Who is Margaret Barker?

Educated at Cambridge, Margaret Barker is a math and religion teacher at the Ockbrook School in England. She is a Methodist preacher, the mother of two children, and she acts as a trustee for a refuge for battered women. She has been a member of the Society for Old Testament Study and recently served a term as the president of that society. While she remains outside the university world in order to “keep [her] academic freedom,”1 she states that “it has been my ambition to redraw the map of biblical studies.”2 At this writing, she has published seven books and several journal articles. A survey of her titles introduces her themes: The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity; The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Christianity; The Gate of Heaven: The History and Symbolism of the Temple In Jerusalem; The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God; On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Temple Symbolism in the New Testament; The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith; and The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Her works exhibit exhaustive readings of both primary and secondary sources, thinking that is both rigorous and imaginative, and impressive mastery of these materials in terms of both the overall picture and in the significance of small details. She demonstrates bold vision in suggesting hypotheses and challenging preconceptions, and she displays an uncanny ability to trace thematic connections between texts. She shows familiarity with original languages and textual variants for key passages and occasionally suggests plausible explanations and alternate readings for those variations based on underlying Hebrew or Aramaic. As I read her books, I get a sense of immense learning and a continuing progression, with each book growing from and building on the foundation of the earlier ones.

In her work Barker writes not as a dispassionate scholar but as one deeply involved and committed not just to understanding but to living Christianity and persuading others to commitment and action. Her faith commitments do not handicap a notable ability to think outside the boxes of both Christian and secular orthodoxy and to make startling suggestions based on rigorous reading. She expresses concern that

scholarship is often viewed with suspicion and felt to be destructive and irrelevant. The concerns of scholars are seen as remote from those who actually read and use the Bible. . . . The business of building bridges between scholarship and Christian teaching is one which has concerned me for many years. If the present gulf continues the results could be disastrous; we shall have Churches divorced from specialist knowledge of Christian tradition, and scholars with no concern for the tradition whose texts they study.3

So why do churches need specialist knowledge of Christian traditions? Her answer is that

the images and pictures in which the ideas of the Bible are expressed . . . are specific to one culture, that of Israel and Judaism, and until they are fully understood in their original setting, little of what is done with the writings and ideas that came from that particular setting can be understood. Once we lose touch with the meaning of biblical imagery, we lose any way into the real meaning of the Bible. It is folly to approach the Bible with a twentieth-century mind, completely unaware of the codes in which it was written. Such a reading of scripture . . . does nothing to build up the faith of the churches. Rather, it leads to a trivialisation of the scriptures and then confusion.4

This statement resonates with 2 Nephi 25:5: “There is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews.”

Notice of Barker’s Work Among Mormon Scholars
Barker’s work has already attracted notice among several LDS scholars. Most notably, her fourth book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, has been quoted in two significant discussions of Book of Mormon Christology in the FARMS Review of Books.5 Additionally, Barry Bickmore’s Restoring the Ancient Church quotes her when he compares early Christian teachings to Mormonism, and an essay on his Web site relies on The Great Angel to illuminate ancient traditions that identify the Angel of the Lord’s Presence as Jehovah, as reflected in the Book of Abraham 1:15–16.6 Barker has also been cited for her expertise on the Hebrew wisdom traditions in Daniel Peterson’s important essay “Nephi and His Asherah”7 and by John Tvedtnes in the FARMS Review of Books.8 Peterson also refers to her work in his study of the “ye are gods” passages in John 10 and Psalm 82:10.9 Mark Thomas makes a passing reference to a journal essay of hers on “The Secret Tradition” by way of explaining the Gnostic phenomenon.10 William Hamblin refers to her book, The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Christianity, in the syllabus for his course on celestial ascent traditions in the Ancient Near East at Brigham Young University. Beyond these references in publications, there is a growing word-of-mouth awareness. Still, if anything, her work has been underused in LDS circles. While her works make fascinating reading for anyone interested in Christian origins, I find it remarkable that all of her writings, indeed her overall paradigm, burst with information and insight of peculiar interest to Mormons.

Barker’s Vision of an Older Testament
In her books, Barker builds a strong argument that the key to understanding the New Testament comes from ideas rooted in the first temple. The subtitle of her first book, The Older Testament, is “The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity.” A passage in The Great Angel expresses one of the most important themes.

There were many in first-century Palestine who still retained a world-view derived from the more ancient religion of Israel [that of the First Temple] in which there was a High God and several Sons of God, one of whom was Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel. Yahweh, the Lord, could be manifested on earth in human form, as an angel or in the Davidic king. It was as a manifestation of Yahweh, the Son of God, that Jesus was acknowledged as Son of God, Messiah and Lord.11

Barker says that this worldview was largely suppressed from the Old Testament as we have it and from first-century Judaism as scholars had understood it before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early writings such as 1 Enoch. But while old temple traditions were largely suppressed in the canon, and obscured further by modern translations,12 she argues that temple traditions were known and understood by contemporaries of Jesus, and provided the mythos13 in which he was known and in which he came to know himself. Barker’s books explore the evidence and implications of this temple background for understanding the New Testament and the origins of Christianity.

The life and work of Jesus were, and should be, interpreted in the light of something other than Jerusalem Judaism. This other had its roots in the conflicts of the sixth century BC when the traditions of the monarchy were divided as an inheritance amongst several heirs. It would have been lost but for the accidents of archaeological discovery and the evidence of pre-Christian texts preserved and transmitted only by Christian hands.14

In The Older Testament Barker asks, “was there more, far more, in the religion of preexilic Jerusalem, than the later writers wished to perpetuate?”15 Her seven published books constitute her exploration of available evidence and the development of her hypothesis. Referring to the state of the evidence, she puts into perspective her efforts to understand the developments during and after the exile:

Enormous developments took place in the wake of enormous destruction, and these two factors make certainty quite impossible. They make all certainty impossible, and this too must be acknowledged, for the customary descriptions of ancient Israel’s religion are themselves no more than supposition. What I shall propose . . . is not an impossibility, but only one possibility to set alongside other possibilities, none of which has any claim to being an absolutely accurate account of what happened. Hypotheses do not become fact simply by frequent repetition, or even by detailed elaboration. What I am suggesting does, however, make considerable sense of the evidence from later periods.16

The Book of Mormon describes itself as rooted in the period just before the exile.17 As such, it offers us an unexpectedly apt testing ground for Barker’s hypothesis, and vice versa. In the final chapter of The Older Testament, Barker reads Job to see “whether or not my theory about exilic developments is compatible with the Book of Job. Such an exercise can prove nothing, but the more material which can be illuminated by the hypothesis, the more it deserves consideration.”18 In that chapter, she plots similarities between Job and the exilic situation as she reconstructs it. Likewise, this paper plots similarities between the Book of Mormon (and other LDS scripture and scholarship) and her reconstruction. While the exercise does not constitute proof, I suggest that the amount of illumination is remarkable and deserves consideration.

Notes

  1. Notice the simplicity of her solution.
  2. Biographical material formerly at the Barnes & Noble Web site at http://www.bn.com.
  3. Margaret Barker, The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Christianity (London: SPCK, 1988), 3.
  4. Margaret Barker, On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Temple Symbolism in the New Testament (Edinburgh: Clark, 1995), 2–3.
  5. Reviews of Melodie Moench Charles: “Book of Mormon Christology,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 81–114; Martin S. Tanner, “Review of Melodie Moench Charles, ‘Book of Mormon Christology,'” FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 6–37; and Ross David Baron, “Melodie Moench Charles and the Humanist Worldview,” FARMS Review of Books 7/1 (1995): 91–119.
  6. Barry Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Ancient Christianity (Ben Lomond, Calif.: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999), 106–7, 109, 309, 339–41. See http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/2671/EC.html.
  7. Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8–23,” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L. Sorenson, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 191–243.
  8. John A. Tvedtnes, “A Much-Needed Book That Needs Much,” review of One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers as Evidences of the Restoration, by Michael T. Griffith, FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997): 36–37.
  9. Daniel C. Peterson, “‘Ye Are Gods’: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Human-kind,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 471–594.
  10. Mark D. Thomas, Digging Into Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2000), 32 n. 27 referring to Barker’s “The Secret Tradition,” in The Journal of Higher Criticism 2/1 (spring 1995): 31–67.
  11. Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992), 3, emphasis in original. Both Ross David Baron and Martin Tanner cite this passage in their essays in FARMS Review of Books (see n. 6): Baron, 102 and Tanner, 29–30.
  12. See Barker, On Earth as It Is in Heaven, xi.
  13. By mythos, I mean the overarching context, the theological narrative that provides the context for the rituals, symbols, interpretations, and expectations, with the implicit roles for all concerned, both human and divine. We might say the overall plan of salvation set forth at the council in heaven, the symbolic structures and narrative background in which it is expressed, and the prophetic unfolding of that plan in history. A mythos is a paradigm, a conceptual framework that defines relationships and provides the meaning to the elements it contains.
  14. Margaret Barker, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1987), 6–7, emphasis in original.
  15. Barker, The Great Angel, 13, as a statement of the theme of The Older Testament.
  16. Ibid., 12.
  17. 1 Nephi 1:4.
  18. Barker, The Older Testament, 261, emphasis in original.