Sunday, January 31, 2016

On Names, Culture, and Religion: Three Tests for Historicity

Mormon and Moroni by Joseph Brickey.
"There is reason to believe that the story of Israel's ancestors (Gen. 12–50), though understood in the light of later experiences, reflects to some degree the cultural background of the millennium starting with Hammurabi's reign (second millennium B.C.E.)." So states Bernhard W. Anderson in his volume Understanding the Old Testament. Anderson offers three main categories of evidence to support this claim.

"First, ancient documents recovered at Ebla and other sites suggest that many parents in this period gave children names such as Abram, Benjamin, Michael, and Ishmael." In other words, the names in the Patriarchal Narratives of the Pentateuch are authentic to the purported time period of the accounts.

"Second, Israel's ancestral tradition depicts social customs and legal usages that are much more in harmony with Mesopotamian practice during the second millennium than with Israel's life during the monarchy." In other words, the culture described in Genesis more closely aligns with the second millennium BC (when the accounts purport to happen) than with the first millennium BC (when these accounts were finally committed to writing).

Third, "The religion of Israel's ancestors . . . authentically belongs to the period that precedes Moses. . . . Many statements in the book of Genesis, when considered against the backdrop of the culture of the Fertile Crescent, help us understand the probably character of religious beliefs before Moses." In other words, the form of religion practiced by the figures portrayed in Genesis appears to be authentic for the time.

(Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, abridged fourth ed. [Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1998], 39.)

So, according to Anderson, one way you can count on a text having some measure of historicity is if the (1) names, (2) culture, and (3) religion of the text can be correlated with real world evidence from the period of time being portrayed.

This methodology has been fruitfully employed by such scholars as K. A. Kitchen, J. K. Hoffmeier, W. Dever, and others to illustrate the varying degrees of historicity underlying various accounts in the Hebrew Bible.

What about the Book of Mormon? Using these three categories, do we find evidence for the historicity of the Nephite record in the ancient Near East and ancient Mesoamerica? Doing a non-exhaustive and quick look at the available literature, we encounter the following.

With regard to names:
  • "Were Any Ancient Israelite Women Named Sariah?"
  • "Why Would Nephi Call The Ocean "Irreantum"?"
  • John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, “Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 1 (2000): 40–51.
  • John A. Tvedtnes, “Names of People: Book of Mormon,” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, 4 vols., ed. Geoffrey Khan (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013), 787–788.
  • Stephen D. Ricks, "Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 155–160.
  • Stephen D. Ricks, "A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 191–194.
  • Matthew L. Bowen "'And There Wrestled a Man with Him' (Genesis 32:24): Enos’s Adaptations of the Onomastic Wordplay of Genesis," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014): 151–160.
  • Matthew L. Bowen, "'What Thank They the Jews'? (2 Nephi 29:4): A Note on the Name “Judah” and Antisemitism," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 111–125.
  • Matthew L. Bowen and Pedro Olavarria, "Place of Crushing: The Literary Function of Heshlon in Ether 13:25-31," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 227–239.
  • Matthew L. Bowen, "Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 77–93.
With regard to culture, society, and jurisprudence:
  • "Did Ancient Israelites Write In Egyptian?"
  • "Did Lehi Use The Poetry Of The Ancient Bedouin?"
  • "Who Called Ishmael's Burial Place Nahom?"
  • John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).
  • John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013).
  • John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).
  • Brant A. Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015).
  • Mark Alan Wright and Brant A. Gardner, "The Cultural Context of Nephite Apostasy," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 25–55.
  • John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 38–49.
  • John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, John W. Welch, ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2006), 83–104.
  • John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: 1991), 77–91.
  • S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, ed., Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006).
  • Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin, ed., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1990).
  • John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998).
  • John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2008).
With regard to religious practices:
Using this methodology accepted by biblical scholars, the Book of Mormon fits all three criteria. (So too does the Book of Abraham, by the way.) We might therefore ask: if scholars are willing to take the historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives in Genesis seriously on these grounds, why shouldn't we take the historicity of the Book of Mormon seriously as well?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Must One Accept the Nicene Creed to Be a Christian?

"17th-century Russian icon illustrating the articles of the Creed" (Source)
Earlier this week I participated in an Evangelical-Mormon interfaith dialogue with students from Biola University. In the course of the evening one of the Biola students made the point (if I understood him correctly) that he has a hard time accepting as Christian those who do not adhere to Nicene orthodoxy. My response to this was essentially to say that acceptance of Nicene orthodoxy is a rather shaky criterion to determine who is and isn't Christian, given the untold numbers of Christians before and after the creed (including Latter-day Saints) who did not and do not accept such.

In my studies this morning I was reminded of some remarks made by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who addressed this point of criticism in a 2007 General Conference address.
In the year A.D. 325 the Roman emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to address—among other things—the growing issue of God’s alleged “trinity in unity.” What emerged from the heated contentions of churchmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastical dignitaries came to be known (after another 125 years and three more major councils) as the Nicene Creed, with later reformulations such as the Athanasian Creed. These various evolutions and iterations of creeds—and others to come over the centuries—declared the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, consubstantial, coeternal, and unknowable, without body, parts, or passions and dwelling outside space and time. In such creeds all three members are separate persons, but they are a single being, the oft-noted “mystery of the trinity.” They are three distinct persons, yet not three Gods but one. All three persons are incomprehensible, yet it is one God who is incomprehensible. 
. . . 
It is not our purpose to demean any person’s belief nor the doctrine of any religion. We extend to all the same respect for their doctrine that we are asking for ours. (That, too, is an article of our faith.) But if one says we are not Christians because we do not hold a fourth- or fifth-century view of the Godhead, then what of those first Christian Saints, many of whom were eyewitnesses of the living Christ, who did not hold such a view either?
(Jeffrey R. Holland, "The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent," Ensign, November 2007, 40–41, online here.)

This is reinforced by the observation made by the non-Mormon scholar of early Christianity Lewis Ayres. Writing in 2004, Ayres observed,
Many modern readers assume the Nicene creed was intended at its promulgation to stand as a binding and universal formula of Christian faith with a carefully chosen terminology defining the fundamental Christian account of the relationship between Father and Son. The idea that the creed would serve as a universal and precise marker of Christian faith was unlikely to have occurred to anyone at Nicaea simply because the idea that any creed might so serve was as yet unheard of. . . . Indeed . . . the idea that Nicaea would serve as universal standard of faith, and as one whose precise wording and terminology was itself definitive, evolved through the fourth century, and was still evolving at the century's end.
(Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology [New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2004], 85–86.)

Ayres makes the argument that local baptismal confessions or catechisms would have served as the primary marker for whether one was a Christian in the centuries preceding Nicaea, and that even after Nicaea the issue still wasn't settled. Far from being considered universally binding across all of Christianity, let alone the primary criterion for determining if an individual was a Christian, the Nicene creed did little more that set a theological trajectory for the church fathers in the third century and onward. It would, Ayres reports, take some time for the authority and catholicity of the Nicene creed to be fully cemented in classical orthodox Christianity.

Part of the reason for this is that the participants in the council themselves still weren't settled on what the language of the creed exactly meant. Lincoln Blumell explains that the keyword of the creed that was supposed to clarify Christ's nature and relationship with the Father (ὁμοούσιος) was so theologically and philosophically loaded that in many ways it created more problems than it solved.
The term homoousios has been a source of controversy for theologians since it was added to the Nicene Creed. . . . First, it was pointed out by both its detractors and its proponents that the term homoousios is not scriptural; nowhere in the scriptures is Jesus ever described as "homoousios to the Father." For a creed that attempted to articulate the relationship of the Father and the Son relying solely on scriptural precedent, this word represented a significant exception. Second, the term proved problematic because there was no unanimous agreement on what it actually implied, and so it was imbued with different meanings by different interpreters; consequently the Nicene Creed could mean somewhat different things to different people. 
(Lincoln Blumell, "Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed," in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young [New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2014], 205.)

As such, for these and other serious reasons (some of which are highlighted here) I am highly reluctant to allow Nicene Christians to appoint themselves the bouncers at the door of Christianity.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Is the Work of Brian Hales Taken Seriously by Mormon Historians?

Broadly speaking, there are two general ways to know if an author's work is taken seriously in academia. 

The first is where an author publishes his work. One mark of a genuine scholar is if he is able to publish in academic journals relevant to the given field or with a university press. If a given author is only able to publish in popularized venues (such as on the Internet or with a commercial press), the odds are that he is producing work that will not be generally well-regarded in academia.

The second way you can generally know if an author's work is taken seriously is by seeing who else cites the author and where. Obviously, if the author is being cited positively that's a good sign. But even negative reaction to an author's work on the part of other scholars can be indication that the work in question is serious enough to engage at all. So the more someone is cited, either favorably or unfavorably, the more you can know that that someone is being taken seriously by academia.

To illustrate, let's look briefly at the corpus of Brian Hales on the subject of Joseph Smith's polygamy to see if he is taken seriously by other Mormon historians.

First, Brian has published his work not only with a commercial press (Greg Kofford Books), but also in such academic journals as Mormon Historical StudiesJournal of Mormon History, Dialogue, and Interpreter. He has also published articles in anthologies on plural marriage produced by John Whitmer Books of the John Whitmer Historical Association.

Clearly, then, Brian passes the first test with flying colors. 

But what about the second test? Is Brian's work being cited or otherwise engaged with by other Mormon historians in reputable venues? Let's answer this by looking at just four examples:

1. Brian's work is cited, by my count, no less than 8 times in the LDS Church's essay "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo." This essay was prepared, in part, by credentialed historians associated with the Church History Department. In each instance Brian is cited positively.

2. Todd Compton and Patricia Lyn Scott, the former of which wrote the important volume In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, says the following about Brian's work: "The [series] has been widely praised for its thoroughness and for Hales's willingness to face difficult subjects." Although Compton and Scott do mention that Brian's work has received criticism, they nevertheless felt his work was important enough to include mention of it alongside other scholarly treatments of the subject.

(Todd Compton and Patricia Lyn Scott, "Wrestling with the Principle: A Historical Bibliography of Mormon Polygamy," in The Persistence of Polygamy: Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy from 1890 to the Present, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster [Independence: John Whitmer Books, 2015], 585.)

3. In a recent volume produced by Oxford University Press, the historian Kathryn M. Daynes, who has herself published on the topic of plural marriage with a university press, lists Brian's three-volume series Joseph Smith's Polygamy along other titles as recommended reading on the subject of Mormon polygamy. (Kathryn M. Daynes, "Celestial Marriage (Eternal and Plural)," in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, ed. Terryl L. Givens and Philip L. Barlow [New York: Oxford University Press, 2015], 347.)

4. In the latest issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, the historian Alexander L. Baugh, a history PhD who is associated with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, says of Brian's work, "The most definitive and comprehensive study on plural marriage—and in my opinion, the most balanced and objective—is Brian C. Hales’s three-volume work Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology." (Alexander L. Baugh, book review of Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon ChurchBYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 4 [2015], 199–200.)

This sampling should be enough indication whether Brian's work is worthy of the attention of other professional Mormon historians. Even those who have disagreements with his work still praise him for his scholarship.

To be clear, I am not saying this makes Brian automatically correct in his arguments. Just because one publishes in mainstream academic venues or is cited favorably by other scholars does not ensure that one's arguments are valid. Do not, therefore, mistake this post as a fallacious appeal to authority.

That being said, the above must count for something. If you therefore wonder whether Brian Hales is taken seriously by other Mormon historians, consider the evidence offered above. Is this the sort of track record we would expect from a man who is, according to some Internet ex-Mormons, a laughable "apologist" who has no credibility?

I submit that it is not.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Recent Experience with a Greek Manuscript

Not too long ago, as I was walking along the shores of the Aegean, I stumbled upon a fragmentary papyrus that read thus:

οἱ δὲ ἵπποι οἱ ποτάμιοι νομῷ μὲν τῷ Παπρημίτῃ ἱροί εἰσι, τοῖσι δὲ ἄλλοισι Αἰγυπτίοισι οὐκ ἱροί. φύσιν δὲ παρέχονται ἰδέης τοιήνδε· τετράπουν ἐστί, δίχηλον, ὁπλαὶ βοός, σιμόν, λοφιὴν ἔχον ἵππου, χαυλιόδοντας φαῖνον, οὐρὴν ἵππου καὶ φωνήν, μέγαθος ὅσον τε βοῦς ὁ μέγιστος· τὸ δέρμα δ᾽ αὐτοῦ οὕτω δή τι παχύ ἐστι ὥστε αὔου γενομένου ξυστὰ ποιέεσθαι ἀκόντια ἐξ αὐτοῦ.

Upon translating the fragment, I discovered, much to my surprise, that the text spoke of "river-horses." The author of this text, a supposed eyewitness of these beasts, was adamant that these "horses" were "four-footed, cloven-hoofed like cattle, flat-nosed, with a mane like a horse, showing tusks, with a tail and voice like a horse."

Being the intelligent, sophisticated Internet user that I am, I immediately applied the logic of ex-Mormons on Reddit and confidently dismissed this supposedly ancient Greek fragment as a modern forgery. After all, I knew that this is not a horse, and only a charlatan would try to say otherwise. The author of this bogus "ancient" fragment therefore never truly existed, and, I safely concluded, anyone who believes otherwise is a fool.

Of course, after some time I came, much to my horror, to realize that this text was an excerpt from the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (History 2.71.1). It was his description of the strange creatures he saw swimming in the Nile as he traveled through the new, exotic land of Egypt.

Unable to handle the sudden cognitive dissonance, I proceeded to soothe myself by making snarky memes and finding reassurance from the proprietors of Zelph on the Shelf that "apologists" for the historicity of this text are bumbling idiots who suffer from confirmation bias.

Because, as we all know, hippopotamuses aren't horses.