Bob Price

Clay Painter of Mormon Expression interviewed Bob Price, a former Baptist Pastor, turned liberal Christian, turned atheist.  Bob describes himself as religiously friendly, and had some interesting things to say about the Book of Mormon. He is a Fellow at the Jesus Seminar.  Of course, he doesn’t believe in the divinity of the book, but still finds value in the Book of Mormon.  I transcribed the entire interview at my website, but thought I would give some excerpts from the interview here and see your reactions.

Clay, “What draws you to Mormon Studies and the Book of Mormon?  How did you even become involved in that?”

Bob Price, “Well, uh, I think it was now looking back a few years, I somehow got in touch with Mark Thomas at BYU.  I got him to write a fascinating article for the Journal of Higher Criticism that I had started/edited, and he did this thing on basically a history of critical study of the Book of Mormon.  People gradually trying to apply to the text methods of modern biblical criticism, and I just found the whole idea fascinating.  I already figured it was a modern work.  I’d read enough of it to know that and I began to read some of these symposia from Signature Books and I thought ‘Wow, this is just a burgeoning field of fascinating scholarly inquiry so I tried my hand at it and got involved with Mark and the Book of Mormon Roundtable and prepared papers for that, and that’s what most of the stuff in my collection Latter-Day Scripture is.  I just found it so fascinating to consider what I already knew about the Book of Mormon in light of what I had learned about the Bible.

For instance, this original debate that still rages: is the Book of Mormon from the 19th century or is it an ancient book?  Well, I figured that was settled but in light of Biblical studies, for it to be a forgery in a sense, a pious fraud, that looks a lot less bad in terms of the history of scripture because so much of all scripture is pseudepigraphical, it’s almost part of the scripture genre.  It’s over-simplified to say this is a rip-off, it’s a hoax or a fraud.  It’s not quite that way.  It’s just certain writings on certain subjects have to adopt the pose of venerable, ancient, perhaps lost scripture in order to underline the depth and the archaic antiquity of the ideas they are trying to expound.

And so, I wrote an essay that was in Dialogue I think, called Joseph Smith: Inspired Author of the Book of Mormon.  I said, ‘you know you LDS Christians, you shouldn’t be that worried about this.  Here’s what mainstream, at least orthodox, liberal Christians and scholars know about the Bible, an awful lot of it is fake, if you want to call it that.  But that’s no real problem, maybe you could see it that way too and rid yourself of an awful headache, and it would make more sense if you admitted yes, Joseph Smith is the author of our scripture.  Wouldn’t that actually befit his role as a founding prophet more than the idea that he’s just an archaeologist who’s stumbled on an ancient text?

I mean he is the authority, you recognize that in your other books like the Doctrine and Covenants.  Why not come clean and admit that yeah, he wrote this too, and that’s fine. He’s the prophet.  Do you think he is or don’t you?  Of course, I don’t have the personal faith but I look at it in sociological terms.  Is this man the founding prophet of a religious community?  Yes he is.  Is Reverend Moon?  Yes he is.

Functionally, the guy is a prophet and even a Messiah if you want to call him that. You don’t really have to push it farther than that.  And once you see, ok I have a scripture here, revered by zillions of people, maybe I could be of some help showing how the dilemma is not as bad as they think it is, and that’s sort of the approach I’ve taken.  I don’t regard myself as an apologist for the Book of Mormon, but I do think you can reframe the whole debate in a way that’s much more healthy and positive and productive.

Clay, “No that’s great.  You know I hear you saying that Joseph Smith, he’s the author of the Book of Mormon, but let’s not worry about it so much because he’s just doing what thousands of years of history, you know historical prophets have done in the past when they’ve had a message, they’ve reframed it, they’ve claimed authority from other people that have religious clout.  Is that correct?  Is that kind of your main point there?

Robert, “Well, it’s half of it.  I’d go on from there to say that once you recognize this isn’t just a straight forward history, nor is it just a hoax pretending to be straight forward history, you begin to open a window into understanding the deeper dimensions of the text.  Once you say now, this sounds a lot like the Bible, but Smith wrote it, how’d he do that?  Did he combine certain passages because he liked elements of this one and that one and cross them into a new synthesis?

Well yeah he did, and this really did give me great respect for this man, as a creative theologian and writer.  It’s just fascinating, the way in 3 Nephi for instance, his narrative of the Second Coming of Christ into the Western Hemisphere, the way he’s combined various elements of the gospels and why he did and the theological implications.  This guys’ not—I mean even a non-Mormon, even an anti-Mormon shouldn’t look at this guy and say he’s just a hoaxer.  No, No, No.  You’ve got a real creative mind here, a literary genius in some ways.  But you’d never recognize that.  You’d never be free to recognize it if you didn’t realize the sacred game the guy was playing, just like the authors of Deuteronomy and the Book of Daniel, and the Book of Revelation and so much other biblical material did.

Clay, “No that’s good.  Let’s back up just a tad and talk about pseudepigrapha in general.  You mentioned that the Bible is littered with pseudepigrapha.  Do you have kind of a—you mentioned three books there but what books in the Bible are fairly conclusively pseudepigrapha?”

Bob, “Well, unless you’re just a fundamentalist stopping your ears up, Daniel is just very obviously pseudopigraphical and there are many other books not in the canon that take the same approach where the author poses as some wise man of the past, usually more of a scribe than a prophet which is kind of a wink to the reader to signal that this is a literary work, not a transcription of a vision despite the content of it—it’s all a kind of a shtick.  You summarize the history of Israel or the Church or whatever, up until your own time—you the writer, but you say that this is written by an ancient scribe who foresaw it.

Why do that?  Well, it’s a way—these things are usually written in times of great stress.  It’s a way of saying, look, it may look like great chaos to you but God had a plan and that’s working itself out. It’s like a parable about divine providence you might say.  Or sometimes it’s just a case like with the so-called Deutero-Isaiah, or 2nd Isaiah, or 2nd Zechariah.  You had somebody that revered the oracles of an early prophet and had more to say in that community but humbly felt, who am I?  I’m gonna put this under the aegis of the great prophet.  I’m not going to have the brazenness to make myself equal with him.  Another way with less admirable motives, you might say, ‘nobody’s gonna take me seriously if I used my own nom de plume.  If I say here’s the prophecy of Bill or the Apocalypse of Chad.  Who’s going to listen to this?  So I better get a hearing with a great name and then the value of it will be apparent to the reader.  That’s generally called a pious fraud.

It is a fraud, but it is pious.  So Daniel is certainly one of those. Deuteronomy—Moses said all of this?  There’s no way.  The law is totally different than it was in earlier law codes defined in Exodus, etc.  The whole premise is kind of vague and self-contradictory.  Is Moses talking to the people who survived the 40 years in the desert? He talks to them as if they were, ‘you did this, you did that’, but then he says they’re all dead and so I’m giving you, their heirs, a pep talk about the law.  Well what is it?  This isn’t historical.  It’s a chance to update the Torah, and the people think that’s really what happened under King Josiah, much, much later.  Well there’s several of those law codes put under Moses’ name.  The rabbis continue to say that they’re oral tradition of interpreting the Torah was part of the Torah, that ‘oh we really didn’t come up with this, Moses did, and he repeated it orally without writing it down and it came down to us.’  That’s pseudepigraphy.

In the New Testament, it seems to me that the letters of Paul are pseudepigraphical. This is way out there, I mean very few scholars think this, but I follow the Dutch radical school of the 19th century that says that all of these letters are by different Paulinists, and that’s why you have so many different viewpoints in them.  So I think they’re pseudepigraphical.

The Gospels have no names on them, so they were really anonymous.  It was somebody later on, perhaps Polycarp of Smyrna who kind of guessed who had written them, and that’s all it was.  So by far, most of the Bible is anonymous or pseudonymous. The Psalms—there were originally no names on them. They certainly don’t go back to David.

Clay, “Sure. Uh huh.”

Bob, “But neither do they claim to.  That’s just an ancient editorial convention.  We don’t know who wrote virtually any of the Bible, and when you have names, it’s either ancient guesswork or false pen-names.  It’s almost the rule, not the exception.”

Clay, “No, that’s great.  You know, is it fair to say that if we’re going to objectively be critical of all of our scripture, not just our own scripture, not just someone else’s scripture, but if we’re going to be objective and unbiased, and if we’re gonna throw out the Book of Mormon, then heck, we might as well throw out half the Bible.”

Bob, “Oh yeah, you’d have to, yeah.”

Clay, “Or we can be kinder, accept it as pseudepigrapha, acknowledge that is shows insight into the men of the times who wrote it, and may say something about the sociology and religious evolution of that time, and analyze it as that?”

Bob, “Yeah, and that can be edifying too for the reasons you just mentioned.  Any fool can see that the Book of Mormon is the charter for what happened to the Mormon Church’s in their trek across the country. They had their own exodus, their own persecutions.  I mean it’s fascinating.  It’s this updating and Americanizing of the Bible and Christianity.  That doesn’t contradict it being a modern work.  In fact it makes – the truth of it is made all the more clear if you realize it was written in the 19th century.

What are your impressions of Bob Price? For those skeptical of the Book of Mormon, do you find value in looking at it as pseudepigrapha?