Margaret Barker is a world-renowned biblical scholar. She’s been quoted by the likes of N. T. Wright and given an award by the Queen of England. Interestingly, the Methodist preacher is also a favorite of many Latter-day Saint scholars. In this interview, Kevin Christensen tells the story of how Barker first encountered the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and why so many of the faith’s scholars are drawn to her work.
This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Table of contents
- Margaret Barker
- Biblical studies
- Latter-day Saints
- Relevant books
- The Great Angel
- Hugh Nibley
- 2003 conference
- Pearl of Great Price
- Margaret Barker books
Who is Margaret Barker?
Doctor Margaret Barker is an English biblical scholar and Methodist preacher who has published numerous books and papers in a range of scholarly publications. She was trained at Cambridge, but decided that much of what she studied there missed the point. She reports that as a consequence she had the “youthful ambition of redrawing the map of Biblical studies.”
She published a few journal articles in 1970s, and published her first book, The Older Testament, in 1987. After publishing five more books, and articles in several different journals, and an important commentary on Isaiah, in 1998 Barker was elected as the President of the Society for Old Testament Study in England. A few years later, she invited by the Centre of Advanced Religious and Theological Studies at Cambridge to devise a research project.
After the publication of her twelfth book, Temple Themes in Christian Worship, the Queen of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded her a Lambeth Doctor of Divinity, “in recognition of her work on the Jerusalem Temple and the origins of Christian Liturgy, which has made a significantly new contribution to our understanding of the New Testament and opened up important fields for research.”
Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, provided an appreciative note for the back cover of her book on The Mother of the Lord, writing:
Once again, Dr. Barker offers us a massively learned and creative re-reading of what the Bible has to tell us about the religion of ancient Israel, using her wide knowledge of material in Hebrew, Syriac and other Semitic languages, texts from Jewish, Gnostic and Christian sources. She reinforces the case she has made in earlier books that the Hebrew Scriptures represent a deeply conflicted set of traditions, and excavates the lost cult of the divine “Lady of the Temple,” the personification of divine Wisdom and the bearer of the divine Son. Her contention that this alone makes sense not only of tensions within the text of the Hebrew Scriptures but also of persistent and otherwise baffling themes in early Christianity is argued with vigour and comprehensiveness of scope. Controversial as it is, this is a very significant contribution to the fuller understanding of both Christian and Jewish origins.Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
Andrei Orlov at Marquette has included her journal articles in the syllabus for his classes.
In 2015, Crispin Fletcher-Louis flatteringly mentions Margaret Barker in the introduction to the first volume of Jesus Monotheism:
[She is] a muse to many of us, albeit from beyond the immediate confines of Oxford on the cosmology and religious experiences nurtured by Israel’s Temple.Crispin Fletcher-Louis
In 2018, N.T. Wright was invited to give the Gifford Lectures. He spoke on “Jesus, the Temple, and the Kingdom,” noting that in the published version, “Margaret Barker has done remarkable work in alerting scholarly and popular circles to ‘Temple’ based theological understanding.”
So, there are many different streams of scholarship. Some dismiss her work, and others hold her in the highest regard.
The same tensions, for the same reasons, reappear in Latter-day Saint circles. It separates those who appreciate her work from those who are doubtful because her writings don’t fit with what they learned in church or university regarding Josiah or 1 Enoch or the Trinity.
It is the old problem of new wine and old bottles.
How is she viewed in the secular world of biblical studies?
As “not us.” Secular scholars, by definition, approach the Bible from a secular perspective, just as they approach Joseph Smith from a secular perspective. Margaret Barker is not a secular scholar, but rather a committed and believing scholar.
She is highly regarded by many important Biblical scholars, and viewed with suspicion by others—in large part because she does not teach their more orthodox views of sola scriptura and the classical Trinity.
Those who favor Barker’s work appreciate that she describes a Jesus that they can accept as scholars—and have faith in as believers. Whereas secular scholars tend to see a difference between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History, she argues in The Risen Lord that the Jesus of History is the Christ of Faith.
So, while she is controversial, those who champion her work respect her language skills, her breadth of knowledge, and her significant insights. That makes a difference for many believing scholars, and sets her in opposition to the secular elements.
In 2000, she gave an address noting that:
There is a major crisis in biblical studies of which the churches seem unaware, and there is need for urgent action to ensure that at least in theological colleges something is taught that does not simply rely on university departments and replicate their syllabus and interests. Theological colleges and university departments now have very different agendas.Margaret Barker
In a 2012 interview she commented that:
The current paradigm is going towards a non-faith-based study, which has no future. By this I do not mean simply that the study is not faith-based; it is based on non-faith, and so criticism does not mean close study; it so often means destructive study. New paradigms emerge from those aware of the crisis, who recognize that the situation is not likely to be remedied by the methods that caused it.Margaret Barker
So, she works in a deliberate and conscious open conflict with secular approaches. She is not trying to get accepted in that club, but rather to establish a viable alternative.
In that same 2012 interview she observes:
There is no such thing as objective biblical scholarship, that is, biblical scholarship produced by those with no faith commitment. I have often said that a professor of French who had never been to France, did not speak the language, and doubted that France even existed would not be taken seriously. The same should apply with biblical studies, but it does not.
The result is that the much biblical study produced in the UK, outside the faith-based institutions, is of no use to the consumers of biblical scholarship, that is, the faith-based communities. Any medical school that produced no graduates fit to practise medicine and no research relevant to the human body would be closed down. The same should apply with biblical studies, but it does not.
All the independent biblical scholars that I know work from a faith-based perspective, and it is with us that the future lies. It is necessary to recognize this, and not allow ourselves to be convinced that those who are not earning a living by their scholarship are somehow second rate.Margaret Barker
What draws so many Latter-day Saints to her work?
It is the breadth of direct relevance and elaborate convergence with Latter-day Saint scriptures and the temple. For instance, the introduction to Margaret Barker’s first book, The Older Testament, ends with this paragraph:
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.
That, I submit, should invite Latter-day Saint interest. How does her reconstruction of First Temple Judaism compare to what we have in the Book of Mormon? Given that Joseph Smith and Margaret Barker operated independently, and used vastly different sources and resources, should we not expect the pictures to be vastly different?
What we actually find is an unexpected elaborate convergence of time, place and temple themes that demands some kind of explanation. Indeed, every verse of 1 Nephi 1 takes us directly into her world.
Latter-day Saint scholar Fiona Givens attended Barker’s talk on the Book of Mormon at the 2005 Joseph Smith conference at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Afterward, Givens reported that “When I read the first few chapters of the Book of Mormon I now see historical figures depicted rather than mythical ones.”
It’s not just the obvious things, like the tree of life, Jesus as Yahweh, the son of El Elyon, God Most High, the Mother in Heaven, and Melchizedek priesthood. It’s also a growing set of convergences regarding many details we never considered before, such as the Deuteronomist Reforms of Lehi’s day, the ancient Wisdom traditions, the nature of the blindness and the meaning of the mark that Jacob 4 describes. Even D&C 93 on Jesus as not having received the fulness until his baptism. And much, much more.
Her first book, The Older Testament, and Commentary on Isaiah turn out to cast unexpected light and possibilities on the Isaiah problem in the Book of Mormon.
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn explained that the most important values for paradigm choice are:
- puzzle definition and testability
- accuracy of key predictions
- comprehensiveness and coherence
- simplicity and aesthetics
- and future promise.
All of these factors appear in the reports of those Latter-day Saints who appreciate her work. Those who object report that it’s not what they have been taught or thought before, and therefore, is questionable. When offered new wine, the objection is that the old is better, and that certain authority figures disapprove.
What are some of her books with relevance to Latter-day Saints?
All of them—all 18 books. That’s the truly astonishing thing. And all of them are in print and easy to find. The same goes for Margaret Barker’s papers and talks.
If you want to learn what the fuss is about, the best place to start depends on your preparation and personal interest. For example, her first book that attracted the attention of Latter-day Saint scholars was The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. But the scholars who were drawn to that were also well-read Nibleyophiles.
For someone who is just starting out in these waters, I would recommend something like Temple Theology: An Introduction.
In 2012, Joseph Spencer published the first edition of his close reading of the Book of Mormon, An Other Testament: On Typology.
He sees the underlying structure of 1 and 2 Nephi as follows:
- Part 1: Creation (1 Nephi 1–18)
- Part 2: Fall (1 Nephi 19–2 Nephi 5)
- Part 3: Atonement (2 Nephi 6–30)
- Part 4: Veil (2 Nephi 31–33)
He says that this structure “effectively reproduces what the Book of Mormon elsewhere calls ‘the plan of redemption.’ He reports:
In a book simply titled Temple Theology, Barker has assembled a definitive introduction to what she divides into a fourfold pattern: creation, (broken) covenant, atonement, and (divine) wisdom. The correspondence between what Margaret Barker describes as temple theology and the pattern Nephi uses to structure his record is striking. This correspondence suggest[s] that Nephi’s record might have been written in association with the newly constructed Nephite temple.Joseph Spencer
And there are also her two 2003 BYU talks, her talk on “Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition” at the 2005 Joseph Smith Conference at the Library of Congress, and talks at FAIR and the temple studies groups. Plus many more.
There are a few dozen videos of her presentations on YouTube, including the church-produced Temples through Time, with her speaking first after Elder David A. Bednar, and last before he closes. Her daughter has also created a very useful website with many papers.
What is The Great Angel about?
Margaret Barker’s fourth book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, was the first that attracted the attention of several Latter-day Saint scholars.
There were many in first-century Palestine who still retained a worldview 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.Margaret Barker, The Great Angel
And she continues:
“All the texts in the Hebrew Bible distinguish clearly between the divine sons of Elohim/Elyon and those human beings who are called sons of Yahweh. This must be significant. It must mean that the terms originated at a time when Yahweh was distinguished from whatever was meant by El/Elohim/Elyon. A large number of texts continued to distinguish between EI Elyon and Yahweh, Father and Son, and to express this distinction in similar ways with the symbolism of the temple and the royal cult. By tracing these patterns through a great variety of material and over several centuries, Israel’s second God can be recovered.”Margaret Barker, The Great Angel
So the theology she describes is of obvious interest to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the content and sources she explores turns out to have direct relevance to the Book of Mormon and the New Testament.
Why did you send her a copy of Hugh Nibley’s Enoch the Prophet?
After I had read her first six books, and several important journal articles, I made an unusual effort to acquire her contact information and determined to write to her. Her first two books, The Older Testament and Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence Christianity, both looked closely at the 1 Enoch, and I thought that she would find Hugh Nibley’s work on Enoch of interest.
A few weeks earlier, I noticed a pristine copy of Enoch the Prophet in a Kansas City bookstore. A vivid picture of the book popped unbidden into my mind once I got Barker’s contact info, and I took that as a hint.
She wrote back in September 1999, and said:
Thank you for the surprise package, and your kind letter. I read everything with great interest. I know very little indeed about Mormon studies, so it was fascinating to discover these things for the first time.Margaret Barker to Kevin Christensen
She also asked about my interests. I explained that I intended to compare her work to the Book of Mormon. That became my FARMS Occasional Paper, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” published in early 2002.
How did her attendance at a 2003 BYU conference impact her influence among Latter-day Saints?
After the publication of “Paradigms Regained,” Noel Reynolds of BYU arranged to visit Margaret Barker’s home in Derbyshire. He spent about five hours with her, discussing her work and her interest in the temple.
A direct outcome of that visit was her invitation to come to BYU to present a five day seminar on her work to a room full of BYU notables, plus individuals like Brant Gardner, Alyson Von Feldt, and me. As part of the seminar, the attendees were scheduled into smaller lunches and dinners.
John Welch had a conversation with her during a drive past the mountains that led directly to her inviting him to write Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple and Sermon on the Mount.
Margaret Barker gave two public talks, a midweek devotional on “What King Josiah Reformed” and a Friday evening Fireside on Jesus as The Great High Priest that were published respectfully in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem and BYU Studies. Brant Gardner reported that her devotional talk on “What King Josiah Reformed” became one of the most important paradigm shifts of his life.
His Second Witness commentaries draw on her work. Over the years, she participated with Latter-day Saint scholars in Temple Studies groups in London and Logan, as well as several Society of Biblical Literature meetings.
At one of the small group dinners during the 2003 seminar, she told John Tvedtnes and Louis Midgley that one of the things that turned her towards the temple while at Cambridge was her reading an article in Jewish Quarterly Review, “Christian Envy of the Temple” by one Hugh Nibley. (That bit of serendipity suggests to me that what is happening with Barker and Latter-day Saint scholars is not just random, but is working out according to a divine plan.) The high regard that she has for Nibley is demonstrated in the fact that she later spoke on that “Christian Envy of the Temple” essay at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting.
So, several productive, ongoing relationships with Latter-day Saint scholars began during her first visit and and the fruit of those connections continues to appear.
What does she think about our approaches to the Old Testament and Pearl of Great Price?
Margaret Barker wrote a cover blurb for Jeff Bradshaw’s huge and ambitious book, In God’s Image and Likeness: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Book of Moses:
This is not just a book for Mormons. Dr. Bradshaw draws on a wide range of material from many cultures and eras: Jewish, Christian, Muslim. He shows how to read and understand the stories of a prephilosophical culture, and reveals them as sophisticated insights into the human condition. He takes as his starting point the Genesis material in Mormon tradition, and then sets it in a wider context than many would have thought possible, exploring the human and spiritual state of humanity, the nature of our knowledge about the Creation, the nature of revelation itself. He has wise words on the creationism debate. This remarkable book makes an important contribution to understanding not only the material in Genesis, but also the way in which that heritage has been shared among all the Peoples of the Book.Margaret Barker
I’m also very impressed by a comment she made to Kevin Barney, after he sent her a copy of his his BYU Studies article on “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.”
He reported that she approved and wrote that “The key to everything is in what is missing from Genesis.”
What was her impression of touring the Paris, France temple?
You can watch Margaret Barker discuss it here, in the Temples through Time video, produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
John Welch had invited her for a personal tour with the Temple President and Matron. She was so impressed that she later asked if she could do it again for the Rome temple open house. If you look at her website, you can see that she also arranged to give talks in Paris and Rome on temples at the time of those temple tours.
Does she tell Latter-day Saints what they already know—or is it more than that?
It’s much more than that. My experience in reading Margaret Barker’s work has been a series of important paradigm shifts, leading to what Alma 32 describes as expansion of the mind, and enlightenment of my understanding.
Before I was halfway through The Great Angel in 1999, I understood that I had happened upon something that was very important and needed urgently to be shared. My own enlightenment continues unabated to this day as I read more of her ongoing writings, and that of other Latter-day Saint scholars who use her work.
That transformative—rather than just additive—enlightenment is why I titled my first study of her work “Paradigms Regained.” She offers a new paradigm that changes how we see familiar scriptures in a way that is expansive and enlightening, rather than shattering and disillusioning.
Personally, I see her work as a direct fulfillment of the prophecy of the loss and restoration of specific plain and precious things centered on “the Lamb of God” as “the son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world” (1 Nephi 13:40), which is the exact argument of Barker’s The Great Angel and The Risen Lord.
And the same goes for her. Margaret Barker has been enthusiastic and public about what she has learned from the Latter-day Saints. A very good example of that is John Welch’s introducing her to his way of seeing the Sermon on the Mount as a temple discourse, as well as her 2005 talk on the Book of Mormon.
Stay caught up on the latest scholarship
Subscribe to be notified when we publish new content!
About the interview participant
Kevin Christensen has been a technical writer in the computer-aided engineering industry since 1984, working for Ansys near Pittsburgh since 2004. He has published over 40 essays on Latter-day Saint topics in a range of journals and books.
- Tracing Ancient Threads in the Book of Moses
- Freemasonry and the Temple Endowment
- Anointing in the Bible
- The Development of Temple Doctrine
- Temples and Ritual
- AI Temples
Margaret Barker and the Latter-day Saints resources
- Twenty Years After “Paradigms Regained,” Part 1: The Ongoing, Plain, and Precious Significance of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship for Latter-day Saint Studies (Interpreter Foundation)
- Twenty Years After “Paradigms Regained,” Part 2: Responding to Margaret Barker’s Critics and Why Her Work Should Matter to Latter‑day Saints (Interpreter Foundation)
- Noted Theologian Shares Insights of Ancient Temple Worship at Conference (Church News)
- Why Mormons Love Margaret Barker (Patheos)
- Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies (FARMS)
- Response to Margaret Barker’s “The Lord Is One” (BYU Studies)
Margaret Barker books
- An Extraordinary Gathering of Angels (Link)
- Christmas: The Original Story (Link)
- Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (Link)
- Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (Link)
- King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel (Link)
- On Earth as it is in Heaven: Temple Symbolism in the New Testament (Link)
- Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Link)
- The Gate of Heaven: The History and Symbolism of the Temple in Jerusalem (Link)
- The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Link)
- The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God (Link)
- The Lost Prophet: The Book of Enoch and Its Influence on Christianity (Link)
- The Mother of the Lord: Volume 1: The Lady in the Temple (Link)
- The Older Testament: The Survival of Themes from the Ancient Royal Cult in Sectarian Judaism and Early Christianity (Link)
- The Risen Lord: The Jesus of History as the Christ of Faith (Link)
- Temple Mysticism: An Introduction (Link)
- Temple Themes in Christian Worship (Link)
- Temple Theology: An Introduction (Link)
- The Great Lady: Restoring Her Story (Link)