The Case for the Documentary Hypothesis, Historical Criticism, and the Latter-day Saints

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Review of David Bokovoy. Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). Foreword by John W. Welch. 272pp. Paperback and hardcover. ((I am reviewing an advanced reading copy. Some of the material I review may be updated in the final printed form, with some of my quotations and page numbers of Bokovoy’s book possibly being updated by then.))

Abstract: Bokovoy’s new volume substantiates the claim that faithful Latter-day Saint students of Holy Scripture can apply the knowledge and methods gained through academic studies to the Bible.

Latter-day Saints have sometimes viewed critical studies in the history and text of the Bible negatively, which has led to a common view today that any sort of study involving the methods or “criticisms” prevalent in biblical studies can only lead to a secularized view of holy scripture. This is not necessarily true, and the volume under review is the best example that I am aware of in Mormon Studies of the claim that faithful Latter-day Saint students of Holy Scripture can apply the knowledge and methods gained through academic studies to the Bible.

David Bokovoy holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East Studies from Brandeis University. He is fluent in five [Page 210]ancient Near Eastern languages ((David is fluent in Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, Moabite, Official Aramaic (700-300 BCE), and Ugaritic. See his biographical information on the University of Utah’s webpage:,_Dr./biography/index.hml (Last accessed 2/21/2014).)) and has studied with some of the leading scholars in the field of the history of the Pentateuch. This volume is the first of three that will be released in the set, Authoring the Old Testament. The set is a part of the forthcoming Greg Kofford Books Contemporary Studies in Scripture series, with an open number of books written by numerous authors.

Following the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible (the Jewish version of the Old Testament), Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy covers the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. In Volume Two he will cover the Nevi’im, the Hebrew term for the prophets, and in Volume Three he will cover the Kethuvim, the writings.

Authoring is introduced by a “Foreword” by John Welch, which is followed by a prologue that serves as an introduction for the inexperienced reader of biblical studies. Bokovoy works through a critical reading of the Bible. He introduces the Documentary Hypothesis and the sources in the Pentateuch, indicating how we are to identify the sources, how scholars date them, and the influence of other Mesopotamian cultures and texts on the writing of the Pentateuch. He sketches how he believes Latter-day Saints should study the Bible critically. He ends with three chapters exploring how the rest of the book can help in a faithful, academic approach to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Abraham. Bokovoy then concludes with multiple new points that help the LDS student appreciate the academic study of the Bible.

John Welch’s “Foreword” introduces Bokovoy’s book to the LDS reader. ((It is highly recommended, as Bokovoy does (see Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, xv, nt. 2), that the reader not jump ahead in the book, especially if one is not experienced in biblical studies. The chapters on the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham will most likely make very little or no sense if they are read outside the context of the preceding chapters.)) Welch states that this “is a welcome introduction, [Page 211]from a faithful Latter-day Saint perspective, to the academic world of Higher Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.” However, Welch resists some of Bokovoy’s arguments, even though he has praise for the book. Welch has done much to introduce biblical studies to an LDS audience, so his insights are invaluable. ((Welch has served on the executive committee of the Biblical Law Section of the Society of Biblical Literature. See the back flap of his book The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo: BYU Press and The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008). He has also edited numerous titles in the field of Biblical studies, for example see Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss, and John W. Welch, Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990).)) He defines Bokovoy’s use of Higher Criticism in a way that any reader of the book should take into account. Higher criticism is neither higher nor critical but springs from Enlightenment thought and means that the scholar is attempting to get “above or behind the wording of the text,” and criticism deals with adopting standards of interpreting information. The term “Higher Criticism” could easily be understood as a negative approach, one that wants to criticize rather than uplift. Higher criticism is just the opposite. ((The author of this review is aware that at times certain scholars have attempted to utilize Higher Criticism to discredit or downplay religion. This is not always the case, and, again, David Bokovoy, among other scholars in various religious groups, is a perfect example of how this can be used to build faith while answering the more difficult questions of history.))

Bokovoy begins his treatment with a prologue offering reasons that a Latter-day Saint audience can and should work within a historical-critical paradigm when approaching the scriptures. This is done through reviewing statements made by Joseph Smith Jr., Elder John A. Widtsoe, Elder B. H. Roberts, and others highlighting the importance of academic studies in the life of a Latter-day Saint. He notes that although he is providing a scholarly introduction into the authorship of [Page 212]the five books of Moses, his work is not comprehensive. ((David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), xi.)) The prologue works as a nice introduction to Chapter One, which discusses the necessity of reading the Bible critically. It will probably be new to many readers, but an important aspect in accomplishing the task is the ability to see the Bible as a book. This may sound strange at first, but viewing the Bible as a piece of real history, with human authors writing it and human groups passing it down over centuries, is essential to an understanding of the text. Bokovoy spends time discussing the understanding in modern scholarship that the five books of Moses were written largely by ancient Israelite scribal schools, critically viewing the history of the text with the realization that many aspects of the text require a much later date for the composition of these books than the time of Moses. When a sacred text is not viewed this way, when it is held to different standards than other texts, then the approach is the opposite of critical as outlined in Welch’s foreword.

This can easily be seen in antagonistic arguments against the Book of Mormon. Many critics complain about the Book of Mormon, concluding that it is not from God, when they do not use those same standards on the Bible. For many with this viewpoint, the Bible is inerrant and infallible. It has no mistakes, not only theological, but historical or in its presentation of narrative. This could be no further from the truth. Our job is to simply be open to those mistakes present or introduced in the history of the transmission of sacred texts (as Bokovoy points out, like Joseph Smith was!), and utilize biblical studies in our search for deeper meaning and truth. The Bible needs to be seen as a real piece of history.

Doing this does not necessarily downplay the inspired nature of the text. As Bokovoy points out, “By reading scripture critically, a believer in the text’s inspiration can gain [Page 213]an increased understanding of the various ways in which God has touched the hearts and minds of his children.” ((Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, xiv.)) He also politely notes that there are places in the book where there will be “a certain degree of discomfort for believers.” ((Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, xv.)) This need not worry anyone. Whenever an individual begins the task of studying a subject in greater detail, there will be things that person has never heard before. This is learning. If we are completely comfortable with everything that we are reading or hearing on a given subject all the time, the likelihood that we have not learned anything new is very high. There may be a degree of discomfort for Bokovoy’s readers, but he does an incredible job of providing faithful grounds for seeing why he thinks the way he does.

Bokovoy spends the first five chapters surveying the state of scholarship on the five books of Moses. He discusses such topics as how scholars separate the sources, how the sources are dated, and how ancient Mesopotamian text and culture influenced the writing of the five books of Moses. He begins chapter one with an interesting note that will catch the attention of his readers. He explicates the two creation stories as separated by critical scholarship and notes that Joseph Smith also noticed that there were different creation stories found in Genesis 1 and 2–3. Bokovoy points to the JST (the Book of Moses) and D&C 77 as evidence of this, where the first creation is seen as a spiritual creation, and the second as physical. ((Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament, 4.))

The remaining chapters of the book describe the ways in which Latter-day Saints may apply historical criticism to the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Mormon. As with Bokovoy’s work on the Pentateuch in the early chapters, his focus here is on building faith and offering new ways of answering the problems historical criticism poses [Page 214]for Restoration scripture. Although there will be many readers who do not fully accept Bokovoy’s conclusions, readers will be left with a lot of information to chew on. Like Welch states in his foreword, though he might not agree with all of Bokovoy’s “holds,” he still finds great value in his work.

Bokovoy has done a service for an LDS audience who are interested in learning and knowing more about our standard works. He provides a bibliography that can act as a starting point for those interested in the given topics, and, most importantly, he shows that it is possible to appropriate modern critical studies into a faithful approach for Restoration scripture. Any Latter-day Saint interested in the history of the Bible and Book of Mormon will do well to spend time getting lost in Bokovoy’s book. I am sure this will also be the case with the upcoming two volumes.

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About Colby J. Townsend

Colby was born in Bountiful, Utah and has studied at Brigham Young University and Weber State. He is pursuing degrees in Comparative Literature and Religious Studies at the University of Utah, focusing his attention on the Hebrew Bible. Colby is currently writing his honors thesis on the J source of the Pentateuch’s influence on the writing of the Book of Mormon. He is also working on a book project that will be a reference for scholarly studies comparing the text of the Book of Mormon with the King James Bible. He lives in Morgan, Utah, with his wife and child.

15 thoughts on “The Case for the Documentary Hypothesis, Historical Criticism, and the Latter-day Saints

    • Concerning the article by Oaks, I followed your link and found the following relevant quotes:

      “Latter-day Saints know that learned or authoritative commentaries can help us with scriptural interpretation, but we maintain that they must be used with caution.

      “Commentaries are not a substitute for the scriptures any more than a good cookbook is a substitute for food.

      “. . . the teaching of the Holy Ghost is a better guide to scriptural interpretation than even the best commentary.

      “. . . If we depend only upon our own reasoning or the scholarship or commentaries of others, we will never obtain the understanding that can come only by revelation. Persons in that circumstance will be left forever with what Alma calls ‘the lesser portion of the word’ (Alma 12:11).”

      What President Oaks seems to be saying is that while scholarly commentaries can help us understand certain aspects of scriptural text, the fullest understanding can only come through the Holy Ghost.

      I wouldn’t describe Oaks’s talk as an “argument against” using scholarly commentary. Rather, I would call it a caution against using scholarly commentary at the expense of the Spirit.

  1. I’ll be somewhat frank here. I can understand Colby Townsend has a deep interest in this subject, and I doubt his opinion has been materially affected, but isn’t it a little improper that he’s reviewing the work of someone who’s directly supervising his honors thesis?

    That should at the very least be made clear, to help avoid the appearance of impropriety.

    • David,

      Thank you for bringing this up. Allow me to clarify for you. David Bokovoy is not yet my official adviser on my honors thesis, and so has no official direct supervisory role over my project. We had to wait until recently to find out if David was going to be at the U next year, and are only now going to start getting the paperwork and approvals completed so that it is official.
      To be completely open, I have had David as a professor. I took the Book of Mormon as Literature and Intro to Hebrew Bible from him in the fall semester of 2013. David did not introduce me to the Documentary Hypothesis, though (Moshe Weinfeld’s work did), as you point out my opinion has not been materially affected. Stephen Smoot can vouch for me on that if he wishes (we met each other while I was taking a semester of classes at BYU in the summer of 2012 and has known my full views on this topic since then).
      I wouldn’t consider this impropriety, but I will leave that up for everyone else to judge. David and I have a professional relationship as student and professor, and my opinions are not dependent on his (although they do match up very nicely).
      If you need any other clarification feel free to ask.

      • I can vouch for Colby. I’ve known him for some time now, and can affirm that he’s a very independent and enterprising student and scholar. He’s not dependent on David Bokovoy for his views, even if, as Colby himself has said, their opinions do align in a number of respects.

        I would also add my two cents that it’s by no means improper for Colby to write a review of something one of his professors has written, so long as he remains objective and factual in his review.

  2. Typical book review in any scholarly journal is 1,000 words. This review clocks in closer to 1,500. That is long enough to provide a substantive (not exhaustive) look at any book. It’s a fine review.

  3. Colby,
    Thanks for your all-too-brief review.
    I note that you are also doing some source criticism of the Book of Mormon and doing a thesis on the J source in the Book of Mormon, and look forward to you publishing it. I trust that you will address the findings of John L. Sorenson, “The ‘Brass Plates’ and Biblical Scholarship,” Dialogue, 10/4 (Aut 1977):31-39. Online at . Also F. R. McCurley, Jr., “The Home of Deuteronomy Revisited,” in H. Bream, ed., A Light unto My Path, 295-317; esp. 298-305, in which elements common to D and E are examined: wilderness, apostasy, anti-monarchy, anti-polygyny (cf. Jacob 1 – 3, Mosiah 11), etc. And Alan W. Jenks, The Elohist and North Israelite Tradition (1977).

    • Robert,

      Thank you for your all-too-kind comment. I apologize that I did not write a review of more than fifty pages. I have been writing book reviews in different venues, mostly AML, for the last couple of years now and have generally followed the length of reviews done in the Journal of Biblical Literature. I wasn’t aware that book reviews needed to be at least half the length of the original book to be substantive enough to be accepted by reviewers of my review. I thought that six pages was substantive enough while taking 15 credit hours, working full time at the U, writing a book manuscript, an honors thesis, presentations at a number of undergraduate research conferences, living in Morgan-working in Salt Lake, all while being a full-time husband and father. It would be nice to be old and retired. Maybe I’ll have the luxury someday.
      As for your comments, thank you for noticing my bio. Yes, of course I will be utilizing John Sorenson’s classic study on the Elohist source and the brass plates. I am also looking at Alan Jenks’ book right now on my shelf. I have been working on my honors thesis for over a year now so I have accumulated a fairly hefty bibliography at this point. I had not yet seen McCurley’s essay, so thank you for pointing that out.
      If you’d like to discuss the substance of my review or Bokovoy’s book please feel free to make a contribution here. If you would like to discuss my book project with Kofford Books (of which I am also utilizing your three volume set The Book of Mormon Critical Text, thank you for your work in advance) or my honors thesis feel free to send me an email at


      • Colby,

        This comes a across as a rather prickly response to Bob’s rather mild and congenial comment.on your review.


        • Matt,

          It was meant to be a bit prickly. I probably overreacted at the time, but I guess it really depends on what Bob meant with the first line (“all-too-brief review”). At the time I responded the length of other reviews here with Interpreter was being pointed out to me and a number of people had mentioned that it seemed a little short. If this is not what Bob meant, then I apologize. If it is what he meant, then I guess my response stands. I didn’t mean it to be anymore than “prickly.”
          And, to restate from my earlier response, I really respect Bob’s work on the Book of Mormon. I am finding it to be essential for my own research and recommend it to anyone working with the Book of Mormon (I have his 3-vol. Critical Text set in mind).

          • I don’t mind prickly, Colby. It’s just that I don’t buy the lame excuses you provided in the above apologia — since I have been following your delightfully substantive comments over at Bill Hamblin’s “Enigmatic Mirror” on Patheos. What? You don’t think we can take the “hard stuff” here at Interpreter? You saved it up for Bill?

            Forget the wife, kids, church, school, and Bob Crockett. I want your true-blue, all-out devotion to source criticism of the Book of Mormon, Nothing more, nothing less!

            By the way, I wasn’t even aware that you had taken the time to reply to me, until Matt Roper mentioned it to me this morning.

    • Robert,

      I’ll respond to you recent comment here since the website is not allowing me to respond to it below.

      “I don’t mind prickly, Colby.”

      Cool, I don’t either. 🙂

      “It’s just that I don’t buy the lame excuses you provided in the above apologia — since I have been following your delightfully substantive comments over at Bill Hamblin’s “Enigmatic Mirror” on Patheos.”

      I’m glad you have been following my more substantive comments there. Those comments have only been within the past week or so, and I have been fortunate enough to take this last week off with my family to travel to St. George, providing me time to discuss the issues with Bill (and others in other places). I would not consider my duties to my family, church, and school/work lame, but your opinion is up for you to decide. When I wrote the review I had three presentations I was preparing for, a number of papers (along with my continuing study with my book project/honors thesis), daily classes and work, among other things. As much as I would have liked to include more of my notes from my reading in my review, I did not think it necessary nor did I have the time.

      “What? You don’t think we can take the “hard stuff” here at Interpreter? You saved it up for Bill?”

      I would like to clarify first that I have been with Interpreter since the beginning as an editorial consultant, along with helping with Bradshaw’s and Larsen’s second volume of the commentary on the Book of Moses, so it is not like I have been sharing information other places that I deem more appropriate for my accepted models of approaching texts critically. Bill and I have had a more direct conversation about these issues on his blog because he is raising the issues there. I am more than happy to discuss them here or anywhere else if you would like to. I am sure that there is a lot that you would like to share with me that I would love to learn, but you do not know me and I do not know you. If you would like to get to know me how about we go to lunch sometime, then we can understand one another. I would actually really love that if you are up for it.

      “Forget the wife, kids, church, school, and Bob Crockett. I want your true-blue, all-out devotion to source criticism of the Book of Mormon, Nothing more, nothing less!”

      Again, I’m not going to forget my duties to these above. They are more important to me than you are. Again, if you would like to discuss these issues in more detail I would love to. I felt I was pretty open about my acceptance of the DH in my review (even in the title), even if I was not able to get into the details of the arguments (what book reviewer does that other than the paragraph summarizing places of disagreement?).
      Also, I’m not 100% sure what you mean with my “true-blue, all-out devotion to source criticism of the Book of Mormon.” I am dedicated to source-criticism of any text, provided the text shows evidence of coming from multiple sources. The Book of Mormon itself makes the reader aware of that, so, yes, I am devoted to source criticism of the Book of Mormon in that regard. I am also devoted to analyzing the text of the Book of Mormon through its use of the King James Bible because I think it can help in answering many of the problems of the text as it stands today. With that said, I am still unsure if that is what you mean by your above statement. Am I correct or am I misunderstanding what you wanted me to say?

      • This is Utah.
        Where perception is everything.
        Where Jules Feiffer’s “Explainers” come to life.
        And drive us quite mad.

      • Perhaps I am mistaken, but as a spectator driving by I think Robert’s remarks were facetious and not meant to be taken quite so literally. I hope you’ve taken some time off since this all went down. 🙂

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