Friday, March 27, 2015

Because He Lives

Be sure to check out the Church's new website.


This video below is from last year, but it's still good.


O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell. . . . [W]herefore, death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 9:10, 12)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Admission and Omission: What Is the Church's Position on the Book of Abraham?

"Printing Plates of Facsimiles of Papyrus Drawings, Nauvoo, IL, early 1842" (http://josephsmithpapers.org)
In his March 2015 letter to the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appealing his excommunication, John Dehlin claims there has been a "recent admission" on the part of the Church "that the Book of Abraham is not a translation of the Egyptian papyrus, as Joseph Smith claimed that it was." Dehlin quotes the Church's 2014 Gospel Topics essay "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" to wit:
None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.
Dehlin raises this point again later in his letter. One of the many "disturbing facts" he "stumbled upon" in his studies is that "by the LDS Church's own admission, the Book of Abraham is not a translation of the Egyptian papyrus." This, among other things, Dehlin says, was "deeply disturbing and destabilizing for [him]."

Dehlin's allies Nadine R. Hansen and Kate Kelly also raise this point in the same letter. "The Church’s own essays openly and truthfully acknowledge this difficulty," they write, "by stating, 'None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham.'" Consequently, "While the Church may continue to maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired, canonical writing, but it must do so while acknowledging that Joseph Smith’s early statement that it is Abraham’s writings, 'by his own hand upon the papyrus,' is not factbased." (On this last point, see my article here.)

These authors are not alone in claiming the Church has made this "recent admission" about the Book of Abraham. Jeremy Runnells, in his anti-Mormon screed known conventionally as the CES Letter, remarks, "The Church conceded in its July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay that Joseph’s translations of the papyri and the facsimiles do not match what’s in the Book of Abraham."

With these statements from Dehlin and Runnells in mind, let's take a closer look at what the Gospel Topics essay actually says about the Book of Abraham.

I. The nature of the surviving papyri fragments. On this matter, the Gospel Topics essay matter-of-factly states that the surviving papyri fragments do not contain the Book of Abraham. "Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived." However, this is by no means a "recent" admission or concession by the Church. In fact, what these authors fail to inform their readers is that the Church immediately identified the Joseph Smith Papyri fragments as copies of funerary texts when it received them from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. In the January 1968 issue of the Improvement Era, the Church identified the recovered fragments as "conventional . . . Egyptian funerary texts, which were commonly buried with Egyptian mummies." The Church has reaffirmed this simple fact in subsequent publications.
  • "Mormon Media" (1975): "Brother Nibley marshals a considerable array of talents in fulfilling the second and major purpose of the book, which is to discuss the meaning of the Joseph Smith papyri. Identifying Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI with the Egyptian Book of Breathings becomes a point of departure for Brother Nibley, rather than, as with other scholars, a final pronouncement."
  • "I Have a Question" (1976): "Q: Are the three facsimiles related to each other? A: Definitely, by all being attached to one and the same document, namely, the Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI, which contain a text of the Egyptian Book of Breathings. Facsimile No. 1 is followed immediately on its left-hand margin by Joseph Smith Papyrus XI, which begins the Book of Breathings. Someone cut them apart, but the fibre edges of their two margins still match neatly. Facsimile No. 1 thus serves as a sort of frontispiece."
  • "I Have a Question" (1988): "[Facsimile 1] can be connected with several of the other papyri fragments that relate to the text of an ancient Egyptian religious document known as the “Book of Sensen” or “Book of Breathings.”. . .  [F]rom paleographic and historical considerations, the Book of Breathings papyrus can reliably be dated to around A.D. 60—much too late for Abraham to have written it. Of course, it could be a copy—or a copy of a copy—of the original written by Abraham. However, a second problem arises when one compares the text of the book of Abraham with a translation of the Book of Breathings; they clearly are not the same."
  • "Book of Abraham: Facsimiles From the Book of Abraham" (1992): "Only for Facsimile 1 is the original document known to be extant. Comparisons of the papyrus fragments as well as the hieroglyphic text accompanying this drawing demonstrate that it formed a part of an Egyptian religious text known as the Book of Breathings. Based on paleographic and historical evidence, this text can be reliably dated to about the first century A.D. Since reference is made to this illustration in the book of Abraham (Abr. 1:12), many have concluded that the Book of Breathings must be the text that the Prophet Joseph Smith used in his translation. Because the Book of Breathings is clearly not the book of Abraham, critics claim this is conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith was unable to translate the ancient documents."
  • "News From Antiquity" (1994): "[Critics of the Church] point to the fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that we now possess and claim that since the contents of these papyri bear little obvious relationship to the book of Abraham, the book is a fraud."
  • Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual (2003): "In 1967 eleven fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri were rediscovered by Doctor Aziz S. Atiya, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Studies of them have confirmed that they are mainly ancient Egyptian funerary texts of the sort commonly buried with royalty and nobility and designed to guide them through their eternal journeyings. This has renewed the question about the connection between the records and the book of Abraham."
One might quibble here or there with the wording of these passages. For example, the Pearl of Great Price Student Manual mentions the late date of the papyri, but doesn't explicitly mention that the papyri are fragments from the Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead. Nevertheless, when these sources are combined, the basic point cannot be negated: the Church has straightforwardly taught that the surviving papyri fragments do not contain the Book of Abraham, but instead contain late copies of Egyptian funerary texts. Dehlin and Runnells are misleading their readers by claiming this "admission" is recent, or has just now been recognized by the Church in the 2014 Gospel Topics essay. In fact, the Church has acknowledged this fact since at least 1968.

II. On why the Book of Abraham is not contained in the surviving papyri. Dehlin and Runnells both conspicuously fail to alert their readers to the part of the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham that explicitly addresses reasons why the Book of Abraham text was not recovered in the surviving papyri fragments. The essay clearly identifies at least two potential reasons. "It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession," the essay notes. "Eyewitnesses spoke of 'a long roll' or multiple 'rolls' of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri." In other words, the essay clearly recognizes the so-called "missing papyrus theory" as a possible explanation for why the surviving fragments don't match the Book of Abraham.

The essay also mentions the so-called "catalyst theory" for the Book of Abraham as another possible explanation.
Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.
From this we see that Dehlin and Runnels have misled their readers by selectively presenting what the Gospel Topics essay claims about the relationship between the papyri and the Book of Abraham.

III. What about Elder Holland's BBC Interview? Although not explicitly mentioned by Dehlin in his letter to the First Presidency (although it is mentioned and, not surprisingly, distorted by Runnells), it is worth quickly looking at Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's remarks on the Book of Abraham made in a 2012 interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney. When Sweeney pressed Elder Holland on the matter of the translation of the Book of Abraham, Elder Holland responded, "[W]hat got translated got translated into the word of God; the vehicle for that I do not understand." What does this statement reveal? First, notice carefully that Elder Holland calls the Book of Abraham a "translation." He also calls it the "word of God." So Elder Holland, it appears, both accepts the Book of Abraham as an authentic "translation" and as inspired scripture. Second, notice that Elder Holland simply remarks that he doesn't know the mechanism ("vehicle") of the translation of the Book of Abraham. In other words, he doesn't know precisely how the translation was performed. This is different from how Runnells and others have characterized Elder Holland's remarks. Due to some obviously heavy editing of the original footage into what became the broadcasted program, it is impossible to know precisely what, if anything, Elder Holland said in addition by way of clarification. Notwithstanding, at the risk of speaking on behalf of Elder Holland, I believe it is safe to assume that he merely meant he didn't know the precise nature of the translation (e.g. "missing papyrus," "catalyst," or something else), and wasn't obfuscating in some way about the Church's position.

IV. The Facsimiles. Dehlin and Runnells also omit the Gospel Topics essay's comments on the interpretation of the facsimiles. The essay explains,
Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.
The essay therefore provides an explanation for why images illustrating the Book of Abraham could've ended up attached to an Egyptian funerary text, and why there is otherwise disjunction between Joseph Smith's interpretation of the facsimiles and Egyptologists' interpretations. In fact, the essay goes on to further explain, "Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary." Thus, in order to fully appreciate the Church's explanation of the facsimiles, one needs to keep this commentary in mind. To omit it is to ultimately distort a critical aspect of the Church's apologia for the Book of Abraham.

V. The 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Before concluding, it is worth highlighting the changes made to the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. The pre-2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price identified the text as "[a] translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham." By comparison, the 2013 edition characterizes the Book of Abraham as "an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri." Some have argued that this is another admission by the Church that the Book of Abraham isn't really a translation. This seems unlikely, however, since the 2013 edition still retains the (slightly modified) header that has accompanied the Book of Abraham since its 1842 publication: "A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus." If the Church really was ceding ground on the Book of Abraham as a translation, one has to wonder why they left in this rather explicate superscript to the text.

Another overlooked change in the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price comes at the beginning of the introductory page. The pre-2013 edition explains that "[t]hese items [i.e. the contents of the Pearl of Great Price] were produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith and were published in the Church periodicals of his day." The 2013 edition, however, reads, "These items were translated and produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and most were published in the Church periodicals of his day." Notice here the word "translated" was deliberately added in reference to the materials found in the Pearl of Great Price, which would presumably include the Book of Abraham. Thus, far from backing away from the Book of Abraham as being a translation of some sort, the Church, it could be argued, has in recent years actually reinforced an understanding of the Book of Abraham as a "translation." The new edition of the Pearl of Great Price simply affirms that the Book of Abraham is an "inspired translation of the writings of Abraham," while omitting details of the exact process, which remains up for debate.

In conclusion, one would do well to eschew the mishandled and misleading presentations of the Church's position on the Book of Abraham offered by Dehlin and Runnells. The 2014 Gospel Topics essay hasn't "conceded" or "admitted" anything about the Book of Abraham. The contents of the essay have, by and large, been circulating in both Church materials and other Mormon publications for decades. On the other hand, Dehlin and Runnells have omitted important material that helps us better understand this remarkable scriptural work.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy Spring Equinox!


In honor of today being the first day of spring, please enjoy the delight poem "Mailied" by my homeboy Johann Goethe.

Wie herrlich leuchtet
Mir die Natur!
Wie glänzt die Sonne!
Wie lacht die Flur!
Es dringen Blüten
Aus jedem Zweig
Und tausend Stimmen
Aus dem Gesträuch

Und Freud' und Wonne
Aus jeder Brust.
O Erd', o Sonne!
O Glück, o Lust!

O Lieb', o Liebe!
So golden schön,
Wie Morgenwolken
Auf jenen Höhn!

Du segnest herrlich
Das frische Feld,
Im Blütendampfe
Die volle Welt.

O Mädchen, Mädchen,
Wie lieb' ich dich!
Wie blickt dein Auge!
Wie liebst du mich!

So liebt die Lerche
Gesang und Luft,
Und Morgenblumen
Den Himmelsduft,

Wie ich dich liebe
Mit warmem Blut,
Die du mir Jugend
Und Freud' und Mut

Zu neuen Liedern
Und Tänzen gibst.
Sei ewig glücklich,
Wie du mich liebst!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Spirits of Light and Darkness

The Qumran text 1QS, otherwise known as the Rule of the Community (Serekh ha-Yaḥad), has an interesting depiction of two "spirits," the spirits of light and darkness (רוחות אור וחושׁכ), that, the text explains, were created by God, "making them the cornerstone of every deed" (1QS III, 25). Of these two spirits, the text explains, "God’s love for one spirit lasts forever. He will be pleased with its actions for always. The counsel of the other, however, He abhors, hating its every impulse for all time" (1QS III–IV, 26–1).

What are these two spirits? One can recognize them by the actions they compel men to perform (cf. Matt. 7:16). Here is how 1QS describes the spirit of light.
Upon earth their operations are these: one enlightens a man’s mind, making straight before him the paths of true righteousness and causing his heart to fear the laws of God. This spirit engenders humility, patience, abundant compassion, perpetual goodness, insight, understanding, and powerful wisdom resonating to each of God’s deeds, sustained by His constant faithfulness. It engenders a spirit knowledgeable in every plan of action, zealous for the laws of righteousness, holy in its thoughts and steadfast in purpose. This spirit encourages plenteous compassion upon all who hold fast to truth, and glorious purity combined with visceral hatred of impurity in its every guise. It results in humble deportment allied with a general discernment, concealing the truth, that is, the mysteries of knowledge. To these ends is the earthly counsel of the spirit to those whose nature yearns for truth. Through a gracious visitation all who walk in this spirit will know healing, bountiful peace, long life and multiple progeny, followed by eternal blessings and perpetual joy through life everlasting. They will receive a crown of glory with a robe of honour, resplendent forever and ever. (1QS IV, 2–8)
By contrast, here is how 1QS describes the spirit of darkness (or falsehood).
The operations of the spirit of falsehood result in greed, neglect of righteous deeds, wickedness, lying, pride and haughtiness, cruel deceit and fraud, massive hypocrisy, a want of self-control and abundant foolishness, a zeal for arrogance, abominable deeds fashioned by whorish desire, lechery in its filthy manifestation, a reviling tongue, blind eyes, deaf ears, stiff neck and hard heart—to the end of walking in all the ways of darkness and evil cunning. (1QS IV, 9–11)
The text then goes on to list the consequences, both temporal and eternal, for following the spirit of darkness. (They are not at all pleasant.)

When I encountered this passage, I immediately thought of Paul's discourse on the fruits of the flesh and fruits of the spirit.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:19–23)
When I consider these texts, I am struck by how relevant they are today. One need only click on a few websites, or watch the nightly news, to see that the spirit of darkness is alive and well in today's world. Thankfully, all men have the light of Christ, and members of the Church have the gift of the Holy Ghost, to guide them in following the spirit of light.

(Note: the translation of 1QS above comes from Donald W. Parry and Immanuel Tov, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Reader: Volume I [Leiden: Brill, 2013].)

Dale Morgan on Objectivity in Mormon History

 Dale Morgan, 1914-1971.

Lowell Dale Morgan (who commonly went by simply Dale Morgan) was an American historian (and former Mormon) who influenced such authors as Juanita Brooks and Fawn Brodie. Morgan left behind an interesting collection of personal letters and correspondences that has been published by Signature Books.

In reading through his letters, I was struck by some of Morgan's comments to Juanita Brooks dated 15 December 1945.
Consider again how our individual points of view upon Mormonism and all religion are rooted in our fundamental viewpoint on God. It is in part a consequence of your experience of life, your upbringing and certain things that have befallen you, that you have an unshakable conviction of the reality of God. That is basic in your whole attitude toward Mormonism. It gives an emotional color that subtly shapes all your thinking on every subject, and all your reactions to what we call the objective facts of your life. The result is that when you contemplate Mormon history, there is a vast area of the probable and the possible that you accept without much question.
Morgan understood that how individuals approach Joseph Smith and Mormon history will, in large part, depend upon their personal beliefs and life circumstances. How one interprets the historical evidence surrounding Joseph Smith and Mormon history will depend on prior experiences, both worldly and spiritual, and assumptions about the existence or nonexistence of God as much as it will depend on purely intellectual endeavor. In the case of Juanita Brooks, Morgan recognized that her Mormon upbringing had influenced what she "accept[ed] without much question" with regards to Mormonism's truth claims.

On the other hand, Morgan portrayed his own position as follows:
At the other extreme we have my attitude (which I believe is substantially Fawn’s). I feel absolutely no necessity to postulate the existence of God as explanation of anything whatever. To me God exists only as a force in human conduct consequent upon the hypothecation of such a being by man. I find infinitely more interesting than abstract philosophical ideas of deity the quirk in men’s minds by which they have found it necessary to originate the concept of God. Essentially my views are atheist, but I call myself an agnostic because I regard professing atheists as being as much deluded as professing theists. The one says, “I know there isn’t a God”; the other, “I know that there is.” And I find the proof lacking in either case. Thus when I formulate my views, I say that I have no personal belief in God and see no necessity for the existence of such a being; I say further that I think this is the only life we’ll ever have, and that we’d better make the most of it.
So Morgan was an agnostic atheist, and approached his academic work from that paradigm. Fair enough. What's most revealing, however, is Morgan's remarkably candid comment made directly after this declaration of his atheism.
I believe I have about as great a reasonableness of spirit as anyone who has made inquiries in Mormon history. But I am aware also of a fatal defect in my objectivity. It is an objectivity on one side only of a philosophical Great Divide. With my point of view on God, I am incapable of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, be they however so convincing. If God does not exist, how can Joseph Smith’s story have any possible validity? I will look everywhere for explanations except to the ONE explanation that is the position of the church. 
This is remarkable. After acknowledging his atheism, Morgan goes on to acknowledge that his atheism precluded him from accepting certain positions relative to Joseph Smith's prophetic calling, "be they however so convincing."

To his credit, Morgan was honest enough to admit this. I wish more contemporary atheistic critics of Mormonism would be just as honest.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dover Beach

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Mönch am Meer (1807).

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

– Matthew Arnold, circa 1850

I first read "Dover Beach" last semester in one of my classes on 19th century German cultural history. (It's a long story as to how I ended up reading an English poem in a German class.) Since then, the haunting and yet arrestingly beautiful language and imagery of Arnold's poem has stuck with me. The third stanza, in particular, is especially relevant for today's world, which has, in many regards, seen the gradual retreat of traditional faith and piety.

Arnold was a spectacular poet. I am stirred by this poem. I am also stirred by the works of Terryl and Fiona Givens, who, with language that rivals Arnold's own, have deftly rendered two hopeful epilogues to this piece.

"The Problem With History Classes"

Michael Conway, writing for The Atlantic, has some excellent observations on "[s]ingle-perspective narratives" in historiography, which he claims "do students a gross disservice." Conway, using the recent controversy over the movie Selma's portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson and other films on historical figures as his catalyst, explains the perils of boiling down history into reductionistic and simplistic narratives that depict historical subjects as two-dimensional or otherwise lack any depth or substance. When competing narratives clash, Conway notes, the results are typically to the detriment of students.
The passion and urgency with which these battles are fought reflect the misguided way history is taught in schools. Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be "official" by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many "histories" that compose the American national story.
In other words, Conway insists that we've been doing a poor job equipping history students to confront ambiguity and contradiction in history and (sometimes vehement) disagreement in modern historiography. This is understandable, since in our modern give-me-the-answer-in-180-characters-or-less generation of thinking many people don't like complexity or ambiguity. Many want to know the Truth (with a capital T) and want to go no deeper than a five minute YouTube video or a cute meme to find it. Or, better yet, these people want an authority figure to simply dispense said Truth to them without any effort on their part. So, if someone is an "objective scholar" (a problematic phrase if ever there was one) or if the "consensus" says this or that, that's good enough for these people to accept the ex cathedra pronouncement on the matter.

Conway also identifies the multiplicity of historical methodologies as another factor complicating the situation.
In historiography, the barrier between historian and student is dropped, exposing a conflict-ridden landscape. A diplomatic historian approaches an event from the perspective of the most influential statesmen (who are most often white males), analyzing the context, motives, and consequences of their decisions. A cultural historian peels back the objects, sights, and sounds of a period to uncover humanity’s underlying emotions and anxieties. A Marxist historian adopts the lens of class conflict to explain the progression of events. There are intellectual historians, social historians, and gender historians, among many others. Historians studying the same topic will draw different interpretations—sometimes radically so, depending on the sources they draw from.
This same point has been made by Suzanne M. Wilson and Samuel S. Wineburg. They note that interdisciplinary historical methodologies compel us to reevaluate how we peer at history, and that different disciplines offer different insights. "Learning about disciplines is not simply a matter of acquiring new knowledge," Wilson and Wineburg emphasize. "It also entails examining previously held beliefs."[1] This is only to be expected, because once one is exposed to a new historical methodology, one is often forced to take a second look at how one had previously interpreted a set of historical data. "History carrie[s] different meanings and functione[s] in dramatically different ways" depending on what methodology or historiographical paradigm one uses to approach the past. As such, an generic approach to history "when applied to a specific case, is bound to be only partially correct - and in places, almost certainly incorrect."[2] In short, in order to fully appreciate and adequately account for the abundance of historical sources related to many topics, the field of history has had to move beyond generalized historical narratives that, at best, grossly oversimplify and distort and, at worst, obfuscate. While it was undoubtedly necessary for the academy to move into a stratified field of sub-disciplines, the drawback is that no single individual can fully comprehend, let alone effectively teach, all of the competing historiographical methodologies available at one's disposal today. "Social studies teachers have to know many things, and it is unreasonable to expect that young teachers will know enough about history and anthropology and sociology and economics to represent them accurately and teach them effectively." Not only that, according to Wilson and Wineburg, but more often than not, "Learning is not merely an encounter with new information, for new information is often no match for deeply held beliefs."[3] All of this is basically to say two things: (1) the proliferation of interdisciplinary approaches to history has made matters much more complex, in the same way that, say, quantum physics has made our once relatively simplistic Newtonian understanding of the universe much more complex, and (2) no single individual can get a real grapple on all of these historical sub-disciplines or methodologies, much less expect to adequately reduce this new, highly complex picture of history into an easy-to-grasp narrative that requires no thoughtfulness or nuance on the part of the observer.

Finally, Conway argues that simplistic depictions of historical subjects, as well as simplistic approaches to historical events, are distractions from the really important task at hand for modern students and pedagogues.
Lionization and demonization are best left to the heroes and villains of fairy tales. History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself. Conflict does not necessarily demand a resolution. Disagreements among highly educated, well-informed people will continue. Why should history ignore this reality? There is no better way to use the past to inform the present than by accepting the impossibility of a definitive history—and by ensuring that current students are equipped to grapple with the contested memories in their midst.
Said another way, a more robust approach to history recognizes the seemingly inherent inability of ours to settle on final, absolute, incontrovertible resolutions or answers to all historical questions (or at least those historical questions of any real meaning and importance). This isn't to surrender to some lazy relativism that values all explanations equally. Some historical narratives are good, some are excellent, some are problematic, and some are downright awful. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the quality of a given historical narrative falls on a spectrum that ranges from bad to excellent, instead of the stark (and false) dichotomy of simply "true" or "false." The same, too, goes for which authority figures we accept. Save for those charlatan who willfully fabricate data, historians fall on a spectrum of good to bad, with their attending strengths and weaknesses. We must abandon any pretense to historians being "objective" or "unbiased," since absolute objectivity and total impartiality are illusions, and instead focus on how to frankly and honestly confront (or admit to) our biases while grappling to make sense of the relevant data.

So, what application does this have for Mormon historiography? I can think of two.

First, there are some writers on Mormon things, such as the author of a particularly unexceptional and otherwise execrable letter to a Church Education Systems area director, who are guilty of all of the sins outlined by Conway above. Having little to no historiographical competence, these authors fall victim to precisely those things Conway and others have warned against. Until they dramatically improve their historiographical approach, their writings are best to be avoided.

Second, those experiencing a faith crisis of some sort over issues in Mormon history would do well to take a minute and internalize the points raised by Conway. It is important not only to know the facts per se, but also how to appropriately and reasonably interpret the facts in such a way that better ensures that one is not being led astray. It's easy (and lazy) to post a meme on your Facebook wall or browse Google for the better part of an hour and then assume you've gotten all you need to know on the subject to make an informed conclusion. It's much harder, but ultimately much more meaningful and rewarding, to wrestle with ambiguity, contradiction, and uncertainty before ultimately deciding that our answers to many questions are going to remain, for the time being, provisional.

To summarize what I think Conway is ultimately getting at, good, sophisticated historical thinking realizes that a healthy dose of epistemic humility is in order when confronting history.

–Notes–

[1]: Suzanne Wilson and Samuel S. Wineburg, "Peering at History through Different Lenses: The Role of Disciplinary Perspectives in Teaching History," Teachers College Record 89, no. 4 (1988): 537.

[2]: Wilson and Wineburg, "Peering at History through Different Lenses," 532.

[3]: Wilson and Wineburg, "Peering at History through Different Lenses," 538.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Happy Ides of March!


Caesar:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Caesar!" Speak, Caesar is turn'd to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March.

Caesar:
What man is that?

Brutus:
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

I hope your March 15th goes better for you than it did for Julius Caesar.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Was There an Exodus?"

Professor Joshua Berman
Joshua Berman, a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel, and a research fellow at the Herzl Institute, has authored an excellent article in the Jewish online magazine Mosaic on the question of the historicity of the exodus account in the Book of Exodus.

I had the privilege of listening to Professor Berman present on this topic at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting last Fall. Although I think his argument for a direct link between the Kadesh inscription and the Song of the Sea remains tentative, I think he has made a respectable case for his position. On the broader subject of the historicity of the exodus account, Berman has laid out a good overview the arguments made by such scholars as James K. Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen, among others. I have an affinity with Berman's position, and agree with him that, although we have no direct positive evidence for the historicity of the exodus account, we do have a good case for historicity based on an accumulation of different kinds of evidence that lends plausibility to the account. Of course, this is still an open debate, which Berman acknowledges. Nevertheless, contrary to some minimalists, I think that a good case can be made for the basic historicity of the account, and there are reasonable explanations to account for minimalist arguments.

From a Latter-day Saint perspective, I think it's also very interesting that Berman employs many of the same arguments for the historicity of the exodus that Mormon scholars have used for the Book of Mormon. For example, Berman notes:
Many details of the exodus story do strikingly appear to reflect the realities of late-second-millennium Egypt, the period when the exodus would most likely have taken place—and they are the sorts of details that a scribe living centuries later and inventing the story afresh would have been unlikely to know
This is precisely what Mormon writers (including myself) have said with regard to Joseph Smith's production of the Book of Mormon: that there are simply too many details that the book gets right about the time period it purports to describe, which leads me to believe it is not a product of the 19th century, but rather the ancient Near East and ancient Mesoamerica.

I would recommend Berman's article for anyone interested in this topic. It is very close to how I would approach this subject, including my own position on the final question of the exodus's historicity.

(P.S. be sure to check out the comments of my friend Neal Rappleye here.)

–Addition–

Richard Hess has responded to Berman's original piece with his article "How to Judge Evidence for the Exodus." Here is one comment from Hess that I found interesting:
Joshua Berman correctly observes that historical events are not subject to proof in the same manner as a mathematical equation, a logical proposition, or a scientific experiment that can be reproduced in a laboratory. Rather, historical “proof” normally emerges through the cumulative accretion of reliable witnesses or attestations.
In my experience, people who demand "proof" for this or that historical occurrence fundamentally fail to understand the nature of both history and historiography. That's why "proof" for the Book of Mormon will never really exist, since you cannot "prove" the historicity of a text the same way you can prove a scientific or mathematical theory, for example. A little more patience and nuanced thinking is required. Unfortunately, YouTube and Reddit users aren't generally known for their patience or nuanced thinking, so my generation faces an uphill battle.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Notes on Deuteronomy 32

The following notes come from Paul Sanders in his volume The Provenance of Deuteronomy 32 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996). For the record, here is Deuteronomy 32:7–9, 43 (NRSV):
7 Remember the days of old,
   consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
   your elders, and they will tell you.
8 When the Most High apportioned the nations,
   when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
   according to the number of the gods;
9 the Lord’s own portion was his people,
   Jacob his allotted share.
... 
43 Praise, O heavens, his people,
   worship him, all you gods!
For he will avenge the blood of his children,
   and take vengeance on his adversaries;
he will repay those who hate him,
   and cleanse the land for his people.
Now, onto Sanders' commentary (all bulleted texts are quotes from Sanders):
  • We have seen that [Deut. 32:8–9] must go back to an old myth concerning the primordial divisions of territories among the gods. . . . One of the clearest parallels of Deut. 32:8–9 in the Hebrew Bible can be found in Deut. 4:19–20, where Moses tells that YHWH once allotted (חלק; cf. 29:25) "the host of heaven" (צבא השׁמים) to the peoples (עמים) but kept the people of Israel as a נחלה for himself. It is absolutely clear that the gods besides YHWH are meant by this heavenly host. (pp. 363–364)  
  • The terminological correspondences with the Ugaritic religious literature are stronger in the case of Deut. 32:8–9. The expression בני אלהים has a clear counterpart in Ugaritic. . . . The expression בני אלהים is also found in Job 38:7 and in a slightly different form also in Gen. 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1 (בני אלהים); Ps. 29:1; 89:7 (בני אלהים). It always stands unequivocally for divine beings. (p. 365)  
  • Contrary to 4:19–20, the original text of 32:8–9 must have been offensive to later generations. The text was adapted in the Masoretic and Samaritan traditions. (p. 366) 
  • In Deut. 32:8 the בני אלהים are relatively independent. They have their own dominions, like YWHW. Psalm 82 also presupposes the existence of gods besides YWHW. In 82:6 these gods are called בני עליון "sons of Elyon", which is reminiscent of עליון and בני אלהים in Deut. 32:8. YWHW acts as a complainant in the divine council (עדת אל). (p. 370)  
  • Scholars now generally assume that the [Masoretic Text reading of Deut. 32] is the result of adaptation of the older reading for theological reasons. Later generations would have deemed the concept expressed in these verses unacceptable. (p. 157)  
  • As in other passages, the expression בני אלהים is a designation for divine beings. In Ugaritic the expression bn 'il(m) "sons of Ilu" also designates deities. This expression is undoubtedly in the background of its counterpart in the Hebrew Bible. (p. 157)  
  • Both in v. 8b and 43a the fragments from Qumran contain references to gods beside YHWH whereas such references are not found in the MT and the Samaritan Pentateuch. In the latter versions the absence of these references would seem to be due to deliberate elimination. (p. 250)  
  • It was probably theological aversion which led to adaptation of the text which became the official version in Judaism (MT). (p. 422)  
  • In the older version of Deut. 32:8–9 the existence of gods besides YWHW is taken for granted. . . . Verse 12 and verse 39 say that there is no god "with" YHWH. These affirmations relate to his activity: YHWH is the only god who acts on behalf of Israel. In that respect there is no other god with him. Other gods may exist, but for Israel they are worthless and so is their veneration. . . . [T]he designations לא אלה and לא אל deny the significance of these gods rather than their existence. (p. 427)  
  • Though the conceptual background of the passage may be archaic the message of the passage is completely in line with the "monotheistic" affirmations in the song: other gods may exist–––in fact they do–––but for Israel the only significant god is YHWH. He is even the highest god (עליון) and the other gods (בני אלהים) are subordinate to him. (p. 427)  
  • Even in the late passage 2 Chron. 14:10 and 2 Chron. 20:6 the statement אין עמך "there is none with you" does not have an ontological character. It only stresses that no god but YHWH is ready to help his people. The older reading of verse 43a definitely does not contradict this idea. Here the gods are summoned to praise YHWH exactly because of the fact that this god is ready to avenge the blood of his children. So it is my contention that the son's descriptions of the relationship between YHWH and the gods are not contradictory. They do not suggest the existence of earlier and later layers in the text. The passages discussed here all share the same presupposition: YHWH is Israel's god and Israel may not worship different gods. Other gods do exist and they are powerless but apparently the poet(s) did not aim at elaborating a view with regard to the extent of their power. What was important to them is that the other gods pale into insignificance when compared with YHWH. (p. 428) 
So, what have we learned from all of this?
  1. Deuteronomy 32 affirms the existence of other gods besides Yahweh.
  2. Deuteronomy 32 was deliberately emendated by later copyists to eliminate any reference to these gods.
  3. Israelite "monotheism," as reflected in these passages, did not deny the ontological existence of other deities. Instead, it denied the power and worship-ability of these gods next to Yahweh. (On this last point, see the important article by Saul M. Olyan, "Is Isaiah 40–55 Really Monotheistic?" Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 12 [2012]: 190–201.) 
(Note: I have not discussed the identity of Elyon in Deuteronomy 32. Such is outside the scope of this post. For the record, Sanders identifies Elyon as Yahweh, although he acknowledges that this point is highly contested.)

All of this is bad news for sectarian critics of Mormonism who wish to insist that the Bible is infallible, or has never suffered scribal mutilation during its transmission, or that the Bible teaches a strict, ontological "monotheism" as is affirmed in post-biblical Judeo-Christian thought.

As for the implications or significance all of this has for Joseph Smith's theology, I will recommend readers to my published works on the divine council in LDS scripture.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Answers to Common Questions"

If I may be perfectly frank, I have been disappointed in the quality of many of the articles printed in the Church's magazines as of late. While I read the Ensign and the New Era every month, mostly to stay current on what's trending in Mormon discourse, I usually find myself skimming over most articles. Rarely do I find articles that are substantive or that grab my attention. To my delight, the March 2015 New Era, the Church's magazine for youth, does have one intriguing article that I thought would be worth highlighting.

Here are some "common questions" that an unnamed author the New Era thought important to provide brief responses to. Keep in mind that, per the New Era's primary readership, these are the sorts of questions more likely to be encountered by the Church's youth (perhaps, for example, while walking down the hall in an American high school).

1. Why do you have other scriptures? Isn’t the Bible enough?

2. Mormon men have lots of wives, right?

3. Why are Mormons against gay people?

4. Are you really Christians or more like a cult?

5. Why does it matter what church you belong to? Doesn’t God love everyone?

6. Doesn’t scientific evidence prove that the Book of Mormon couldn’t possibly be true?

7. What happens in your temples, and why are you so secretive about it?

8. Why does your church send out young men and women to be missionaries?

9. Why don’t you believe in having sexual relationships until you’re married?

10. Do you all just blindly obey whatever you’re told?

11. How can you be sure what you believe is true?

I will encourage my readers to go see for themselves the answers provided to these questions. I do, however, wish to highlight a few remarks.

Concerning whether scientific evidence disproves the Book of Mormon, the article states:
The scientific evidence we have cannot prove or disprove the Book of Mormon. Archaeological or genetic research in the Americas, for instance, is ongoing and often raises more questions than it answers. So to draw absolute conclusions from it about the Book of Mormon (either for it or against it) is usually a bit of a stretch—and quite risky, since new evidence often comes along that refutes old conclusions.
This is, actually, a very astute and reasonable reply. Having taken at least three different archaeology classes in my undergraduate program, I have learned that making positive claims about the past based on negative evidence is a rather problematic. I have encountered, on a number of occasions, the useful adage "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" in my reading of mainstream archaeology textbooks and papers. I have also encountered many wise and seasoned archaeologists warn against attempting to make a case for something on negative evidence. It's a methodological pitfall that, unfortunately, many unwittingly seem to fall into. 

Similarly, given what the archaeologist Mark Alan Wright has indicated about the excavation of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, we can appreciate that this sentiment is doubly true for the Book of Mormon.
Because of the extraordinarily diverse cultural landscape and the challenges of interpreting the archaeological record, scholars debate the precise chronologies, spheres of influence, and cultural boundaries of Mesoamerica. Literally thousands of archaeological sites dot the Mesoamerican landscape, the vast majority of which we know virtually nothing about, other than their locations. In the Maya area alone are approximately six thousand known sites, of which fewer than fifty have undergone systematic archaeological excavation. 
. . . 
Thanks to advances in satellite imaging, we have been able to identify over 6,000 sites in the Maya area alone, each composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of buildings. Of these thousands of known sites, each is unique in one way or another. From those polities whose artistic programs and hieroglyphic inscriptions have survived the ravages of time, we have discovered that each city worshipped its own unique pantheon of gods, typically a blending of pancultural deities with locally significant patron gods.
(Mark Alan Wright, "The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 [2013]: 4, 21; online here.)

Moving on, the article then comments:
But more important, attacks against the Book of Mormon on scientific grounds are usually based on faulty assumptions about what the book claims to be. For instance, it does not claim to be a record of the ancestors of all of the native peoples across the entire Western Hemisphere, nor does it claim that the people described in it were the first or only people inhabiting the area described in it. And yet, many scientific criticisms seem to assume that the book claims exactly these things.
Again, this is an excellent point. As Hugh Nibley wryly observed in 1967, "The normal way of dealing with the Book of Mormon 'scientifically' has been first to attribute to the Book of Mormon something it did not say, and then to refute the claim by scientific statements that have not been proven." (Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. [Provo: FARMS, 1981], 214.)

Furthermore, this comment from the New Era is keeping in line with the Church's recent Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Mormon and DNA studies:
The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby. Consequently, most early Latter-day Saints assumed that Near Easterners or West Asians like Jared, Lehi, Mulek, and their companions were the first or the largest or even the only groups to settle the Americas. Building upon this assumption, critics insist that the Book of Mormon does not allow for the presence of other large populations in the Americas and that, therefore, Near Eastern DNA should be easily identifiable among modern native groups. 
The Book of Mormon itself, however, does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups. At the April 1929 general conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency cautioned: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon … does not tell us that there was no one here before them [the peoples it describes]. It does not tell us that people did not come after.”
So, to give credit where credit is due, I appreciate that the New Era published this brief article. I appreciate it whenever the Church attempts to introduce a little bit of critical thinking into its curriculum besides merely faith-promoting material. I hope that more articles such as this one are published in future issues of the Church's magazines. It can only help better prepare Church members to give their apologia for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:15).