Thursday, November 21, 2013

Jesus is dead, I Presume

Jesus was a failed, apocalyptic, Jewish prophet--and not a prophet in the sense of actually making true prophecies, but just in the sense of saying things about the future.

File:Pologenie vo grob.jpgApparently, if I correctly paraphrased Bart Ehrman from one or more of his many Youtube appearances, this is a broad scholarly consensus regarding the historical Jesus. In his popular books, Ehrman isn't presenting anything that is new to scholars, he is just conveying it accessibly to a broader audience. Of course he will admit that there is disagreement on any number of details, and that there is room for some variety of interpretations. He also admits that history can not comment on the miraculous. By its nature, the discipline of scholarly history can't tell you anything conclusive about one off, miraculous events. But he is convinced enough of his basic analysis of Jesus that he is willing to go around preaching it. He is willing to make claims about Christian belief in the divine based on historical research.

This disconnect between scholarly history and religious experience seems obvious enough to me that for years I couldn't be bothered to pay serious attention to unbelieving scholars. I feel about it a lot like I feel about the psychology of religion. It is worth learning about because it is likely that we each hold false beliefs. Understanding scholarship can help us weed out some of our errors and can enrich our understanding. But when the scholarship goes beyond its limits, it isn't worth much. False hypothesis, arbitrary conclusion. I know revelation happens and God lives. I have data sources I accept that demonstrate this conclusively to my satisfaction. These are not data sources that I could or would use in a chemistry paper, or that I would presume prove these truths to anyone else's satisfaction. We each have to weigh evidence, and personal, internal experience (including trust in specific people, like my ancestors, or Joseph Smith) is not something you can pass on academically. I have this evidence, so I've been happy mostly limiting my scholarly intake as regards religion to scholars who share these beliefs.

My entry into biblical scholarship.

Then I started having friendly and trusting feelings (maybe it's a friendship, but it is really rather one-sided, since I know him much better than he knows me) with a New Testament scholar who is LDS but seems to believe roughly what Bart Ehrman does about Jesus. It made me want to understand, and begin to wonder if there was something more compelling in the dominant conclusions of biblical scholarship than I had imagined. How far do the limits of biblical scholarship extend? Had I been assuming those limits were too narrow, and that scholars really could say more about Jesus' life and teachings than I was giving them credit for? Of course, I knew they could say more about Jesus than I knew, but I mean did they really have something that seriously challenged the validity of my religious views of Jesus? I asked my friend for some substantial recommendations. He gave me several. I'm working my way through the recommendations, now. What follows is my emotional/logical response to one of these books:

In Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders presents an attempt to understand the historical Jesus in the context of 1st century Judaism. If you want to understand the methods behind a scholarly approach to understanding Jesus, and you want an overview of major arguments made from about 1900-1975, the introduction alone is well worth reading. Honestly, I'm not much past it, but there are so many things in it that I have to write now, before I've finished the book. I'm going to give you a few examples of things I found valuable or informative.

Apparently there are only a few agreed on facts about Jesus. "The almost indisputable facts, listed more or less in chronological order are these:
  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  3. Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  4. Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  5. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  6. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  7. After his death Jesus' followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  8. At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement, and it appears that this persecution endured at least to a time near the end of Paul's career. 
End quote.

The problem(s)

The problem scholars face is tying as many of these things as possible together into a coherent story that fits the external facts of history. One difficulty in trying to tell this story is that almost every saying attributed to Jesus is suspect. This will begin to have practical consequences in the very first section of his book where Sanders discusses the temple controversy. I almost laughed aloud at this gem of a sentence on the first page of chapter 1: "Despite all this, it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus did something in the temple and said something about its destruction." Sanders' discussion is much better than that sentence suggests, but he has really put himself, and all scholars, in a very difficult position. Before anyone can make any claims about Jesus' teachings--the very best potential window into Jesus' thought and intention--he or she must make long, detailed arguments about what Jesus actually said.

Getting back to the introduction, the problems with sayings are essentially insuperable. To summarize Sanders' stance: 1. We know the sayings have been transmitted by the church, and so have been altered, or at least maintained, in a way that biases them in favor of the church institution (this means the early Christian movement, not a specific denomination). I'm going to pause here for a little preaching about the value of taking scholarship seriously. Latter-day Saints should respect the fact that scripture has changed. According to the Pew Research Center's survey on religion, the majority of Mormons do believe this. While accepting scripture as the word of God, we do not believe in scriptural inerrancy. We save that for modern LDS interpretation as implemented in our policies, lesson manuals, and General Conference. That's from the Pew survey, too, although they didn't ask exactly that question. They asked if there is only one correct interpretation of our doctrine. About half of Latter-day Saints believed there is only one correct interpretation, despite ample evidence that interpretations of many doctrines, both central and peripheral, have changed over our 150 year history. These changes have happened even with our ample access to historical documents and our access to the printing press. Here's a clear case of, if we don't learn history we are likely to repeat it. I'll leave you to judge what we will be repeating.

Back to Sanders. 2. Tests people have used to attempt to objectively determine the original forms of sayings are unreliable. Here's another aside. We do not have sufficient documentary evidence upon which to base truly objective analyses of Jesus' teachings. You can't plug his words into a statistical program designed for assigning authorship and determine anything at all. In fact, you can barely think about doing it with Paul, and I don't think you can even do it with Paul. It's hard enough with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and there are many more thousands of words in documents we have from Joseph Smith. So you can't do it with statistics, but textual critics claim they can do it objectively from inferred original sources that have no direct documentary evidence. I have to say, if there weren't so many of us who revere the Bible, we'd have a lot of out of work scholars.

Sanders again. 3. "In a few instances there is indisputable evidence that a saying has been altered or perhaps created after the death of Jesus, but we can give nothing like a catalogue of the kinds of changes that may have been introduced." In other words, we know a few things changed. We have no evidence of changes in most of the sayings (other than, perhaps, a different way of paraphrasing the same message). About the only thing that can be shown (almost) conclusively is that for the few sayings where changes are clearly documented, Jesus didn't say the later version. So for most sayings we are making our most educated guesses. We are extrapolating, and extrapolating based on subjective criteria. One of Ehrman's favorite Youtube arguments is that since we know a few changes happened later, between 100 and 200 CE, the changes that happened before then must have been much bigger. I say, maybe you're right. My chemistry experience has shown me that extrapolation is the least accurate type of prediction, so show me the algorithm you used to do your extrapolation, and don't assume I'm too dumb to understand the details. This is why I wanted to read the real stuff. I wanted the best, nitty-gritty reviews of what biblical scholars know.

What would Jesus say?

What are some of the ways scholars argue authenticity? Sanders describes one type of test for authenticity of sayings called "double dissimilarity". If a saying is different from what Jews taught, and is different from what later Christians taught, then it pretty confidently came from Jesus. Sanders concludes that this is a little helpful, but not very. I think I agree, so I won't go into his discussion of the problems with this approach.

Another question that biblical scholars have to address is whether Jesus had a plan, and whether he himself knew what that plan was. They have to figure this out without knowing exactly what Jesus said, too. I don't envy them this task. In fact, Sanders claims that all of the major attempts to define this plan and draw connections from it to Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans have major flaws. The flaws he points out seem pretty convincing. I will note here that Sanders does not include among the possible hypotheses the plan as Christians (any Christians, early or late) came to understand it. Apparently it is self-evident that such an understanding was imposed after the fact and could not have been held by Jesus. In defense of Sanders and other scholars, I agree that they can't consider this possibility in their publications and be true to the standards of their profession. I should say, that is true if their funding is secular. I would not permit into a scientific journal a chemistry article that argued based on revelation, on miraculous healings, or on the resurrection of Jesus. I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't even want it as a basis for argument in Book of Mormon studies, necessarily. You can discuss these things as people's experiences, but not as a basis for rational argument. I just don't agree that the resurrection hypothesis is unworthy of examination. Thankfully, there are religiously funded scholars who can entertain and examine hypotheses that incorporate the literal resurrection of Jesus, but Sanders isn't among them (I'm not assuming he wants to be).

The resurrection

I noticed in the introduction that the resurrection of Jesus is a key part of understanding the success of early Christianity. Whether or not it happened, scholars recognize the importance of the resurrection experience as understood by early Christians. This experience (real or perceived) changed how Christians understood Jesus' sayings. Whether it also caused them to modify or invent sayings is a question that must be asked. Ah, how the waters get muddier! Already in the first chapter, this will become a problem, and the implicit assumptions of scholarly history will hijack Sanders' discussion of Jesus. He will still have interesting things to say, but their appeal to someone like me will begin to wane.

Implicit assumptions

Scholarly history requires naturalistic explanations. Jesus may have healed people, or people may have thought they were healed by Jesus, but the explanation that is not allowed is that Jesus did it inexplicably. As Latter-day Saints, we can go along with that because of people like Brigham Young who taught that all miracles obey the laws of nature, but that's not really what scholars are assuming. They are assuming Jesus couldn't have done his miracles (or perceived miracles) through the power of God. So they are rejecting the Mormon view of miracles, too. Another example. Jesus died, and the tomb might have been empty on the third day. Jesus' followers might have experienced his resurrection (hallucinations, lies from power or fame seeking leaders, self-delusions, or something), but His actual, physical resurrection cannot be part of the scholarly discourse. Let's look next at prophecy. Jesus might have had good foresight, and he certainly was a prophet, because he said things about what would happen in the future. However, Jesus can't have known that he would be resurrected (he wasn't resurrected, so he couldn't have known he would be), so the statement that the temple would be destroyed and built again after three days can't have been referring to Jesus' death and resurrection. In his first chapter, Sanders doesn't discuss this possibility. The result is an entire chapter that can't conclude anything. Sanders' conclusion is that every major naturalistic explanation of Jesus statement about the destruction of the temple is even more flawed than the one he favors. Sanders is quite good about recognizing weaknesses in his own arguments, but as Sherlock Holmes says, when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the answer. The hypothesis that remains is that Jesus thought the end of the world was coming quick. Someone would destroy the temple, and three days later (maybe) God would bring down a newly built temple (made without hands).

I got to this point and thought, wow, I'm done. We've already proved that Jesus was a failed (his prophecy didn't come true), apocalyptic (he thought the end of the world was almost here) prophet. All that's left is to show that he's a product of 1st century Judaism, and I don't really care if that's true once I know he failed. I know Joseph Smith was a product of 19th century America, so why should it bother me if Jesus was a Jew? As you might imagine, my interest in this book declined, at this point. Sanders ignored as a possibility the very interpretation of this saying given in the Bible--namely that Jesus knew he would die and be resurrected. He was forced to ignore it by the historical method, even if it wasn't his inclination (I can't speak to that). It is possible that Sanders was right. What is not possible is that his scholarship has anything to say about the resurrection of Christ. He assumed a priori that the resurrection did not occur and that prophecy can't be more than intelligent foresight or wishful thinking. And he's not doing it in some clever mathematical way, like assuming A and showing not A, so A can't be true. He's assuming not A and showing not A. I think the word for that is tautology. As far as I know, tautologies are only proof that definitions exist. Maybe there are going to be more relevant, thoughtful discussions of the resurrection hypothesis later in the book, but I doubt it. You see, Sanders laid out his plan. He would start from the agreed on event that is most revealing of the historical Jesus--the controversy in the temple--and build on that to create the most accurate depiction of the historical Jesus. Already at his foundation he has ignored the hypothesis I favor. I'm skeptical about my ability to respect his subsequent conclusions, and there isn't really anything Sanders can do about it. His professional standards prevent it. Maybe his hypothesis is better than mine--it's certainly better informed--but they weren't ever compared.

I want to step aside and make some things clear. I am really liking the care with which Sanders presents his arguments. He has put all his cards on the table and is not shy about pointing out the limitations of his own conclusions. The one thing he hasn't said is that all his arguments are founded on this strict, atheistic naturalism. I believe in natural explanations for things. I'm committed to it, professionally. I'm also committed to it as one of those Mormons who thinks all truth, religious and scientific, can be reconciled into one great whole. I suspect we might be children of evolved Gods that came into being, innumerable generations ago, through semi-random events. But Sanders' strict naturalistic explanation has already led him away from even discussing any possibilities I could believe in. It looks like most of the rest of the book is dedicated to supporting the hypothesis that Jesus is a failed, apocalyptic, Jewish prophet, but without comparing it to the hypothesis that Jesus was a successful deity. If, at the end of the day, he concludes that he has accurately shown who the historical Jesus was, all I can say is, you didn't even examine the Jesus I know.

I'll finish with Sanders' own conclusion to his introduction:
That the problem we have posed is not susceptible of a rock-hard answer which absolutely excludes all others is shown not only by the difficulties which can be brought against any hypothesis, but also by the very large number of hypotheses. It is almost a foregone conclusion that a fresh attempt to unravel the problem--or rather set of problems--which we have posed will not come up with a totally new answer. There are no totally new answers (except for fictional constructions) to be offered. We shall, however, investigate the most pertinent points in an effort to come up with the best answer. One is looking for a hypothesis which explains more (not everything), which gives a good account (not the only one) of what happened, which fits Jesus realistically into his environment, and which has in view cause and effect.
Is it beating a dead horse to add, a hypothesis that fits the naturalistic assumptions of the historical method?

My conclusions

  • I like the care with which Sanders approaches his work. I assume many other biblical scholars take similar care.
  • If something in the Bible or in our beliefs is subject to measurement, we should not only be unafraid to measure it, it is incumbent upon us to do so. The Gospel is all truth, so if we want to believe the Gospel, we better be willing to throw away falsehood as we uncover it. This means that we should be looking to these careful scholars for answers where their methods are justly applied. Growth requires restraining our defensive instincts.
  • Biblical scholarship is inherently limited by naturalistic assumptions. So is science. That shouldn't stop us from doing it, but Reader Beware when you turn to history asking it to speak on subjects outside of its scope. If you assume Jesus is dead, it should be no surprise that your conclusions agree with your assumptions.
  • If you can't identify the assumptions behind the scholarship, you don't understand the scholarship. It may not be your fault. The experts may not have told you what they assume. Some assumptions may be such integral parts of their thought that they don't even recognize them anymore. That's what makes them experts. If they had to start from the ground up with everything they wrote, no progress would be made. But don't think that because there is scholarly consensus it means that the story is over. Especially when the scholars themselves are giving answers to questions they say that scholarship can't conclusively answer.
  • I don't think I have the patience or interest to seek out the good in biblical scholarship and reexamine it in light of the things I "know" about God, revelation, the temple, and the plan of salvation.
  • I hope Latter-day Saints who do have the patience and the interest will carefully examine the work of these scholars and communicate the best of it to me. I can't imagine that my religious experience and understanding will be anything but enriched by such efforts. 
  • To scholars: if it's important to you that I understand the work of scholars, don't tell me to go read a synthesis by an unbeliever. I'll see his assumptions and constantly be fighting suspicion of his conclusions. I'll be wondering  Write it yourself with assumptions of unbelief weeded out. Show me how your conclusions aren't predetermined by unbelieving assumptions. I'll hear it better.
I'll continue a while longer working through my reading list. There has already been lots of interesting stuff in the first parts of the first two books (I haven't written about the other). Maybe the books my friend says are from "a more faithful perspective" will be more interesting to me. I don't have time or patience for scholars who look for the historical Jesus while assuming He's dead.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Parenting, Childhood, and Separation

A repost from Rational Faiths for my personal blog readers.

An Australian working mother and BBC reporter, Madeleine Morris, is producing a series of short documentaries on childcare around the world. She's asking, "Who's left holding the baby?" She began with Australian nursery, or daycare. (Unfortunately, I can't find a link to the podcast.) Her child goes to nursery, and lots of parents really like it; however, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for a family. It seems that a good daycare can avoid most of the reported negatives of daycare, and can even provide some benefits that a typical home can't, but it's still hard for many children and parents to be separated. It's especially hard when children can go into daycare as young as 6 weeks old. From Australia she went to Fiji, where communal child rearing is still practiced. Children are watched over and disciplined by everyone, but are also left to play their own games and work out their own conflicts, most of the time. The Fijian children show a resilience and confidence that is attractive to Madeleine, and her three year-old joins right in with their play, but they aren't as well prepared to deal with the particular rigors of the kind of schooling that Australian children are prepared for.

In the second installment (I hope it stays available) she visits an elite kindergarten boarding school in China. I get the impression these schools were developed for some very good reasons--for helping with orphans and for families where both parents have to work very long hours. The school that was visited evaluates applicants and encourages families to put their children in daycare only, if possible. During the day, the children seem happy. There is a lot to do, and they are helped to play and learn based on their interests, not some fixed curriculum. These programs were started many years ago. Many of the adults deal with aftereffects of feeling abandoned, and don't know how to interact with their families. Others have adapted well, but China is largely phasing out these boarding kindergartens. The painful part was when the reporter described bedtime. Some of the children are three years old. Bedtime means lights out with 20 children and only two--admittedly loving--teachers. Most children won't cry for even a half hour before going to sleep. That's all. They're resilient. Yeah.

I have a four year-old and a two year-old. They don't go to sleep without one of their parents. We probably could have trained them to go to sleep on their own, but I'll tell you, even if it were a good thing, it doesn't work for everyone. As a baby, our four year-old didn't just fall asleep after crying for 15 minutes. The times we had to set him down by himself because we couldn't hold him, he would cry for half an hour and then throw up and keep crying some more. I want to cry just remembering. As a four year-old, he chose to stop going to playschool because he doesn't like saying goodbye to us. He loved playschool some days. Some days he didn't want to come home (they have a playground), but after two months of twice a week, he said he didn't want to go anymore. Just recently my two year-old woke up early. We ate breakfast together, him sitting on my lap, but then I needed to go to work. There I was, putting on my bike helmet and closing the door on my child--the child who loves going outside, loves riding in the bike trailer, loves his dad, and has never spent more than a couple of minutes alone and awake in his entire life. I saw the tears and panic forming in his eyes. I saw the undefined sense of abandonment and questioning on his face as I closed the door between us. I was crying and doing my G-rated version of cursing in my head as I rode away. (Maybe you are getting the sense that I cry a lot. I do, recently, but it's good for my mental health, so don't worry.) Tying this all back in to the BBC documentaries, I agree with Madeleine Morris's conclusions. Children are resilient, parents and families have to make the best choices they can, and lots of different choices can be good parenting. Judging parenting styles is not the point of my writing. I'm headed toward another analogy.

I find LDS theology all-consuming. I have Heavenly Parents. They shut the door between us, and sometimes I feel alone and panicked. I don't know how long it is going to go on. I don't know what scary things will happen while we are separated. I do trust in two things: my Parents didn't shut the door until I chose to walk out it--until I thought I was ready to leave the garden--and my Parents cry for my pain and wish I didn't have to feel alone and abandoned.

I'm Mormon. It's just who I am. There isn't a specific why. Maybe I'm not simply a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the Plan of Salvation is my story. I live it, I breath it, I think about it. I struggle with it, I'm a product of it, I'm a perpetrator of it. I live the pain of separation and sin, I strive for exaltation. I believe the Gospel is everything that's true and real (and not anything that is false or fake), and I don't know what it means to exist outside of that. So I'm Mormon.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Before Abraham Was and the Book of Mormon

Heads up: 3000+ words. I plan to post a 1500 word version of this review on sometime next year. Only read if you are really interested.

I believe the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be and that we got it in the way Joseph Smith says we got it. You shouldn't assume too much about the details of my belief from that statement, but in broad strokes I am a literal believer. Here is my current model of how the Book of Mormon came to be:
  • Ancient prophets kept records, and Mormon, with help from Moroni, compiled, edited, and preserved these records as described in the Book of Mormon itself.
  • Joseph Smith received gold plates which contained this record. (See contemporary, first hand witness accounts of the existence of these plates.)
  • Joseph Smith translated this record by inspiration, not by reading the words and using a dictionary. Joseph Smith dictated the entire Book of Mormon without notes or outside reference. (See first hand witness accounts.)
  • The translation was tightly controlled, but not ironclad. God inspired Joseph with the ideas to write, including some specific wordings and spellings of names. Joseph contributed his own language only as any other faithful translator would. (See works of Royal Skousen on how studying the original and printers manuscripts illustrate tight control rather than loose or ironclad control. See the non-contextual word analyses of John Hilton and his collaborators for objective evidence that large portions of the Book of Mormon do not match Joseph Smith's use of language.)
  • The King James Version wording of biblical passages was inspired so that we could make rigorous connections between ancient Hebrew and Greek biblical words and the language of the Book of Mormon. If Joseph had presented a new translation of the same passages, or if he had used 19th century language instead of KJV language in non-biblical Book of Mormon passages, we would not be able to make direct connections between biblical meanings and Book of Mormon passages. The exact quotations tell us that when the Book of Mormon uses KJV words, we can with confidence examine biblical meanings of those words to better understand the Book of Mormon, and we can use Book of Mormon meanings of those words to more fully comprehend the Bible. (See Legrand Baker and Stephen Ricks, Who Shall Ascend unto the Hill of the Lord, for an example of the potential fruits of this approach for a believing reader.) Subpoint: Errors present in the KJV of Joseph's day were only corrected when there was an important difference in meaning. Other anachronistic errors were ignored, or Joseph made mistakes in his translation because of prejudiced knowledge of the passages—the errors of men, which the Book of Mormon itself claims to have.
This view of the Book of Mormon means that I believe the Isaiah passages were copied by Nephi from the Brass Plates. This means that I believe that Jesus actually gave the Sermon on the Mount, and that it wasn't compiled later from collections of wisdom sayings. This means I believe that Mormon compiled the whole thing (almost), and that it wasn't put together through some inspired conglomeration of 1. ancient stories revealed to or invented by Joseph Smith, 2. selections from the King James Version of the Bible, and 3. nineteenth century wisdom and sermons. This view apparently leaves me open to scholarly criticism. It seems that the Bible, as seen through the Book of Mormon, doesn't line up with the Bible as seen through 150+ years of biblical scholarship. I'll be up front about what does and doesn't bother me. Rejecting biblical inerrancy works for me. Recognizing inconsistencies that need explanation works for me. Recognizing editorial changes, especially in the selection of which texts are recognized as canon, works for me. Making educated guesses about how editorial changes might have happened and what was changed works for me. Claiming that because biblical scholarship has 150 years of consensus, so I should accept that and do mental gymnastics to explain how Joseph Smith could have put deutero-Isaiah into the Book of Mormon seems crazy to me. So before I invent new explanations of the Book of Mormon translation process that stretch the historical record, I'm going to need to be really convinced.

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I 'm a trained scientist. I figured I was smart enough to understand the biblical scholarship if I found the right stuff and put in enough time, and I decided it was time to find out for myself. I had two problems with continuing forward on the authority of my favorite Latter-day Saint scholars and friends: 1. I'm a chemist with a healthy respect for the academy. 2. I'm a Mormon who engages with other Mormons who don't accept the positions of the LDS scholars as readily as I do. So I picked up some available biblical scholarship for a general audience. It was depressing. Most of it was too shallow to judge the scholarship on its merits. Of the more serious books, I found one author who explained how different verses in the creation account in Genesis could be assigned to three separate sources. I'd heard of the Documentary Hypothesis, and read that it was the dominant working theory in Old Testament studies (and I think New Testament, too, in a different form), but no one had ever really explained it to me. The summaries and books I somewhat randomly picked up didn't help. I couldn't take them seriously.

I have some professional biases regarding evidence. I'm a biophysical chemist which, in my case, means I do research relying heavily on numerical data and the laws of thermodynamics—a bit like we imagine physicists do. I also deal with approximations and qualitative data—a lot like many biologists. So I view myself as having a pretty good grasp of the problems involved in trying to relate exact data to approximate conclusions. When biophysicists make assumptions and approximations, I expect them to state the assumptions clearly, discuss potential sources of error, and evaluate how big those errors are likely to be. I wanted to hold biblical scholars to these standards and see how their conclusions measured up. I'm still working on the New Testament, thanks to some great recommendations from a friend. As for the Old Testament I might have gotten lucky with one book I found.
Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11, by Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, sells itself as “A provocative challenge to the documentary hypothesis.” At the time it was written (1985), both authors were professors and the University of California at Berkeley, so I suspected they didn't fit into the camp of conservative Christians who oppose the documentary hypothesis, or Mormon scholars who dismiss it on various grounds. I was not disappointed with the book. In fact, it was a wonderful read.

The first thing Kikawada and Quinn did was convince me that the scholars who argue for and elaborate on the documentary hypothesis aren't universally idiots or ideologues (something I suspected, but my unsystematic initial approach had not confirmed). They did it by separating out the entire flood account into two stories. I'll give you a piece. Notice how you can read one and then read the other and it really sounds like two complete, and different, tellings of the same story:

The waters prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily upon the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

But god remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.
The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.

The rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him anymore.

And Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold the face of the ground was dry.

If you leave out the chapter and verse numbers, you could read the first account and think, “Yep, that's the incredibly boring Old Testament that I made myself slog through so I could say I read the entire Old Testament in Seminary.” If you read the second account, you'd think, “Yep, these are the Bible stories I heard in Sunday School when I was a kid.” That's an oversimplification, but it's how I now understand the motivation behind making the documentary hypothesis. It turns out you can split up nearly all of Genesis 1-11 in this way, and you can use fairly consistent clues in the text itself to tell you how to divide it. Of course it doesn't work perfectly, but it works so well that biblical scholars have been able to argue for it, and about it, for 150 years or more. I was actually relieved that it finally made sense to me. My emotions would now let me start taking mainstream biblical scholars more seriously. But Kikawada and Quinn were just doing this to set up their main argument.

The central premise of Kikawada and Quinn's arguments is that the presumed sole author of Genesis 1-11 is at least as clever and conscious of form and content as other great authors throughout history. This contrasts greatly with assumptions implicit (and at times explicit) in the documentary hypothesis. You see, the Old Testament is littered with seemingly nonsensical contradictions and questionably moral stories. In elaborating the documentary hypothesis, scholars have carefully picked apart these inconsistencies and suggested that an (apparently sloppy or careless) editor or editors put the Pentateuch (and other books) together from at least three different sources. Only by splitting it up in this way can you explain all the textual difficulties. This approach has also fostered the view (popular with a number of my Transhumanist friends) that the Old Testament is morally backward and that modern morality is much more evolved. Kikawada and Quinn have taken what seems to me a humbler approach (although they've taken it with great pride in how they have seen more than 150 years of previous biblical scholars). Instead of assuming carelessness and moral smallness, they assume intelligence, rhetorical skill, and great feeling for humanity. It appears you can use this perspective to reinterpret many of the same passages that were evidence of the documentary hypothesis. Overlooked evidence of careful craftsmanship starts turning up everywhere you look, with hints that further study will reveal even more.
The primary example of conscious craftsmanship is found in a pattern belonging to another pre-biblical work, the Akkadian Atrahasis Epic. The pattern is:
  1. Creation
  2. First Threat
  3. Second Threat
  4. Final Threat
  5. Resolution
This pattern is found in the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah, and the story of the tower of Babel. It appears again with Moses, and arguably with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with David and Solomon. It's almost fractal like, or nested in its appearances, with the pattern being recognizable on the level of individual stories, and also at the level of the entire Pentateuch. Kikawada and Quinn demonstrate how the several stories that the documentary hypothesis splits apart actually contribute to faithfully reproducing the pattern. It is very possible Kikawada and Quinn are reading too much into the text, but I find the fruits of Kikawada and Quinn's approach more rewarding than those of the documentary hypothesis, so for now I'll work from there.

What are some of those fruits? First they give me increased respect for Book of Mormon scholarship. I see critical scholars (and simply critics) pooh-poohing the work of Jack Welch on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Kikawada and Quinn rely heavily on evidence and interpretation of chiasm in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, quoting and citing biblical scholars who use chiasm as evidence. It appears that to ignore Welch's work would require rejection of a common element in mainstream biblical scholarship, and the scholarship of ancient literature more generally. I see Book of Mormon scholars making great efforts to pay close attention to the Book of Mormon text and to incorporate evidence from outside—looking at biblical scholarship, 19th century scholarship, mesoamerican and near eastern studies, and language and rhetorical analysis. Kikawada and Quinn criticize proponents of the documentary hypothesis for Genesis of remaining too closely in their narrow, reductionist textual analysis and thus arriving at unsubstantiated conclusions—conclusions that have been discarded elsewhere in classical studies because of a greater availability of external data for comparison.

The second fruit is a continued respect for the moral authority of the Bible. I don't find the Old Testament backwards. I don't find modern humanity so incredibly superior. Many Old Testament stories are violent, nationalistic, racist, sexist, etc., but the moral messages found in these stories most often seem complex, human, and humane, to me. Maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see, but when Kikawada and Quinn assume intelligence and humanity in the authors, they are able to find what seems to me substantial and coherent evidence supporting that hypothesis.
The last fruit is my own synthesis of an explicit theme running throughout the book. Kikawada and Quinn see in Genesis, and much of the Old Testament, a rejection of cities and civilization and a glorification of the nomadic lifestyle. With cities and civilization come problems of overcrowding, overpopulation, overutilization of resources, and a resulting devaluing of new births. The Bible, on the other hand, praises and commands the spreading of children over the whole earth, praises the nomadic lifestyle not controlled by kings or by the trappings of civilization, and emphasizes the movement and action of God himself. By the end, they managed to convince me that this theme might really be there. And I like it. As you read on, you find that it isn't simply a “nomads are more righteous than city folk” morality, but it does highlight two virtues that really attract me. First, God and all of his chosen people are expected to keep moving. I see in this shades of eternal progression. Second, having lots of children is a good thing. I see in this a morality that fits with an evolutionarily successful God.

Where does this leave me? I'll give a comparison a biblical scholar friend of mine used when describing Book of Mormon apologetics. He called it, “All the evidence we don't have agrees with us.” I admit a little delight in turning it back on biblical scholars. Where are the separate documents? There are, according to the documentary hypothesis, at least four, and some argue more, separate sources necessary to maintain the documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch. My understanding is that none of them have been found. The only documents we have already have all of the sources mixed together. No one has found the stories split apart, or combined in ways that only use two of the sources but not the third or fourth. In this regard, Kikawada and Quinn's hypothesis is much simpler. They don't have to postulate unidentifiable sources, but instead provide an extant ancient source as a text which the author of Genesis may have used as a model and may have been responding to. They postulate a single, skilled author, which seems to me more typical of literature that has lasted to our day than does composite editing. So what do I say to critics who would have me defend the Bible quotes found in the Book of Mormon? I'll read your arguments and try to understand them, if you've made them accessible to me. But you need to show me first and second Isaiah. Show me the wisdom literature that was pieced together into the Sermon on the Mount. Then I will feel a need to defend and explain the Book of Mormon. Until then, I'm not the one claiming that all the evidence we don't have agrees with me. I'm the one providing the hard evidence. The Book of Mormon is right in front of you. The history is there to show that it was dictated entirely by Joseph Smith. The objective statistics are there to show that large parts of it were written by authors other than Joseph Smith. Address some of these data in a respectful, scholarly, and compelling way and then I will feel compelled to respond. Until then, I hope you're having fun. I'll do my best to be respectful of those who blindly trust your authority, but don't be surprised if I roll my eyes when I hear you rehash the same old material.