Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Out of Mesoamerica: The Archaeological Context of the Book of Mormon

Yours truly with Professor Neal Rappleye, deciphering a Maya stele that reads, "I, Nephi, made this stele."
Speaking of the lack of direct archaeological verification for an Israelite exodus from Egypt, James K. Hoffmeier, an American Egyptologist who has written extensively on the historicity of the Exodus, remarked,
There are several possible reasons for this absence of evidence. The first possibility is, as the Biblical minimalists suppose, that the Hebrews were never there. 
A second, more likely explanation is that we have had unrealistic expectations as to what archaeology can deliver. After all, what evidence, short of an inscription in a Proto-Canaanite script stating “bricks made by Hebrew slaves” would be considered proof that the Israelites were in Egypt? Archaeology’s ability to determine the ethnicity of a people in the archaeological record, especially of the Israelites at such an early period, is quite limited. Assuming the Israelites were in Egypt during Egypt’s New Kingdom (c. 1540– 1200 B.C.), what kind of pottery would they have used? What house plans would they have lived in? What sort of burial traditions did they practice? And would archaeologists be able to identify the burial of these early Israelites who ended up as slaves anyway? And how are all these things different from those of Canaanites or other Semitic-speaking peoples in Egypt at this time?
Hoffmeier reminds us that inscriptional evidence in the form of papyri is rare from the Nile delta region, and that royal propaganda does not report anything negative about Pharaoh (such as him being bested by a ragtag group of former slaves). As such,
Because we cannot expect to find textual proof of the Israelites in Egypt, we must ask whether the Bible’s report is plausible in light of secondary evidence provided by archaeology. Do elements of the story have the ring of authenticity or are they fanciful? Did pastoralists from the Levant migrate to Egypt during times of famine? Is there evidence from Egypt of foreigners being pressed into hard labor for Pharaoh? Do the geographical places named in the Exodus story square with realities on the ground?
(James K. Hoffmeier, "Out of Egypt: The Archaeological Context of the Exodus," in Ancient Israel in Egypt and Exodus, ed. Margaret Warker [Washington, D. C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2012], 3, 5.)

As a fun exercise, let's paraphrase Hoffmeier's comments here and apply them to the Book of Mormon. Keeping in mind that, like the papyri of the Nile delta, pre-Classic Maya codices have all but perished in the wet, humid climate of Mesoamerica or to looters, and keeping in mind that "there’s about 6,000 known Maya sites and we’ve only researched about 5 percent of them," and keeping in mind that of those "6,000 or so known Maya sites, we only know the ancient names of about a dozen of them," let us proceed.
There are several possible reasons for this absence of evidence. The first possibility is, as Book of Mormon minimalists suppose, that the Nephites were never there. 
A second, more likely explanation is that we have had unrealistic expectations as to what archaeology can deliver. After all, what evidence, short of an inscription in a Proto-Mayan script stating “gold plates made by Nephites” would be considered proof that the Nephites were in Mesoamerica? Archaeology’s ability to determine the ethnicity of a people in the archaeological record, especially of the Nephites at such an early period, is quite limited. Assuming the Nephites were in Mesoamerica during the preclassic Maya period (c. 1000 BC–AD 250), what kind of pottery would they have used? What house plans would they have lived in? What sort of burial traditions did they practice? And would archaeologists be able to identify the burial of these early Nephites who ended up in Mesoamerica anyway? And how are all these things different from those of Maya or other Maya-speaking peoples in Mesoamerica at this time?
Because we cannot expect to find textual proof of the Nephites in Mesoamerica, we must ask whether the Book of Mormon's report is plausible in light of secondary evidence provided by archaeology. Do elements of the story have the ring of authenticity or are they fanciful? Is there evidence for migration and population patterns that are consistent with the Book of Mormon? Is there evidence from Mesoamerica of social stratification, high literacy, seasonal warfare, intricate calendrical systems, and inter-ethnic socio-religious competition? Does the geographical outline in the Book of Mormon square with realities on the ground?
Anyone remotely familiar with the work of Mesoamericanists such as Mark Wright, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson, or John Clark will know the answers to these questions, and can therefore perhaps appreciate: (1) that the issue is much more complicated than some people on the Internet would have us believe, and (2) that there is indeed much to say about the Book of Mormon in ancient Mesoamerica.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: "An Other Testament: On Typology"

"How should you read the Book of Mormon?" It's a question that is often asked by both lay and scholarly readers of the foundational scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But instead of asking this, another, arguably more interesting question would be, "How does the Book of Mormon read itself?" This is essentially the question that Joseph Spencer seeks to answer with his new volume An Other Testament: On Typology. Re-published in a second edition by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, An Other Testament looks at how the authors within the Book of Mormon read and interpret each other's words. Spencer straightforwardly remarks, "I draw conclusions about how the Book of Mormon–––according to the Book of Mormon itself–––should be read" (p. xxii). Simple enough, right? Actually, as Spencer brilliantly demonstrates, the Book of Mormon's complexity and sophistication defies a simple, surface-level reading. "If readers of the Book of Mormon are to read the book as the book itself suggests it should be read, they must pay close attention" to its messages on a number of theological points, particularly God's covenant with Israel, and the literary methods used in communicating those messages (p. xxii).

To accomplish this, Spencer focuses on a few case studies of where the Book of Mormon either interprets itself or appropriates other texts (especially the writings of Isaiah) in its own narrative or theological structure. He begins by looking at how Alma's conversion narrative in Alma 36 deliberately mirror's Lehi's own sôd experience in 1 Nephi 1. In other words, Alma 36 turned Lehi's own experience into a type that was reenacted by Alma himself. "Not only does Alma tell a story in which history is reconciled with a revelatory event, he also relates that story–––as fragment of history–––to another revelatory event, namely, that of [Lehi's in] 1 Nephi 1. While the prophetic event remembered with the narrative spiritualizes Alma's past history of sin, the visionary event reenacted in Alma's telling of the narrative spiritualizes Alma's past history of conversion" (p. 26). It is easy enough to simply notice that Alma directly quotes 1 Nephi 1 (Alma 36:22). Spencer takes his analysis to a fascinating new level, however, in showing how the entire structure of Alma's narrative typologically reflects Lehi's.
Spencer's restructuring of Alma's conversion narrative as a reenactment of Lehi's experience in 1 Nephi 1.
What I was especially impressed with, and what I think is the strongest, most fascinating argument made in the book, is Spencer's analysis of how Nephi utilized (or "likened") Isaiah in his record. The Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon have been a stumbling block for many readers. Critics have made easy (and often lazy) accusations of slavish plagiarism on Joseph Smith's part because of the Book of Mormon's large quotations of Isaiah. Others, including Latter-day Saint readers, typically skip the block citations of Isaiah because it seemingly offers nothing new or terribly important to the overall message of 2 Nephi. Spencer plainly shows why both of these attitudes are misguided and unpersuasive. In fact, Nephi's use of Isaiah is exegetically and typologically intricate, not the product of lackadaisical cribbing. "The picture produced in the course of this investigation is one in which Nephi's record is built on complex, detailed readings of Isaiah, distributed in intentional ways between the two books that make up Nephi's contribution to the small plates" (p. 34). This point, of course, has been explored at length, but Spencer's contribution is no less interesting and meaningful.

There is much that I liked about Spencer's analysis of Isaiah in 2 Nephi. His two chapters on Nephi's use of Isaiah (pp. 33–104) are packed with great insights, but perhaps my favorite was his discussion of Nephi's narrative and theological outline in 2 Nephi reflecting the creation, fall, atonement, and veil (the temple). I can't do Spencer's argument justice in this brief review, as it is fairly complex. The reader should simply pick up a copy and read it for him or herself. What I can do is provide a tantalizing teaser with the chart below from Spencer's book.
(Seriously though, you should buy the book for these two chapters alone.)

The last portion of Spencer's book focuses on Abinadi's use of Isaiah in his contest with the priests of Noah (pp. 105–172). As with his discussion of Nephi's use of Isaiah, Spencer's reading here is complex, and is best looked at directly by the reader. The ultimate takeaway, however, is rather straightforward:
Abinadi's speech, then, can be read as having two major parts: (1) a revisionary discussion of the relationship between the Law and the Prophets that (2) allows for a further revisionary discussion of how Isaiah should be read. Whatever else Abinadi's speech accomplishes, it reworks the meaning of the Law for the Nephites and opens the way for the church that then shapes Nephite religious thought up until the visit of Christ in Third Nephi. (p. 137)
I'm not sure I can adequately describe how wonderful I thought An Other Testament is. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to seriously engage the Book of Mormon in a meaningful way. A close reading of the Book of Mormon is both spiritually and intellectually rewarding, and Joseph Spencer is an excellent guide through such a reading.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

CES Letter Author Jeremy Runnells to Face Disciplinary Action: The Non-Scandal

As all students of Christianity know, poor St. Sebastian was viciously martyred after simply voicing some innocent doubts about Diocletian and the Roman government. 

Those who have studied the history of Christianity will be familiar with the term hagiography. The term derives from Greek and means, essentially, writings about saints. Hagiographical accounts were valuable tools to inspire faith and devotion in believers by chronicling the life, miracles, and not infrequently persecution and/or martyrdom of the subject. Today, however, hagiography has also come to take on a pejorative sense for a biography that is uncritically reverential or positively biased in the portrayal of a given individual.

Fox 13 News has picked-up the non-story of Jeremy Runnells being called in for a disciplinary hearing. Frankly, Jeremy is a textbook example of apostasy as defined by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has quite literally set up a non-profit foundation so that he could get paid to attack the Church and lead people out of it. (Yes, seriously.)

Yet, in his press release (an auto-hagiography, if you will), Jeremy paints himself as a tragically persecuted doubter and martyr who just wants his own questions answered.
CES Letter represents Mr. Runnells’ sincere attempt to obtain answers to legitimate questions and doubts through proper church leadership channels. Instead of providing pastoral support to Mr. Runnells, the LDS Church has chosen to continue its recent trend of excommunicating members who openly question or doubt church teachings.
Let’s do a little history. Since Jeremy is hung up on how the Church lied, whitewashed, and omitted history, and since he is dedicated to “100% transparency, openness and honesty,” I presume he won’t be upset with a little fact-checking of his story.

Jeremy can boast more than one epistle in his corpus. In October 2012 he wrote the so-called “Open Letter to Elder Quinten L. Cook.” This letter drips with sarcasm as he blatantly mocks Elder Cook’s General Conference talk from that month. This is more than 3 years ago, and it is quite clear where he stands. (I'll wait while you go ahead and read it.)

A month later, on November 15, 2012, he openly stated, “I’m [born-in-the-covenant], [returned missionary], Temple Married who left the church a few months ago (haven’t resigned yet).”

So, at this point Jeremy had already left the church. Although he hadn’t formally resigned, he indicated that he intended to at some future point (“yet”). Not only that, but in the same message he stated, “I have a [true believing Mormon] wife who still takes kids to church. I want to know the most effective way to save them from Mormonism so they won't have to go through what I went through.” Not only does he already consider himself as “out” of the Church, he is trying to lead others—namely, his wife and children—out of the Church as well.

Forgive me if this does not look much like a sincere person just looking for answers. Mind you, all of this was before he even wrote the CES Letter. You see, his mind was already made up when his grandfather asked him “to speak to his CES Director friend, about [his] concerns.” So what did he do? He drafted the CES Letter, then asked a bunch of ex-Mormons online for “feedback/advice.” He even sent them a second draft, asking again, “Let me know what you guys think before I send.”

Since then, at Jeremy’s encouragement, the CES Letter has become an ex-Mormon tract, used as a weapon against unsuspecting family and friends in hopes that it will destroy their testimonies. When people started to point out that there are answers to his questions (including FairMormon, Daniel Peterson, Brian Hauglid, Brian and Laura Hales, Kevin Christensen, Michael Ash, Jonathan Cannon, Jeff Lindsay, and yours truly multiple times), rather than graciously accept them or perhaps reconsider his thoughts on these matters, he doubled down and responded with vitriol, sarcasm, and rhetorical posturing. Don't believe me? Look no further than Jeremy's vitriolic, sarcastic, and petulant response to Dan Peterson. 

Jeremy insisted on “debunking” and writing “rebuttals” until the compulsive urge to respond to everything and anything contradicting the CES Letter became too much. At that point, instead of walking away, he essentially quit his day job and set up a non-profit foundation for leading people out of the Church. Some of the goals he has set for himself include:

  • Catching up and debunking FairMormon’s newest claims and attacks (full-time job)
  • Rebuttal to Mormon polygamy apologist Brian Hales
  • Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV Rebuttals to Mormon apologist Kevin Christensen
  • Rebuttals to other Mormon apologists
“Apologists,” of course, are those who are defending the Church, and Jeremy has dedicated himself to rebutting virtually anything they say. The CES Letter has become his identity and he can’t stand having it “attacked.” Just this last October he wrote, “I don’t care about the LDS Church anymore. Its foundational truth claims are demonstrably false.” If he doesn't care about the Church, as it is "demonstrably false," then why is he so concerned about remaining a member? Perhaps so he can continue to grandstand as a simple Mormon with sincere questions, as he has done for the press? Whatever the answer, it is obvious that this has become an deeply personal issue for Jeremy, not a simple matter of him having some questions.

In July 2015, someone started a thread in the ex-Mormon subreddit asking why Jeremy had not yet been excommunicated. In response Jeremy protested that it would be a “grotesque injustice” to excommunicate him. "Grotesque." Even if you think excommunicating Jeremy is wrong, I hope you can see that this is a grotesque overstatement. Sex trafficking, rape, child slavery, murder, genocide—these are "grotesque" injustices. Telling someone that if they are going to openly mock the leaders and fight against the beliefs of an organization then they cannot be a part of that organization anymore? In any other world outside the myopic, twisted, bigoted virtual corridors of /r/exmormon this would be seen as common sense.

Still, Jeremy’s comments are revealing. He says, “I didn’t lead people away from the Church. I don't accept this phraseology. People made their own decisions to leave the Church after learning information that was kept concealed from them. All I did was share my reasons for doubting and pointed to the sources.”

I'm sorry, but you just can’t go around spreading arguments for a certain point of view and then disclaim any responsibility for what happens when people are exposed to and accept those arguments. To just simply deny responsibility is, well, irresponsible. (Especially since Jeremy can be found coaching people on how to best share it, whom to share it with, how to get people “open” to the idea that the Church is false, etc.) This rhetorical trick is clever, but is little more than a version of the "just asking questions" fallacy.

Still think Jeremy is just someone sincerely looking for answers? He has recently made the unequivocal statement, “Yes, my position in 2015 is that the LDS Church is based on a foundation of fraud.” Doesn’t get much clearer than that. While he goes on to say that he “was still wrestling with figuring things out 2 years ago when [he] was approached by the CES Director,” we have already shown that this was not the case, and that he had made up his mind at least 6 months before.

And since I already know that Jeremy is going to cry ad hominem here (it is his standard response to anyone who ever questions his account of things), let me point out, paraphrasing him (as quoted by Fox News):
I asked questions (about his current version of the story), I shared my concerns (with its accuracy), and I shared facts and information that are backed by his own statements and actions. So if sharing the truth, and publicly, is ad hominem, then I think that’s a problem. 
It is undeniable that Jeremy Runnells is in open apostasy against the Church, and as such is unsurprisingly being subjected to a disciplinary council. His disciples may write gushing (if not wholly misleading) hagiographies of him to be used as didactic tools among the (un)faithful, but responsible news organizations will hopefully do their homework before blindly buying into his blatantly deceptive narrative and ludicrous non-scandal.