History and Scripture

N. T. Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, a New Testament scholar (particularly of Paul—see his commentary in the New Interpreters Bible), and—as Mormons are wont to say—the author of many books and articles. On the recommendation of a friend, this week I’ve been reading one of his books that I think more Mormons should read before we start the New Testament Sunday School lessons next year, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press, 1999).

Wright divides the contemporary discussion of the historical Jesus into three camps, which he designates by the names of their first proponents (page 28):

(1) William Wrede: we know little about Jesus, but he didn’t think of himself as the Messiah and “the Gospels are basically historical fiction.”

(2) Albert Schweitzer: “Jesus shared the first-century apocalyptic expectation of the end of all things, and though he died without it having come about, he started the eschatological movement that became Christianity,” and the Gospels are, more or less, correct about what Jesus taught.

(3) Martin Kähler: “The quest for a purely historical Jesus was based on a mistake since the real figure at the heart of Christianity was the preached and believed Christ of the church’s faith, not some figment of the historian’s imagination.” (Note: To take this position is not to say that Jesus was not an historical figure. It is to say that who Jesus really was is not accessible to the discipline of historical scholarship.)

I’ve thought for a long time that I am in the third camp. However, reading Wright’s book and having a conversation with some Mormon historians and others this week has made me think again about my position. Wright’s statement, “If we really believe in any sense in the incarnation of the Word, we are bound to take seriously the flesh that the Word became,” struck me as true. Indeed, it not only struck me as true, it struck me as at the very heart of Mormon agreement that Jesus is the Messiah, born of the virgin Mary, crucified for the sins of the world, and resurrected on the third day, after which he ascended to his Heavenly Father. As Wright correctly observes, movements that either lessen the importance of the incarnation or deny it tend toward one kind of Gnosticism or another. (I love it that he identifies getting in touch with our real selves as a contemporary form of Gnosticism—page 24.)

Of course, thinking about the Book of Mormon seems also to divide into something like these three camps: (1) the Book of Mormon isn’t an historical document, but it is uplifting and to be valued for its insights in spite of the fact that it is a fiction (of course most non-LDS would deny the second compound clause); (2) it is what it claims to be and the tools of disciplines such as history, archaeology, and anthropology will help us understand it; and (3) it is what it claims to be, but it cannot be understood from outside the divine work of which it is part and the narrative which that work generates.

The people I know fit into a bell curve for those three positions: a few people I know are members of the first camp, most of my friends are in the second camp, and a couple of people (perhaps me and one other person) are in the third camp. But the curve is shifting on me.

Unlike some, I’ve never thought that the FARMS crowd is evil. (I know Dan Peterson too well to think that, and I’ve listened to Louis Midgley too much to think that. I respect Noel Reynolds and Andy Skinner too much to think it.) I’ve admired the intellectual abilities of those who work at FARMS (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I’ve published some things with them). I’ve admired their tenacity. I’ve admired their faith. I’ve admired their willingness to do difficult and often thankless work. Though sometimes they’ve let themselves get drug too far into a shouting match, I’ve not thought their work was unscholarly (because I don’t think, as some in the academy do, that “believing scholarship” is an oxymoron). In spite of that, I’ve never been particularly interested in what they do. Since I have believed that the reality of the Book of Mormon is not accessible to historical scholarship, I haven’t been able to figure out what the point of historical research on the Book of Mormon is.

For Wright, New Testament research is about understanding what Jesus really believed and taught in the first century by understanding the first-century context in which his teachings and acts made sense. And the point of understanding what he really believed is to make us reassess our understanding of him, a reassessment that is identical with continuing faith. Wright says that the Enlightenment has generated in contemporary Christianity “patterns of belief and behavior that saw Jesus as a demigod, not really human at all, striding through the world as a divine, heroic figure, untroubled by human questions, never wrestling with vocation, aware of himself as someone from outside the whole system, telling people how they might escape the wicked world and live forever in a different realm altogether” (page 24). That is a mistake, a mistake that forgets Jesus’s embodied, fleshly, historical existence–a mistake that historical research, looking for the historical Jesus, can help remedy.

I’ve always believed that careful reading of scripture is, by itself, enough to bring me up short, to reveal that I do not yet understand what the Gospel teaches as I should and, so, to help me understand it anew. Now I see better that history can do the same thing, whether it is New or Old Testament history, Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, or FARMS research on the Book of Mormon.

I think I’ve known that all along, but somehow it makes more sense this week than it did before. (We shall see what happens next week.)

PROCEDURAL NOTE: This isn’t about hating or loving FARMS. It isn’t about whether the Book of Mormon is true. It isn’t about any of the other tangents and hobby horses that some may want to talk about. It is about the relation of history and scripture. Please stick to the topic.

65 comments for “History and Scripture

  1. “It is to say that who Jesus really was is not accessible to the discipline of historical scholarship.”

    I want to respond to this because it fits into something that I have been thinking about lately, but if this feels like a threadjack, please feel free to ignore or even delete me.

    Jesus could have, during his mortal life, written letters, sermons, gospels, histories, etc. He apparently did not. What does that mean for our understanding of what was written? Of course, for Mormons, this issue is tweaked by Jesus’ concern in the BoM for that record, even if he wasn’t the writer. Is it fair, then, to conclude that Jesus approved of the NT record as it stands? I can see (at least) two sides to this argument. And from that point: what does our conclusions about Jesus’ (non?)approval of the text imply for our Mormon quest to find the historical Jesus?

    “That is a mistake, a mistake that forgets Jesus’s embodied, fleshly, historical existence–a mistake that historical research, looking for the historical Jesus, can help remedy.”

    This is something else I have been thinking about this week, as I recently encountered an interpretation of Jesus and the Syrophoenician (I can never spell that right) woman that very nonchalantly concludes that he had made a mistake and the woman corrected him. Whoa. Can I accept the idea that Jesus could have made a mistake? I’m not sure. But a mistake isn’t a sin, so I’m not sure I can exclude the possibility, and it lends a very beautiful (I think) undercurrent to the story that Jesus was humble and teachable and clarifies for us what perfection is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

    But to the main issue: if I read you right, you are saying that just like the historical underpinning of the NT can better help us understand Jesus, the historical underpinning of hte BoM can better help us understand Jesus and the gospel in general. (Did I get that?) If that’s right, I guess I want to know: has this actually happened with the BoM? like you, I am not interested in what has been done with the historical background of the BoM because it has always felt to me like (1) a waste of opportunity when we could be exegeting the text and (2) a thinly veiled chicken fight with evangelicals. So needless to say, I’m not up on what has been done. But has anything been produced that actually has the effect of improving our understanding of the text instead of just arguing for the plausibility of the text?

    This is a great post. And I’m completely serious about deleting this comment if you don’t like the direction I went with it.

  2. Julie, glad you liked the post. Thanks. I don’t think your response it is a tangent. I think I was saying two things about historical research and the Book of Mormon: (1) it can better help us understand the Book of Mormon, so (2) it can better help us understand Jesus and the Gospel.

    Are there examples of historical research on the Book of Mormon that has done that? On that one I’d like to hold off for a little bit to see what others think.

    I should have added something to the last paragraph, before the procedural note: I still think that close reading of the text (Bible, Book of Mormon, etc.) from within the over-arching structure and narrative of the Restoration is more likely to lead us to fresh understanding of the real Jesus than is history. My (re)new(ed) insight is that history isn’t irrelevant to that refreshment.

  3. I tend to agree with Kierkegaard when he says “History can teach us nothing about Christ.” The question of Christ’s divinity and what he means to me/us is a religious question and can’t be answered by history, philosophy, science, etc. I have a witness of Christ and the Book of Mormon and believe in their historicity because of that witness. Tthe call and the demand that the witness gives is primary.

    That said, I think historical studies can help us get a context, see some things that we otherwise wouldn’t (I don’t think many would argue with that.) Additionally, and to the point of your post, I think historical and apologetic studies can help in that they may stop one from completely dismissing the divinity of Christ or the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon because, perhaps, most the scholarship one read argues against traditional belief (that is, if there were no apologetic work for them to turn to). That historical, apologetic work cannot give faith. It may help one stick around long enough to ask the right questions and get a better approach to thing (in my view, the kind of view you offer in number 3 above).

    I wonder if most members don’t follow something like number 3, though they may say they follow something like 2. ‘When it comes down to it, you have to pray and get a testimony for yourself.’ Or perhaps a combination. You get a witness, but then the right scholarship helps support what you know.

  4. Keith: Wright’s point is that though history can’t teach us about Christ, it can say something about what Jesus taught. In doing that, it may cause us to recognize that we have inherited a false tradition, the result of eisegesis made possible because of a lack of historical knowledge. Seeing our false traditions may help us to understand the Christian message better.

  5. Brilliant! With Jim’s (Ironically essentially paid by the breth to “think about thought”(!)) counter-deconstruction of scholarly deconstruction places him back firmly within the original scriptorian’s slot!

  6. I see, I think. (Perhaps that’s what I mean when I say history can help us see things we otherwise wouldn’t.) Kierkegaard would agree too, though he would admonish us not to let the obscure points — the things you need scholarship to help you decide — delay you from complying with the parts that are clear with respect to what he has asked you to do, or to serve as an evasion from encountering Him. (To be clear, I’m not saying what you’ve said is unaware of this or contradicts this.)

    So something about what Wright says seems correct to me. But is comes along with questions that I’d want to keep present when venturing down that road. (I really wish I had time to read him right now.)

    I suppose the question that comes to mind is how one might go about this without giving up scripture as a witness of Christ (or typological too) for stories about Jesus his teachings. How do you keep the historical within the realm of the religious? How do you keep scripture as sacred text and not a matter of mere history?

    Might the search for what Jesus really taught lead one down the path of “great moral teacher” and forget the message of redemption (a message that is more implicit than explicit in some of the Gospels where Christ is shown preaching redemption less than actually working out the redemption)? Put another way, how do you do this without simply giving into the Schweitzer camp?

    Can you say more about how you see this helping/working? What general errors do you or Wright think this approach would help us avoid? What general trends is this working to correct?

  7. I believe history can teach us all sorts of valuable things about Christ – the one proviso is we must think of history as not limited to this earth alone, but extending into the heavens and the eternities. The problem with most secular scholarship is they take as an article of faith or at least as a methodological principle that heaven does not exist – that the transcendant is of our own creation, a kind of helpful delusion.

    True scriptural realism on the other hand is taking the best accounts at face value – not try to “spiritualize” away the things of God [note the bias in our very language] – but to make spiritual things become real, indeed more real than the temporal world we now live in. That is the attitude of scripture – that everything we see now, however tangible, is but a shadow of more tangible and eternal realities in the world to come. The New Testament is full of that doctrine and yet over time, it was stood on its head making this world the only significant reality and the spiritual world the evanescent shadow.

  8. Excellent post, Jim.

    I’ve thought quite a bit about these questions lately, both with respect to the NT and the BoM. I can’t pretend to be anything like an expert on the topic, but NT scholarship is someting of a hobby of mine — I try to read some every summer (this year I read Dominic Crossan, E. P. Sanders, Andre Trocme, and John Howard Yoder). I must admit, there was a time when I found FARMS scholarship more invigorating than I do now, but I defenitely think that historicity and historical context are important for allowing sacred texts to fully serve even and exclusively devotional purpose. For me, BoM epistemology — the questions about how and what we know and what knowing can teach us — is helpful. Here, I’m thinking especially about Alma 32 and Moroni 10. Moroni 10 connects the notion of “truth” not to historicity or intellectually accessible signifiers of any kind but to a intimate, personal experiencial process that transends conventional modes of meaning transfer (especially language — unless anybody’s Moroni 10 experience involved actually hearing the voice of God verifying in clear language that the book is true and what is meant by truth). I vividly remember the profound spiritual experiences I’ve had in connection with Moroni’s promise, but I don’t remember understanding the experience at all in terms of accepting an intellectual proposition (like the narrative’s historical authenticity and accuracy). I’m not saying that God’s answer is not connected to the question of historicity; I’m saying that by conveying to me the book’s truth, God isn’t merely verifying an independently defined truth. My revelatory experience does not merely inform me that it’s true; it makes it true. God does not tell me it’s true because it’s true; it’s true because God tells me it’s true.

    I think that the substance of historicity questions (trying to assess the accuracy of various aspects of the actual narrative — whether elements of the story square with existing archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, genetic, historical evidence) is much more germane to the propositions of Alma 32. Here, Alma defines the epistemological space within which knowledge about the BoM, its authenticity, and its “truth” are to be defined and acquired. Alma 32 describes the/a process by which truth and knowledge are to be obtained. The metaphor invoked is that of a seed. The question at hand is whether the seed is “good,” i.e. whether or not it is a true seed in the sense of being capable of producing a fruit-bearing tree if properly taken care of (that is, properly regarded as a seed and treated as a seed). Only by acting upon the assumption that it IS a “good” seed can one truly know one way or the other. Falsifiability is dependent on the possibility (even the assumption) of verifiability. But there is a further implication. For the seed’s true nature as a true (“good”) seed only becomes apparent when the seed ceases to be a seed and becomes something else. The “truthfulness” of the seed is defined not merely by its status as an actual seed (as opposed to, say, a pebble) but by the sweetness and abundance of the fruit that ultimately result from its metamorphosis.

    So the two big epistemology chapters — often portrayed as at odds with eachother — can be, in my mind, brought together to teach us something about how academic knowledge, especially historical scholarship, can not only enrich our textual analyses, but completely transform it. Moroni 10 (when and if it works for people) allows us to take the text’s authenticity (however defined) as a starting point rather than viewing it as an end. If we begin with the premise that the text really comes from God and really is what it claims to be (a clan lineage, a historical saga, a heavily revised and edited compilation based upon real texts created by real people in an ancient setting) then we can really begin to find the fruit Alma describes. It’s not enough to just spend time with the text or even to carefully analyze it — the monumental efforts of so many of its detractors are ample evidence of this. I think most of us will agree that if you scour the text looking for nothing but evidence of nineteenth century origins, you won’t get much out of it — certainly not Alma’s proverbial fruit. The problem, I’m convinced, is that you run into the same problem if you scour the text in search of evidnce of ancient origins — and, naturally, this is where I get off the FARMS bandwagon. It’s not just about the seed; it’s about the fruit. And as long as we treat authenticity or historicity as ends rather than means, we won’t be able to extricate ourselves from the “thinly veiled chicken fight.” When we search the scriptures in order to prove their truth, we sell ourselves — and the scriptures — short. Only when we learn to treat authenticity as a beginning point, a given — based upon the spiritual experience Moroni promises — will we allow ourselves to both take the text seriously and read it critically. And only then will the history we study really have the power to open up our minds to all the text has to say to us.

  9. The doctrine of divine embodiment is a key lynchpin against that type of minimization of spiritual things, by the way. How anyone managed to read Paul and end up with a God without a body is hard to understand. These are a couple of my favorite passages:

    For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
    (Philippians 3:20-21)

    Note that Christ’s body is the working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. We believe the same of the Father. JPII has a theology of the mortal body – where we have a theology of the body of spirit – a theology that extends to God himself. As Paul said:

    All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.

    So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.

    And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.
    (1 Corinthians 15:39-47)

    [And of course Amulek – notice the very last part of the verse:]

    Now, behold, I have spoken unto you concerning the death of the mortal body, and also concerning the resurrection of the mortal body. I say unto you that this mortal body is raised to an immortal body, that is from death, even from the first death unto life, that they can die no more; their spirits uniting with their bodies, never to be divided; thus the whole becoming spiritual and immortal, that they can no more see corruption.
    (Alma 11:45)

    Paul and Amulek are teaching the importance of a body, and in particular the oft misunderstood fact that a resurrected body is a tangible *spiritual* body, a tertium quid, a third category beyond our usual semantics of the term. Or as Paul says, all flesh is not the same flesh, that Christ’s body is the working whereby he subdues all things unto himself. Sounds pretty good to me.

    So why may I ask, is the idea of Joseph Smith having a theophany more credible than an actual angelic visit, except as I said, as an inherited contempt for spiritual things having time, place, and matter?

  10. Brad, I think you are mistaken about what Moroni intended. The pattern is to read these things and ponder them in your heart, and then to ask God if they are not true, and then to receive spiritual confirmation. If you leave the reading and pondering part out, as a rule you learn *nothing*.

    Fuzzy feelings are futile unless they are feelings about something – and that something inevitably has some sort of rational description, some semantic content that can motivate us to action. There is no point in being inspired about nothing, to go and try to experience God as pious feeling about nothing in particular, some sort of heavenly buzz. Nearly everyone has some sense of the sacred, but how many are there that know what to do about it, that have a sense about what is and is not sacred, and why? Who understand God’s will for mankind as some sort of definite plan and not just as a soft gleam that fills everything pretty?

  11. I tend to take a fairly hard-line on the need for scriptures to be what they purport to be. I leave plenty of room for error and for the pre-Thucydides understanding of history. But scriptures that fail to be what they purport to be, are cracked at the foundation, and it’s hard for me to understand why I should be expected to think that they succeed in any other area.

    This doesn’t mean that all scripture must be historical. I’m fine with the notion that Esther is historical fiction, because it’s narrated in a fashion that is consistent with story-telling. But the Book of Daniel purports to actually relate the biography of a prophet, and my belief that it is not historical leads me to esteem it as useless. But Daniel is easy to reject, because it’s teachings are all peripheral (after all, it wasn’t even canonized by the Jews until the 2nd century AD, and at that point their authority to determine what constituted scripture had long since past).

    But there are more difficult areas. Understanding the Torah as fiction works because of it’s pre-historical, mythical character–at worst, it’s the story of origin for a people with a rich culture and a unique gift for literature and narrative complexity. But there remains the question that Ronan Head asked one time back at BCC when someone brought up the fictional character of the Torah (I paraphrase): What are we to make of an Abrahamic Covenant when there is no Abraham? This gets into some difficult territory, and I really don’t know what to make of it. For my part, I also don’t know what to make of the fact that the three portions of Isaiah are all represented in the Book of Mormon–I suppose that it’s plausible in some sense that the different portions of Isaiah are so very different in voice and style for reasons analogous to the reason Miranda sounds different from me, but that’s a stretch (and I really don’t think that Miranda sounded that different from me–she was just better looking). I believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, so this remains an unanswered question in my mind, and the estimated dates of authorship are the shakiest part of the argument for separate authorship anyway.

    I think that it is important to note that we are Christians because Jesus appeared to Joseph in the grove. If Allah had appeared, then he would have restored the true Muslim religion. Thus, the legitimacy of our Christianity is almost entirely divorced from the historicity of the New Testament, or even the Old Testament for that matter.

    For me, the core notion that the church is “true” rests upon the uniquely authoritative nature of its restored priesthood; i.e., the church’s “truthfulness” depends on the fact that our priesthood is what it claims to be. Though, in spite of having read quite a bit about the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction, I personally don’t see how its historical veracity can be divorced from the legitimacy of the authority claims of our priesthood, since the Book of Mormon is a product of the same source of that authority.

  12. Mark,

    I definitely agree that one has to read and ponder the book — that the promised revelation will not come in a vaccuum. But I’m very skeptical that reading all the back issues of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, or the FARMS review, or all of Jack Welch’s books in advance of testing Moroni’s promise will produce any effect whatsoever on the outcome of the query. So if all that scholarship is aimed only at proving the book’s historicity, it’s falling short. My sense is that the folks at FARMS only get halfway there — they take the text seriously, but they don’t read it critically, because reading it critically is not the most effective way to engage in apologetics. I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with Blake on these questions, but I think his theory is the most rigorous and impressive attempt to deal with these questions with an eye both on genuine faith and trying to break the standoff between the book’s defenders and detractors.

    An aside: don’t you find it interesting, from the perspective of epistemology, that Morony injoins us to ask not if it’s true but “if these things are _not_ true”? Isn’t falsifiability a critical component in the construction of meaningful knowledge?

  13. Brad Kramer: Isn’t falsifiability a critical component in the construction of meaningful knowledge?

    Well, kind of. Popper proposed falsifiability as a criterion to demarcate scientific theories. Early influential positivists (the Vienna Circle and those moving in and around it) proposed strict verifiability as a criterion for meaning, but they’d abandoned this by 1930, basically adopting the interpretation of probability advanced by Reichenbach (of the Berlin group of positivists) and stripping it of it’s frequency mathematics; i.e., basically, a statement was meaningful if evidence could be accumulated for or against it.

    In any case, I’m a positivist, so my answer to your question is “yes.” Expect to Jim F. to disagree.

  14. Brad,

    I agree that reading FARMS or whatever is and should be practically irrelevant for gaining a testimony of the Book of Mormon – useful for people with stumbling blocks, but hardly necessary for anyone with a real and abiding faith to ponder and pray, and receive an answer. Indeed one should be feeling the Spirit long before the book is complete, if read with the right attitude.

    My main point is that there really isn’t such a thing as irrational truth. Joseph Smith often made this point about the Holy Ghost in particular – that Holy Ghost is a revelator, the influence is strokes of intelligence, and so on.

    Now as far as asking whether something is not true, I read the negative as an indication that we should be approaching the question with faith to believe that such a wonderful document might be true, hoping that it is true even, rather than doubting thinking that it almost certainly isn’t true but I will ask anyway.

  15. Jim,
    Just a quick comment on this issue.

    Wright’s schematic of the options is interesting because basicallly he says that all the options were worked out in the First Quest. To play out that trajectory, Wrede’s point is taken up by postmodernists who deny objectivity in history (although Wrede himself is a positivist), Schweitzer’s point is is that history can tell us what Jesus taught, and Kähler’s point is the subject of second Quest started by Kasemann that theology and history should be intertwined.

    I am not entirely sure if I agree with this schematization of the problem, but there are two basic issues here. First, given the nature of the sources, what can we be sure about historically? Second, once we are sure historically about certain things, how does that connect with theology? So, for Jesus, can we determine who Jesus *really* was apart from what the early Church said about him, and once we can separate them, how do we connect who Jesus really was with what the early church said about him. I think that the problem with both of these, (and the reason why Wrede is right), is that there is no separation of the *real* Jesus from vision of the early church, nor is there any separation of the real Jesus from our own constructions. Both questions rely on a positivism in history that in this case is simply a fiction.

    I guess I see the problems of BoM historicity as slightly different. The positivist position seeks to articulate which historical context is relevant, the ancient or the modern. Then, once that is decided, we can continue with theology. Again, where Wrede is right here is that there is no interpretation which is free. In some respects, the ancient/modern question is a dramatization of the same problem for the Historical Jesus. That is, is interpretation ever free from its historical context? I would say no. Where Schweitzer and Kähler are wrong is that they are looking for an objective history where there is none.

  16. DKL,

    I should have specified that I was speaking from a positivistic standpoint (though ironically, since I am by no means a positivist).

  17. Mark,

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing here, just that we’re talking about different things. I absolutely agree that irrational truth doesn’t exist. But I also think God/HG doesn’t just verify truth — at least in the sense of how we, in our modernist, positivist worldview usually conceive of truth. God’s communication of truth cannot be extricated from the definition of truth itself.

    For me, the larger question is how does historicity inform our analysis of the text. If we treat historicity as an end to pursue, that narrows our reading — in a way that BoM critics (with some justification) would call intellectually dishonest. For me, the issue is not intellectual dishonesty but our inability to read the text critically. I read an essay by Scott Card several years ago. At its core, it was apologetic. But because of the approach he took, he read the text critically in a way that FARMers rarely, if ever, do. He, for example, addresses Nephi’s unfair and unjust treatment of his brothers in his narrative, based on the rhetorical purposes behind his writing. No one will ever do a thorough source-critical reading of the text as long as they take the FARMS approach. No one will ever seriously examine how the biases of an elite priestly casts influence the construction of the texts in question. Could you really imagine someone at FARMS doing what John F. did here a few months ago in addressing the possibility that the Nephites were a regional market-dominant minority whose economic activity consistently exacerbated ethnic hatred and violence between competing tribal groups — how the “why they hated the Nephites” question might have some bearing on the “why they hate us” question today?

  18. I think that is a reasonable possibility Brad. The European hatred of the Jews is often explained in those terms. I think the pursuit for historicity is a great thing, as long as it is an inspired pursuit for what happened spiritually as well as on the surface. Religious history is meaningless unless one believes in revelation and inspiration, blessing and judgment.

  19. “I think that the problem with both of these, (and the reason why Wrede is right), is that there is no separation of the *real* Jesus from vision of the early church, nor is there any separation of the real Jesus from our own constructions.”

    Well put. I think E.P. Sanders _The Historical Figure of Jesus_ does a better job of navigating these questions than anything else I have ever read, particularly in how his position resonates with latter day saints. He takes the question of how the early Church’s vision informs what we know about who Jesus was where LDSs would by incorporating the concept of revalation into the equation. Thus, the Gospels, for all their contradictions and sometime’s radically different versions of Jesus, all still represent authentic and important visions of Jesus because they are rooted not just (if at all) in an accurate account of Jesus’ actual biographical history — what he actually said and did — but in revelatory experiences the Apostles had after his death. There’s nothing wrong with Mathew using the Mosaic saga as a trope for framing the birth narrative (regardless of that narrative’s actual historical accuracy in the positivist sense) if his post-resurrection revelatory experiences with Christ produced within him an understanding of Jesus’ ministry and mission in terms of their relationship to the place of the Moses story in turn-of-the-era Judaism (or something like that).

  20. If I had to point someone to a single author to read about the “historical Jesus,” it would be George A. Wells. He is critical of the notion that Jesus actually existed, and I think that his approach does more to expose the issues surrounding the historicity of the New Testament and other writings of Early Christianity than ones that start from a more sympathetic position.

  21. In grad school I had a course on Christ in Modern Theology (dealt with the kind of issues we’re dealing with in this post) . We read Schweitzer, Harnack, Kahler, Bultmann, Ebeling, Barth, and a host of others I can’t remember at the moment. For me, personally, the book with with the most punch was Jurgen Moltmann’s _The Crucified God_. Recommended reading.

  22. Good comments, which means a lot to respond to. I’ll try to respond generally rather than particularly since I think that there has been overlap in the discussion. Thanks also DKL and Keith for the book recommendations.

    Rather than use the names that Wright has associated with the positions, let’s use the numbers. I am confused by some of what people say in these posts because they seem to attribute positions to particular thinkers that I don’t think those thinkers took. So, rather than get into an argument over what Wrede or Schweitzer or Kähler really said—clearly tangential to the interesting stuff as far as I’m concerned—let’s just talk about three abstract positions. That may also help since we are talking about a very rough sketch of the territory anyway.

    Position 1: We know nothing but what the documents tell us, and they don’t tell us very much. They certainly don’t tell us that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, they don’t even tell us that he thought he was the Messiah.

    Position 2: Paying attention to history, particularly to the social and historical context of the first century, can help us better understand the Gospels and other New Testament texts. We are likely to understand Jesus’ teachings better if we understand them in their historical context. (Wright as well as Sanders are in this camp.)

    Position 3: The object of our faith is the divine being, Jesus Christ, and history can say nothing about that being. Ultimately only faith can teach us about him, so history is irrelevant.

    It is important to remark, again, that folks in the last two positions think it impossible for a Christian to believe that Jesus was not an historical character. (Who was and who wasn’t historical can get complicated, as DKL points out (#11), but it is clear that some Christian beliefs rely on historical claims for their truth-value: if there was no Jesus, then Christianity is not what it claims to be.)

    In particular, it may be important to remark that to take the third position is not to say something like, “This-or-that account is a scriptural narrative and that’s all we need. It doesn’t matter whether the events portrayed in the New Testament or in the Book of Mormon actually happened.” Most of those who take position 3 do not dispute that there was a man name Jesus and that the Gospels tell us about his life. In that sense, they admit that history is important. However, they disagree about what counts as history when one is reading scripture. To say, as Mark Butler does (#7) and as I have, that history can help us if we understand that history is eternal is to take position 3 rather firmly. For to speak of eternal history is to use the word “history” differently than it is used in positions 1 and 2.

    If I understand Brad Kramer (#8) right, I think I’ve recently moved to a position somewhat like his: historical research serves a critical function (in the philosophical and scholarly sense of “critical,” “showing limits” instead of “negative”), but only if we already accept the authenticity of the text (whether Old Testament, New Testament, or Book of Mormon). Over time Christians have forgotten the context of the Sermon on the Mount and, consequently, they have built a set of interpretations that have little to do with its original meaning. Indeed, they have a whole edifice of interpretation built on that forgetting. Careful reading of the Sermon can help us begin to see the difficulties with some of the traditional interpretations, and historical research, by helping put the Sermon into a social and historical context, can also help us see some of those difficulties. So, historical research and careful reading can help the believer deepen his or her faith, though the first of them is not is likely to help someone else become a believer. Whether the second can help seems to me to depend on how they read.

    However, as TrailerTrash points out (#15), there is the problem of untangling history from theology: Contemporary historical interpretations are exactly that, contemporary. They cannot avoid the presuppositions of contemporary history (many of which have theological roots). And contemporary theology cannot avoid the fact that it comes after the Enlightenment and, so, makes assumptions about history that are necessarily different than those made in the first century. I think that is an important caveat to keep in mind when we read the work of historians, theologians, or any other scholars.

    But one need not be a positivist to believe that we are not merely denizens of whatever historical horizon we find ourselves in. Indeed, I don’t know of any major 20th century or contemporary philosophers who think we are. Meaningful truth claims are possible. Indeed, I think that the position I just described uses history as a check on its interpretations and that it does so as a means to make it more likely that its truth claims are accurate.

    I’ve modified my thinking about history, but I still probably belong mostly in camp #3.

  23. I’m solidly in the third camp, as well, but I see that your insight about history is true. An interesting, thoughtful post!

  24. I noticed that, as I’ve portrayed them here, the second and third positions are not mutually exclusive, though in most of the scholarly discussions they have been more exclusive of each other than my portrayal would make them seem. Perhaps that was the insight I had (assuming it was a genuine insight): positions two and three are not mutually exclusive.

  25. Position #1 strikes me as basically position #3 stripped of theology.

    I think it’s interesting that your positions relate only to Jesus, because I think that many Jews see the historicity of the scriptures differently. Friedman, for example, points out that the value of the scriptures is in the fact that they tell the story of God’s relationship with his people. Given the Mormon emphasis on knowing God, this seems similar to our conception of scriptural value (the way that you get to know anybody is by having a relationship with them and observing their actions in the relationships they have with others).

    Since part of understanding God’s relationship with his people includes understanding their conception if him, Friedman’s understanding of historicity allows for the scriptural value of non-historical books. It is possible that the mechanism for the expiation of our sins does not require the existence of a man or deity to directly expiate them. But it would require some kind of explanatory myth or legend to transmit among the peoples of the Earth. After all, the notion of suffering for our sins is not an altogether intelligible one–in spite of the well known economic analogy (which reaches its most developed form in Boyd Packer’s analogy), there’s no strictly literal account that really makes any sense of the matter.

  26. That last paragraph is rather rambling. This should be a little bit clearer:

    Since part of understanding God’s relationship with his people includes understanding their conception if him, Friedman’s understanding of the value of scripture easily accounts for the scriptural value of non-historical books. If we apply his point of view to the Christian outlook, we can put it this way: It is possible that the mechanism for the expiation of our sins does not require the existence of a man or deity to directly expiate them. But it would require some kind of explanatory myth or legend to transmit among the peoples of the Earth. After all, the notion of suffering for our sins is not an altogether intelligible one–in spite of the well known economic analogy (which reaches its most developed form in Boyd Packer’s analogy), there’s no strictly literal account that really makes any sense of the matter. This allows us to dispense altogether with Christ as an historical figure.

  27. DKL: Is position one the same as position three stripped of theology or stripped of belief? I can see the validity of the second claim more easily.

    However, I have to confess that I don’t understand your second paragraph, not even after the rewrite. But that may because, after a long day–long church meetings, long preparation for dinner, long play time with the grandchildren, and a clean-up that seemed eternal (“Day of Rest” indeed!)–my brain has gone to sleep on me.

  28. Has anyone ever considered that Jesus Christ knew a *lot* more about everything after he was resurrected, than before? We believe he proceeded from grace for grace during his mortal life – why would he have to learn every detail before his death. Why would he need to spend forty more days teaching the apostles things he could have explained in their fulness before his crucifixion.

    I don’t like the description of Camp 2, because it appears to deny the perfection of Christ in the resurrection. I can imagine him having material limitations in his prophetic knowledge before, but not afterward.

    So we see all sorts of doctrines (and hints of doctrines) in the apostles that we never saw in Christ himself. I am sure Jesus knew of them in general, just avoided preaching them. But after his resurrection he must have taught them in *extensive* detail (as in more detail than Joseph Smith appears to have ever taught) to his apostles, or their level of comprehension of the “mysteries” is hard to explain.

    The problem I have with historians is not that in principle they can do their work properly, but rather that, like scientists on the question of intelligent design, they have a methodological bias. They cannot be taken seriously by the world if they work from a perspective of faith, they cannot consort with atheists or different varieties of theism in a historical research enterprise without methodologically abandoning the most significant aspects of the matter.

    So I tend to look on their efforts with a little bit of condescension, like show me some hard evidence, without that I will continue to believe in the traditions of faith not the “educated” guesses of scholars.

  29. great post jim, i heartily agree about the importance and value of history in the study of scripture.

    on a personal note, for instance, after reading some primary and secondary sources on jewish and christian apocalypticism at the time of jesus (give or take a few centuries), i learned to better appreciate and rethink not only the NT but also the apocalyptic material in BOM, D&C, PGP, and the endowment.

  30. DKL — poor substitute for your intended audience, but I think I grasped the point of your second paragraph. Indeed, it articulates some of my ponderings more clearly than I have managed to do.

  31. Thanks, greenfrog. You’re encouragement has prompted me to make another pass at it:

    Friedman believes that scripture has religious value by virtue of how it allows us to learn about God by observing his relationship with his people. This approach implies that part of understanding God involves understanding the conception that his followers have of him. This doesn’t require that those people or events depicted in the book are real. And so we can easily impart scriptural value and doctrinal significance to both historical and non-historical books, so long as they relate valuable information about how God relates to his followers.

    This reasoning can be used to render the question of whether there was an historical Jesus moot. It’s possible to treat the atonement as a kind of black box (i.e., something with fixed inputs and fixed outputs without a well defined conception of the innards). Specifically, we can understand the key point of the atonement to be the introduction of a new mechanism for the expiation of our sins, instead of all the details of how that mechanism was introduced. (And I do find the fact that the emphasis on the atonement still relies on how and why it was introduced rather then how it works–isn’t the question of how and why moot now that we’re not mostly trying to convert non-Christians?)

    On this view that the key element of the atonement is merely the introduction of a new mechanism for sin expiation, we don’t require an explanation of how the mechanism was introduced. Thus, we don’t require the existence of a man or a deity to directly expiate them. Though it’s easy to see that a notion of this sin expiation mechanism has requiredsome kind of explanatory myth or legend to promulgate an understanding of this mechanism to the peoples of the earth. Provided that the legend contains an accurate description of how the mechanism works (as opposed to how it was created or instituted) then the legend succeeds in containing valuable information about how God relates to his followers. And presto, no more Jesus!

    This is a desirable point of view nowadays, because the notion of a deity suffering for our sins is not an altogether intelligible one. The well-known economic analogy (which reaches its most developed form in Boyd Packer’s parable) is just a metaphor. There’s no strictly literal account that really makes any sense of the matter.

    This, of course, ignores the obvious problem of why we should accept the Christian God as veridical if his scriptures are bogus.

  32. DKL: I don’t disagree that the notion of a diety suffering for our sins is not altogether intelligible, though I don’t think very much follows from that. The assumption that everything real is intelligible isn’t itself altogether intelligible, but without it there’s no problem assuming that some events are not altogether intelligible.

    As you note, the position that all we need is a mechanism for how expiation works accompanied by an explanatory myth is logically sufficient except that it doesn’t explain why we should explain one set of scriptures or myths rather than another. That is a pretty big “except,” to which I would add one more: it isn’t clear to me how someone who holds the belief you describe can consistently hold (1) that the mechanism for expiation is the right one and (2) that its explanation isn’t literally true in some sense. (Perhaps, however, your “except” and mine amount to the same thing.)

  33. As far as the need for things to be intelligible: if something is unintelligible, then everything that is said about it is either false or unintelligible.

    I think that as Mormons, we are stuck with Jesus, since we make a claim to uniqueness that cannot be supported with identifying an actual authority that traces back to him.

  34. …it isn’t clear to me how someone who holds the belief you describe can consistently hold (1) that the mechanism for expiation is the right one…

    Wouldn’t “right” be tantamount, in such a view, to “sufficient to enable one to proceed forward from this moment without the disability of guilt resulting from prior actions”? To my sense, that is the meaning of “clean” and “innocent,” two other metaphors frequently used to characterize the effects of atonement.

    … and (2) that its explanation isn’t literally true in some sense.

    If it works as posited (and I’m mulling that one over, but leaning in the direction of believing that it does), I think that it is, literally, true. Under this rubric is Christ the “way, the truth, and the light,” and the only means by which one can come to God? Well, yes, if “Christ” is understood as the process of atonement, rather than a particular person. And despite the aspects of LDS thought that support such a concept, the latter still feels like more than a little step away from the theology I think I learned in Primary.

  35. At a second glance, “…the meaning…” should be “…a meaning…” I don’t claim to have exhausted the metaphors, only myself.

  36. I believe that when we eventually come to know all the details, the mechanism by which Christ takes upon us our sins, sorrows, and so on and sustains us from day to day will be perfectly intelligible.

  37. Mark, that’s certainly plausible, but it’s also (basically) an auxiliary hypothesis.

  38. Yes, however though the scriptures do not come right out and assert it – it is a first order principle for how one approaches theology – if it were not the case we would have to become irrationalists, a mystery religion like the Eastern Orthodox, who believe that God is infinitely incomprehensible and ineffable, a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma to the nth degree. Joseph Smith taught quite the opposite and he is our best authority on the subject.

  39. DKL (#34): As far as the need for things to be intelligible: if something is unintelligible, then everything that is said about it is either false or unintelligible.

    By false don’t you mean incomplete? Suppose some concept is 9/10 intelligible and 1/10 unintelligible—can’t I make true and intelligible statements about 9/10 of the concept? I think this is how the scriptures and explanatory analogies are meant. In fact, isn’t this the implicit assumption with all scientific theories (since there is no Grand Unified Theory yet…)?

  40. Not all intelligible things are incomplete. The simple concept of a “round square,” for example, is both complete and unintelligible. Any statement that predicates a supposed instance of the concept of a round square will be either false or unintelligible (this sentence, for example, actually predicates sentences about instances of round squares).

    I would contend (and have in the past with some success) that the notion of the atonement is easily reducible semantic contradictions, and therefore unintelligible by nature. But I’m willing to allow for the sake of argument that it is merely incomplete. So long as the concept itself is unintelligible, there still can be no recognizably true statements about instances it. Thus, a minor emendation yields, if something is unintelligible, then everything said about it is either unintelligible or cannot be said to be true. And faith doesn’t make up the difference here, because one must be faced with an intelligible proposition before one can believe in it or act on it (with or without evidence).

    This isn’t my idea–it dates back at least as far as William of Ockham (of the razor fame).

    As far as science, to the best of my knowledge, most scientists think that the hypothetical Grand Unified Theory is ontologically equivalent to conspiracy thoeries.

  41. DKL (#41): You seem to be using “intelligible” to mean “to have internal, logical consistency”, no? Isn’t it still an open philosophical question whether anything meaningful is actually intelligible in this sense? (I’m thinking of Wittenstein’s “word games” for example—but I only have a very superficial understanding of these philosophical notions, so I’m not your best interlocuter for this….)

  42. Robert C, I think much of philosophy is lost in the woods. There are semantic realists out there – Hilary Putnam comes to mind, but generally speaking I think the philosophical world is still recovering from subjective idealism. I am not inclined to credit philosophers on theological questions anyway – as Tertullian said, What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?

    Now it might indeed, but only for philosophers who have the gift of prophecy. Without that gift, the things of God will forever be a mystery to them.

    “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
    (2 Peter 1:20-21)

    Of course it is rather relevant that scriptures have a proper interpretation. The advocates of ineffability rather imply that some scriptures do not. Whereas truth, in our schema, is the knowledge of the way things *really* are – and how can something really be if even God cannot describe it?

  43. Mark (#43): I wouldn’t say that Godn’t cannot describe the way things really are, but that we are unable to comprehend all of truth at the present time. So we learn truth “line upon line” and, at any given moment, are knowledge of truth is incomplete. So instead, we have allegories and word abstractions of truth in our scriptures and prophetic teachings that help us learn truth (which I take more as a way of relating to God and others than as an intellectual abstraction—see the Terry Warner article on truth that I linked to in my post on the other thread).

  44. Robert C: Isn’t it still an open philosophical question whether anything meaningful is actually intelligible in this sense?

    Perhaps with regard to my own writing, but I would hope you hold your own statements in higher esteem. With regard to language in general, the success of artificial languages and the ability to translate between them and natural languages demonstrates that it is possible to locate intelligible meaning within natural language. (In my opinion, Wittgenstein mostly goes around defining things out of existence, which is kind of like solving budget problems by denying that you’ve spent the money.)

    Mark, recovering from subjective idealism? Movies are proof that subjective idealism is true. People drone on and on about, “no set of statements is equivalent to the visual stimuli that constitutes object X” (Austin thought of this whopper). But this tired refutation of positivism has been irrefutably disproven. There is a language that is capable of producing sets of statements that can be interpreted to be equivalent to the visual stimuli that constitutes object X. It’s called OpenGL, and it’s a ridiculously simple language (e.g., it consists of about 250 predicates).

  45. DKL, I didn’t say finite set of statements. Intelligibility as I understand it is that any aspect of being can be perfectly represented by some number of statements in a proper language. Some being is so complex that it requires may require an infinite number of statements, depending on bounds to time and space, and so on. All being that crosses into future contingents is that way.

    So I say “Father” or “Son” or “atonement” I am referring to concept / sense / being that has a theoretically infinite number of referents, ones that I do not believe have all left the drawing board as a rule.

    However as a *rule* I say that the idea of semantics of any kind without reference, however creative, to reality and real being, is incoherent. And that is what subjective idealism is all about – a strict denial of any form of foundationalism, correspondence, or intelligibility of reality of any kind, if not a denial of reality itself. I fail to see how communication is even possible in such a “world”.

  46. Mark (#43) and DKL (#45): The problem I have is with the claim that all truth can be expressed in a rational, logical way. If all truth can be expressed logically, why is the Spirit needed (cf. D&C 50:21)?

  47. Mark, I think that you mean indefinite rather than infinite. An infinite quantity is one that can be proven to have a fraction of itself that is equal to the whole (e.g., there are as many whole numbers as there are even numbers, even though only every other whole number [or 1/2] is even). Since some infinite numbers are greater than other infinite numbers (e.g., the number of real numbers is greater than the number of whole numbers), infinite is not a single quantity. If you think that there is an infinite set of meanings, I would ask, “Which infinite set, and how is it defined?” (e.g., whole numbers are defined as the set including 0 and every successor — there are formal ways of defining this).

    In any case, I don’t see how the fact that something has an indefinite set of referents is helpful, because it’s possible for any term to have an indefinite set of referents.

    I do not believe that subjective idealism does not deny foundationalism, because subjective idealism requires the existence of epistemic primitives.

    Robert, if it can’t be expressed in a logical, rational way, then it’s nonsense. You may want to claim (like Wittgenstein) that some nonsense is important nonsense, but the appeal of such a position is lost on me.

  48. DKL (#48): if it can’t be expressed in a logical, rational way, then it’s nonsense.

    I can’t give you a logical or rational explanation of love, and yet I experience love. And although there may be programs that can translate language with a high degree of accuracy, it will always be possible (I would argue) to find a text that it cannot translate accurately or make sense of (e.g. poetry, lyrics, etc.). This is b/c of the personal and idiosyncratic nature of interpresonal relationships which have the potential to create language. There are certain phrases I can say to my wife that evoke laughter b/c it reminds us of shared experiences. This shared experience is personal and specific and cannot be completely generalized or perfectly communicated to someone else who has didn’t experience the event. I can find categories to describe the experience, but any such description will be an incomplete abstraction from the experience itself. These are the points of that the existential philosophers raise which I don’t see an answer to. We exist (i.e. experience life) prior to our thinking about our existence (i.e. essence).

    If you mean nonsense in the technical sense of being not reducible to axiomatic analysis, then it would seem all experience/existence is nonsense. If you mean nonsense in terms of not being meaningful, I have a really hard time believing this is your position since I think most of us cannot explain logically (my Real Analysis class taught me how hard it really is to prove anything logically!) the things that are most significant to us. Rather, we rely on others’ similar experiences and intuitions to communicate. Although we can use logic to structure such communication, I think logic by itself cannot describe things that we experience (like the old problem of trying to explain what salt tastes like to someone who has never tasted salt…).

  49. (By the way, I’m talking about intelligibility from the perspective of mortals; if something is intelligible only to God who has experienced everything, then what I’m trying to say breaks down—but then the notion of intelligibility seems pretty irrelevant to us in this mortal sphere. Thus, if you define nonsense as “not completely and logically intelligible to us mortals,” then I agree with Wittenstein’s claim that most nonsense is important nonsense based on the simple observation a logical understanding of love still seems to elude the very brightest amongst us mortals….)

  50. I agree that subjective idealism requires epistemic primitives to make any sense, however as I understand it, it is no longer subjective idealism. Saussurean idealism is anti-foundationalist to the degree of complete incoherence, in my opinion. The concept pollutes the humanities today.

    The following web page is a typical example:


    The obvious point that this author misses is that difference between symbols must be relative to some vector basis or shared experience of reality to have any meaning at all. Tell me what salt tastes like, or love, or anger, or light, or darkness – those are all rather real experiences, if not absolute Aristotelian ideals. It seems to me that much of the reaction against medieval realism is founded in intellectual weakness, starting with what David Stove calls “the Gem”. The Greek and medieval philosophers for all their idiosyncrasies, were much better. Radical skepticism is hardly a modern invention.

    So I agree with Robert, that logic in and of itself is impotent – the reality of shared experiences is the basis of epistemology and communication, or more fundamentally speaking the reality of certain types of being is prior to any of our thoughts about it. Intelligibility is all about being able to describe the structure or relationships of fundamental being in perfect detail in principle, as well as being able to describe our ideas adequately with reference to realities not of our own creation – semantic foundationalism of some sort in other words.

    I do not see how anyone who believes in the law of non-contradiction, or the functional stability of the “external” world, can maintain non-intelligibility in principle, even for God. How would God get anything done if the world was that slippery?

  51. DKL, I mean infinite *number* of statements. Although I think bivalent logic is extraordinarily weak in traditional semantic contexts (i.e. outside of mathematics, and it has problems there as well), I don’t like the term “indefinite” – “fuzzy” logic, to the degree it corresponds with reality, is perfectly definite, it just has continuously valued set membership.

    As long as one is not pursuing arguments or ratiocination, I believe the question of logical valence is relatively independent of representability, i.e. One could transform any language with a definite continuously valued membership predicate, in principle to a bivalent description, similar to the way second order logics are transformed into first order predicate logic. I think in practical use the former are much more useful than the latter, however, if not completely amenable to mental mathematical precision.

  52. I agree that indefinite is perhaps a better term for senses with future contingents, however virtual every significant term will *definitely* have an infinite number of future referents or continuously distributed reference relations. I think logical atomism is rather silly, partly because it seems to need an Aristolean discreteness to the outside world to work, and I see the world as rather more continuous than discrete, hence the need for an infinite number of statements, or statements with complex continuously valued and multi-dimensional internal structure. Anything NP-complete will not adequately describe the world in my opinion.

  53. Or more properly speaking, any description that will fit in a digital computer with a finite memory capacity is not adequate to describe a continuously valued external reality – the computer would have to be orders of magnitude larger than the universe to even come close.

  54. Robert C: I can’t give you a logical or rational explanation of love, and yet I experience love.

    I beg to differ. First, emotions are epistemic primitives–like colors. So we can define them by ostensive definition. Second, we can provide a completely coherent description of how people act when they are in love. The proof of this is that portrayals of love in movies, plays, and literature are common.

    Robert C: it will always be possible (I would argue) to find a text that it cannot translate accurately or make sense of (e.g. poetry, lyrics, etc.).

    This was Benjamin Whorf’s position. Whorf (not to be confused with the well known Klingon who so valiantly served the Federation in Star Fleet) wrote at length about the Hopi Indians and how their language couldn’t be translated into English; problem is, poor Benjamin Whorf described the exact failings of English quite clearly… using English! A bit self-defeating, if you ask me. In any case, it’s never the possibility of translation that eludes us when we describe how another language works; it’s that the economy of the one language cannot be matched in the other.

    Robert C: These are the points that the existential philosophers raise which I don’t see an answer to.

    Yeah, I just don’t have the temperament to be an existentialist. They all seem so confused by stuff that seems rather simple to me. (I’ll bet that a lot of Mormons say exactly this sort of thing about me–that I seem confused by stuff that is rather simple to them.)

    Mark Butler: I agree that subjective idealism requires epistemic primitives to make any sense, however as I understand it, it is no longer subjective idealism. Saussurean idealism is anti-foundationalist to the degree of complete incoherence, in my opinion.

    You raise a good point that the term subjective idealism is overly broad, and I do not wish to be taken as someone primarily interested in language or linguistic analysis. I actually vacillate between Russell’s neutral monism (which I view as a refined version of Lockean dualism) and a more fully positivistic approach (which, I think, certainly qualifies as a full-fledged brand of subjective idealism) rooted in Hume (and therefore, to some extant, Berkeley) and Carnap (and therefore positivist). And typically, when I comment, I’m in more of a positivistic mood. (For starters, it’s easier to explain and therefore defend).

    Mark Butler: I do not see how anyone who believes in the law of non-contradiction, or the functional stability of the “external� world, can maintain non-intelligibility in principle, even for God.

    Well, some sentences are unintelligible on purpose. Russell’s famous example of an unintelligible sentence is, “Quadruplicity drinks procrastination.” Carnap’s example was simpler, “This rock is thinking of Vienna.” The hypothetical ones I mention above that instantiate the concept of a round square are another such example.

    But basically, to say that a concept A is unintelligible is to say that the function x is A is never satisfied. From this, of course, it follows that if God is unintelligible, then the function x is God is never satisfied. Thus, the term God has no referent, and atheism holds. I really don’t know any way around this, which is why I find it so unfortunate that believers so frequently tout the importance of theistic factors that thwart intelligibility.

  55. Ah yes, but such sentences, are intelligibly unintelligible. We know exactly why they do not make sense. The only way to make them make sense would be to assign new semantics to the terms, which is what inspiration does with scriptural terms. Otherwise inspired interpretation could not solve the problems of scriptural paradoxes in certain rather critical doctrines.

  56. In any case, the intelligibility of language as semantics is one step removed from the intelligibility of language as syntax. The syntax / form of a statement, sign, or representation is necessarily real, the sense of a sign or representation is not. I thought we were talking about the intelligibility of reality, not the intelligibility of imagination.

  57. DKL (#56): My views is that the “emotion” (in the primary color sense you mention) of complete atonement with God is something that scriptures and prophets are trying to convey to those of us who haven’t experienced it. And no mixture of secondary/derivitive colors or emotions is going to be able to accurately depict that experience/emotion. This is what I’m calling unintelligibility. Put differently, I don’t believe we can fully know God without being in his presence….

  58. I beleive the Light of Christ is the very color of divinity. Not a full picture of course, but sufficient to enlighten every man that he may know good from evil – that if he pursues the light he will eventually come unto God and his Church.

  59. Brad,

    “Only when we learn to treat authenticity as a beginning point, a given — based upon the spiritual experience Moroni promises — will we allow ourselves to both take the text seriously and read it critically. And only then will the history we study really have the power to open up our minds to all the text has to say to us.”

    I tend to do the same with the BoM: Take authenticity as a beginning point, because of the spiritual experience I have made with Moroni’s promise. Then I can take the text seriously and read it critically. But I think this approach leads to a more general problem: How do we historically approach texts claiming to be holy writ?

    If taking authenticity as a beginning point would be taken as a general requirement for every text claiming to be holy writ, then “serious and critical reading” of the Qur’an, Bhagavadgita etc. would not be possible (at least for us Christians – the same way “serious and critical reading” of the Book of Mormon would not be possible for Muslims, Hindus or Jews). We would have to treat it differently than e.g. the BoM. How then can we justify the fact that we use this approach for the BoM only? It can certainly not be the fact that the BoM is the only book (not being an expert on this field I don’t even know if that is the case…) containing such a challenge for seeking divine confirmation of its truthfulness.

    Can we really stand for a historical approach to scripture that makes exceptions for the Book of Mormon (or the Bible)? I know it’s easy to tend to (I do the same), but I think this would be compromising the category of historical scholarship in academics. At the same time it would give people having received the testimony of Moroni’s promise the sole “justified” historical interpreters of the Book of Mormon….

    Personal Note: I’d be interested in a more complete list of the works on NT studies you can recommend!

  60. Julien, let me see if I can perhaps defend the position that you’ve quoted from Brad. It isn’t that critical and historical reading is the same for everything and that we make an exception for the Book of Mormon. It is that because we begin with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is true, we read it differently than we do other books. It is in a different category rather than an exception.

    How do we approach other books, not our own, that claim to be holy writ? My answer would be “as sympathetically as we can.” Ultimately we cannot approach them in the same way that a believer does, but it doesn’t follow that we can therefore, only read them as interesting historical artefacts.

    I can read the Q’ran in a way that we might describe as hypothetical: “If I were a Muslim, it seems to me this would say x.” Discussion with Muslims would help me sharpen my ability to read the Q’ran and, eventually, it seems to me, I would be able to read the book carefully and critically as a Muslim would. I wouldn’t share the belief that what I was reading was the word of God, but I would know how to read it as a Muslim would read it. (This assumes, for the argument, that there is one way that Muslims read Q’ran and that is, of course, false.) That is possible because the meaning of the sentence doesn’t depend on its being true.

    I’m not a NT scholar, so I’m not a very good person to ask for recommendations. You might ask Melissa Proctor for her recommendations.

  61. Jim,

    OK, I understand what you’re saying and I agree completely – discussing BoM and Qur’an with a Muslim friend is what I used to do daily, considering my best friend is Muslim.

    Maybe I was thinking about an approach to scripture/writings claiming to be holy writ that was not quite what was meant by this post. The problem I find myself facing is reading the BoM on an academic level – if I were to write a PhD or master thesis on some aspect of the BoM, how would I bring together my faith in its truthfulness and the necessary doubt and criticism you would need for a scholarly approach? Elder Packer (I think it was him…) mentioned the same kind of problem, when a PhD student asked for his assistance in the work on his thesis about the Mormon system of unpaid clergy, where the student was given the paper back for correction multiple times, since categories like “inspiration” or “revelation” cannot be solid groundwork for academic research.

    I think the problem still differs when we talk about the ancient scriptures of the Old World (OT and NT, apocrypha etc.) where we actually do have a lot of academic knowledge on their history – on the history they represent and the history of the documents themselves. And this historical knowledge sometimes differs with “the history we (may) believe”. Like someone mentioned above – what would we do of an Abrahamic covenant if there really was no Abraham? I guess I have cheaply solved that problem in my own reading of the scriptures where I differ between a reading looking for the history (and the historical truth) behind the scriptures and their “doctrinal” truth, the inspirational part about them, the fact that they were written by prophets for our spiritual benefit.

    (I just had a discussion with some people from my branch the other day, where they were arguing whether Moses could really have been a prophet, if at the same time he was a “murderer”, having killed an Egyptian watchman mistreating a slave – I told him I frankly didn’t care whether he’d really killed somebody or not, but just understood that passage as signifying that since the beginnings of his public appearance Moses played the role of the liberator of the oppressed.)

  62. Anyone who has ever been to some event that was covered by the press and then read what the press wrote about it has probably had the experience of reading about the event and then saying, “That’s not how it happened at all!” I’m guessing that pretty much anyone mentioned in the scriptures would say the same thing in regard to the accounts provided of the events they were involved in.

  63. Combined with the problem that DKL mentions is the problem that the scriptures were not, I think, intended to give the kind of account we expect from a history or a news account. They were intended to show the hand of God at work in history. The criticisms of Richard Bushman’s work by some non-LDS scholars show the potential problems when we take something like that attitude in a contemporary work of history. Bushman’s history wasn’t intended to show the hand of God, of course, but he made it clear that he was a believer and, so, certain explanations, though explanations he could understand and explain, were balanced by others that non-believers could not make room for in a biography.

    For more discussion of the issue, if you’ve not previously noticed it, see http://timesandseasons.org/?p=2904. As you’ll see, I adopt something like your “cheap solution” myself, though in the end I dont’ think I can separate the doctrineal and historical content.

Comments are closed.