Margaret Barker Transcript from The Worlds of Joseph Smith Conference

Mar 30, 2016
21 min read

I love reading anything by Margaret Barker, if you don’t know who she is then you need to look her up and buy some of her books or read some of her articles online. She’s a Methodist scholar and has brought some amazing insights into Judeo-Christian studies that have piqued the interest of LDS scholars. Over the years, she has made many wonderful contributions to LDS research and I am grateful for the interest and respect she has for LDS theology.

The following transcript is her analysis of how Joseph Smith’s contributions to an understanding of the ancient world match up with some of the things we have discovered in modern scholarship. Enjoy!

Margaret Barker

A Transcript of Her Response

The Worlds of Joseph Smith

An International Academic Conference at the Library of Congress

May 6, 2005

– – –

It isn’t easy to respond in twenty minutes to such a rich and interesting paper. Professor Givens has set Joseph Smith in the religious and cultural context of his time and has raised many important issues. I should like to take a few of these issues and set them in another context—Jerusalem, in about 600 BCE.

Do the revelations to Joseph Smith fit in that context—the reign of King Zedikiah, who is mentioned at the beginning of the First Book of Nephi? (King Zedikiah was installed in Jerusalem in 597 BCE.)

I am not a scholar of Mormon texts and traditions, and I must emphasize that. I’m a biblical scholar specializing in the Old Testament. Until some Mormon scholars made contact with me a few years ago I would never have considered using Mormon texts and traditions as part of my own work.

“Are the revelations to Joseph Smith consistent with the situation in Jerusalem about 600 B.C.E?”

Since that initial contact I have had many good and fruitful exchanges and have begun to look at these texts very closely. I’m still, however, very much an amateur in this area. What I offer can only be the reactions of an Old Testament scholar—“Are the revelations to Joseph Smith consistent with the situation in Jerusalem about 600 B.C.E?”

First, Professor Givens raised the question of ongoing revelation and an open canon. As far as we know there was no question of a canon in 600 BCE and ongoing revelation from the prophets was accepted, even if what the prophets said was uncomfortable.

One generation earlier there had been the great upheaval in the reign of King Josiah, something now regarded as the turning point in the history of Jerusalem and its religion.

The events are usually described as King Josiah’s reform, the assumption being that everything that he did was good and that the biblical texts describing the reform are an accurate and objective account. Other ancient texts, however, had a very different view of Josiah and his work, but since they were not included in the Bible, they are not often considered when the Bible is taught.

Here is our first warning: if the wickedness in Jerusalem, mentioned in the First Book of Nephi, was Josiah’s temple purges we should expect to find information relevant to Mormon tradition in texts outside the Bible—and we do. And the biblical texts themselves take on a new significance if we no longer assume that everyone agreed with Josiah’s purge. Jeremiah, a contemporary of King Josiah, has many passages that seem to criticize what has just happened in the city.

Some books mentioned in the Old Testament are now lost. First Chronicles 29:29, for example, cites as sources the Chronicles of Samuel the Seer, the Chronicles of Nathan the Prophet, the Chronicles of Gad the Seer—there are several more examples.

Some books found among the Dead Sea Scrolls fifty years ago are clearly sacred texts, but we didn’t know about them. Even the biblical texts found amongst the scrolls have significantly different wording in several places, reminding me of Joseph Smith’s vision when Moroni spoke the words of Malachi, but “with a little variation.”

It can come as a shock to traditional Christians to discover that there were different versions of the Old Testament in the time of Jesus.

It can come as a shock to traditional Christians to discover that there were different versions of the Old Testament in the time of Jesus. We cannot know for certain which Bible Jesus used, neither the books he regarded as scripture, nor the precise text of those books. Here I need to digress a little. It seemed to me as I began to look at the traditions of the Latter-day Saints, their scholars might have more in common with the more radical elements in contemporary biblical scholarship than with the strictly traditional and conservative people. Bearing this in mind, let us look at another of Professor Givens’ points.

Professor Givens spoke of the scandal of Joseph Smith claiming direct communication with God. We now recognize that King Josiah enabled a particular group, the Deuteronomists, to dominate the religious scene in Jerusalem in about 620 BCE. Josiah’s purge was driven by their ideals and their scribes influenced much of the form of the Old Testament that we have today, especially the history in 1 & 2 Kings.

These Deuteronomists denied that anyone could have a vision of the Lord; they denied that anyone had revelations from heaven and they insisted the Ten Commandments were all that was necessary—nothing was added to them. Prophecies, they said, were genuine only if they had already been fulfilled and had no more power. The Deuteronomists had no place for angels and so they didn’t use the title, “Lord of Hosts.”

These were the minds that eventually lead to the closed canon of scripture and the cessation of prophecy. But the prophets did have visions of the Lord and the angels and they did speak in the name of the Lord, and their unfulfilled prophecies were carefully preserved. So, not everybody shared the views of the Deuteronomists, but their writings are often outside the Bible.

The Deuteronomists wrote the history of the kings in Jerusalem, compiling it from sources about ancient kings and heroes, much as we might compile a history today. Other ancient texts, however, give a different picture of how history was written—past, present, and future were revealed to prophetic figures. Those three sources I mentioned in 1 Chronicles were all prophets—Samuel the Seer, Nathan the Prophet, Gad the Seer.

We find prophetic history also in the Book of Jubilees, parts of which were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (again, fifty years ago). The full text of the book had been rediscovered and published at the end of the 19th century (rediscovered in Ethiopia), but the Scroll’s fragments confirmed that this was an ancient book. Jubilees describes how the past and the future were revealed to Moses on Sinai and how he was told to write down what he had learned.

If prophets of Israel past revealed the past as well as the future then the revelation of history to Joseph Smith is not out of character.

Enoch (of who more, later) saw all the history of his people—past, present and the future—in dream-visions. The early Christians believed that Jesus had revealed the past, the present and the future, and the Book of Revelation revealed the past as well as the future. If prophets of Israel past revealed the past as well as the future then the revelation of history to Joseph Smith is not out of character.

Another history in 1st Enoch, an enigmatic history known as the Apocalypse of Weeks, implies that Josiah’s purge was a disaster, and this history makes no mention of the Exodus. How is it possible to have such a history? For the Deuteronomists, the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt was the defining event of their history. But the people who considered Josiah a disaster cannot have considered Moses a major figure.

For many years, scholars have suspected that the account of Moses on Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments had been merged with memories from the Jerusalem temple, and that a temple ritual for bringing divine revelation from heaven had been blended with the story of Moses on Sinai.

In the centuries after Josiah’s purge and after the demise of the monarchy in Jerusalem, legends surrounding Moses made him more and more like the ancient kings. And, by the time of Jesus, the Egyptian Jew, Philo, could even describe Moses as the God and king of his people.

There are many places where memories of the old temple ritual still survive...

Enoch’s Apocalypse of Weeks described visions of the Holy and Righteous and how an unnamed person received the law for all generations. Was this perhaps a temple vision scene where a God and king figure received revelation in heaven and brought it to earth—the figure later absorbed into Moses?

There are many places where memories of the old temple ritual still survive, for example, the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7. And I wondered about this when I first read Lehi’s vision of the open heaven, the angels, and a radiant figure descending to give Lehi a book.

Most of the summaries of history in the Old Testament focus on Moses and the Exodus, but they omit the Sinai story. In other words, the Old Testament histories are the exact opposite of the Apocalypse of Weeks.

Scholars have suspected for some time that Sinai and Exodus were originally distinct traditions joined only after the destruction of the first temple, with the Exodus predominating. The earliest fusion in the Bible is in Nehemiah, a document from perhaps the fifth century BCE; and the final form of the Pentateuch, the Law of Moses, may have been compiled even later by people who emphasized Moses and the Exodus rather than the temple tradition.

For other people, though, the history of Jerusalem had been summarized in this little Apocalypse of Weeks. It was a vision of history given to Enoch by angels, and learned from heavenly tablets. It described Noah, Abraham, the law-giving, the temple, the disaster in the temple just before it was destroyed, and the scattering of the chosen people.

Try to imagine how these people might have reacted to discovering their history rewritten, supplemented by the history of their Lord appearing in Egypt and rescuing some people there, or how they might have reacted to Ezekiel’s claim that the Lord had appeared to his people in Babylon.

In the course of time, this has all been absorbed into the tradition of on-going revelation. The people of the Apocalypse of Weeks, however, considered that the people who rebuilt Jerusalem were apostates and they rewrote the histories, even though we consider those histories as the norm.

The Apocalypse of Weeks, that tiny fragment of ancient history in the First Book of Enoch, is almost forgotten, or considered rather strange.

“What are we reading? Whose Bible is this? When was it written?”

Nor, least we forget the crisis which has now engulfed biblical scholarship—archeology simple does not give supporting evidence for a great deal of the history in the Old Testament—and scholars are asking themselves, “What are we reading? Whose Bible is this? When was it written?”

No ancient texts of the Bible have been found, and there is no physical proof that the Old Testament is older than its earliest written deposits, which are fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls—and some of those are different from the Old Testament that we know.

Let us now consider another of Professor Givens’ points, the question of human beings becoming divine—and accepting the serpent’s invitation in Eden to become as gods. In the later Old Testament tradition, this was indeed a sin, but how might such an invitation have been viewed in 600 BCE?

The familiar story of Adam and Eve is the reworking of an older story, after memories of the loss of Eden and the loss of the older temple had merged. The tree that had been intended in Eden for human food was the Tree of Life, and the perfumed oil of that tree anointed humans and made them like angels—Sons of God. That was the tradition of the ancient priests in the temple, who thought of themselves as angels—messengers from heaven.

The Tree of Life gave wisdom and eternal life, but the human pair disobeyed and chose knowledge that could be used for good or evil. Only then did they discover that they were barred from the Tree of Life.

The prophet Ezekiel, also in Jerusalem in 600 BCE, said that the Anointed One in Eden became mortal and died because wisdom and perfection had been abused for the sake of power and splendor.

Satan’s deception in Eden was to imply that both trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, had the same benefit—that both made humans like angels.

It was the disobedience that was the problem, not the state they aspired to; and, they had to be barred from eternal life because they had disobeyed. In the Book of Revelation, this is reversed, the faithful Christian is promised access again to the Tree of Life, and this meant access to the angel-state.

It was not the aspiration but the attitude that was wrong. In 600 BCE the sin would have been pride and disobedience, not the wish to be angels—Sons of God.

Consider here another assumption, that the books in the Old Testament are older than the ancient books not in the Old Testament—the Enoch texts must be later it is assumed, because they are not in the Bible. Last year I published a commentary on Isaiah which showed that the original Isaiah in Jerusalem knew the Enoch traditions but was not much concerned with Moses. Isaiah’s world was the world of Enoch’s angels.

Other scholars are now exploring the possibility that Enoch traditions underlie some of the oldest stories in Genesis. Enoch traditions could have been very important in 600 BCE, just as the revelation to Joseph Smith implies. This should not surprise us, as the Enoch traditions show clearly that human beings can become angels who continue their lives on earth.

In the coded language of Enoch’s dream-visions, animals represent human beings and men are angels. Noah, we read, was born a bull and became a man after an angel taught him a secret. And, in the Apocalypse of Weeks, there are three men—Noah, Abraham, and possibly Isaiah, but the text here is rather enigmatic.

The Enoch books are clearly in the same tradition as the Bible, and yet there is no quotation from the Bible in them. Those who preserved the Enoch traditions may have had different scriptures.

Who was this mother and what was the great tree?

Isaiah, who prophesied in the years before 700 BCE, spoke of a female figure and her son and also of a great tree that had been cut down, but with sacred seed surviving in the stomach. His contemporary, the prophet Micah, spoke of a woman in travail, who had gone out of the city, but would give birth to the great Shepherd of Israel. Who was this mother and what was the great tree?

Piecing together other contemporary evidence, we could conclude that she was Wisdom, the one whom Josiah eventually purged from the temple, but whose symbol, the Tree of Life, had been removed many years earlier, in the time of Isaiah, and then replaced.

In the time of Josiah, her tree, the Asherah, the Menorah, was finally removed from the temple, and not only removed, but it was then burnt, beat into dust and cast on the common graves—it was utterly desecrated.

Why such hatred? Hostility to Wisdom was a hallmark of the Deuteronomists and due to their influence the Mother and her tree have been almost forgotten. Her son was the Lord. We can deduce this from the Dead Sea Scrolls’ version of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy (Isaiah chapter 7). “Ask a sign,” said the prophet, “from the mother of the Lord your God. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel.” And she was attended by angels, the hosts of heaven, whom the Deuteronomists tried to obscure.

Each time the Lady was driven from the temple, so too were the angels, the “Holy Ones,” a word very similar in Hebrew to the word for prostitutes, which is how it is often translated. The divine son, the priest of the order of Melchizedek was born in the glory of these Holy Ones, or so it seems. Psalm 110 is an enigmatic text, but it seems to describe the birth of an angel priest in the Holy of Holies of the temple, which represented heaven.

...imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy...

The Tree of Life made one happy according to the Book of Proverbs, but for other detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the non-canonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruits like grapes. But a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruits like white grapes. I don’t know of any other source which describes the fruit as white grapes, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy; and the interpretation of the vision, that the virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.

This is the Heavenly Mother (represented by the Tree of Life), and then Mary and her son on the earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the exact ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.

There is no doubt that teachings from the time of the first temple have been lost, or, rather, are now to be found only in texts outside the Bible. Jewish tradition says that all sacred texts were lost when Jerusalem was destroyed and that Ezra the Scribe restored them, inspired by God Most High, to dictate ninety-four books. Only twenty-four of them could be revealed; the rest were to be kept secret.

Justin Martyr, a Christian writer in the middle of the second century CE, claimed that the Jews had been altering the scriptures.

This story may refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 597 BCE or to the second destruction of the city in 70 CE. Either way, it was recognized that the original scriptures had been lost and that only a fraction of those restored became the public canon. Justin Martyr, a Christian writer in the middle of the second century CE, claimed that the Jews had been altering the scriptures.

An Aramaic document from the same period, known as the Scroll of Fasting, lists the anniversaries of great events in the second temple period as days on which it was forbidden to fast. On the third day of Tishery, in the autumn, it was forbidden to fast because, I quote, “the memory of the documents was removed,” or perhaps you translate it, “the memory was removed from the documents.” Some records had been destroyed, and this was a cause for celebration. (It would be interesting to know what these were.)

The First Book of Enoch records that lying words had been written perverting the eternal covenant; sinners had altered the truth as they made copies; they’d made fabrications and written books in their own name.

The Koran also tells of people who had altered the meaning of the texts, had composed texts and then said they were scripture, and accepted only part of the sacred texts. One passage describes how some of the people of the Book threw it away and chose instead to follow evil teaching from Babylon. This could easily be describing people who returned from Babylon and built the second temple, people who Enoch called, “the apostate generation.”

There are many similar references in the Koran, for example, to people who look for allegorical and “hidden” meanings rather than the plain meaning of the text, and who twist the words of scripture. The Koran also mentions the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses, described as the books of “the earliest revelation.” (These were prophecies in Arabia in the seventh century of the Christian era.)

The extraordinary similarity between a text that is sometimes called the History of the Rechabites and sometimes the Narrative of Zosimus—the extraordinary similarity between this story and the story of Lehi leaving Jerusalem—has already been studied by Mormon scholars. This ancient text, which survives in Greek, Syriac, and Ethioptic, tells the story of some people who left Jerusalem about 600 BCE and they went to live in a “blessed land.” They didn’t drink wine. They were called the sons of Rechab, which could mean that Rechab was their ancestor, or it could be the Hebrew way of saying that they were temple servants, priests who served the divine throne. In their blessed lands, angels had announced to them the incarnation of the Word of God from the holy virgin who is the mother of God. Nobody can explain this text.

The Jerusalem Talmud, compiled in Palestine, perhaps early in the fifth century CE, a Jewish text, remembered a similar tradition—a large number of priests fought with the Babylonians against Jerusalem after Josiah’s purges, and then they moved south and went to live in Arabia.

When I wrote a book setting out all this rather obvious evidence, it was regarded as strange and hopelessly radical.

Professor Givens spoke of Joseph Smith’s thoroughgoing endeavor to overturn the most sacred tenants of cultural Christianity; and one of these must be the identity of Yahweh the Lord who appears in the Old Testament as the God of Israel. New Testament scholars agonize over why the first Christians applied Old Testament Yahweh texts to Jesus. How, they ask, could the early Christian teachers—all of them—have found Jesus in the Old Testament? (When I wrote a book setting out all this rather obvious evidence, it was regarded as strange and hopelessly radical.)

Another example: The Jerusalem Bible, which is the translation prepared by the Roman Catholic Church, leaves the name Yahweh in the Old Testament instead of using the customary form, “the LORD” but then has “the LORD” in the New Testament. One editorial decision broke the link between the Old Testament and the New and obscured the fundamental proclamation of the first Christians: “Jesus is the Lord” – “Jesus is Yahweh.”

One more example: the new English translation of the Targum, which is the Aramaic version of the Old Testament, does not use the term “Messiah” in the Psalms when translating the Hebrew word “meshiah,” which means Messiah. The reason given is this, and I quote, “It does not seem appropriate to use words like ‘Messiah’ and ‘Messianic’ in connection with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.” (That was published last year.)

It was my challenge to assumptions such as these, which simply ignore the evidence of both the Hebrew Bible and of early Christian writings, that led to my first contact with Mormon scholars.

And this, I suggest, is one aspect of the restoration of the “plain and precious things” which have been taken away.

The original temple tradition was that Yahweh the Lord was the son of God Most high, present on earth in the Messiah. This means that the older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah, and so, finding Christ in the Old Testament is exactly what we should expect, but something obscured by incorrect reading of the scriptures. And this, I suggest, is one aspect of the restoration of the “plain and precious things” which have been taken away.

The greatest lost has been the temple and the angels and everything they represented. There can be no doubt that the central theme of Jesus’ teaching was the restoration of the true temple and what it meant. He was proclaimed as the Melchizedek Priest, the expected Messiah—described as Melchizedek in the texts found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. But what had happened to the Melchizedek priesthood?

One of the great moments in my own journey of discovery was reading an article published in about 1980 showing that the religion of Abraham must have survived until the time of King Josiah, because that was part of what he purged from his kingdom. (In 600 BCE the religion of Abraham was not just a distant memory.)

This suggests that the Melchizedek priesthood also survived until the time of Josiah, associated with the monarchy, as Psalm 110 makes clear. It was superceded in Jerusalem by the Aaronic priesthood, very much later than we often suppose. It is likely that Aaron’s family came to prominence in Jerusalem only when Moses did—as a result of King Josiah’s changes. (And we must remember that it was the Deuteronomists who wrote the major history of those times.)

There were long memories of the lost temple. In the time of the Messiah, it was said, the true temple would be restored and all missing things would be put back: the spirit, the fire, the cherubim, and the ark, but also the anointing oil and the menorah. Now this is strange because there was a seven-branch lamp in the second temple, but maybe it didn’t represent what the original had represented—it was not the Tree of Life.

In the era of Melchizedek then, it was linked to the spirit, the fire, the anointing oil, and the lamp representing the Tree of Life.

Now, my time is more than gone, so I should like to thank Professor Givens very much for his paper which, for me, prompted so many ideas.

Thank you.

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