christensen asserts that the theological approach adopted by himself and others stands independent of Barker’s, and that those leveling this charge could consider whether citing church critics (and, for example, their biblical inerrantist and creedal assumptions), might reflect poorly on them. Furthermore, we should be open to receiving truth in whatever form it comes, even if that form risks contact with academic cooties (Note: my wording, not Christensen’s).
- That acceptance of Barker’s theories undermines trust in the Old Testament. Christensen suggests that Barker’s theories, if correct, do not negate the value of Deuteronomy or other Old Testament books, but instead couches them in appropriate and realistic nuance, and helps reconcile their contradictions with other Old Testament books and the Book of Mormon.
- That Barker-informed readings of the Book of Mormon don’t match plain interpretations by modern readers. Christensen counters that we should expect, for example, Nephi’s interpretation to differ from ours, and that this incongruence shouldn’t lead us to dismiss the explanatory power that these readings have (e.g., explaining why Nephi would associate a tree with the virgin Mary).
- That Barker assumes “that a rhetorical question will receive an answer that supports [her] hypothesis”. Christensen responds to this critique with a list of rhetorical questions posed by Eliason that might receive answers that he doesn’t expect.
Christensen in turn provides sharp critiques of Eliason’s approach, suggesting that he’s failing to engage with either Barker’s sources or her evidence, that he relies on ambiguous and insinuative language, that he’s selective in his quotations, that he shows a pattern of cognitive distortions when it comes to critiquing Barker, and that he avoids grappling with the implications of the Book of Mormon as an independent corresponding witness for Barker’s theory. In contrast to paradigm-laden critiques, Christensen suggests that there are many areas of inquiry that could help to meaningfully test and explore Barker’s ideas, including continued analysis of texts such as Enoch 1, as well as its potential connections to Zenos and Zenock in the Book of Mormon.
Christensen provides a cogent summary of high-level criticisms against Barker, and, from my perspective, effectively disarms many of the lines of reasoning presented by Eliason. If Barker is mistaken, either in the particulars or in her overall conclusions, readers deserve to know this. But Barker should not be dismissed purely for reasons of academic standing, of feared guilt by association, or, least of all, by concerns of how lay members might react to these ideas. The implication that Barker presents a clear and present threat to lay faith (and that somehow traditional text-critical approaches do not!) is an unfortunate one, and, in my view, should in no way stay our hand from exploring potential truth.
Reading through this makes me wonder, however, if there are other important and more detailed critiques of Barker that Christensen hasn’t addressed, whether it be in the series of Facebook posts by Bowman or the review of The Older Testament by George Nickelsburg (whom Barker has herself directly critiqued). In my view, the devil of Barker’s proposal, if there is one, would be in the details, and that’s the level where I would be most interested in seeing discourse between her critics and proponents.
I would also be very much interested in Christensen’s own friendly critique of Barker’s proposals. If much of the criticism of Barker has been shallow, insinuative, and prejudiced by a desire to defend dominant paradigms, what would a principled critique—an appropriate outline of her works’ strengths and weaknesses–look like? And who would be more qualified to give it to us, having paid closer attention to her arguments and works, than Christensen himself? Like Christensen, I hope to see continued examination and testing of Barker’s ideas, and agree that the Book of Mormon could be a fruitful path to doing that.