10 questions with S. Kent Brown

In December 2017 / January 2018, I had the privilege to interview S. Kent Brown, an emeritus professor of ancient studies at BYU.

My contact with Brown stemmed from an interview with Philip Jenkins wherein he mentioned scholars at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship who were studying the same time period as he covered in his book, Crucible of Faith. After contacting the Maxwell Institute I was eventually put in touch with Brown, who has done some work on the period of 250 BCE to 50  CE, including the publication of The Lost 500 Years: What Happened Between the Old and New Testaments.

S. Kent Brown


Kurt Manwaring: Where did you get the idea for The Lost 500 Years: What Happened Between the Old and New Testaments?

S. Kent Brown: Truth be told, Richard Holzapfel approached me about the book. He had already written an introduction as a guide to the planned book. I tried my hand at revising his introduction, he liked it, and we were off. Our first version was published under the title Between the Testaments: From Malachi to Matthew (Deseret, 2002). Three years later, Richard said that we should produce a revision, adding relevant illustrations. So we revised the text and added interesting visual aids, publishing The Lost 500 Years: What Happened Between the Old and New Testaments (Deseret, 2006).

 

Kurt Manwaring: Did you find your love for the Savior or the scriptures noticeably increase as a result of working on The Lost 500 Years? How so?

S. Kent Brown: I encounter this question a lot in current church literature. And for most teaching and learning situations, it fits. But in the case of this book, I found a buttress to my “love for the Savior” in a very narrow channel. Why? Because of the nature of the topic. At base, I gained a deeper appreciation for what challenges Jesus was facing when trying to bring gospel truth to his hearers because I came to a firmer grasp of the often misguided traditions of his people and how those traditions gripped them.

 

Kurt Manwaring: How do you feel your book was received?

S. Kent Brown: You know, I cannot recall a single conversation with anyone who had read the book, or who had sampled it. I know that people read it because the book sold well and the information was completely fresh. I do recall Richard saying that a former teacher from his graduate school had seen the book, bought it, read it, and then said to Richard that he liked it.

 

Kurt Manwaring: When you taught elements of religious history at BYU, were there any common themes or issues that troubled students? Noticeably enlightened them?

S. Kent Brown: I taught mostly courses that held an ancient focus during my thirty-seven year career. Only the course on the Pearl of Great Price brought me into contact with the somewhat modern story of Joseph Smith and the vicissitudes that he and others dealt with. That said, I framed my classes to treat the issues that arose out of the scriptural text that we were discussing. By that approach, I hoped, and intended, to excavate from the scripture any issues and questions that would be potentially helpful to students’ concerns. My tack was to suggest evidences along the way that stood behind the text of scripture and to give those evidences a genuine place in our world. Hence, I hope, the scripture became a trusted friend for the genuine seeker.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What can Christians today learn about recognizing and coping with change from the Crucible era?

S. Kent Brown: The Crucible era, as Philip Jenkins has titled it, stands as one of the most challenging ages in the history of the West. Especially the Jewish people, from whom our scripture tradition comes, were subject to enormous pressures from foreign governments and armies and cultures that, in other cases, swallowed peoples and made them into Greco-Roman adherents, complete with Hellenistic education and athletics and worship of pagan deities. Remarkably, the Jews held onto their scripture which provided the guide for their daily lives. But their brush with Greco-Roman society left an imprint. To avoid receiving that imprint as much as possible, they turned inward and adopted strategies of surviving with their identities still intact. This sort of action meant that they took imaginative steps to hold onto their religious traditions, often changing and adjusting those traditions into something that people a couple of centuries earlier would not have recognized. Thus, in some ways, they stepped away from some of their moorings just to survive. We can take lessons from them in how to hold onto what is important and how to adapt to changing influences in our environments.

 

Kurt Manwaring: In what ways might the changing politics and religious beliefs of today be looked back upon in 200 years as another crucible of faith? In 2,000 years?

S. Kent Brown: I have no opinion about how our world might look to people living a couple of centuries after our time.

 

Kurt Manwaring: Some religious believers are almost afraid of history. What are some ways history can actually encourage faith — even if it reveals truths that sometimes diverge from long-held beliefs?

S. Kent Brown: History is a discipline that stands three or four steps from science. The problem is that a person cannot test history and its outcomes by replaying them or by putting them into a laboratory to observe them.

But a probing spirit that seeks not to engineer a certain outcome will come upon some very worthwhile observations about history. But we may have to be patient and not demand that history deliver a wanted conclusion in this minute.

For example, we could say that Joseph Smith stuck the name Nahom into the Book of Mormon narrative as the place of Ishmael’s burial (see 1 Nephi 16:34) by simply plucking it out of thin air. There it sat in the account for almost 170 years, begging for someone to prove it wrong or right. In 1998 I became aware of an exhibit of ancient Yemeni artifacts showing in Paris. I was specifically interested in the votive altars in the exhibit because these small stone altars are carved with architectural features — recessed windows, doorways, steps, etc. — and I wondered how closely they matched the architectural standards of south Arabia.

Why? Because Lehi called the building in his dream “strange” (see 1 Nephi 8:33). And the most natural reason for calling it strange was because of how it looked when compared to the architectural styles on display in Jerusalem. And I had become convinced that much of what Lehi saw in his dream was what he would meet when he and his traveling party plunged deeper into Arabia.

I ordered the catalogue for the exhibit. After it arrived, I began to photograph the votive altars pictured in the catalogue because no two were alike. They had been commissioned by different people for different occasions, and most were given to the small Bar`an temple just outside the modern town of Marib. When I read what the archaeologist had translated from one altar’s inscription band, an altar that dated from the seventh–sixth centuries BC, it recorded first the name of the donor, then his father’s name, and then his grandfather’s: “Bi‘athar, son of Saw‘ad, son of Naw‘an, the Nihmite.” It took about thirty minutes for me to come to realize that I had just read the name Nahom as a tribal name in south Arabia (Nihm, or more properly without the vowels, NHM). And the time was exactly right, for Lehi and Sariah were on the move in the early sixth century. That turned out to be the first archeological proof for the Book of Mormon. And it came about because I ordered a catalogue from a Yemeni exhibit showing in Paris.

 

Kurt Manwaring: In what ways can Mormons benefit from reading non-Mormon scholars of religious studies?

S. Kent Brown: The benefits from reading the results of the work of non-LDS scholars are immense. For the most part, they are well educated and think clearly. That said, a person must be careful. Those scholars all carry biases — as do I. And those biases influence the way that they put evidence together and how they draw conclusions. If a person can bracket that sort of thing, the field is wide-open for work. For me, I keep a gospel grid in front of me to judge whether the results of research carry some sort of theological bias. If they do not, then I am free to adopt what others have figured out.

The world of archaeology is different, of course. Archaeologists are trying the best they know how to make sense of what they pull out of the ground or pick up on its surface. The material remains that they work with may posit all kinds of possible answers, but little of personal theology is at play in archaeological results.

 

Kurt Manwaring: If you had the chance to teach for one final year and could cover any material and leave any lifetime lessons with the students, what would you teach? What principles would you most want to leave with the students?

S. Kent Brown: If granted another year of teaching, I would want to offer one of three courses. First, the life and ministry of Jesus; second, the visit of the Resurrected Christ to the New World; third, the trek of Lehi and Sariah and their party.

Why? Because each of these brings me to real stuff.

What do I mean? The first two bring my students and me into close proximity with the Savior, the one tracing his mortal journey when we see all pointing to his matchless atonement, and the other following events after that mortal passage when we can see him in all his celestial splendor revealing himself to common people like ourselves. The third topic, in my view, discloses one after another in the family of Lehi and Sariah coming to faith, including Lehi himself, Sariah, Sam, Nephi, (off stage) Nephi’s wife, Jacob, Joseph. It is also a story that chronicles the huge consequences for certain kinds of choices that lead people away from the Lord and his heaven, as in the case of Laman, Lemuel and certain of Ishmael’s family.

 

Kurt Manwaring: Do you have any comments on the interview responses of Philip Jenkins?

S. Kent Brown: I have no comments on the very fine interview with Philip Jenkins. Thanks for the question.

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