Paradigms Regained

A paradigm is a model that is defined by “standard examples of scientific work that embody a set of conceptual, methodological, and metaphysical assumptions.”1 As Kuhn shows, a paradigm establishes by example, the methods, problem field, and standards of solution for a research field.2 A religious paradigm is established by means of a set of sacred narratives. Our sacred narratives embody a set of conceptual and metaphysical assumptions and demonstrate a set of methods, a problem field, and standards of solution for the problem of life.

For example, Joseph Smith’s testimony is paradigmatic for Mormon believers. Mormons agree with his description of the problem field regarding the inadequacy of settling religious questions by appealing to the Bible alone; they individually follow his example of study, pondering, and prayer; and they use the same standards of solution in building their lives on the foundation of personal study and individual testimony.

A few years ago I wrote a long article called “Paradigms Crossed” in which I showed how Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions illuminates the structure of the debates about the Book of Mormon.3 Critics and defenders of the book quite obviously have different methods, problem fields, and standards of solution. We work in different paradigms.

In paradigm debates, the key questions are not those which ask “is the paradigm true?” but “which paradigm is better? Which problems are more significant to have solved? Which paradigm should we adopt in approaching the problems that we have not yet solved?” There can be no asking which is better without a comparison. Simply observing that an opponent has made assumptions that conflict with yours is not enough.

The proponents of competing paradigms are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs to make its case.4 Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.5

We need, at times, to be willing to risk our assumptions. Risking them does not mean uncritical capitulation whenever someone points and mocks.

If a paradigm is ever to triumph it must gain some first supporters, men [and women] who will develop it to the point where hardheaded arguments can be produced and multiplied.6

All paradigms leave unsolved problems, so it should not bother anyone that we have unsolved problems in Book of Mormon studies. Kuhn describes how scientists make comparisons and make a tentative faith decision based on values, rather than rules, which means that conclusions among individuals will differ. This is fine, since it distributes risks. The most significant values that Kuhn observes are accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence, simplicity and aesthetics, fruitfulness, and future promise. I have long been impressed that Alma 32 describes exactly that same process: we experiment on key issues, and find mind-expanding enlightenment. We discover just how delicious the gospel can be, we learn things that we never would have seen had we not tried the experiments, and we taste through personal testimony the brightest of all future promises.

Speaking of her own “experiment” of comparing her views of exilic developments and the book of Job, Barker writes, “as this exploration progressed, I realized that in the Book of Job there is a degree of compatibility with my theory which seems inexplicable as coincidence.”7 What then, should we think of the unexpected and extensive compatibility of Barker’s thought with the Book of Mormon?

One thing that becomes more and more obvious to me year by year is that if I had adopted the paradigms of the critics of the Book of Mormon, I would never have seen the kinds of correspondence that have emerged in this paper. For example, Harold Bloom said of the Book of Mormon that “I cannot recommend that the book be read either fully or closely, because it scarcely sustains such reading.”8 The few things that he says about the Book of Mormon make it embarrassingly obvious that he has followed his own recommendation. The refusal to read closely guarantees his unimpressive harvest. Mark Thomas’ Digging Into Cumorah does attempt a close reading of the Book of Mormon and claims to be “setting aside the issue of authorship” and focusing on the “internal literary features of the text and how these forms address his [Joseph Smith’s] original nineteenth-century audience.”9 Yet it is painfully transparent that Thomas’ assumption of “an original nineteenth-century audience” is also an assumption about authorship that defines his “methods, problem field, and standards of solution.” And as I interrupted my work on Barker last fall to prepare for a panel discussion on Digging Into Cumorah, I could not help but notice that had I been using Thomas’ methods, nothing of what I have described in this paper could ever have emerged. Remember that Barker writes concerning the Bible that “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.”10 Cannot the same be said of approaching the Book of Mormon with either a nineteenth- or twentieth-century mind? And if no one makes the test of reading in the ancient way, how can we ever know whether it is what it claims to be? The kind of “hardheaded arguments” that Kuhn describes can best be multiplied by those who attempt comparisons in the ancient contexts.

In conducting this survey, we should have at least glimpsed the scope of Margaret Barker’s reading and her dedication over many years in order to recover the picture that she offers us. We should take a moment to consider how remarkable a thing it is that we have any comparison with the Book of Mormon to discuss at all. In 1829, Joseph Smith was an unlettered young man twenty-four years old, and he produced the translation of the Book of Mormon in sixty-five to seventy-five days, dictating to scribes.11 Emma Smith’s memories are worth reflecting upon:

Joseph Smith . . . could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to any one else.12

Remember the quote from The Older Testament that set the agenda for Barker’s work:

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.13

The “other” is a rediscovered mythos, a paradigm regained. Barker’s work reestablishes a lost mythos by exploring a wide range of lost and neglected texts and questions. Her work is exemplary. Based on Kuhn’s criteria, the paradigm regained through Margaret Barker’s efforts presents us with a set of key predictions that happen to relate directly to Mormon concerns. While there is a striking degree of overlap between her scholarship and the sort pioneered by Hugh Nibley and continued by FARMS, the most potent contribution that her scholarship adds to ours is the comprehensive big picture in which so many details fit. There are differences in the details at various points, but I trust that as more specialized scholars examine those differences that such issues can be resolved. There are more correspondences that I have not explored and questions I have not asked.14 Someone may wish to compare her picture of the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12 to the vision of Mary in 1 Nephi 11:13–36, particularly in light of Daniel Peterson’s work.15 Another might pursue the image of the “Servant” in Barker’s work with the role of the servant in the elaborate allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5.16 Perhaps someone else will compare her chapter on “The Light” in On Earth as It Is in Heaven with Doctrine and Covenants 88:4–68. Yet another may wish to compare her picture of the “resurrected” in the early church, those who have experienced the “heavenly ascent” in this life, with Joseph Smith’s doctrine of having one’s “calling and election made sure.”17 I hope that someone may consider the significance of the Jubilee expectations during Jesus’ ministry and examine Alma 13 and 3 Nephi 8–29 for Jubilee themes. All I have done is to conduct a preliminary survey. Much more could be done. I hope more will be done. Yet, clearly, Barker’s overall picture holds a simple beauty that elegantly accounts for much complexity. My comparisons to the Book of Mormon have been fruitful, and most importantly, I find them wonderfully promising. I believe Barker’s work may contribute to the fulfillment of a prophecy:

And it came to pass that I beheld the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the book of the Lamb of God, which had proceeded forth from the mouth of the Jew, that it came forth from the Gentiles unto the remnant of the seed of my brethren. And after it had come forth unto them I beheld other books, which came forth by the power of the Lamb, from the Gentiles unto them, unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the Jews who were scattered upon all the face of the earth, that the records of the prophets and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are true. And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world;18 and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved. And they must come according to the words which shall be established by the mouth of the Lamb; and the words of the Lamb shall be made known in the records of thy seed, as well as in the records of the twelve apostles of the Lamb; wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth.19

I am deeply grateful to Margaret Barker for publishing the fruit of her labors. I expect to be feasting here for a long time. There is much to discover and discuss. Speaking on behalf of those of us who have discovered this remarkable body of work, I invite you to join us.



  1. Ian Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 8.
  2. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970), 10.
  3. Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Crossed,” review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe, FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 144–218.
  4. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 148.
  5. Matthew 9:17.
  6. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 158.
  7. Margaret Barker, The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (London: SPCK, 1987), 261.
  8. Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 86. This casts an ironic light on his diatribe against biblically illiterate “Know-Nothings” on p. 222.
  9. Mark D. Thomas, Digging Into Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2000), 2. Thomas is well intentioned and does make some notable observations. However, I still disagree with his methods and conclusions overall. Despite his citation of a Barker essay, it is clear that he did not see the significance of her work.
  10. Margaret Barker, On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Temple Symbolism in the New Testament (Edinburgh: Clark, 1995), 3.
  11. See John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: Basic Historical Information” (FARMS, 1985).
  12. “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” The Saints’ Herald, 1 October 1879, 290.
  13. Barker, The Older Testament, 6–7, emphasis in original.
  14. For instance, Margaret Barker, The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Christianity (London: SPCK, 1988), 68: “We often think of ‘the prophets’ as a particular group of people who spoke in the distant past, and then somehow ceased to exist.” Compare Mormon 9:7–9 and Doctrine and Covenants 1:17–18.
  15. Margaret Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1) (Edinburgh: Clark, 2000), 200–211. Compare 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).
  16. Margaret Barker, “The Servant in the Book of Revelation,” The Heythrop Journal 36/4 (Oct. 1995): 493–511.
  17. Compare Barker, On Earth as It Is in Heaven, 61–72, with The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 150.
  18. Note that the prophecy is not just that books shall come forth, but that one of the consequences of their appearance is the establishment of the particular doctrinal point that is central to all of Barker’s work: the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father.
  19. 1 Nephi 13:38–41.