While reading Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman's popular critique of biblical inerrancy (I posted on it here), I was shamed into finally getting to Christopher Tuckett's Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation (Fortress, 1987), which has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for several years now. Tuckett reviews textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, and other academic approaches to unscrambling the text and meaning of the Bible as it has come down to us. In this post I'll summarize his treatment of textual criticism, cultural context, and genre; in a planned second post, I'll cover other approaches.
Mormonism and Higher Criticism
First, a puzzle. The canonical LDS position against biblilcal inerrancy ought to make Mormons very open to scholarly critiques of the Bible as articulated by scholars over the last couple of hundred years. "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly" says the 8th Article of Faith — a bold invitation to investigate the extent to which particular Bible passages are, in fact, authentic and accurately transmitted by the manuscripts that have come down to us. And D&C 91 extends a similar invitation to consider non-canonical writings: "There are many things contained [in the Apocrypha] that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly." On the other hand, "there are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men."
I will grant that LDS scholars in the post-Nibley era have started to do work in this area. My question is why rank-and-file Mormons see higher criticism as just another tool of the adversary, right up there with evolution. I've got two theories: (1) The first generation of LDS scholars took their cues from orthodox Protestant scholars who, by the mid-20th century, saw evolution and higher criticism as twin evils threatening Christendom; and (2) LDS leaders who were instrumental in establishing the organizational culture of the CES had no formal training in or working knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Consequently, they were suspicious of scholars whose academic approach to the study of scripture was founded on studying the scriptural record in the original ancient languages. That's just my own speculation; perhaps readers have other ideas. I'll move on now to summarize some of the methods Tuckett covered in his book. They seem like useful tools for a Mormon reader to bring to a close reading of the New Testament.
If we truly had a copy of an inerrant Bible, the texts as they fell from the lips or the pen of the original speakers or writers, how would it differ from the present collection of thousands of manuscripts that have survived to the present day? Careful comparison between surviving manuscripts (the ones our present Bible is based on) permit modern scholars to identify and correct some (but not all) transmission errors. It seems obvious that anyone who takes the Bible seriously would like to have the best possible form of the text as a basis for study. As summarized by Tuckett:
However we approach the New Testament text and apply our various skills to it, we have to know what "it" is. All study of the New Testament presupposes a text, and hence a vital initial problem must be to determine what precisely is the wording of the text to be interpreted. ... The branch of study devoted to this problem is known as textual criticism.
That all sounds fine, so what's the problem? I think people get defensive when textual critics cast doubt on traditional biblical passages or interpretations that orthodox believers would prefer to rely on as authentic. For example, the story of the woman caught in adultery, John 7:53 to 8:11, is not in the earliest manuscripts of John (although it does appear in the manuscript used for the KJV New Testament, which is why it still appears in modern Bibles). The story appears to be a later addition, not part of the original text of John, and while that does not establish definitively that the story is apocryphal or fictional rather than beng an authentic teaching of Jesus, it is strong evidence against it.
Another example is Mark 16:9-20, the last half of the last chapter of Mark, which is also not present in the earliest manuscripts and appears to be a later addition. For some, it's easier to throw out textual criticism and keep the traditional text than to ask tough questions about which passages are reliable and which are not. Modern Bibles have text notes that comment on some of the problematic passages, helping modern readers be better informed about the text. I can't think of any good reasons the LDS edition of the Bible doesn't provide such information to LDS readers.
That's a term I simply made up to convey the idea that to properly understand a book of scripture or another ancient writing, you need to know (or would very much like to know) who wrote it, who the intended audience was, what motivated the author to write it, and so forth. Such problems are traditionally the focus of books titled "Introduction to the New Testament," which are often highly technical treatments of difficult interpretation problems related to authorship and audience. Tuckett devotes two separate chapters to these "Problems of Introduction," one covering general NT background issues such as who the Pharisees were or the details of Roman rule and administration of Judea and Galilee, and the other covering questions related to individual books such as Mark or Galatians. Obviously some background in these areas promotes better understanding of NT texts.
Not all NT introductions are designed for specialists, of course. For example, my bookshelf sports Raymond Brown's An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997, carrying the Catholic Nihil obstat imprint, no less), a detailed treatment that runs 800 pages but which is nevertheless aimed at the general reader. LDS scholars have contributed a steady stream of similar works tailored to LDS readers, such as Sidney B. Sperry's Paul's Life and Letters and also his The Spirit of the Old Testament. But even simple "Introduction" issues like the authorship of the Second Isaiah material or the authorship of the disputed Pauline letters create problems when writing to a general LDS audience.
A third general topic is genre. Given a few sentences of text, knowing whether they are part of a science fiction novel, a newspaper story, a high school student's book report, or an advertisement makes a lot of difference how you, the reader, are going to understand what is really being said. For example, a story that starts "once upon a time" is actually implying just the opposite: This never really happened.
But it's not immediately obvious why genre is an issue for the Bible: Isn't it all just scripture? No, it's not, it is all different types of writing, but some of the types or genres are quite unfamiliar to modern readers. For example, the long geneaologies of Jesus (each different) that show up early in Matthew and Luke. What are they trying to communicate? Or stories: The story of the good Samaritan, for example, is not really telling us anything at all about a particular Samaritan (the good one) or even Samaritans in general. But the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus with a question is presented as a true story, an event that actually happened, not as a parable. Or the difference between literal and figurative language: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins" isn't really teaching about wineskins, but not all such pronouncements are so easily judged. Learning about genre is one method of determining how we should understand these and other passages.
Incidentally, I posted my review of a short book on biblical genres awhile back: Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding. The thumbnail is under Bible Books on the left sidebar.