Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Where do we begin to interpret the New Testament?

Posted by joespencer on January 15, 2007

We (Latter-day Saints) begin with Matthew, but Margaret Barker–unabashedly–begins with Revelation. The first paragraph of her earth-shattering Revelation commentary:

If ‘apocalypic was the mother of all Christian theology’, then the Book of Revelation should be put at the centre of New Testament study. In The Revelation of Jesus Christ [this is the title of Barker’s commentary] I have done this, showing that the Book of Revelation is not a late text from Asia Minor but the earliest material in the New Testament.

If that isn’t earth-shattering enough in and of itself, let me explain a little about Margaret Barker’s approach to the New Testament generally. Or rather, let me explain a little about how Margaret Barker’s scholarship is confirming–and according to the strictest standards of historico-critical methodology (she is, by the way, a Methodist)–that there very much was an anticipatory, prophetic worship of Jesus Christ (at least in the name of the Messiah) long before the New Testament era (what we see, that is, in the Book of Mormon).

Taking up the findings of the Old Testament exegetes, Margaret Barker (do check out her own website: www.margaretbarker.com) argues that there is abundant evidence for a major shift in the religion of Israel sometime during the seventh century B.C. She links the shift up with the reign of Josiah (she gave an amazing lecture on the particulars of this point of view at a forum at Brigham Young University in 2003). In the end, Barker argues that the shift was primarily political: the promoters of the “new religion” wielded enough political clout to marginalize the traditional religion (the “older testament” she calls it), but never to eliminate it. The traditions and practices of the “older testament” continued over into the apocryphal writings of the intertestamental period (400-1 B.C.), and so it was still being practiced (though never in the name of the ruling power in Jerusalem) at the time of Jesus Himself. Margaret Barker then reads the New Testament in terms of this marginalized, but very ancient, religion. The consequence is that many of the details of the story of Jesus’ life fit into this Older Testament paradigm. (One can read a very short work that summarizes this very well: Barker’s _The Risen Lord: the Jesus of History as the Lord of Faith_.) But how does Barker get from this point to the centralization of the Book of Revelation? That is the question ultimately I want to answer here, and it is the implications of this answer that I primarily want to discuss in this thread. Barker explains that two events grounded her radical interpretation. The first was reading the Book of Revelation translated into Hebrew, because she suddenly began to recognize the themes of the Older Testament in it then. The other was when she read J. Massyngberde Ford’s commentary on the Book of Revelation (volume 38 of the Anchor Bible, and an amazing book itself). Ford argues essentially that Revelation 4-11 was written by John the Baptist, and that the Book of Revelation as we now have it is an edited copy of that text, with quite a bit of added material (the editorial work supposedly being done by one of the baptist’s disciples). What apparently struck Barker in Ford’s work was the suggestion that some of the Book of Revelation predated the rest of the New Testament, that it went back to the very time Jesus was alive and teaching. Barker takes a very serious look at Revelation and then suggests that it wasn’t the Baptist’s revelation, but–as the first verse itself says–the revelation of Jesus Christ, the revelation Jesus Christ Himself received (at His baptism, as Barker suggests). Now, this is radical, and I recognize that. But it is quite intriguing, and the more I read Barker’s work, the more enthralled I am with what she is digging up. What if we began our New Testament study with Revelation 4-11, taking those chapters up as an edited text that Jesus Christ Himself had originally written, a summary of His experience in the wilderness after His baptism? How would this change our reading of the NT? Would anything like this be justified, in LDS terms?If all of this points to the possibility of reading the NT through Revelation, let me provide a brief bibliography for approaching Revelation itself. I think that one would best begin with Eugene Boring’s commentary (Jurgen Roloff’s is very good as well). Boring’s commentary is very straightforward and it is a rather quick read. I think if one read’s Ford’s Anchor Bible volume after such an introduction to the book, one is likely to get a great deal more out of it. And then one can move onto Margaret Barker’s book (_The Revelation of Jesus Christ_). After all of this, I highly suggest David Aune’s three volumes on Revelation from the Word Biblical Commentary (it is incredibly detailed), which will be read quite differently after working through Barker and Ford. Some possibilities, anyway.

11 Responses to “Where do we begin to interpret the New Testament?”

  1. Robert C. said

    (Joe, I tried to fix what seemed to be some html/hyperlink problems.)

    This is a meaty post I’ll have to think about for a bit. I wasn’t aware of this view of Revelations, thanks for the heads up and the references. I’ve never quite known what to make of Revelations, and apocalyptic scripture in general, so this is very thought-provoking. (In particular, I’ve always felt somewhat turned off by 2nd-coming type discussion in Church, esp. that tries to map out the signs of the times and what-not. I’m hoping discussion here will help me get over my aversion….)

  2. As I eagerly await your response, Robert… I am also uncomfortable with too much of a focus on the Second Coming. I spend my time equally distributed between believing wholeheartedly that the Second Coming is everything Parley P. Pratt said it would be on the one hand and thinking very hard about how it might otherwise be interpreted on the other hand. My work in Revelation has pushed me more and more toward a sort of reconciliation of the two hands here, though I find I have less and less patience with anything like “the signs of the times.” I think it would be a very good thing if our discussion here helped us all over a few of these sorts of aversions.

  3. Robert C. said

    I found this 2-page summary of many of Barker’s ideas very interesting. I recommend it as a short read that gives a flavor for the scope and possibilities of Barker’s work, esp. for those who probably won’t read much else that she’s written.

    Has Barker written much on the topic of Kabbalah or Hermeticism? This seems an obvious question to my mind, surely she’s had to have taken some sort of stance. How about you Joe, any particular thoughts on Kabbalah or Hermeticism you care to share? I don’t really have much to say except I think there are intriguing parallels to be drawn w/ much of Joseph Smith’s thinking (I’m thinking particularly of Lance Owens’ Dialogue article; here is William Hamblin’s FARMS review, which strikes me as needlessly defensive, but this was written 10 years ago…). I also admit to feeling like there is much temple symbolism that I’m failing to grasp, esp. pertaining to the creation, but my very small sampling of Kabbalistic literature hasn’t been particularly helpful for me in terms of getting more out of the temple ceremony. I’d love some book/article recommendations and discussion sometime about getting more out of the temple. So far, I’ve found studying creation themes as used in the scriptures the most insightful (and I find very provocative Barker’s notion of Wisdom as the reunification of what was separated in the Fall), but I also feel I’m missing a lot in the scriptures along these lines–which I is surely why so many of us Mormons find Barker’s work so fascinating….

  4. Broz said

    The best Commentary on Revelations is “Who shall be able to Stand” by Mike Wilcox. Look for it at Amazon or Deseret Book

    Everyone seems to want to read figerative meaning into the OT and not believe it in a literal sense. On the other hand, it seems everyone reads into Revelations literal meaning when its symbology is ment to be figurative. Nephi tells us that the scriptures are to be understood both literally and figuratively. But Bro, Wilcox focuses on the figerative message of Revelations and avoids speculation. He discovered that all the symbols used in Revelations are used elsewhere in the scriptures. So, the rest of the scriptures turns out to be the key to unlock the meaning in Revelatoins. The result of this approach is a book on Revelations that is actually uplifting and inspiring, not creepy. I highly recommend this book. After reading this book you will agree with Joseph Smith that REvelations was “the plainest book God had ever caused to be written”

  5. There are references to Kabbalah throughout Barker’s work, occasional references to Hermeticism. She even, curiously enough, draws on insights from old Celtic magic in one place.

    As for myself, I’d have to write out my response at some length and with more thought than I have time at the moment to give to it. Expect a fuller answer tomorrow.

  6. Robert C. said

    Broz, #4: Thanks for the Wilcox reference, I’m anxious to check it out.

    Joe, I haven’t got my hands on the Barker’s work on Revelation yet, but I’ve been reading her commentary on Isaiah in Eerdmans Commentary in the library. She spends a lot of time discussing parallels with 1 Enoch and how that book shows evidence of a First Temple tradition that seems important in First Isaiah. But what I found particularly intriguing was this blurb:

    There is no agreement among scholars as to how or whether 40:12-31 should be divided into smaller units, but such considerations are less important than setting the prophet’s confident declarations about creation in their temple context. The easiest way to recover this is by using the Pentateuch, which was, a tabout this time, retelling the story of Moses in term sof the older royal cult. Moses replaced the king figure after the end of the monarchy. Moses on Mt. Sinai was told to build the tabernacle as an exact copy of what he had seen (Ex 25:9, 40), but the summary account of the tabernacle building in Exod 40:17-32 suggests strongly that what Moses “copied” was not a heavenly temple but a vision of the whole creation which the tabernacle/temple represented. The construction of the tabernacle replicates the account of the creation. . . . The tradition in Jubilees is identical [to the “Book of the Origin of Heaven and Earth” of Gen 1, referred to in Gen 2:4a]; Moses on Mt. Sinai is told to write an account of the six days of creation (Jub. 2:1) and then of history until the institution of the Passover. Creation and history were one process in the temple tradition as preserved in Jubilees 2 (Barker 2001:17-25). [Emphasis original; from Eardmans p. 525]

    The Barker 2001 reference is confusing b/c the only 2001 reference in the Bibliography is “Hezekiah’s Boil” in JSOT 95:31-42 which doesn’t match up with the page numbers cited above. So I’m wondering if this should be 1991 instead of 2001, The Gate of Heaven, or some other year. If anyone knows where to find this discussion, I’d be very interested in tracking it down.

    In general, I think this is a very attractive way to read scripture, esp. apocalyptic visions. And I think it’s a fruitful way to consider the temple, as a microcosm of creation, history, our lives, etc. Part of what I clipped in the quote above is a tantalizing parallel between the first 4 days of creation and Moses building the tabernacle in Ex 40:19-25. Having wondered myself how the first days of creation might be symbolically interpreted, I found this quite interesting, esp. tying it in to Isaiah which still feels like an extremely opaque book to me.

  7. Robert,

    The Revelation commentary deals with these parallels as well (published 2000). As for her reading of Isaiah generally and the context of “the older royal cult,” I think it is best to read her _The Older Testament_, which was just reprinted so that it is affordable (if $40 is affordable!) again. I have not yet got my hands on a copy of _The Gate of Heaven_, but I imagine that it covers much of the same ground. Several articles in _The Great High Priest_ also deal with these parallels between Ex and the creation (in some ways that is the best place to start with Barker, though it is one of her most recent works: it is a collection of articles rather than a continuous argument, and it gives you a broader sense of what her work accomplishes). I think all of these same questions are vastly important.

    By the way, is Eerdman’s commentary worth buying do you think? I knew that she did the chapter on Isaiah, and I’ve been tempted a number of times to get it just for that, but the price is rather high if I’m only going to end up enjoying her sixty pages of it or whatever. Any sense you can get of the text as a whole?

  8. Robert C. said

    I emailed you the Journal of Theological Studies review of Eerdmans, though it isn’t very helpful. Here is a list of contributors. I own the Oxford Bible Commentary and, in a very brief comparison, my sense was that Eerdmans is slightly more readable and less technical. Also, I think Eerdmans includes more apocryphal and pseudigraphal books (like 1 Enoch). But I think they’re very similar. I have to admit I like having relatively brief commentaries like this to get a sense of a work as a whole. I rarely have time to sit down and read a full book commentary cover-to-cover and mostly use commentaries as reference for studying a particular passage in-depth. But then I have a hard time understanding the context of a passage, which makes one-volume commentaries like these very handy b/c I can quickly read commentary that covers several surrounding scriptural chapters and/or read the intro to the book of scripture which is much shorter than that in longer commentaries. My sense is that you wouldnt’ find this all that helpful, and so I have a hard time imagining Eerdmans being the best use of your marginal dollar. (On the other hand, I would highly recommend it for more of a beginning bible scholar as, say, a step up from free Dr. Constable notes I recently linked to.)

  9. Robert C. said

    Joe, I’ve begun reading Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ–fascinating! On p. 16, as an example of bitter divisions regarding temle reforsms, she contrasts Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s point of view regarding temple worship, Ezekiel warning against worshiping a goddess (Ezek 8:1-18) and Jeremiah relating that the reason for Jerusalem’s being “consumed by the sword” was b/c they neglected worshiping the queen of heaven (Jer 44:18). Do you have a sense of whether Barker is generally critical of Ezekiel, or equally critical of OT prophets when they seem to criticize First Temple concepts as Deuteronomistic influences? If the latter, I’m curious what kind of “external” checks there are to her theory. Although I think the case she makes is quite convincing in many respects, I worry she has what amounts to a self-serving theory, that she can just point to texts that support her view as authentic and texts that don’t as “reformed” and corrupted. I guess this is ultimately a problem with any ancient document theory, but b/c of this I’m still a bit hesitant to completely jump on board with some of her views….

  10. I should probably first mention that Barker carefully words her reference to Jeremiah. Jeremiah does not approve such a view, but he simply records/reports it (it is held by the Jews who fled to Egypt).

    As to “external” checks, Barker’s understanding of the Deuteronomistic editors is not uncommon at all. There are many scholars who have argued something like what she is arguing generally. The difference between their position and hers rests on two major points. First, most scholars who take up the Deuteronomists as an explanation for the text of the OT (whether through the finer filter of the documentary hypothesis or not) assume that the religion that obtained before the Deuteronomists was simply NOT ISRAELITE. The general reading is that the Deuteronomists essentially invented Judaism. Hence the almost general consensus now that the Bible was heavily edited in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. What is so unique about Margaret Barker, then, is that she is suggesting that this was the GENUINE religion, that the Deuteronomists were a step away from the truth, not towards it. (Now, this point is stated quite broadly; don’t cite me as an authority on this subject.) So, a first “external” check on Barker: many scholars argue that there were these two religions in the OT.

    Second–and ultimately it is this second point that grounds the first for Barker–this older religion continued in Israel even after the Deuteronomists did their editorial work, and it seems to have been the very foundation, the culture, the people of Christianity. In other words, she believes that the only reason we feel a leap from the OT to the NT is because of the Deuteronomist project. What is ultimately so astounding about her work is not so much that she gives us a way of reading the OT, but that she gives us a way of reading the NT. She opens up the connection between the older religion of the OT and the obvious religion of the NT. hence, a second “external” check: the New Testament confirms and brings to the center all over again the ancient religion she digs out of the Old Testament.

    Those two points aside, I feel the same tensions you mention here: at times I wonder whether she isn’t pressing this or that particular point too far because you can simply denounce anything that doesn’t match up as Deuteronomistic. However, I don’t think that the strength of her work is in the particulars but in the amassed picture she presents. For example, I’m still not sure how much I follow her reading of the queeen of heaven generally (and I’m not very comfortable with her reading of wisdom, in the end). But on the whole, she has done an amazing job at restoring the picture of Ancient Israel the way the Book of Mormon presents it (have you, by the way, heard her talk at the Joseph Smith Symposium at the Library of Congress last year? you can download the mp3 for free. Search for “Worlds of Joseph Smith” and you should find it).

  11. Robert C. said

    Thanks Joe. I basically already understood Barker’s reversal of the common view of the Deuteronomist editing, and that Barker’s strength is in the overall picture not just particulars, but your spelling it out like that is very helpful. Also, the implications of her position for reading the NT (and LDS scripture) is ultimately what I think makes her work so fascinating, though I’m just barely beginning to really grasp this (I didn’t really see this in the bits and pieces of her work that I’d previously read).

    I haven’t listened to her J. S. Syposium talk, I’ll listen to it soon (if anyone has any other listening recommendations, I have about a 20 minute commute to work and am always looking for CD’s and mp3’s I can listen to–I’d really appreciate any recommendations, esp. on scripture, theology, Mormon studies, hermeneutics, or philosophy).

    A lot of my questions here (and elsewhere) are just betraying my own impatience in learning everything yesterday!

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