Practical Apologetics: Historicity

Over the holidays I borrowed a copy of Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001). Turns out the full book is available online at the RSC site. The book features articles by the usual cast of religion profs and scholarly apologists, plus an apostle and a philosopher. Given how central the historicity issue has become of late (as evident in the Book of Abraham essay, for example) this seems like a good topic for my occasional series on practical apologetics. At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, I am going to suggest that LDS writers who address historicity take one of two approaches, which I will label “no middle ground” and “it’s not so simple.”

No Middle Ground

In “No Middle Ground: The Debate over the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” Louis Midgley argues that “there is no middle ground on the question of whether the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text” and that nothing in the book or Joseph’s account of its discovery and translation “suggests that it should be read as anything other than historical fact.” Midgley objects to secular critics who “begin with naturalistic assumptions that rule out in advance the possibility of divine revelation,” assumptions which “set in place exactly the conclusion they wish to reach.”

Midgley likewise rejects Latter-day Saints who try to find some middle ground that recognizes divine revelation (in some form) but also recognizes (to one degree or another) modern influences on the text. The nicest thing he has to say is this: “Whatever else one might say about such stances, they clearly compete with the traditional reading of the Book of Mormon and with the traditional understanding of the LDS past.” Elsewhere he describes the position (there is actually a whole range of views) as “faithful disbelief.”

Admittedly, the Book of Mormon is the best ground for those who argue an either/or approach to historicity. Other scriptural texts may present different options. Even, in the essay at the gospel topics section addressing the Book of Abraham, suggests LDS leaders are warming to the idea that truth can be decoupled from historicity (or at least that un-historical texts can nevertheless convey truth): “The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys.” Which brings us to the other view of historicity.

It’s Not So Simple

In “Scripture as Incarnation,” James Faulconer argues for a richer view of the historicity question by considering “what we mean by history.” Some believers want to reject the straightforward view of scriptural historicity “but retain the truth of scripture: scriptures are not about historical truth, they are about religious truth, these people argue.” He notes that few Christians, and even fewer Latter-day Saints, embrace this “ahistorical resolution of the problem of scriptural historicity.” Can a better response be fashioned?

The point of departure for Faulconer’s approach is that premoderns, who penned the scriptures we use, viewed texts differently: “[M]odern history takes narratives and the events they describe to be separable from each other, but premodern history does not.” In the modern view, the meaning of a text is tied to reference, the event to which the text refers. But, he continues, “language theories cannot fully account for the success of acts in which we talk about things in the world.” Context, he notes, is often invoked to bridge that gap (tying words to events), but that’s a very broad concept. Faulconer notes “the speaker’s intent, the particular audience she addresses, the history of the language, [and] the social relations in force at the time of the event” as relevant to context. At the very least (my summary here), the necessity of context for a model of historical reference complicates the simple view of scriptural historicity that is affirmed by both defenders and critics.

Faulconer tries to explain an alternative narrative model to us modern readers, firmly wedded as we are to a representational model of historical narrative, which we then apply to scriptural narrative: “[P]remodern thinkers take the Bible not as an accurate reference to either history or another reality (though they do not deny that we can speak of the world) but as the incarnation (or enactment) of a symbolic ordering” or “an ordering of the world in and through symbols.” Later, he summarizes: “the scriptures are literal history, but their history is incarnational, not representational.” Here’s a longer quotation restating the point in more detail:

Those who read the Bible as an incarnation do not reduce its texts to what is “only symbolic,” for the literal/symbolic disjunction is not a disjunction for them. For premoderns, reading the story of Moses and Israel typologically, figurally, anagogically, or allegorically is not what one does instead of or in addition to reading literally. Such readings are part and parcel of a literal reading. Premodern understanding does not reduce the biblical story to a reference to or representation of something else, though it also does not deny that there may be an important representative element in scripture. Instead, premoderns believe that to understand the story of Israel is essentially to understand history — actual history, the real events of the world — as incarnation, a continuing incarnation, as types and shadows, to use the language of the Book of Mormon (for example, Mosiah 3:15). It is to understand history as having an order and the events of history as related to each other within that ordering (an ordering that does not exist independent of events, and that cannot be reduced to those events as “bare” events). It is to understand history as part of a symbolic ordering, an ordering that is given not only in scripture, but also (perhaps most importantly) in ritual, ritual objects, and ritual language, as well as in the moments of history themselves. Thus, for premoderns, the biblical narrative is literal history — the literal truth, the truth “by the letter,” that is told in the letters and words of the text as revealing and embodying the order given by God. The literal truth is the truth constituted in and through the text as incarnation, not the supposed truth supposedly only referred to by those letters and words.

If the incarnational model sketched by Faulconer is too much to swallow, he at least makes the point that the simple representational model we initially bring to scriptural narrative is too simple. Perhaps an easier way to make that point is to consider the question of genre (see my earlier post “Genesis and Genre“). You can’t properly understand a block of text unless you bring to it the proper understanding of what the author is doing with the text: a parable or a poem or a genealogy is obviously something different from a historical account intended to re-present independent events from the past. In a general sense I think that the consideration of genre forms part of the context that Faulconer describes as a necessary component for properly understanding what we generally take to be representational narrative text.

[A quick disclaimer: I’m not suggesting Midgley and Faulconer are taking opposing views. Midgley was focusing on the question of Book of Mormon historicity; Faulconer was addressing a much broader question that implicitly referred to biblical narrative. For all I know, Faulconer might agree with Midgley’s either/or view of Book of Mormon historicity and Midgley might agree with Faulconer’s view that scriptural narrative should not be forced into the modern form of representational historical narrative. I have simply used those two essays to represent two different LDS views of historicity: the either/or view and the it’s-not-so-simple view.]

Historicity: A Wedge Issue?

Elder Oaks, in his contribution to the volume, strongly affirmed the historicity of the Book of Mormon but also noted, “I am convinced that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” So it is ultimately a matter of faith. Yet perhaps not an essential one: an affirmation of Book of Mormon historicity is not required to receive a temple recommend. Nevertheless, some LDS apologists seem intent on making historicity something of a wedge issue for driving people out of the Church (one of the reasons I don’t particularly like apologists). Kent P. Jackson, in his contribution to the volume, at least rejects that tactic, while at the same time doubling down on historicity (bold font added): “If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, what possible cause would anyone have to accept anything of the work of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints given the consistent assertions that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that describes ancient events? This is not an invitation for anyone to leave the Church. It is, instead, an invitation to abandon the fallacious and logically impossible argument that the Book of Mormon can be true, though not historical, while Joseph Smith, the revelations of God, and the book itself claim in clear and unmistakable terms the opposite.”

So here is my practical apologetics conclusion on this topic: As Elder Oaks suggests, ultimately the historicity of LDS scriptures is a matter of faith, not secular evidence. If so, then those who quietly reject historicity, or even those who loudly dispute it, are simply weak in their faith. And we shouldn’t be in the business of pushing those who are weak in faith out of the Church or creating a culture in which those who are weak in faith are led to think they don’t belong in the boat. It’s a big boat; let’s keep them all in.

Note: Jim Faulconer’s essay, with a short updated conclusion added, is reprinted in his recent book Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Maxwell Institute, 2010).

82 comments for “Practical Apologetics: Historicity

  1. I am voting with you. 100%

    “And we shouldn’t be in the business of pushing those who are weak in faith out of the Church or creating a culture in which those who are weak in faith are led to think they don’t belong in the boat. It’s a big boat; let’s keep them all in.”

  2. “Midgley likewise rejects Latter-day Saints who try to find some middle ground that recognizes divine revelation (in some form) but also recognizes (to one degree or another) modern influences on the text. The nicest thing he has to say is this: “Whatever else one might say about such stances, they clearly compete with the traditional reading of the Book of Mormon and with the traditional understanding of the LDS past.” Elsewhere he describes the position (there is actually a whole range of views) as “faithful disbelief.””

    I disagree with every word of Midgley’s position here. It’s almost as if he’s more bent on defending the notion of “objective truth” from post-modern encroachment than he is on defending faith in the BoM.

  3. Interesting article, I enjoyed the clear presentation especially the Faulconer concept that it’s not so simple. Decoding the intent and meaning of the BoM is not simple nor is decoding personal revelation. In addition to the text itself we must grapple with what past prophets claimed it to be with such great certitude. Unfortunately pondering these questions tend to challenge the entire concept of being led by continuing revelation. It would seem that without personal access to the spirit we are merely blindly following our leaders who may be simply be blindly following as well.

  4. Yes, it’s a big boat. But the good ship Zion would sink under the weight of its increased payload were it to reject an historical Jesus.

  5. “And we shouldn’t be in the business of pushing those who are weak in faith out of the Church or creating a culture in which those who are weak in faith are led to think they don’t belong in the boat. It’s a big boat; let’s keep them all in.”

    How about let’s keep them in and let’s help them strengthen their faith?

  6. Something feels wrong to me when we call an intelligent person who has conducted a robust analysis of available evidence “weak in the faith”. As good as your post is, it relies on the logic that it is the person who questions, not the traditional narrative relative to historicity that is flawed.

  7. If the Book of Mormon is not historical then it is merely myth. While myth can promote good values, it should be clear that it still is just myth and those who see the reality that it is myth shouldn’t be called “weak in the faith.” They probably should be called “strong in logical reasoning.” Further, it seems that if the Book of Mormon is not historical, then one should not have faith in it like one shouldn’t have faith in Aesop’s Fables.

  8. 3 Nephi 11:29 “…he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.”

    I’m torn. On the one had, we have the apologist who is sometimes perceived as being too aggressive, on the other hand we have those who openly dislike apologists because they can sometimes be too aggressive – throwing the baby out with the bath water. Then there’s the third rung of errancy: those faithful members of the church who present bad philosophy and scholarship that can potentially be very harmful if not corrected.

    Let’s be clear: the Book of Mormon is more than just a cute book of stories that makes us feel good when we read them. But even as I tend to share the bias of the apologist’s perspective, I will readily acknowledge that we can be sometimes be too aggressive in correcting this issue.

    Both Jack and ji have brief comments that hit the nail on the head.

  9. Appreciated the thoughtful review, I’m still thinking through this, but I may disagree with the idea that belief in historicity is a question of faith. I would say that whether the Book of Mormon is scripture, or ‘true’, or inpsired, or contains the word of God — those are all questions of faith. Whether it is historical seems a question of scholarship.

    Also, I would point out much of our scripture in the Bible is not historical, and we still find great value in them. The books of Genesis, Esther, and Daniel come immediatley to mind. Also, many of the letters in the new testament (half of Paul’s and both of Peter’s) are forgeries. And yet, despite the fact that the author deceived his audience, those letters have some very beautiful and inspiring messages that we would be foolish to disregard or reject. (Long way of saying that Kent Jackson’s arguments don’t seem very persuasive to me)

  10. Those of you decrying the usefulness of “myths” and “cute stories” need to think about the parables. Here’s one of Jesus’ main methods of teaching (er, except in John) and it makes no claim whatsoever to historicity and yet we find (or should find) these stories to be of the highest value.

    Look, personally, I believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I think any miracle attributed to Jesus in the NT is possible (although any given story may well show heavy embroidery by the teller). But I have a real problem with the argument that a text must be historically accurate to be spiritually valuable.

  11. Myth is terribly difficult to define, but simplistic binaries of “history vs myth” are highly problematic. (See here for a past post of mine addressing it briefly.)

    It’s in the same category as our false dichotomy of “literal vs. figurative” which I tried to take on here in the context of Genesis.

    Let’s try to bring some charitable nuance to this on all sides. No one likes being called “weak in faith” and similarly, equating “examining all the evidence” “strong in logical reasoning” to non-historicists is akin to calling traditionalists stupid and ignorant when there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

  12. I’m not convinced that BoM historicity is necessary nor would I call a myth merely a myth.

    “Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function,… realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery….The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned – showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through…. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order…. It is the sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world – and it is out of date…. But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”
    ? Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

  13. Further, some thoughts from Peter Enns, originally on Genesis but generally applicable.

    I question how much value there is in posing the choice of Genesis as either myth or history. This distinction seems to be a modern invention. It presupposes- without stating it explicitly- that what is historical in a modern sense of the word, is more real, or more value, more like something God would do…. Again, it is interesting to me that both sides of the liberal/conservative debate share at least to a certain extent these kinds of assumptions. The liberal might answer, ‘Yes, it is myth, and this proves it is not inspired, and who cares anyway?’ The conservative might answer, ‘Well, since we know that the Bible is God’s word [or in common LDS terms, “true”], we know it can’t be myth.’ And so great effort is expended to drive as much distance as possible between the Bible and any ancient Near Eastern literature that poses problems.”

    Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, 49. Highly recommended

  14. In my view, the real motivation in LDS circles for defending historicity is that if we don’t, our prophets, seers, and revelators look like chumps. For example, if Noah and the flood was always meant to be allegorical (assuming God had anything to do with that story or getting it into the Bible) then why has God allowed our inspired leaders to labor under a misconception of literalness? The idea that our general authorities can’t tell fact from fiction/parable/allegory is a difficult one to process, and just too much for many.

  15. Jake Cox (14) – For the same reason He allowed our inspired leaders to labor under the misconceptions about men on the moon, blacks being less valiant in the preexistence, gentiles being unworthy to receive the gospel, concubines being good rewards, having children via handmaids, etc., etc., etc..

    Reconciling having Prophets with personal revelation is one of the challenges of this existence.

  16. Jake, I think it is hard to process the idea that the G.A.s may have got it wrong at times. They continually imply infallibility or claim it directly in conference. President Uchdorft vaguely admitted to mistakes in the past but that’s the exception and Elder Ballard just said that the United brethren are pretty much infallible in the last conference. So, regarding historicity they almost have to take the “it’s impossible to prove or disprove” defense and “it’s a matter of faith only.” Otherwise it opens them to many questions about the faith itself.

    Personally I think it’s too hard to continue to believe in the historicity of the scriptures when there are so many evidences to the contrary. At a certain point the evidence against is just too much to continue to discount.

  17. They don’t look like “chumps,” just people of their time… like all the other prophets who understood the past in terms of the present.

    I also don’t think we can broadly generalize about “scripture” and history, since scripture is an anthology of many different kinds of writing. Granted, none of scripture is “history” by modern standards, but our modern standards are very recent and, well, modern. Our expectations of “history” aren’t calibrated to ancient ways of history writing.
    This is not an argument for or against any particular historicity or the genre of this or that book, only that we tend to make a lot of judgments in ignorance of things like historiographical standards and genre questions.

  18. History and myth shouldn’t be hard to define. If something is historical it means that it actually happened in the past, and if something is myth, then it means that it is a proposition that someone holds to be true (or perhaps a popular story that everyone regards as myth) but has no correspondence to reality. History vs. myth is also a binary: either something really happened/exists or is didn’t/doesn’t. Now understanding what is history and what is myth can be challenging.

    But people who confront the question of historicity of the BOM must either accept that ancient people, or an ancient person, existed in the American continent between 600BCE and 400CE who originated or channeled from God its words and ideas, which were then translated into English by Joseph Smith, or they/he/she didn’t. Midgley is absolutely correct that there is no middle ground with regard to the historicity question. All middle ground assertions are illogical. Now one can take an ‘I don’t know’ stance towards historicity, which many do, and not confront the question head on. But the BOM is very different from the Bible. No one questions the Hebrew/Jewish origins of the Bible, and there is ample evidence to prove this. Only Mormons really believe in the Hebrew/Jewish origins of the BOM, and evidence of this, even by the staunchest Mormon apologists’ acknowledgements, is weak if not altogether non-existent. Of course you can hold out hope that solid unassailable evidence will be found. But accepting the historicity of the Book of Mormon by faith really just means accepting its Hebrew origins on bad and/or insufficient evidence. I guess there is technically nothing wrong with that, except that all sorts of people make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims that each one of us could root our identities and beliefs in. So the question is why not consider the truthfulness and historicity of other evidence-lacking miraculous claims that are not commonly talked about in Mormon society? Why not accept the apparition of the virgin Mary to a crowd of tens of thousands of people in Portugal in 1917 as truth and as evidence of the eternal nature of Mary? Why not accept on faith the Book of the Law of the Lord, which James Strang claimed was an text written by ancients on the American continent (much like the Book of Mormon), which he claimed to translate into English, much like Joseph Smith did with the Book of Mormon?

    The problem is that if we just up and accepted any miraculous claim as truth, we would be believing in a mass of contradictions so enormous that there no point to believing all of it? There has to be some evidentiary standard.

  19. “myth shouldn’t be hard to define” Well, I and many others await your magnificent dissertation on the topic! :)
    More seriously, the problematic statement is the simplification that myth “has no correspondence to reality.”

    “Only Mormons really believe in the Hebrew/Jewish origins of the BOM.” While true, this is not terribly meaningful, since the vast majority of people who come to believe in the Hebrew origins of the Book of Mormon become Mormon.

    We’ll just have to disagree about the various kinds and weight of evidence for and against the Book of Mormon and their implications for faith. I’ve largely said my piece about it here .

  20. So if we doubt the historicity of the book of Mormon were welcome in the church as long as we accept that we there is something wrong with us. Very welcoming message you got there.

  21. Thanks for the comments, everyone, and for your helpful commentary and links, Ben S.

    BL, consider the contrast between those within the Church who think doubters should be marginalized through informal discipline (or simply exed), and those who take the view that doubt is a weaker form of faith, not evidence of sin or rebellion. The second view is, by comparison to the first, fairly welcoming.

  22. David states that “.. I don’t particularly like apologists”. I disagree that apologists are trying to though those “weak in the faith” out of the boat. I am not so sure what criteria we use to label one weak in the faith.

    However I particularly like those who defend the faith. I “like” and respect Elder Oaks, Elder Neil Maxwell, the MI, the Bushmans’, the Givens’, Valerie Hudson, Kevin Barney, Adam Miller, Peterson, Hauglin, Welch, Mike Ash, Truman Madsen, Scott Gordon and an host of others who try to defend the faith and the work of the Restoration. I suppose at times David has been an apologist and I like him.

    As to the boat we need to be careful. Jack’s comment puts the big boat into perspective: “Yes, it’s a big boat. But the good ship Zion would sink under the weight of its increased payload were it to reject an historical Jesus.”

  23. I reviewed the same book a several years ago. I think we come to simiilar conclusions overall, though maybe with slightly differing emphasis. One of the important things will be to remember that much of scripture is given as a witness or testimony that involves history (but not only that) and myth (but not only that–and myth in the larger defintion of giving a worldview) and stories/parables (but not only these). When seen as witness or testimony, accompanied by a demand/invitation (“Believe and Follow), scripture asks something different from us. (I say this more fully and the end of the review):

  24. Sara –

    Regardless of what Elder Ballard said in conference about the united Brethren being infallible or nearly so, the evidence shows that they too can be mistaken, even in doctrine. Here’s an example from the First Presidency’s 1949 statement on the question of “Negroes,” which conflicts with the Church’s recent essay on blacks and the priesthood. Either the Church of 1949 was wrong, or the Chuch is currently wrong.

    ““August 17, 1949

    The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”

    President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”

    The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

    The First Presidency”

  25. “The second view is, by comparison to the first, fairly welcoming.”

    Maybe less unwelcoming would be a better phrasing.

  26. Thanks for the link to your review, Keith. Highly recommended for anyone who finds the topic interesting or concerning.

    As you note in the review, most of the talks came out of a 1996 conference, almost 20 years ago. I wonder whether slightly different ideas would emerge from a similar conferernce held today? A lot has changed in 20 years.

  27. Ben S, let me ask you this, if someone were to say that the Book of Mormon is a myth or even more specifically that the idea that the Book of Mormon contains the words of ancients in the American continent is a myth, should we be confused as to what is being said? Yes, I realize that the term ‘myth’ has other connotations besides untruth. Yes, ‘myth’ can refer to stories of the divine or of heroes possessing divine, supernatural powers that may have a basis in reality, although such cannot be objectively verifiable, and we are probably correct to suspect that these stories are not literal truth. But we establish definitions of words based on the contexts in which people commonly use them, and people commonly use the term ‘myth’ with the connotation of a proposition that has no basis in, or does not correspond to, reality. Now, whether or not what is purported to be a myth by some is actually a myth is a completely different question. But there should be no confusion as to what is meant by the word myth in the context of ‘myth vs. history.’

    To reiterate my point: facts do exist, there is a reality of how past events transpired, even if human minds cannot fully understand this reality, due to bad or insufficient evidence, or even if they misrepresent it and/or get it wrong (purport myths). Joseph Smith and his early supporters made it very clear that the Book of Mormon was a literal account of ancient peoples in the American continent about their interactions with the divine and more specifically Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith appealed to the idea that he literally translated the record of an ancient people found in New York from an ancient language into English in order to establish his prophetic credentials. Sure, once it is assumed that the Book of Mormon does contain the words of ancients, there is a lot of flexibility in how literally we take the stories. Maybe the story of Ammon chopping off lots of arms is just local lore. But the literalness of the stories is not the question at hand when we talk of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, rather it is the idea that the Book of Mormon contains any words (even if it is just one word) of ancient peoples between 600BCE and 400CE anywhere on the American continent.

  28. Keith, thanks for the article. I also highly recommend Keith’s review for anyone interested in this topic. I will say that Wittgenstein (cited at the end of the article) is dead wrong about Christianity. The early followers of Jesus fully intended the idea of his resurrection to be understood literally and used this idea to spread their movement. It is highly unlikely that the early Christian movement would have succeeded had Jesus been understood as just a philosopher and his resurrection understood merely symbolically.

  29. I skimmed some of the material from Oaks, Midgley, et al. They highlight the problem with mormon apologetics. Their objective is not to follow the evidence wherever the evidence takes us. Their mode of approaching this – or any other question – is to operate backwards from the established conclusion that (whatever they are defending) is true. In this case, Oaks, et al, feel that Mormonism MUST hold to a historical BOM because tolerance of a non historical BOM litters the Restoration with land mines.

    That’s fine – but such an approach is not a fair (no pun intended) academic analysis of evidence. Apologists cannot claim that works such as the ones linked here try to follow the evidence wherever it takes them. The authors start from their conclusion and work backwards to find material that supports a biased conclusion.

  30. Aaron T.
    Are apologetics supposed to be fair and unbiased? No, apologetics are a defense, by definition. They are meant, in this case, to defend the church on academic grounds. They are not neutral or they would no longer be apologetics. Good apologetics have something worthwhile to say and respond adequately to critics.

    I can understand if you think most mormon apologetic works don’t hit a certain standard (I would disagree), but I don’t understand why they are supposed to be unbiased?

  31. Aaron T.

    Some people will continue to believe the sun shines when it clearly isn’t shining. Some people will simply look to justify their beliefs no matter what. I believe that is what Fair and other apologetic organizations are for. So, unfortunately they will always be biased in their defenses, even against a seeming mountain of evidence that seems to point in the opposite direction from their conclusions. That is their mission.

  32. As has been stated elsewhere, elements of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon support a “no middle ground” stance. The witness statements testifying to the accurate translation and physical existence of the plates put us somewhat in either/or category. Either those men received an angelic witness (in the case of the three) and handled the plates physically (in the case of the eight), or they didn’t. This ties with the thinking that the Book of Mormon must be based at least somewhat on a physical record of ancient peoples in order for Joseph Smith to be a legitimate prophet.

    Now, when it comes to how the Nephites handled accurate recording of history or how much of the Book of Mormon contains ideas/phrasing influenced by the filter of Joseph’s mind, then I think there is more room for members to take a nuanced view. We claim to believe that the Bible has issues, but we still accept it as valid scripture testifying of Christ.

  33. Mary Ann,

    I largely disagree with your either/or stance. Middle ground most certainly exists. For example, what if the three witnesses “thought” they saw an angel, but were in fact mistaken? What if they were hallucinating? What if all three agreed they saw a blinding light, but only one of them truly saw the angel, and then convinced the others that his interpretation of the events was the correct one? What if one or more of the witnesses had secret reservations about whether their interpretation of events as recorded in the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses” was what happened? Did they see the angels and plates like we see things ordinarily – with physical eyes – or with “spiritual eyes” – and what the heck are spiritual eyes? Does everybody – particularly these three people – have the same spiritual eyes? When they saw the engravings, how did they know they were Lamanite or Nephite, rather than a script from some other ancient American civilization? What if they did see plates, but that they plates were forgeries? What if the angel that came down was not from God, but from some other source (e.g., Satan)? Were the voices they heard the “still small voice,” or an actual voice, or perhaps some different combination for different witnesses?

    These are musings that took 5 minutes of an average intellect. Think of all the other questions that might exist with a little more thought, from a smarter person, or among millions of church members!

    “Either/or?” Baloney!

  34. A good portion of this thread exemplifies how those of us who are agnostic to the historicity of the BoM (or the Bible for that matter) are marginalized within the church. We are poor souls “weak in the faith” that “shouldn’t be pushed out” but “strengenthed” which apparently means encouraged to come to see the “believe in the truth” of historicity. This is boundary maintenance pure and simple, but what a pretty dumb and arbitrary boundary. Of course, no one is throwing most of us out the door who occupy “the middle ground” but the condescension, the implied social sanction, the pitying looks, the silencing in SS classes of our insights that come from less historical views, the act of telling us we are “weak” in our faith because we have made sense of the origins differently all acts to do exactly that.

    Why can’t we just allow both views to be legitimate? I don’t feel the need to belittle the faith or intellect of people that take a more literalistic position on the BoM. I can appreciate how that concreteness helps them with the daily struggles of being a good person. And yes, I find harsh and outspoken criticism directed at my more literalistic brothers and sisters wearisome as well. It just amazes me that such mutual respect across historicity beliefs is so freaking hard for us. “Either/or” is baloney and it is no way to create a vibrant and robust theology.

    I get that the core problem with the historicity of the BoM is really about integrity of JS. That seems to be where the insistence on historicity has always come from, especially from our leaders. Because if he was lying about gold plates or whatever then…well…what else was he lying about. To me that is where the faith comes in and where the rub lies. But we should at very least acknowledge what the core of the “historicity” fight really is. I think it is self-defeating to place this all back on text itself. But hey what do I know, I am just the “weak in the faith” guy sitting next to you in SS, cleaning your chapels etc.

  35. Sure, the authenticity of the BoM cannot be proven with secular evidence…..until it can. And then you can be sure Oaks will jump on it. But he knows that it will never be proven this way, so that isn’t really his concern. His concern is the book will ultimately be proven false, which most likely will happen someday. And then, his declaration that secular evidence cannot prove or disprove will accomplish the only thing he hoped to accomplish by making such a statement: Keep people in the Church.

  36. Rah – I agree the core issue driving the defensiveness of many people on the historicity issue derives from maintaining the credibility of Joseph Smith.

    PP – it is difficult for people like me to do the mental gymnastics required to marry the concepts of (1) the origins of the Book of Mormon are based on forgeries, hallucinations, and Satan with (2) Joseph as prophet and Book of Mormon as inspired scripture. This may explain why us lower life forms tend to default to the baloney position of “either/or” when it comes to believing a speck of truth to the claim that the Book of Mormon is based on ancient records.

  37. An improved version of the “Scripture as Incarnation” essay appears in the collection Faith, _Philosophy, Scripture_ (Maxwell 2010) (available as an ebook on Amazon).

  38. Mary Ann –

    Indeed, the mental gymnastics of the middle road can be difficult! Forget about the 3 witnesses “toy model” I used above, and think more generally. It’s very, very hard to take the middle road on issues and still feel happy or comfortable with some stuff taught in our chapels. Yet those of us who take this road on certain issues feel compelled to do so by “the evidence.” If there were any way we could avoid it, we would. But we can’t.

    How to binary mormons deal with uncomfortable truths like prophet fallibility (e.g., blacks in the priesthood from BY), outright lying over polygamy ending in 1890 (nope – certain apostles practices it for over a decade more), the institution of polygamy and its lies ( + Fanny Alger, Helen Mar Kimball, etc.), conflicts between prophetic statements and science (“no death before the fall”), identical passages in the BOM and the KJV? All of these things happened.

    Although there are certainly some “binary mormons” who are aware of these issues, plenty are not. Until a person has learned about and struggled over these issues, they can’t understand the tremendous faith demonstrated by middle-roaders who remain in activity.

    All hail the middle-roaders – champions of knowledge, champions of faith, and champions of truth!

  39. When the author of Moroni 10:4 wrote: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost,” what did the author mean by “true”? There are a lot of people who have accepted that challenge every year for the last 175 years and have received what they would call an answer from God that the Book of Mormon is “true.” Should we understand God to be telling us in those answers that “true” means it is a narrative of non-historical events that nicely illustrates true principles for life (thus allowing room for today’s evidence of the ahistoricity of the Book of Mormon)? Possibly, but I doubt it. I don’t think a poll would show that most people asked with that sense of “true” in mind or felt that kind of an answer.

    It is quite a bold challenge to have been written or translated (depending on your view) by a young man with no better than a third-grade early 1800’s frontier education, who ultimately was willing to give his life for what he believed to be true.

  40. Mike,

    The passage you quoted is one of the most beautiful in all of scripture. It led to my conversion and countless others. I cherish it.

    Yet honest inquiry can also lead to many questions about it. Assuming Moroni was real, what did he mean by “these things?” As you point out, what did he mean by “true?” Was he dictating the literal words of God as he heard them physically? Was he conveying his best understanding of an impression that he felt? Was all of this impression from God, or was it intermixed with any emotion or reason? Are we certain that there is a perfect correlation between the ancient language Moroni used and English? If there is, are we certain Joseph translated it 100% accurately? Did Joseph literally see the words he was supposed to translate, or did he use a “loose” translation of feelings and impressions he was having? If modern day prophets are fallible about doctrinal things (and I’ve argued they are above – see 1949 First Presidency statement on blacks and the priesthood), couldn’t Moroni or Joseph have slightly erred on what God will do for us? Or perhaps they deliberately simplified a truth that is in fact much more complex? Then there’s always the possibility that God transmitted His message to Joseph through the Book of Mormon, even though Moroni may not have been real…

    Empirically, I have taught people who followed Moroni’s promise, who were sincere wonderful people, and who didn’t receive a response. Were they insufficiently “sincere?” Or perhaps lacking “real intent?” (They sure seemed to have those qualities in my humble opinion, but I guess opinions can differ in a non-binary world). Perhaps God had other plans for them; perhaps our understanding of what Moroni was trying to convey is overly simplified; perhaps Moroni’s understanding of God’s will was oversimplified; perhaps Joseph’s understanding/translation of Moroni was oversimplified. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…I believe, however, that my investigator was not the only person in 180 years to provide a counter-example to Moroni’s promise.

    In reference to your final thought, it is indeed a “bold challenge…” Many people (not me) don’t think Joseph translated or wrote the BOM, but that it had other authors. And when you say he was “willing to give his life,” are you sure he actually “gave” his life “willingly?” Some might argue it was taken from him involuntarily. After all, why did he take a gun with him and shoot several of his assailants? Why did he attempt to jump from the jail window, if he was so “willing” to “give” his life?

    Reality is very complex. After reading this, can you fathom that I believe Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God, and that the Book of Mormon is inspired scripture? Yet I do. We middle-of-the-roaders don’t hide from truth, whatever its source and complexity. We try to reconcile beliefs, facts, and faith. We do the best we can. The last thing we need are people who don’t grapple with these facts–who prefer simple falsehoods to complex truths–telling us to leave the church.

    All hail the middle-roaders: champions of knowledge, champions of faith, champions of truth!

  41. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Just a couple of responses.

    First, while you can certainly find a few people within the Church who push an all-or-nothing approach to testimony and membership, most Mormons are happy to support anyone who remains active in the Church, whether those with full and vibrant testimonies, those who have doubts (middle of the roaders if you like that term), or those who have rejected most LDS beliefs but still want to attend because of cultural or family ties. For most Mormons, pastoral good sense trumps theological niceties. I’m just afraid that the emerging move toward retrenchment will impel conservative local leaders (which describes some but not all LDS local leaders) to start being less pastoral and more aggressive at pushing middle-of-the-roaders out of the Church. By listing John Dehlin’s various publicly expressed doubts as a basis for calling the upcoming church court, this seems to be exactly what John’s SP is doing (at least that is what he says in published letters he is doing), which is a REALLY DUMB APPROACH to take. Taking action against John for expressing support for gay marriage and gender equality (not for performing gay marriages or ordaining women, just for public statements) is likewise a dumb idea. John’s SP has stated in writing that is not why he is calling the church court, but John has stated that the SP, in explaining an earlier letter, verbally stated to John that his statements supporting gay marriage and gender issues are, in fact, one of the reasons he is calling the church court. Another PR train wreck engineered by local leadership, maybe or maybe not directed to take such action by senior leadership.

    Second, people across the spectrum have to come to terms with modern pluralism: different people have different opinions about God and religion and Mormonism, and you just have to accept that. That applies to active Mormons, who have to understand that 99% of the people in the world don’t accept LDS truth claims and often think of the LDS Church in rather negative terms. That’s not something to be offended about, just part of the background noise of life as a Mormon. And if someone, friend or family member, goes inactive or resigns their membership, same result: you can be sad about that outcome, but don’t be offended or label them a tool of the adversary. But it’s a two-way street: people who have embraced doubts or who have exited the Church can’t look at fully active LDS who view those doubt or exit the Church with sadness and regret as unfair or invalid opinions or emotions (much less labeling them as fools or dupes, the kind of juvenile name-calling so prevalent on Exmo boards). The essence of pluralism is that everyone is entitled to their opinion, right or wrong, coupled with the conviction that a free marketplace of ideas works in favor of truth and right in the long run.

  42. Yes, Dave, hooray for pluralism. But I also think some absolute truths exist. People can disagree about what those truths are. And some people can be dead wrong. Nothing Annoys me more than people who testify that they “know” something that is demonstrably false. Facts exist, after all. And if people refuse to acknowledge facts in the face of all evidence, then they may very well be dupes (I’m likely one of them). If only we could all be more humble about what we know. In regards to being mistaken, perhaps we should all ask, “Lord, is it I?”

  43. It seems to me many make a false dichotomy. However to see if historicity matters simply ask how historic context affects the exegesis of the NT or OT. (I recognize many scholars see much of the OT as pseudepigraphic or composed long after events or even not-historical as with Job; and much of the NT as written long after the fact and with Paul often not by him)

    To my eyes the debate seems akin to the old open text vs. closed text in semiotics. Neither is true. However even if we have many readings which readings we privilege seems very tied to context. And historic context is a huge issue in determining what readings count.

    Again to those saying history doesn’t matter would you say then that the text History of the Church ought trump anything historians write in terms of theology? Of course not. Why make that same move with regards to the Book of Mormon?

  44. Aaron T,

    “Their objective is not to follow the evidence wherever the evidence takes us. Their mode of approaching this – or any other question – is to operate backwards from the established conclusion that (whatever they are defending) is true.”

    I think that this highlights the problem that I have with apologetic, although I think I take the problem in a different direction than you do. In particular, their idea of “truth” is a little schizophrenic at times. On the one hand, they act as if the modern, scientific conception of truth isn’t quite right… and I fully agree with this. Then, on the other hand, they pretend that they have to live up to the standards of science in order to defend the truth….. and I fully disagree with this. I get the impression that you would, on the other hand, would probably disagree with the first and agree with the second, at least more so than I do.

    Once we drop the modern, scientific conception of truth (which is what I take Faulconer to be suggesting) then, the whole practice of apologetic should lose its relevance since our beliefs are no longer under any obligation to live up to scientific standards.

  45. Aaron, I don’t think operating backwards is always the apologist way. A lot that goes under apologetics is also looking at other possibilities that are more open than sometimes portrayed. What counts as contrived or convoluted often is in the eye of the beholder. It’s true frequently there are positions held to be true and defended. But typically these are not held irrationally although the evidence in play may not be agreed upon by all (especially skeptical critics).

    None of this is to deny that sometimes apologetics is just poor reasoning defending a position held irrationally. However I think too much gets discounted at times. The reality is that in these conversations the evidence is usually quite weak – especially compared to the sciences. The default position is really a burden of proof argument. The assumption is that something is false or that one should believe only the best argument from the public facts. However with weak arguments the best argument isn’t always or even usually right. Further the issue in a believing context is very much who has the burden of proof. So often there is a fundamental disconnect going on that’s really this hidden burden of proof issue.

    All that said heaven knows there’s no shortage of bad apologetics. But I’m not at all convinced the apologetic drive is bad, even when done by amateurs trying to reason things out. Nor do I think apologetics is inherently bad nor should apologetic arguments be immediately discounted.

  46. Midgely […] “Whatever else one might say about such stances, they clearly compete with the traditional reading of the Book of Mormon and with the traditional understanding of the LDS past.”

    just like the LGM.

    …and the BoA catalyst theory.

    …and pretty much every other apologetic the FARMS crew has ever promoted.

  47. History is in the eye of the beholder. Nephi and company may well have existed, and written about themselves in glowing terms, but the fact that we find little or no contemporary physical or documentary evidence to support the BoM history may simply mean that they were only important in their own eyes. Similarly, the ancient Israelites made very little impact on surrounding nations and cultures, but they seemed to think they were the cat’s pajamas, judging by the OT. We really only have their word for it.

    Robert Heinlein once wrote, “This sad little lizard told me that he was a brontosaurus on his mother’s side. I did not laugh; people who boast of ancestry often have little else to sustain them.” The lack of archaeological brontosauruses, in ancient Palestine or Mesoamerica, is not proof that there were no sad lizards with delusions of grandeur.

  48. @ Jeff G #2

    I disagree with every word of Midgley’s position here. It’s almost as if he’s more bent on defending the notion of “objective truth” from post-modern encroachment than he is on defending faith in the BoM.

    actually, Midgley embraces post-modernism, when it suits him…

    Dialogue, Spring 2008:

    The history of postmodern appeals among orthodox Mormon scholars
    begins with the antipositivist critiques that BYU political science professors
    Louis Midgley and David Bohn led against the newMormon history in
    the 1980s and early 1990s.

  49. One should note that one can be anti-positivist without being postmodernist. Likewise once the term postmodern didn’t have all the horrible connotations it’s come to have via bad readings of difficult philosophers applied uncritically in literature and soft sciences leading to what’s little more than cultural relativism and a hermeneutic where nearly any reading goes.

    That said appeals to tradition are usually a weak argument. I think Midgely is making a stronger claim mind you.

  50. Ironically, myth is very difficult to define historically. Myth is NOT something that is untrue; this is simply the modern usage of the term, but has nothing to do with what ancient myth actually was.

    One of the great problems we modern readers have with ancient texts stems from how our literate minds process and organize data. Literacy structures thought. Reading print is reflexive, and writing allows for a layer of reflection between the subject and object which allows for interiorization and the abstraction of ideas.

    Literate history is the product of abstracting large generalizations into blocks of information which allow readers to build a foundation for the present view of the self. These “information blocks” are often loaded with precise details which make the entire “block” appear to be a complete and literal recitation of events. Thus, literate history is most often taken literally by literate peoples. These blocks, however, no matter how precise, have to be put together by the mortar of interpretation, which almost always brings to bear our abstract generalizations. History is a product of a particular point of view. Sacred history is written from a prophetic point of view. But even the prophets are using their own mortar, and sometimes this mortar over generalizes the “bricks.”

    In other words, for history as a construct, there will always be multiple interpretations because the bricks can be put together in so many different combinations. Literate cultures tend to build a historical edifice and make it official. Later critics can come by and point out that all the same bricks can be put together with a completely different mortar that also holds historical validity but contradicts the official model. Paradoxically, both sides might be correct.

    Orality (people without writing) also structures thought. Oral peoples are also concerned with history, but there is no way an oral society can produce the kind of historical exegesis that literate minds create. Only so much information can be stored by oral cognition, and therefore only the most important details are kept and all other things are sloughed away.

    In oral societies (you know, 99% of history), information is recorded in memorable motifs generally associated with the cult festivals and cosmology of the group. Oral societies create narrative templates with repeatable images reinforced during festivals, rituals, dramas, etc, where historical information is poured and kept. These narrative templates are Myths.

    Simply put, oral peoples mythologize history, while literate peoples historicize myth.

    Much of the Bible descends from oral traditions. It is filled with mythic motifs, as it should be, for this is how oral peoples kept history. We have forgotten this, and both believers and critics over generalize their case in this regard. Critics smirk and declare that the Bible is myth, forgetting that myth can also be history. Believers balk and insist that it is the inspired word of God, forgetting that God once spoke to oral peoples and they kept their histories differently than we do.

    Finally, it should be noted that there was a great transition in history that took centuries, but appears to have taken hold by about the 6th century BCE. This transition was from orality to literacy. In ancient Greece, for example, literate thought had wholly replaced oral thought, and a transference of oral congitive strategies enmeshed in myths and rituals gave way to the literate cognitive strategies of rhetoric and schools.

    This is important, because as it turns out, The Book of Mormon begins AS A LITERATE HISTORY. The Bible does not. And herein lies massive consequences which no LDS scholar I have read has considered.

  51. John KL,
    “Myth is NOT something that is untrue; this is simply the modern usage of the term, but has nothing to do with what ancient myth actually was.”

    Yes, the word ‘myth’ comes from Greek which originally meant a story or account coming by word of mouth. When people historically used the term, it did not specifically mean something completely false. I agree that when ‘myth’ is used to refer to an ancient story of heroes, it may not be entirely fictional. But in modern English, one of the common meanings of ‘myth’ is a proposition that is believed by some, but is but cannot be proven true, is easily proven false, or is highly unlikely. It is a myth that cell phones used at gas stations can cause fires, for instance. Here, the word ‘myth’ can be swapped with the word ‘untruth’ almost without changing the meaning. Languages evolve over time, and words can acquire different nuance. We need to respect that. The fact of the matter is that ‘myth’ is a great word to use to refer to an idea that is untrue.

  52. Steve,
    Thank you for clarification. I should have said “ancient myth is not something that is untrue.” But I thought that in the context of ancient texts that is what was being discussed. You make an excellent point that the Modern usage of the word is perfectly valid.

    Like so much in these discussions, however, I think most people know the Modern usage and conflate it with the ancient usage. Most Mormons I know would never admit to myth in the Bible, simply because they think myth is something untrue, at best something like a fairytale.

  53. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Not sure how this devolved into a discussion of myth, but here are a couple of links to prior posts on that topic.

    First, some reflections on Karen Armstrong’s book A Short History of Myth:

    Second, reflections on Susan Niditch’s book Ancient Israelite Religion:

    I don’t recall Faulconer using the term “myth” in his essay. I suspect he would argue that his incarnational view of scripture, that it embodies a symbolic ordering of the world, has scripture performing some of the same things that myth is said to achieve. But his argument seems more directed at how language is used, how scriptural language is used, how that differs from historical language or narrative, and how any sort of language or narrative can be definitively linked to the real world as modern correspondence theories attempt to do. His is a narrower and more technical argument than general discussions of myth amount to.

  54. I think this all goes back to Gina’s comment (#7), in which she states that if the BOM is not historical, meaning that it contains the words of ancients living on the American continents which were literally translated by Joseph Smith, then it is a myth, meaning a work of complete fiction (albeit with some real historical Biblical elements mixed in it) with no historical basis in Jerusalem and the Arabian Peninsula 600BCE and ancient America 600BCE-400CE, which is what JS and his early followers claimed it to have. She was dead on right. Then Ben S came along and claimed that myth was very hard to define, thus adding gratuitous complexity to a matter that should have been fairly easy to understand. What Ben S seemed to say was that the stories that are claimed as myths may actually have some historical elements in them. Yes, of course, a guy named Noah may have actually existed and he may have witnessed a huge flood, which became the basis for the flood story in the Bible. A flood that covered the entire face of the earth? Highly unlikely. Did he actually live more than 900 years? Also highly unlikely based on what we know about human aging. Nonetheless, the people who wrote down the account were much closer to the possible event of Noah and his flood in terms of culture, place, and time than Joseph Smith was to what he claimed to be a literal account of ancient Jews, their journey to the American content, and their literal witness of a literally resurrected Jesus Christ coming to visit them. The idea that ancient Hebrews told stories around the campfire about Abraham, Noah, and company and that some guy or group of guys came along and put these stories into a written form, thus standardizing the accounts, is highly plausible. Therefore the idea that Abraham, Noah, et. al. actually existed shouldn’t necessary be held suspect, even if we can’t find any outside sources that corroborate their existence.

    Now compare the Book of Mormon account. Were there any people orally passing down stories about Nephi, Alma, and Moroni before Joseph Smith? We certainly haven’t found evidence of such between 400CE and the 1820s. It is also highly unlikely that this was an occurrence, since JS never claimed to hear anything from anyone else about the people in the Book of Mormon from anywhere except the Golden Plates. So given the separation between JS and Nephi and company in terms of time, place, and culture, and given the fact that the Book of Mormon was an alleged translation from a text of which we cannot find the remnants, the actual existence of such characters as Lehi, Nephi, etc. by common standards of reasoning among the worldwide intellectual community should naturally be held suspect. So when we talk about myth in the Bible, we talk of grandiose, fantastic stories that may have some element of truth, but probably also contain elements of fabrication, exaggeration, storytelling (where both narrator and audience accept that there are elements of fiction in the story), etc. But when we talk of myth in reference to the Book of Mormon, we’re talking about Joseph’s myth (meaning outright fabrication), not the storytelling of ancients on the American continents. So the history vs. myth (stuff that actually happened vs. stuff that didn’t) binary is very pertinent to a discussion about the BOM.

  55. Well, all I was going to say was… “devolved?” I thought it was just getting interesting….:)

  56. Steve Smith,

    Why would we expect an oral tradition to exist about an anciently exterminated people (ie. the Nephites)? As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors”.

    As it is, there is very little known about the history and people of mesoamerica during the 600 BCE to 400 CE time period. We know a decent amount about their material culture thanks to archaeology, but actual written histories and even names of rulers are nearly impossible to come by for that period, and from what I can tell we have no oral history left from the period either.

    Mind you all of this comes from searching for mesoamerican history on Wikipedia, so it’s probably missing some details that an expert in the field would know.

    My other question though comes from your use of “literal translation”. What percentage of the BoM needs to be anciently derived vs. coming from Joseph? 100%? 50%? 1%? I think this is where the “hard to define” argument is coming from. A “literal translation” of ancient Latin for example would be virtually incomprehensible to modern readers, if what you mean is converting words from one language to another in literal succession. Does your use of “literal translation” mean that all of the words in the BoM must have been of ancient origin? Translation is a messy process even when you’re talking about well known and well sourced documents, and that very messiness is I think what Ben S and others have been referring to.

  57. When Elder Oaks says he thinks it’s impossible to verify BoM truthfulness from existing evidence, I fully believe him. I think people are severely underestimating the scope of 3 Nephi Chapter 8 and its implications.

  58. “Midgley likewise rejects Latter-day Saints who try to find some middle ground that recognizes divine revelation (in some form) but also recognizes (to one degree or another) modern influences on the text.”

    Nonsense. You really think Dr. Midgley is incapable of disagreeing with someone without rejecting them? Most 2nd-graders can do that. He has a PhD from Brown University: do you really think that he “rejected” every professor he disagreed with? I’d love to be his thesis adviser!

    I may be mistaken, but the thesis of this post seems to be “criticism of an ahistorical Book of Mormon = driving certain Latter-day Saints out of the Church”. Is this what you mean by a “wedge issue”? You seem to advocate that the idea of an ahistorical Book of Mormon must be exempt from criticism: otherwise, Latter-day Saints with “weak faith” might leave.

    You quote Kent P. Jackson: “If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, what possible cause would anyone have to accept anything of the work of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints given the consistent assertions that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that describes ancient events? This is not an invitation for anyone to leave the Church. It is, instead, an invitation to abandon the fallacious and logically impossible argument that the Book of Mormon can be true, though not historical, while Joseph Smith, the revelations of God, and the book itself claim in clear and unmistakable terms the opposite.”

    Virtually everyone holds any number of contradictory, illogical, or fallacious beliefs.Through criticism, either from within or without, an individual can prune back irrational thoughts, resolve contradictions, and, by deductive reasoning, approach more closely to the truth. It is often unpleasant, and we may lose cherished ideas, but that is the price we pay for critical thinking.

    I agree that we shouldn’t “drive” anyone out of the Church; however, we should not stay silent on crucial issues just to avoid offending someone. The person holding the irrational idea suffers the most from it. Rational argument can be done kindly, gently, and charitably, and will bring us closer to the truth.

  59. Steve Smith and others who are make the historicity of the BoM the crux of the issue: Do you likewise have issues with the movie “Selma”? I found this article about the “historical controversy” surrounding that movie to be somewhat analogous to our discussion here about the BoM.

    If you’re up for it, I’d love to discuss it with you. If not, that’s ok too.

  60. “Why would we expect an oral tradition to exist about an anciently exterminated people (ie. the Nephites)?”

    By all standards of mainstream scholarship, we wouldn’t. However, it is reasonable, by all mainstream scholarly standards, to believe that the people who wrote down the Torah were passing down ancient Hebrew oral tradition. My point here is that talking about the historicity of the Bible (more specifically the Torah/Old Testament) is not like talking about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. We have a massive amount of evidence that ancient Hebrews penned the Torah. We can’t say the same for the Book of Mormon, however.

    “My other question though comes from your use of “literal translation”. What percentage of the BoM needs to be anciently derived vs. coming from Joseph? 100%? 50%? 1%?”

    OK, perhaps a better term to use is transmission of words/ideas/experiences of ancients in American continent. Either Joseph Smith did actually transmit these, or he didn’t. Even if you believe that Joseph Smith made up the entire Book of Mormon except for the character of Nephi and his words, “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents” (which I can’t imagine anyone to believe), then you believe the Book of Mormon to contain the words of ancients (which he couldn’t have known about through the Bible) and that Joseph Smith actually had some power (which is inexplicable by all modern mainstream scholarly standards) to transmit this information. Perhaps there is a historicity question circulating around Mormondom about which stories of the Book of Mormon happened as described and which are embellishments or fabrications, but that isn’t what the general historicity debate is about. What concerns most people engaging the historicity question is whether the BOM actually contains the words of ancients in America or not, and that is an either/or question. For it is illogical at best and deliberately misleading at worst for someone to claim to believe the BOM is true and also believe that it does not contain the words/ideas/experiences of ancients on the American continent, but is a completely 19th century text (at least the parts that aren’t citing/references/channeling the KJV). In order to say that, they have to have some sort of private definition of the word true, and such a claim would most certainly be inconsistent of how the overwhelming majority of LDS leaders and members mean true when they claim to believe the BOM is true. What most believers mean by it is that the BOM characters actually existed and actually originated words and ideas or channeled them through God which JS transmitted through revelation.

    As for “Selma,” it really is a different question. By all modern mainstream scholarly standards, Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson really existed.

  61. To be fair though I think most scholars assume the Jewish oral traditions weren’t that old. Certainly not as old as the text claims. If the only difference between what most secular scholars think of the OT and the Book of Mormon is just when the traditions were created does that really amount to much of a difference? Also one should note that secular critics of Mormonism frequently argue that Joseph was composing his scriptures out of oral traditions. So they very much are placing Joseph where scholars place a lot of the scribes in the exile or post-exilic period. At best the difference is Joseph’s prophecies and translations come from one person in a short period of about 30 years whereas Jewish scriptures come from many people over a period of a few centuries.

    So I think the issues of historicism are quite similar. When we get to the NT with a few exceptions you have a very similar type of argument going on.

  62. Comparing OT historicity with BOM historicity is apples to oranges.

    OT historicity: a) solid practically unquestionable evidence of ancient Hebrew origins corroborated by almost innumerable outside sources; b) likely oral chain from original narrator to transcriber, probably without breakage; stories likely based on Hebrew oral traditions passed down from generation to generation, therefore it is reasonable to believe that some of the characters in stories are based on real people and real events that were originally narrated and passed down in fantastic form; c) original narrator and transcribers shared common culture and language; d) narrative of Torah not projecting forward; original narrators not referring to time of transcribers; instead, it projects backwards, talks of how things happened in the past.

    BOM historicity: a) virtual complete lack of outside sources corroborating Hebrew origins; b) well-evidenced huge gap between alleged original narrators and transcriber/transmitter (Joseph Smith), reasonable to believe my modern mainstream standards of scholarship that characters were inventions of Joseph Smith (witness statements that he was dictating text of BOM to scribe while looking at a stone in a hat); c) alleged original narrators and transcriber had no shared cultural or linguistic background; d) the text constantly projects forward and talks of commonly debated issues in the 18th and 19th century upstate New York (i.e. baptism of children, ‘we have a Bible’, correct method of baptism, confirms common belief that Native Americans were descendants of Hebrews).

    “Also one should note that secular critics of Mormonism frequently argue that Joseph was composing his scriptures out of oral traditions”

    What oral traditions? Do you mean that some critics argue that he plagiarized from Spaulding or that his ideas came from sermons he heard in the burnt-out district? These aren’t exactly oral traditions like those maintained in ancient Hebrew culture.

  63. To put it a different way, the question at the crux of the historicity issue is did ancients on the American continent originate (or channel from God) the words and ideas of the text? We can’t find strong evidence suggesting this and what we know of the Americas between 600BCE and 400CE, almost exclusively through archaeology, does not confirm Book of Mormon names, culture, events, ideas, cities, or really anything about it. Now ask this same question of the Torah/Old Testament? Did ancients who existed before the transcribers (whoever they were, we don’t know their names, but we know they were ethnic Hebrews) actually originate the words and ideas of the text? I have strong reason to believe (based on modern mainstream scholarly standards) that they did exist and passed down an oral tradition, which provided the basis of text written down by the transcribers. Were the early transcribers proto-Joseph Smiths? No, for the reasons I described in my previous comment. I have much less reason to doubt the claims to be dictating ancient tradition of the early Hebrew transcribers than I do the claims of Joseph Smith. To believe that Mormon actually existed requires much more faith than believing that Moses actually existed.

  64. There’s as much evidence for Moses as there is Nephi. You can say we have solid evidence for Egyptians but that’s like saying we have solid evidence for mesoAmericans and Jews in Jerusalem around 600 AD. There’s no evidence the Egyptians spoken of in Exodus are the Egyptians historians talk about just as there’s no evidence the Lamanites were mesoAmericans in southern Mexico/Guatamala.

    Now we can believe both (and I do). But let’s at least be honest about the evidence here.

    By oral traditions I mean traditions loosely in the so-called Hermetic tradition where a lot of parallel ideas can be found especially to Nauvoo theology. Apologists found for decades parallel stories, especially to the Book of Abraham, in old ancient texts. Critics explain these away by oral traditions.

    Now it’s true there were Hebrews between 600 BCE and 200 BCE who (according to these scholars) originated the stories of Exodus and so further. We don’t have the same evidence for ancient mesoAmericans. However my point is that the situations are the same, just that in one case we have Joseph Smith in the early 19th century and in the other we have Hebrews between 600 BCE and 200 BCE. The fact there were historic Hebrews around 600 BCE says nothing about what’s in the text purporting to come earlier. Even if it’s oral traditions it says nothing about where the oral traditions came from.

  65. To be clear not all scholars say everything before the Exile is dubious. But it’s certainly a mainstream position. Oral traditions explain nothing.

  66. Johnathan (#59):

    “The person holding the irrational idea suffers the most from it. Rational argument can be done kindly, gently, and charitably, and will bring us closer to the truth.”

    No. Rational argument rarely persuades a person when it comes to that person’s religious truth claims.

    For whatever reason, our minds are built such that we are capable of deceiving ourselves. It’s an absolute paradox, but we can deceive our own minds. We’re capable of maintaining all kinds of inconsistencies, simultaneously. For example, without naming any names or pointing any fingers, it’s possible for a person to rise to the pinnacle of the legal profession, a profession that prides itself on logic and reason. This super-lawyer applies logic to every area of his life, and yet, he completely abandons reason when it comes to his faith’s historical claims.

    How is this even possible? How can someone recognize every assumption, every inference in a legal argument … and then stack inference upon inference upon inference when it comes to religion?

    Johnathan, I agree that all should be kind, gentle, and charitable. I disagree that we should try and persuade others with logic regarding religious historical claims.

    My .02.

  67. “There’s as much evidence for Moses as there is Nephi”

    By modern mainstream scholarly standards, it is more reasonable to believe that Moses actually existed than Nephi. This is because the people who transcribed the story of Moses were culturally and ethnically similar to the characters of the story. It is a common pattern in ancient societies to give oral histories of their pasts that contain stories of heroes who kept them together as a people and defeated enemies. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that the transcribers of the Torah were basing their accounts on oral histories (which may not have any truth to them, but it is nonetheless possible). Joseph Smith was culturally and ethnically very far from the characters of Nephi and Mormon described in the Book of Mormon.

    “There’s no evidence the Egyptians spoken of in Exodus are the Egyptians historians talk about”

    The Torah talks of the Pharaoh, and the Egyptians’ tradition of referring to their rulers by the title of Pharaoh during the 1500s BCE is well established by outside sources. This, in and of itself, is enough evidence to maintain that the Hebrews (at least the transcribers) interacted with the very Egyptians that historians talk about, at least enough to know the term Pharaoh.

    “By oral traditions I mean…”

    OK, I see what you mean, but this seems irrelevant to what we were talking about. It isn’t like Joseph Smith went and consulted Native Americans and they told him of their oral traditions about Mormon and Moroni and that the Book of Mormon was based off of these natives’ oral traditions, or at least corresponded with them. On the other hand, the Torah in all likelihood has its origins in ancient Hebrew oral tradition which was eventually written down. By mainstream scholarly standards, which discount the spirit as a valid source of knowledge, the origins of the BOM are most likely from Joseph Smith’s head, or burnt-out district sermons and texts available to him in that area which were filtered through and formatted in JS’s head. There is no evidence of or really any reason to believe (again, following mainstream standards) because of external evidence or trends in human behavior that the BOM had its origins in the written and oral traditions of ancient Hebrews.

    “However my point is that the situations are the same”

    You’re ignoring the cultural and ethnic proximity issue between alleged original narrators and transcibers.

  68. Hello, Josh Smith (#67). Thanks for your kind reply.

    “No. Rational argument rarely persuades a person when it comes to that person’s religious truth claims.”

    I agree: and this is true for all kinds of claims. Where reason tends to persuade is where the parties involved agree to be persuaded by reason.

    The point of the article is (it seems to me) to forbid (rational) criticism of the ahistorical approach to religion. According to the article, such criticism “rejects” some faithful saints, and constitutes a “wedge issue” which (by design?) is “driving” people from the Church. I think this is nonsense, and you seem to agree, though for reasons different than the ones I stated.

    If people are rarely persuaded by reason, then any amount of rational criticism of their religious ideas should come to naught. I’m curious: do you agree with my assessment of the article? If so, do you agree with the author? Should criticism of an ahistorical approach to religion be forbidden?

    “This super-lawyer applies logic to every area of his life, and yet, he completely abandons reason when it comes to his faith’s historical claims.”

    I have to disagree here.

    Disciplines like Law and Science rely on pre-rational commitments to rules, paradigms, or both, and practitioners of those (and similar) disciplines agree with one another to be persuaded, or at least behave as if persuaded, by reason.

    I’d be nonplussed by my attorney said to my trial judge, “what’s so great about Anglo-Saxon law anyway? I demand my client be tried by ancient Sumerian law.” The practice of law includes a framework of rules, and reason is used within that framework to determine guilt, innocence, etc. The same for science. A scientist who rejects the pre-rational commitment to reproducible experiments won’t publish much.

    A pre-rational commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can easily include reason within that framework. If you’re talking about Dallin H. Oaks, he has rationally evaluated (and made statements to that effect) regarding a limited geography for the Book of Mormon, rather than a hemispheric model. I see no evidence that any of the Apostles have abandoned reason, completely or otherwise, with LDS religious-historical claims.

    Finally, many Latter-day Saints agree to be persuaded by reason. I have learned a lot by rational criticisms of my own ideas. That’s why I post these comment: so they can be criticized. Then I can revise my beliefs, ideas, and practices to better conform to reason.

  69. Steve, I can’t really disagree with what you say. I suspect the issue is how much it increases the possibility. I guess one way of putting of how I characterize their position is to say it’s the difference between 0.01% chance versus 0.02% chance. From what I can tell from these people, barring staggering new evidence, it’s so unlikely as to not be worth bothering about in both cases. That’s more the point I was making. Both cases are the same in that there is so little evidence that argument about minor evidence makes no significant difference.

    But I agree with the points you make otherwise. A good analogy would be whether arguments and examples apologists have made for the Book of Mormon are evidence of a sort that changes the probabilities for critics in how they see the likelihood of there being real Nephites. My sense is that it hasn’t. Yet more formally, clearly the evidence however weak is better than before. However it’s so weak in terms of what is perceived to be needed that critics see no difference.

    Does that make sense? I really wasn’t trying to make a stronger argument than that and I fully acknowledge the points you make regarding possibilities and likelihoods. They make a difference to me which is why I find such arguments important.

  70. Clark, to put it another more simple way, to believe that Moses really existed, I only have to accept the possibility that the transcribers of the OT were passing down a Hebrew oral tradition which was about an old group leader about whom stories were told, repeated, and embellished. To believe that Nephi actually existed requires me to believe that Golden Plates existed and that Joseph Smith was able to actually translate them by looking at a stone in a hat, or through some special spectacles.

  71. Jonathan (#69):

    Ahistorical approach to religion.

    I think 95%+ of the LDS community is completely ambivalent about the BoM’s historical claims. I fault no one and I don’t blame anyone, but there is widespread ambivalence about whether Nephites and Lamanites genuinely roamed North America 2500 years ago. When I go to church, I hear people say, “I know the Book of Mormon is true,” or “I know the Book of Mormon contains the word of God,” or “I know Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.” Whatever this means, it’s my impression it is not a claim about history. This may just be my experience, but the folks I know and love in my congregation don’t give a rat’s rump about the history of North America. Again, I’m not fault finding. I think BoM history claims is an intellectual debate, but the lion’s share of the faith is ambivalent.

    Reason and religious claims.

    The Potawatomi (a native American tribe) have a story about the origin of different colored peoples. According to them, the Earthmaker took clay and baked it in an oven. He didn’t leave the clay in long enough, it was half-baked, and became white people. Earthmaker tried again. This time Earthmaker fell asleep and the clay burned. These became black people. Earthmaker learned his lesson and cooked a third batch for just the right amount of time. These became the red people and they spread out as different tribes in North America.

    If we found someone committed to this story’s veracity, a village elder, would it make sense to try and persuade him using logic that his story wasn’t accurate? I imagine the elder could look us directly in the eye and say, “I am convinced that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Earthmaker.” And he would be right, no?

    Religious claims are neither proved nor disproved. One can only believe or disbelieve.

    (Disclaimer: This is only my opinion, and my opinion is only worth .02.)

  72. Josh, by ‘ambivalent’ do you mean apathetic? Ambivalent would mean they have mixed feelings about the historicity question. If LDS people really don’t care about the history of North America, then we shouldn’t expect a strong reaction from LDS folks by claiming that the horses did not exist in North America between 600 BCE and 400 CE, or that the Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms. That hasn’t been my experience. The typical reaction to such claims, at least in the Mormon belt, has been either ‘no, that’s wrong’ and then cite some apologist’s research/point to the apologists as smart believers who have supposedly found counterevidence to such claims (a la Brandon Flowers to Richard Dawkins), or insist that there is insufficient evidence to even make such a claim (the we don’t and can’t know approach). And such insistence that there is a lack of evidence IS a strong reaction. For I simply can’t LDS people to insist lack of evidence if I were to claim that anachronisms had been found in the Quran. In fact, many would probably celebrate mention of such. The actual history of North America 600 BCE-400 CE matters to most LDS, at least supposed evidence confirming Joseph Smith’s claims about the BOM or the idea that we know nothing about this period and can therefore not falsify his claims.

    “Religious claims are neither proved nor disproved”

    The rationalists who have gone throughout India exposing the magic tricks that gurus, sadhus, and yogis (such as Sri Sathya Sai Baba) are pulling on people to make them believe that they have magical powers are undermining the ability of many Indian holy men to attract and keep followers. Many are being shouted out of town. Science has had the effect of watering down many religion’s bold claims to supernatural power. Religious people are being led to doubt their traditional beliefs because of rational arguments all the time.

  73. Steve, again a fair point. I just think for most people believing that the oral traditions were accurate is a huge leap. Maybe, as you note, not as big as Joseph getting real plates and translating them, but a huge leap nonetheless.

    Josh, why do you think that? For nearly all people I encounter it’s a huge issue and not an issue they are ambivalent about in the least. Certainly most investigators I baptized the issue was whether there were really Nephites and not whether it’s some inspired fiction.

    I think claiming Mormons are ambivalent or apathetic is itself a strong claim requiring strong evidence.

  74. (Typing on iPad)

    What if I use the word “detachment”? There is a detachment between the emotional/psychological/spiritual strength people find in the BOM and BOM historical claims. As I said above, it is not my intention to say this in any derogatory sense.

    What I’m trying to say is that there is a general disinterest in history. For example, if I left a copy of a book about Native American migration on a table in the church house lobby, I would be surprised to find someone thumbing through it.

    Let me try one more thought … We’re more interested in validation, affirmation than we are in genuinely trying to piece together whether something happened.

  75. Hello Josh (#72).

    “If we found someone committed to this story’s veracity, a village elder, would it make sense to try and persuade him using logic that his story wasn’t accurate?”

    Yes, if he or she agreed to some framework for rationally criticizing that belief. If, for example, I found nine other village elders of the same culture and tradition, who told the same, mutually exclusive, alternative version of the story, he might be convinced he was in error.

    Likewise, we have Latter-day Saints with pre-rational commitments to both science and the Gospel. How, then, do we reconcile, say, horses in the Book of Mormon? Several solutions have been proposed that exclude neither commitment. Rational criticism can be fruitful when the participants agree to be persuaded.

    Some Latter-day Saints have pre-rational commitments to secular social and political ideologies, such as liberalism, racism, or capitalism. Criticism of the Church ‘s position on LGBT rights, by its members, is predicated on a commitment to a secular ideology (or several of them). Either these critics-members lack a commitment to the Gospel, and have a merely cultural affiliation to it, or they privilege their commitment to a secular ideology above their commitment to the Gospel. Truly, no man can serve two masters.

    I object to the article’s assertion that criticism of an ahistorical approach to religion “drives” people out of the Church. Nonetheless, the author criticizes not only several ideas, but singles out Latter-day Saints for abuse. By his own standard, isn’t he driving *them* out of the Church?

  76. Jonathan,

    “Rational criticism can be fruitful when the participants agree to be persuaded,” and when the participants are emotionally capable of being persuaded.

    I suppose my modest contribution to this thread is that religious truth claims are not premised on logic, and cannot be unmade by logic. As soon as BoM historicity depends on supernatural events (angels, 1000-year records etched on gold, translation with stones, etc.) just as soon as we make that leap, logic can never undo the myth because the true believer will be able to imagine a set of facts to fit the conclusion. “I am convinced that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” That’s exactly true.

    You’re right that people can use reason within that framework–people can make assumptions and draw conclusions within the myth–but reason cannot ultimately unravel the myth.

    It’s my opinion (completely subject to change at my own whim) that the reason that some of us are able to be “true believers” is based on the structure of our minds. Some of us are psychologically capable of maintaining a belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. These true believers seem to live happy, meaningful lives. Their beliefs give them strength and success. So why on earth would I want to interfere with that by trying to persuade someone that really there were no horses in North America? Hell, for years I’ve made a genuine effort to join the true believers.

  77. I suspect a deeper question isn’t just believing without evidence but rather what counts as evidence and what evidence is public (sharable). For instance I had an investigator who while reading the Book of Mormon would dream in vivid detail what he would read in the Book of Mormon the next day. Is that evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. For him I’d think it would be. For me far less so. For you reading this comment probably not at all.

  78. “there is a general disinterest in history”

    True. There is a general disinterest in history, except when it seemingly challenges the traditional Mormon narrative about history. I wouldn’t be surprised to find someone feeling that their beliefs are slightly threatened by the presence of a book on Native American migration lying on a table in a church house lobby. I could imagine them saying things in reaction to that book such as, “oh, we’ll find out everything in the hereafter,” “science and history textbooks are constantly changing,” and “that’s just some historian’s theory.” A believer who was more well-read on the topic of Native American origins might say something to the effect of, “yes, many Native Americans probably did cross the land bridge, but others came by boat” and “this talks about the origins of only some Native Americans.”

    So, no, most do not care about trying to find out what actually happened in ancient North America. But they will stand their ground against any idea that supposedly falsifies Joseph Smith’s claims about history.

  79. (I’m probably commenting too much on this thread.)

    “So, no, most do not care about trying to find out what actually happened in ancient North America. But they will stand their ground against any idea that supposedly falsifies Joseph Smith’s claims about history.”

    Steve, this is exactly my point. Ninety-eight percent of the LDS community does not care about the history of North America. What we really care about is whether our beliefs are being validated or “attacked.” I hope no one reads this as a criticism of the LDS people. Everyone has deep psychological commitments to beliefs, on all sorts of different topics.

    The debate about historicity is not a debate about evidence. From my point of view, the debate is in our minds. It’s about what we do with evidence that tends to disprove a treasured belief, and how that evidence is presented to the “true believer.”

    Johnathan seems to have it right above when he suggests that the only way forward is with kindness, gentleness, and charity. And, probably a good dose of humility. And, maybe a decent sense of humor.

    (This is my last comment on this thread, though I’ll continue reading other’s thoughts.)

  80. Josh (80) & Steve (79), I’m a little skeptical of this. I the people most interested in Book of Mormon as history also enjoy other types of history and the people least interested in Biblical history are also not interested in BoM history.

    While part of the debate about historicity might be about beliefs (and speaking as someone from the sciences I don’t think that a bad thing to worry about) I think it also heavily shapes the way we read the text.

  81. I chose to believe that BOM is historical. Just my choice. Oh, and Josh you are not commenting too much. :-)

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