Christensen thoroughly describes the over 20-year connection between Margaret Barker and Latter-day Saint studies in a tribute that’s part annotated CV and part personal reminiscence, outlining the intertwining paths of Barker’s temple-based biblical scholarship and the claims of the Restoration.
In this article, representing the first part of a two-part series, Kevin Christensen takes readers on a detailed and personal journey describing the eventful collision of Margaret Barker’s scholarship and Latter-day Saint thought, providing a useful window into Barker’s work in the process. Beginning with his own 2002 FARMS survey, Christensen charts Barker’s impact through the work of a number of high-profile LDS scholars. He also lays out the foundation elements of Barker’s thesis—that a variety of themes believed to be unique to Christian thought had been part of much more ancient Israelite religious traditions, and that they, despite being lost through later Judaic reforms, have left behind subtle influences in biblical and extra-biblical works, as well as in temple theology. That this hypothesis both explains and supports a variety of elements in LDS thought is evident throughout Christensen’s review, and provides much of the context for the warm apologetic reception that has been provided to Barker and her ideas.
After describing Barker’s precocious early life in England, focusing on her study in Cambridge (where she discovered her distaste for mainstream literary criticism, and her love of the Temple of ancient Israel), Christensen outlines her scholarly works, including:
- Her first book, The Older Testament, written in 1987 at the age of 44 (after years of raising two children and working as a math teacher).
- A second book, The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Early Christianity, aimed at a more popular audience.
- The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, which argues that the distinction between Elohim (the High God) and Yahweh (one of several Sons of God) was maintained in Christ’s day.
- “Atonement: Rite of Healing”, a paper that argues that the early Christian understanding of the atonement was a continuation of earlier Israelite traditions.
- “The Secret Tradition”, which argues that Christ entrusted temple-related teachings to a select set of followers, an argument which was expanded in her next book, On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Temple Symbolism and the New Testament.
- The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith, a book based on a set of lectures that outlined the connections between Christ, contemporary Jewish religious traditions, and non-Gospel New Testament writings.
- “Beyond the Veil of the Temple: The High Priestly Origins of the Apocalypses”, a paper emphasizing the temple symbolism present in both biblical and non-biblical visionary texts.
- The Revelation of Jesus Christ, a commentary on the book of Revelation as a revelation given to Christ during his ministry, rather than just to John.
- “Wisdom: The Queen of Heaven”, a paper expanding on the idea of Asherah and the Tree of Life as pertaining to the idea of a Heavenly Mother, as discussed in her previous books.
- The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy, a series of essays where she argues that early Christianity retained books outside the Hebrew bible as part of their canon, and that these retained early temple traditions. She also gave a talk at St. Vladimir’s Othodox Theological Seminary years afterward on the same topic, which Christensen attended personally.
- Temple Theology: An Introduction, where Barker argues that the key aspects of original temple teaching (i.e., Creation, Covenant, Atonement, and Wisdom) can help us better understand the role of Christ.
- An Extraordinary Gathering of Angels, a mini-coffee table art book with 170 illustrations and interviews with a variety of scholars from Jewish and Christian traditions.
- The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God, which “shows how fashions in scholarship have obscured much of the ancient evidence” for traditions of the high priesthood.
- Temple Themes in Christian Worship, showing how Christian liturgy may have been derived from ancient temple practices.
- Christmas: The Original Story, a reading of the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth in light of temple symbolism, which was reviewed by John Welch.
- Temple Mysticism: An Introduction, which Christensen has previously reviewed for Interpreter.
- The Mother of the Lord: Volume 1 The Lady in the Temple, which seeks to uncover the Wisdom traditions within ancient temple liturgy, including the divine Lady as “bearer of the divine Son”.
- King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel, which, among other things, explains the origin of the term “Nazorean.”
- “The Eternal Covenant Between God and Every Living Creature”, a talk outlining an “everlasting covenant” undergirding all the other Old Testament covenants.
- “Who was Melchizedek and Who was His God”, a presentation on Melchizedek and the priesthood he bore in the pre-Mosaic era.
Christensen takes care to outline Barker’s view of King Josiah’s reforms, wherein she asserts that much of Temple and Wisdom theology was suppressed. She sees Deuteronomistic proscriptions against seeking God’s hidden knowledge as the primary means of suppression, with the focus instead being on obeying the Law of Moses. That Lehi and Nephi appear to take issue with precisely these proscriptions is notable in that context.
Barker’s approach to biblical scholarship is decidedly divergent from mainstream approaches, and though this has drawn the ire of critics, it hasn’t stopped LDS scholars from recognizing her work and incorporating it in their views of Restoration scripture. Christensen provides a thorough outline of the history of these scholarly interactions, beginning with initial quotations of The Great Angel in the mid-90s. Christensen himself first encountered the book in 1999, and quickly searched out others of her works. That fall, prior to writing his original review in FARMS, he reached out to Barker, and thereby became her first contact with Latter-day Saints. That contact would quickly expand, including to the following:
- Noel Reynolds, who ended up spending five hours in her home in Derbyshire, subsequently inviting her to a week-long BYU seminar in May 2003.
- John Welch, who, after initially reserving judgment, found much in common with Barker, particularly his interest in the Sermon on the Mount as a temple text.
- Kevin Barney, who discussed Joseph Smith’s views of Genesis and content from Genesis that may have been removed from the text. He would also publish an essay on Heavenly Mother that drew on Barker’s work.
- Terryl Givens, who spoke alongside Barker at the 2005 Joseph Smith Conference at the Library of Congress, wherein Barker maintained that the scripture provided through Joseph were consistent with the Jerusalem of 600BC. Givens would later include Barker in a collection of essays on appraisals of Joseph Smith.
- Fiona Givens, who has noted the impact Barker would have on her own theological thinking.
- Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, whose comprehensive commentary on the Book of Moses had a jacket comment from Barker.
In the years following Christensen’s first contact, a number of LDS scholars would review or otherwise draw on Barker’s work, particularly in work relevant to the divine feminine and to the temple. Christensen goes on to describe further of Barker’s influences on LDS works, including those of Joseph Spencer (whose proposed structure of 1 and 2 Nephi, which he identifies with the “Plan of Redemption”, independently mirrors Barker’s structure of temple symbolism), D. John Butler (who argues that Lehi’s dream is intimately connected with Israelite temple design), Val Larsen (who was influenced by Barker’s perspective on the Deuteronomist reforms in his views on Lehi), and Neal Rappleye (who drew heavily on Barker in his recent Interpreter article on brass serpent symbolism). This influence would culminate in a Temple Studies group in London which would include various LDS scholars, as well as a presentation at the 2015 FAIR Conference. This influence and the broad picture of Barker’s scholarship will be important to keep in mind when considering the arguments of Barker’s critics, which Christensen will treat in his next article.
I’ll keep my reflection here brief, as I’m very much looking forward to the second half of Christensen’s double-feature. Like many others, I’ve found much intriguing about how LDS scholars have leveraged Barker’s work, and the explanatory power it brings to much of what we see in the Book of Mormon is difficult to ignore. I realize it’s possible to overuse this phrase, but it seems unlikely that, after so long in the scholarly wilderness, a non-LDS scholar could independently find support for so much that our tradition holds dear. The most straightforward explanation would be that both Barker and the Restoration have hit on something real—something true. But It would be fair to wonder if such support might actually be too good to be true. This is why that second-part is so necessary. Truth should be able to withstand even the most rigorous scrutiny. The Book of Mormon so far appears to be weathering surprisingly well under that storm of criticism. If Barker’s work does the same, it would further bolster both her claims and the claims of the Restoration.