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Old Testament Scholar Discusses Ancient Biblical Concepts Found in the Book of Mormon

In 1992, Old Testament scholar and Methodist minister in Great Britain, Margaret Barker wrote the book, The Great Angel, a Study of Israel’s Second God.  In the book, she explained that many of the earliest beliefs in the Bible, particularly in relation to the temple of Solomon, had been changed extensively.

mormon-bible-bookAbout 649 BC, the eight year old Josiah was anointed as king of Judah (2 Chronicles 3435).  He would rule for 40 years under the tutelage of the temple priests.  When Josiah was 26 years of age, he ordered a major renovation of the temple.  During its renovation, the temple priests found an ancient document containing the Law of Moses. This document is believed by most scholars to be the book of Deuteronomy.  Many scholars, including Margaret Barker, believe that before the priests took the writing to Josiah, it was rewritten and expanded upon by the priests, creating a temple-centric religion that did away with many former forms of worship.

Upon reading the book, Josiah tore his clothes and proclaimed a cleansing be done throughout Judah.  Not only did Josiah remove altars and places of worship for the Canaanite Baal, but he also removed wilderness altars dedicated to Jehovah.  Priests and others who opposed this cleansing were put to death.

According to Barker, prior to the Deuteronomic Reforms, the temple worship included the concept of God’s presence, angelic messengers visiting people, and the Tree of Life prominently displayed in the temple itself.  The temple priests removed many such things from the temple worship.  Aaron’s budding rod (Numbers 17) and other items were removed from among the sacred objects stored.

These changes affected the understanding of the ancient and modern Jews and Christians in regards to the temple and the Angel of God’s Presence, who Barker shows was a second God to Israel and was understood by early Christians to be Jesus Christ.  She explains in her book on the Great Angel that Jesus sought to restore many of the ancient teachings of the temple, but was blocked by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who embraced the Deuteronomic Reforms.

With the publication of her first book, she soon began receiving letters from Mormon scholars at BYU.  She knew almost nothing about Mormon beliefs, and so was surprised by the attention. They were fascinated with her work, because it flowed well with many beliefs in Mormonism.  Soon, she found she had a loyal following in America.  Since her first book, Margaret Barker has written several more books on the ancient temple.

The year 2005 celebrated Joseph Smith’s 200th birthday.  For this occasion, the Library of Congress set up the “Worlds of Joseph Smith” conference.  Margaret Barker was gracious enough to fly over the pond and speak.  The transcript of her speech is found here.

Barker admits not being a Mormon scholar or a scholar on Mormonism.  She is, however, a scholar on the Old Testament.  Noting that the Book of Mormon begins in Jerusalem approximately 600 BC, she asks, “Are the revelations to Joseph Smith consistent with the situation in Jerusalem about 600 B.C.E?”

If Joseph’s revelations are genuine, then the early portions of the Book of Mormon, especially regarding the prophet Lehi and his son Nephi, should reflect knowledge of the early temple rites and teachings, as well as the conditions in Jerusalem at the time.

Remarking on the speech previously given by LDS professor Terryl Givens, she agrees with him that there was an open canon in 600 BC.  There were prophets, such as Jeremiah, actively prophesying and teaching the people.
She notes that the Bible assumes that all the reforms Josiah did were good things.  However, other ancient texts outside the Bible disagree with this assessment:

“Here is our first warning: if the wickedness in Jerusalem, mentioned in the First Book of Nephi, was Josiah’s temple purges we should expect to find information relevant to Mormon tradition in texts outside the Bible—and we do. And the biblical texts themselves take on a new significance if we no longer assume that everyone agreed with Josiah’s purge. Jeremiah, a contemporary of King Josiah, has many passages that seem to criticize what has just happened in the city.”

While Jeremiah (also a contemporary of Lehi) seems to have agreed with some of the changes Josiah made, there are some that clearly rub the prophet the wrong way.  For example, in Jeremiah 35, the prophet brings the Rechabites into the temple.  These are an ancient people, similar to Bedouins, who avoid the cities, living and worshiping in the wilderness.  Jeremiah questions the Rechabites in front of the temple priests.  They respond that they continue in the traditions of their fathers, obeying the rules set down for them.

“But they said, We will drink no wine: for Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying, Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever:  Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers.” (Jeremiah 35:6-7)

Jeremiah turns to the priests and tells them the word of God:

“I have sent also unto you all my servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them, saying, Return ye now every man from his evil way, and amend your doings, and go not after other gods to serve them, and ye shall dwell in the land which I have given to you and to your fathers: but ye have not inclined your ear, nor hearkened unto me.” (Jeremiah 35:15)

Jeremiah is speaking to the temple priests and others, condemning them for going “after other gods”!  These “gods” have given the temple priests a different teaching than are found in the pre-Deuteronomic temple, among the Rechabites on their wilderness altars, or among Lehi’s people.

Barker notes that the Bible canon was not finished, not even in Jesus’ time:

“It can come as a shock to traditional Christians to discover that there were different versions of the Old Testament in the time of Jesus. We cannot know for certain which Bible Jesus used, neither the books he regarded as scripture, nor the precise text of those books.”

For example, the New Testament quotes or references the writings of Enoch many times (see Jude 1:14-15), but his book is not in our current canon of scripture.

“Professor Givens spoke of the scandal of Joseph Smith claiming direct communication with God. We now recognize that King Josiah enabled a particular group, the Deuteronomists, to dominate the religious scene in Jerusalem in about 620 BCE. Josiah’s purge was driven by their ideals and their scribes influenced much of the form of the Old Testament that we have today, especially the history in 1 & 2 Kings.

“These Deuteronomists denied that anyone could have a vision of the Lord; they denied that anyone had revelations from heaven and they insisted the Ten Commandments were all that was necessary—nothing was added to them. Prophecies, they said, were genuine only if they had already been fulfilled and had no more power. The Deuteronomists had no place for angels and so they didn’t use the title, ‘Lord of Hosts.’”

Barker explains that both ancient Jewish and Christian prophets (such as John the Revelator) had visions that revealed the past, present and future.  Joseph Smith fits into this pattern nicely.

”There are many places where memories of the old temple ritual still survive, for example, the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7. And I wondered about this when I first read Lehi’s vision of the open heaven, the angels, and a radiant figure descending to give Lehi a book.”

According to Barker, the Deuteronomists emphasized the Ten Commandments, the Exodus and Moses more than the ancient temple teachings, which would have been prominent in Moses’ revelation on Sinai and in the Tabernacle, Moses’ mobile temple.

Barker mentions the “Apocalypse of Weeks” an ancient volume that discusses a revelation Enoch received.

“It was a vision of history given to Enoch by angels, and learned from heavenly tablets. It described Noah, Abraham, the law-giving, the temple, the disaster in the temple just before it was destroyed, and the scattering of the chosen people.

Try to imagine how these people might have reacted to discovering their history rewritten, supplemented by the history of their Lord appearing in Egypt and rescuing some people there, or how they might have reacted to Ezekiel’s claim that the Lord had appeared to his people in Babylon.

In the course of time, this has all been absorbed into the tradition of on-going revelation. The people of the Apocalypse of Weeks, however, considered that the people who rebuilt Jerusalem were apostates and they rewrote the histories, even though we consider those histories as the norm. “

For the Deuteronomist and their followers, man could not stand in God’s presence and live.  They focused on the Law and sacrificial ritual, rather than on the temple concept that man could see God.  Even today, we see a division among believers of the Old Testament, on whether man can see God or not. Some insist we cannot, even though it ignores the many appearances of God anciently to Moses, Jacob, the 70 elders of Moses, Isaiah, and as Barker notes above, to the Jews in Babylon.  She notes that many scholars today believe that most of the Old Testament as we now have it comes from the time near or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 600 BC, simply because what the Deuteronomists and later redactors wrote regarding the temple and worship of Jehovah does not fit with the archaeological record.

She then discusses the LDS concept of mankind becoming divine as an ancient belief:

“Let us now consider another of Professor Givens’ points, the question of human beings becoming divine—and accepting the serpent’s invitation in Eden to become as gods. In the later Old Testament tradition, this was indeed a sin, but how might such an invitation have been viewed in 600 BCE?

“The familiar story of Adam and Eve is the reworking of an older story, after memories of the loss of Eden and the loss of the older temple had merged. The tree that had been intended in Eden for human food was the Tree of Life, and the perfumed oil of that tree anointed humans and made them like angels—Sons of God. That was the tradition of the ancient priests in the temple, who thought of themselves as angels—messengers from heaven.

“The Tree of Life gave wisdom and eternal life, but the human pair disobeyed and chose knowledge that could be used for good or evil. Only then did they discover that they were barred from the Tree of Life.

“The prophet Ezekiel, also in Jerusalem in 600 BCE, said that the Anointed One in Eden became mortal and died because wisdom and perfection had been abused for the sake of power and splendor.

“Satan’s deception in Eden was to imply that both trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, had the same benefit—that both made humans like angels.

“It was the disobedience that was the problem, not the state they aspired to; and, they had to be barred from eternal life because they had disobeyed. In the Book of Revelation, this is reversed, the faithful Christian is promised access again to the Tree of Life, and this meant access to the angel-state.”

There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be divine like God and his angels.  The problem lies in how we try to go about it.  Satan deceived Adam and Eve into thinking that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil could bring them divinity, but it could only impose a different state to them.  Instead, only the fruit of the Tree of Life could bring mankind to a divine state.  The Josian Reforms removed this memory from the temple, eliminating the Tree of Life, the Menorah, and Wisdom.

Yet, early Christianity tried to restore these concepts of a Mother/Wisdom (Tree) and Child (Fruit).

“Hostility to Wisdom was a hallmark of the Deuteronomists and due to their influence the Mother and her tree have been almost forgotten. Her son was the Lord. We can deduce this from the Dead Sea Scrolls’ version of Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy (Isaiah chapter 7). “Ask a sign,” said the prophet, “from the mother of the Lord your God. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel.” And she was attended by angels, the hosts of heaven, whom the Deuteronomists tried to obscure.

Each time the Lady was driven from the temple, so too were the angels, the “Holy Ones,” a word very similar in Hebrew to the word for prostitutes, which is how it is often translated. The divine son, the priest of the order of Melchizedek was born in the glory of these Holy Ones, or so it seems. Psalm 110 is an enigmatic text, but it seems to describe the birth of an angel priest in the Holy of Holies of the temple, which represented heaven.”

The Virgin Mary was attended by the angel Gabriel. The hosts of heaven sang glory to Christ as shepherds watched.  Christ was rejected by the religious Jews of his day, because they rejected the concepts of the Tree of Life, angels, man’s divinity, and man being in the presence of God.  Those concepts are all found in John’s Revelation, yet often rejected or ignored by later Christians.

“The Tree of Life made one happy according to the Book of Proverbs, but for other detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the non-canonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruits like grapes. But a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruits like white grapes. I don’t know of any other source which describes the fruit as white grapes, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy; and the interpretation of the vision, that the virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.

This is the Heavenly Mother (represented by the Tree of Life), and then Mary and her son on the earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the exact ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.”

While Barker personally believes Heavenly Mother is an aspect of God, rather than a separate being as LDS believe, she insists that the connections between Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day are the same as Jerusalem in Lehi’s day.

She concludes by discussing the concept of the Bible being incomplete.  She notes several non-Biblical documents that even mention secret books, or portions of the canon that were kept hidden from the masses.  In other instances, there are ancient statements of the scriptures being changed or destroyed, to meet the beliefs of the Reformers.  Even early Christians, such as Justin Martyr insisted the Jews had altered the scriptures.  Barker mentions the ancient Narrative of Zosimus, which speaks of the Rechabites, a Jewish people that wandered the deserts, and worshiped at altars in the wilderness, some of whom Jeremiah brought into the temple to show the Jews what a righteous people looked like.

“The extraordinary similarity between a text that is sometimes called the History of the Rechabites and sometimes the Narrative of Zosimus—the extraordinary similarity between this story and the story of Lehi leaving Jerusalem—has already been studied by Mormon scholars. This ancient text, which survives in Greek, Syriac, and Ethioptic, tells the story of some people who left Jerusalem about 600 BCE and they went to live in a “blessed land.” They didn’t drink wine. They were called the sons of Rechab1, which could mean that Rechab was their ancestor, or it could be the Hebrew way of saying that they were temple servants, priests who served the divine throne. In their blessed lands, angels had announced to them the incarnation of the Word of God from the holy virgin who is the mother of God. Nobody can explain this text.”

She concludes with the following:

“The original temple tradition was that Yahweh the Lord was the son of God Most high, present on earth in the Messiah. This means that the older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah, and so, finding Christ in the Old Testament is exactly what we should expect, but something obscured by incorrect reading of the scriptures. And this, I suggest, is one aspect of the restoration of the ‘plain and precious things’ which have been taken away.

“The greatest loss has been the temple and the angels and everything they represented. There can be no doubt that the central theme of Jesus’ teaching was the restoration of the true temple and what it meant. He was proclaimed as the Melchizedek Priest, the expected Messiah—described as Melchizedek in the texts found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. But what had happened to the Melchizedek priesthood?

“One of the great moments in my own journey of discovery was reading an article published in about 1980 showing that the religion of Abraham must have survived until the time of King Josiah, because that was part of what he purged from his kingdom. (In 600 BCE the religion of Abraham was not just a distant memory.)

“This suggests that the Melchizedek priesthood also survived until the time of Josiah, associated with the monarchy, as Psalm 110 makes clear. It was superseded in Jerusalem by the Aaronic priesthood, very much later than we often suppose. It is likely that Aaron’s family came to prominence in Jerusalem only when Moses did—as a result of King Josiah’s changes. (And we must remember that it was the Deuteronomists who wrote the major history of those times.)

“There were long memories of the lost temple. In the time of the Messiah, it was said, the true temple would be restored and all missing things would be put back: the spirit, the fire, the cherubim, and the ark, but also the anointing oil and the menorah. Now this is strange because there was a seven-branch lamp in the second temple, but maybe it didn’t represent what the original had represented—it was not the Tree of Life.

“In the era of Melchizedek then, it was linked to the spirit, the fire, the anointing oil, and the lamp representing the Tree of Life.”

For Barker, it must have been interesting to find discussion of the Melchizedek Priesthood in the Book of Mormon (Alma 13), the Tree of Life, the concept that man can see angels and stand in God’s presence, and the importance of temples in this process.  As scholars continue grappling with the complexities of Jewish history, realizing it is not as neat and clean as we would like it to be, we may find more and more of them accepting many of such teachings and concepts found in the Book of Mormon.  As it is, Barker gives strong analysis that Lehi’s story, visions, and teachings fit perfectly with the Jerusalem of 600 BC.

This article was written by Gerald Smith, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


The Great Angel, a Study of Israel’s Second God”, Margaret Barker

Other books by Margaret Barker

Margaret Barker’s speech at the 2005 “Worlds of Joseph Smith” conference

1st Book of Enoch chapter 43 on Enoch’s Apocalypse of Weeks

Narrative of Zosimus

Additional Resources:

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration

The Book of Mormon (Another Testament of Jesus Christ)

The Lord Jesus Christ in Mormonism

Mormon Temple Ritual



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