Teaching Genesis, Sort Of

OT seminary manualA new year of LDS seminary is just starting up, and this year’s course of study is the Old Testament. The first week of lessons gives some Mormon framing: (1) an introduction to the Old Testament (it “contains images, symbols, and teachings about the Lord Jesus Christ” and “in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is known as Jehovah”); (2) a review of the Plan of Salvation (essential elements: Creation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Atonement); (3) a module on how to study the scriptures; and (4) a lesson on the Bible (with a timeline starting with Adam at 4000 BC). Then lessons 6-16 cover the LDS Book of Moses, followed quickly by three lessons (19-21) on the LDS Book of Abraham. The material in Genesis 1-5 is never studied directly. The student reading chart includes all of Moses and all of Abraham but omits Genesis 1-5. The early lessons use Moses references almost exclusively.

Putting the books of Moses and Abraham in the foreground seems almost designed to raise a few questions in the minds of students about these LDS texts and their relation to Genesis.

First, what is the Book of Moses and how was the text produced? The first few chapters of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible are what we now have as the Book of Moses. The short introduction to the Book of Moses in the Old Testament teacher’s manual says it “is the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of selections from the writings of Moses.” This seems frankly misleading considering Joseph used the KJV Bible, not any independent writings of Moses, as the point of departure for his work, and he didn’t even claim to translate anything. Later, the introduction describes the process somewhat differently: “[T]he Lord revealed the writings of Moses to the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

Second, what is the Book of Abraham and how was the text produced? Again, the introduction to the Book of Abraham in the teacher’s manual starts off describing it as “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham.” Two detailed paragraphs then more or less summarize the discussion in the Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.” Among the statements in this summary are that “neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith ever explained his precise method of translating the book of Abraham”; that the actual papyri now in the possession of the Church date to 300 BC at the earliest, whereas Abraham lived about 2000 BC; that Joseph “may have been working with sections of the papyri that were later destroyed”; and that “we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession.”

Neither introduction notes that these books were not canonized until 1880, although the Gospel Topics essay does so. Furthermore, the essay does confront rather directly a problem that the teacher’s manual avoids: “None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham ….” The essay also proposes an alternative to the missing papyri solution to the translation problem: “Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible.” Call that the revelation-not-translation solution.

It is a bit surprising that the Gospel Topics essay, addressed to LDS membership at large, contains considerably more detail on these points than the manual for LDS seminary teachers, who may be required to respond to student questions. While teachers are directed to go to Gospel Topics at LDS.org and search “book of Abraham” to get “more information,” no direct reference or link address for the essay is provided in the manual. I suspect most students or teachers are more likely to do a Google search on “book of Abraham,” which brings up the Gospel Topics essay as the top link, but also brings up on the all-important first page links to several sites disputing the LDS account.

Of course, I don’t know how much of this material about Moses and Abraham makes it from the teacher’s manual to the actual presentation to students, either directly or in response to questions from students. I don’t know whether LDS students even have questions to ask. It would be interesting to get some feedback in the comments about how seminary students or teachers approach the first few chapters of Genesis by way of Moses and Abraham.

Here is one interesting observation from Lesson 8 on Moses 2, paralleling material in Genesis 1. Genesis 1:26-27 (man and woman created in the image of God) is used for a scripture mastery selection. The manual specifically notes, “Genesis 1:26-27, rather than Moses 2:26-27, is designated as a scripture mastery passage so students will be prepared as missionaries to help others locate this passage in their Bibles.” All other references in the lesson to the material cite verses in Moses 2.

Note: The focus here is on Genesis and LDS seminary, not a rehash of issues regarding the Book of Abraham. Try to keep that in mind while commenting.

79 comments for “Teaching Genesis, Sort Of

  1. Kevin Barney
    September 12, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    As a GD teacher, I’ve always hated the way we ignore early Genesis in favor of Moses and Abraham.

  2. Brian Rostron
    September 12, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    I assume that not a lot of time is spent discussing the documentary hypothesis.

  3. David
    September 13, 2015 at 2:00 am

    Ah, the Old Testament. Our high school-aged daughter came home this week and told us about how her release-time seminary teacher taught them all about Cain and Abel. And how Cain was cursed with a dark skin and became hairy. And how Cain is still alive and on the earth today. [deep breath]

    So, in other words, I don’t think this particular teacher is much concerned with Genesis vs. Moses/Abraham.

    Incidentally, I challenged my daughter to ask her teacher if he’s familiar with the Gospel Topics essays. I really want to know.

  4. CS Eric
    September 13, 2015 at 11:25 am

    I am teaching the introduction to Abraham tomorrow morning. I am using the Gospel Topics as my reference, and not the manual. I feel like I need to introduce my class to the Gospel Topics, hopeful that they will start looking there first for some of their questions. But I’m not sure how much they will absorb at 6 in the morning.

  5. September 13, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    Adam at 4000 BCE? Hmmm, I wonder who built the Rondel circles, or the stone ring at Gobekli Tepe, or the cavern complex at Catal Huyuk, or painted the walls of Lascaux?

  6. Ben S
    September 13, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    ^^ the dinosaurs, of course. Oh wait, they were around with Adam. What about the creation before the gap? I kid, of course.

  7. AA
    September 14, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Oh hahhah. Those rubes. Let us laugh. Or feign indignation I’m never quite sure which one I should do in the blog comments. Maybe I’ll attempt both.

    Out of sincere wonderment, would you think it’s appropriate to go to India and question their creation narratives as implausible, incomplete and unkind?

    So why the near zeal to do it anytime the subject comes up for your brothers and sisters? Think about this and why the default position seems to be to force change in the religious narratives of others with the heavy – but always incomplete – hand of science mingled with modern understanding of history.

    Disagree, fine. Refuse to teach it to your kids, fine. But it is strange how fundamentalist a multicultural quasi-relativist can become when they observe their native culture.

    I appreciate the desire to change what you purport to love (why do you love it again?) but that change does not occur in a vacuum you undermine the faith of others.

    Maybe those who grow enlightened in this regard have a duty to follow the prime directive rather than become Plato’s man freed from the cave.

    I don’t sincerely think people should leave if they disagree, but the constant and boringly predictable counter-culturalism within the church is grating.

  8. Tim
    September 14, 2015 at 7:47 am

    Teaching an oversimplified and nondoctrinal version of when Adam lived doesn’t do anyone any favors. If we’re interested in keeping our best and brightest youth in the church and sticking to doctrine, perhaps we shouldn’t be teaching an anti-scientific view.

  9. Kruiser
    September 14, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Along with that reference to Genesis and Moses, look also at the evolution of the passage starting with Genesis 2:5 then Abraham 5:5 then Moses 3:5. I leave the implications up to the reader.

    I also just want to mention a long ago tome entitled “The Authors of Genesis as explained by the Colophon System” by Dr. Irving Cohen and published by the Cumorah Book Company in 1966. The author stands forth as a Jewish convert to the Church and goes into a thorough mixing of Genesis with the books of Moses and Abraham. The colophon system he uses divides Genesis into smaller books written by the Patriarchs and not as a production of Moses alone implying that those records were preserved in Joseph’s coffin and taken back to the promised land during the Exodus. I suppose much has been written by Church authors since then about the same subject which I have not read. I wonder if there are any others out there who are familiar with this work and know of what became of brother Cohen?

  10. September 14, 2015 at 9:48 am

    AA, I’m not questioning or mocking our creation stories, as much as our dismal attempt to wrestle with and understand them, our tradition of quasi-fundamentalism. I’ve got a longish book devoted to one chapter of Genesis coming out next year. I certainly take it seriously; the question is how do we understand it and make it mesh? We do not do ourselves or the kingdom service by teaching poorly, and implying that all is understood and simple.

  11. Brad L
    September 14, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    AA, the LDS church leaders certainly find it appropriate to send tens of thousands of young men and women throughout the world to question all creation narratives that they do not agree with as incomplete at best and untrue at worst. And although the missionaries in India are to only preach to Christians (since they would risk severe persecution if they tried to convert Hindus and Muslims), the LDS leaders won’t think twice to have them challenge (or in their PR words “enhance” or “build on”) the traditional beliefs of anyone of any different faith provided they don’t risk incurring drastic social consequences on themselves or the proselyte. I’m always surprised to meet LDS people who are multiculturalist to the extent that they believe it wrong to challenge others’ traditional beliefs. How do you rationalize being LDS? Is it possible that the LDS church is not a good fit for you, and maybe a roaming hippie group would be better? The LDS church is all about undermining the faith of others (which church leaders now phrase as “adding to the faith of others”) and replacing it with their version of events, or in other words, “the fullness of the Gospel.” So what are you talking about, AA?

    As for it being rude and insensitive to challenge other LDS . Look, inasmuch as young earth creationism and anti-evolutionism isn’t actually doctrinal (of course there is debate as to whether those beliefs actually are, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that we know for sure that they aren’t), then LDS members should be trying to correct such doctrinally false beliefs as much as they should trying to correct the beliefs of members who think that drinking alcohol is consistent with church teachings and doctrine (perhaps on the basis of the fact that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did so). It is unthinkable for church members to let another fellow (let alone, a highly esteemed and revered one) get away with talking about how it is perfectly acceptable to socially drink, for that would be regarded as “preaching false doctrine.” Why would it not be acceptable for members to correct “false doctrine” on other fronts? It wouldn’t matter if it were someone’s long-held traditional belief, would it?

  12. Clark Goble
    September 14, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    David (3) That’s shocking that some are still teaching things like that. I’d hope the manuals would be aware of this problem and put emphatic corrections. Although then one is still left with the issue of people who ignore the manual. A real problem for a church with lay leadership and teachers is that you end up with inconsistent messaging, despite all the attempts of correlation to get people more on the same page. Of course there are strengths to. But we should watch out for issues like this.

    On the other hand I’ve also seen the “telephone” phenomena where you say something and it gets rather mangled in transmission. Make a joke about Cain as Sasquatch and people think you’re teaching it.

    AA (7) From a purely ethical perspective I’m not sure why it is more problematic for a Mormon to disagree with other religions than it is for a scientist to critique young earth creationism. Now from a pedagogical perspective I think going in and telling people everything they believe is wrong is bad strategy. Yet if someone joins the church because they believe that logically entails replacing a lot of prior beliefs.

  13. Brad L
    September 14, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    Make a joke about Cain as Sasquatch and people think you’re teaching it

    Are you alluding to Abraham Smoot’s letter to Joseph F. Smith (then acting as second counselor in the First Presidency) in 1893 in which Smoot recalled David Patten’s encounter with Cain in 1835 while Patten was staying at his house in Tennessee, while on a mission to secure funds and converts? If so, nowhere does Smoot appear to have been joking, and he doesn’t recall David Patten to have been joking either. In fact, he recalls the experience thus: “It was in the evening just twilight, when Brother Patten rode up to my father’s house, alighted from his mule and came into the house. The family immediately observed that his countenance was quite changed. My mother having first noticed his changed appearance said: ‘Brother Patten, are you sick?’ He replied that he was not, but had just met with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as being Cain….” Lycurgus Wilson, who included Smoot’s letter to Joseph F. Smith in his biography of David Patten, from which I quote, also did not appear to be joking. And neither did Spencer W. Kimball, who quoted Smoot’s recollection of Patten’s experience from Wilson’s book, in the Miracle of Forgiveness. I do realize that the guys at FAIR dismiss this story of Cain appearing to David Patten as an urban legend. Well, at least it is dismissed as urban legend in the title of the post, but in the actual content of the post, they dismiss the idea that Cain continues living as inconsistent with the Biblical account, from which it can be derived that Cain had died. I would, of course, lend credence to the suppositions that Patten was under some sort of hallucinatory delusion at best, or making things up at worst, or that Smoot was recalling events incorrectly, exaggerating, or propounding an urban legend. But I have no doubt that Smoot, Wilson, and Kimball actually believed that Cain literally appeared to Patten in the form of a “Bigfoot”-looking creature.

  14. Pierce
    September 14, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    I teach release time Seminary. There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, Seminary is not a study of history. I taught Abraham recently, and undertook more of a “Gospel Topics” approach, complete with slides. Half the students were asleep, and the others were mildly interested to know how we got book and what the Facsimiles are. It is the modus operandi to give brief explanations and backgrounds about the *how* behind scripture–devoting that crucial time to *what* is in scripture. Students will tell you that they are there to feel the Spirit, learn the scriptures, and fellowship with each other. Generally, they are not interested in the things described in this post. The mission of Seminary is this:
    “Our purpose is to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, qualify for the blessings of the temple, and prepare themselves, their families, and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven.”
    History lessons, controversial material, meat/mystery type doctrines, anti-mormon points, etc. are all important for inquisitive minds to explore–and the resources are there–but Seminary has a special purpose that doesn’t include those things. As a new teacher, I have been able to experiment with deeper things that adults find relevant or important–and the response is an uninspired class. They love the pure and simple doctrines of the church and the scriptures. Generally, if I can’t take a teaching along the path of context, understanding, feeling, and then application, then I am wasting our time.

    In short, I think some may be superimposing their level of understanding/inquisitiveness onto teenagers, who are on a different level. Just one speaking from experience.

  15. Brad L
    September 14, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    History lessons, controversial material, meat/mystery type doctrines, anti-mormon points, etc. are all important for inquisitive minds to explore–and the resources are there–but Seminary has a special purpose that doesn’t include those things

    What are you talking about? The seminary manual is all about including history lessons, and assertions about history are fundamental to seminary’s purpose. A cursory glance at the most recent LDS Seminary Manual online reveals emphasis on history. Each section of the manual includes sections on who wrote the book and when and where it was written. Imagine a seminary teacher who said, “now, I don’t believe any of Bible miracles, such as the resurrection, to have literally happened, nor do I believe the Book of Mormon to contain the words of ancients in the Americas, but that is irrelevant to my main point of being here, which is to help you understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, etc.” I couldn’t imagine a quicker dismissal/releasing of that person from his/her job/calling of teaching seminary. Heck, even just consider the intro to book of Genesis in the manual. According to it, Moses wrote the book sometime between the 15th and 13th centuries B.C. Imagine a seminary teacher saying, “if we look at all the research that has been done, it appears highly likely that first four books of the OT were written by four different independent writers whose writings were blended together by Hebrews around 450 BCE, but that’s it for background, now let’s look at what we can learn from the stories of Genesis,” it is quite likely that if word got out about this, that that seminary teacher would be issued a stern warning to “teach according to the manual!!” and dismissed/released if he/she didn’t comply.

    The LDS church teachings, as early as nursery, are all about ingraining a particular historical narrative (not necessarily all-encompassing, but a narrative about the past nonetheless) in the minds of its members. The seminary manual most certainly addresses material that is regarded as controversial in Mormondom (i.e., the provenance of the Book of Abraham) and inoculates youth to deal with supposed “anti-Mormon” points. I have no idea what a “meat/mystery type doctrine” is.

  16. Clark Goble
    September 14, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Brad, nothing there says Cain was Sasquatch. Also a distant 3rd hand memory of something that happened 60 years earlier isn’t the most trustworthy of accounts to base a theology around. Even if there was something to it I don’t have to buy into the folk interpretations built up around it.

  17. Brian Rostron
    September 14, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    “There are varying opinions on when Genesis and the other books of Moses were written, but some scholars date the writing to sometime between the 15th and 13th centuries B.C.”

    I would be curious to know who these scholars are (or were).

  18. Ben S.
    September 14, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    Mostly Protestants scholars who still hold to a “Mosaic kernel” of Genesis, like Tremper Longman . Or else fundamentalists.

  19. Clark Goble
    September 14, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    I suspect even people who hold to the documentary hypothesis might entertain the possibility that some ur-texts which were edited and redacted and then parts added to our Genesis date to much earlier periods.

    The seminary manual Brad quoted emphasizes much more we don’t know. Unfortunately it says Moses wrote the book which seems problematic given Moses is referred to in 3rd person and it contains discussions of events Moses didn’t participate in. As early as Jerome the “to this day” of Deut 34:6 was seen as Ezra’s day or mid 5th century. (And of course that chapter couldn’t have been written by Moses since it describes his death.

    The other problem with “Moses wrote it all” is that it’s hard to reconcile to Joshua 8:32 where a copy of the Torah is written on an altar of 12 stones. That’s pretty small writing if the text was as big as our Torah.

    It’s unfortunate that the seminary manual isn’t better in these places.

  20. FarSide
    September 14, 2015 at 10:52 pm

    “Among the statements in this summary are that ‘neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith ever explained his precise method of translating the book of Abraham.'”

    This is disingenuous in the extreme. I don’t know that the Lord said much about the translation process, but Joseph sure did, to wit:

    “I commence the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236 – July 1835).

    “[July, 1835] — The remainder of this month I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 238).

    “October 1 [, 1835] — This afternoon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham…” (Ibid, p. 286)

    “The record of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is beautifully written upon papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 348—possibly attributed to Cowdery).

  21. Ben S.
    September 14, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    You consider those statements to “explain the precise method of translation”? They seem quite short and journalistic, not highly descriptive of process or method.

  22. Brad L
    September 14, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    Clark, I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say in comment 16. But you’re missing my point. Assuming that you’re alluding to the 1893 Smoot letter (in which Smoot does recall Patten describing Cain in a way that many have and might describe Sasquatch (extraordinarily tall, no clothes, hairy all over, dark skin)) and President Kimball’s reference to it, no one was joking, and they appeared to take the story seriously. The mention of Cain as a Sasquatch-like figure was not done jokingly anywhere, which is what you said in comment 12. While this idea is certainly not taught in church manuals or over the pulpit by the higher leadership, you cannot deny that it is presented as a possibility of historical truth about Cain by Spencer W. Kimball in the widely read Miracle of Forgiveness, and that it is circulated among LDS members as truth. You come off as somewhat critical of those members who believe that Cain is a Sasquatch-like figures who continues to roam the earth on the basis that they didn’t get that it originated as a joke. It didn’t originate as a joke. Provided that an LDS person weights the writings and sayings of the LDS apostles and first presidency as having greater greater likelihood of being true than those of anyone else (which appears to be the case among a great number of the active membership), and that they have read in detail Kimball’s writings, then it makes perfect sense that this person would believe this.

    As for my mention of the authorship of Genesis, again, my point wasn’t to make a case that Moses did or didn’t write it, but instead to show that one of the purposes of seminary is to present a particular narrative about history.

  23. Julie M. Smith
    September 15, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Pierce, something to keep in mind is that what kids *need* and what kids *want* may not entirely overlap. Yes, your students will be more interested in when you talk about things that feel immediately relevant to their lives. But they don’t know what they are going to need to know in five years, when an investigator or dorm mate or whoever asks “how can you believe that nonsense when everyone knows that X.” If the X was mentioned in seminary–even if their eyes were glazed over, even if they don’t really remember what was said about X because they were half-asleep–they are in much better shape than if X is new information to them. Church educators are obligated to give their students what they need for the future, not just what they want right now.

  24. Clark Goble
    September 15, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Right, but my point was more that it has been a joke since this was widely disseminated in Miracle of Forgiveness. If I mention the joke that by itself does not mean I’m endorsing the belief. Certainly others, such as yourself, can endorse the original belief. My point was just that making reference to such things needn’t entail endorsement. I tend to be rather skeptical of old reminiscing decades after the fact. New parts tend to get added in. That Pres. Kimball believed it of course need not entail I believe it as presented.

    My bit about Torah authorship was more just to say that seminary isn’t even taking the text as presented in the text. I agree that the authors of the seminary manual are presenting a particular narrative. I’m just shocked at how shallowly they are reading the text. Not exactly inspiring. I’ve not seen recent seminary manual, but I’ve long had a low opinion about seminary in general.

  25. Clark Goble
    September 15, 2015 at 10:30 am

    As an aside, I found it rather amusing in my 20’s when in any meeting with a GA where he takes questions the topic of Cain potential “walking the earth” with magical powers gets raised. It’s funny watching the GAs squirm and try to avoid criticizing Miracle of Forgiveness while saying it’s not a doctrine. Perhaps that happens less these days now that few have read the book (and I think the Church has let it go out of print).

  26. September 15, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    David (#3) and others, the fact that some LDS leaders can’t distinguish between folklore (Cain and bigfoot kind of stuff) and biblical scholarship is obviously a problem, particularly when CES and curriculum writers are required to base lessons on GA quotes rather than internal or external scholarship.

    Pierce (#14), thanks for weighing in. I’m with Julie on this: If you are taking a “Gospel Topics” approach, you are on the right track, whether the students realize it or not. Mix it with scripture football and you’ve got a winner.

  27. Terry H
    September 15, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    One more . . . . There’s perhaps something more to the story of Cain as told in MOF. Check out “Cain the Giant: Watchers Traditions in the Life of Adam and Eve” by Silviu N. Bunta. pp. 181-197, The Watchers, eds. Angela Kim Harkins, Kelley Coblentz Bautch, and John C. Endres, S.J., Fortress Press 2014. Among other legends, Cain was a giant and was the offspring of an illegitimate union between Eve and Satan. Makes the story of his being large and hairy not quite so far-fetched.

  28. Terry H
    September 15, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    PS. Although I cited a real article on a light-hearted topic, I DO appreciate the serious comments above. I can’t wait for Ben S.’s book (no matter how longish it might be).

  29. Pierce
    September 15, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Brad L and Julie: Seminary is not a history lesson, although we take time to cover the context of the scriptures we’re reading. Here is the journey that we take students through with blocks of scripture every day, as outlined in “Gospel Teaching and Learning”:

    Understanding context/content
    Identify Doctrines and Principles
    Understand the Meaning of Those Doctrines and Principles
    Feel the Truth and Importance of the Principle or Doctrine through the Influence of the Spirit
    Apply Doctrines and Principles

    If you spend a whole class on understanding the context and history of the Book of Abraham, not only have you lost your class, but you have missed out on an opportunity to fully guide them all the way to feeling and applying the doctrines in it. And they are absolutely there to feel something. When we teach a class, we teach with an eye single to this as well as the mission statement I quoted earlier. Julie, if you want to get technical, what a seminary student needs is the Savior–much more than a preparatory class on all of the muck they might encounter in the future. However, you’ll notice that context/content is involved, and we do cover enough to give them an idea about WHAT they are studying. I even throw tidbits of anti-mormon claims to expose it small doses, but ultimately that is not the purpose of seminary.

  30. David
    September 15, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    One the one hand, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that you can’t spend all of the allotted time for the Book of Abraham discussing only the context (“translation” process and other context) without ever actually discussing the doctrine and principles in the book itself and potential applications in the book. On the other hand, we have lots of adults who have been in the Church for decades and have spent literally thousands of hours in church meetings, firesides, seminary, institute, personal study, etc. (in most cases following the correlated curriculum provided by the Church) who have never come across much if any of that context.

    To phrase it differently, I think there is some value in the idea that seminary has a “special purpose” or “mission statement” that does not involve delving into “context/gospel topic” topics on anything other than cursory level. I understand that the same principle applies to institute, sunday school, sacrament meeting, etc. However, there does not appear to be a place/meeting/method in the Church, outside of individual study, to cover these topics. Maybe seminary is not the place to cover these issues. But we do need some place and time at which members do learn this material.

  31. Cameron N.
    September 15, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    David, how about the internet and in family settings? Seems good to me.

  32. Pierce
    September 15, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    Ditto that, Cameron. These make for great FHE opportunities. We will certainly cover them in my family when my kids are old enough, and I have been introducing it to my wife who has not been as curious as I have. Aside from that, in the end it is up to the individual to take hold of their own study of the Gospel and dedicate part of their life to deepening their understanding all aspects of it. The Church is only there to point people to it. Even in Seminary, I have the kids periodically get out their phones and jump over to Gospel Topics and other parts of LDS.org in order to get them familiar with where they might start in their personal study when they have a question. I’m just glad that the Church has recognized the growing number of people who desire more meat in their Gospel diet and are being the ones to provide answers. Historically, it has not been a strength of ours. Things are getting much better.

    In the end, the new Seminary curriculum doesn’t get intense with details, but it does a very impressive job with helping me break down blocks of scripture and pose meaningful questions to the class. This is coming from someone who pretty much throws out the Gospel Principles/Teachings of the Presidents book when teaching those classes.

  33. Tim
    September 15, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    “how about the internet and in family settings?”

    Recent conversation with my dad: “Everyone has always known that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. I found out when I read the History of the Church before my mission over 40 years ago.” Problem is, most people outside of the bloggernacle aren’t reading the literature that discusses this kind of thing and they’re not digging around the internet (or if they are, they’re likely to read anti-Mormon sources, which either cause testimony problems or can’t be trusted because they’re anti) and way too many parents (like my dad) are really lousy at talking about stuff with their kids. Case in point–every time it was mentioned to me growing up, it was in an anti-Mormon context. I didn’t actually learn the truth about any of this stuff until I started paying attention to the bloggernacle. Parents should be teaching it, but even if they know it (and I’m guessing most don’t) they can be lousy at teaching it to their kids.

    Seminary should be the place to bring this kind of stuff up–the means of translation, blacks and the priesthood, Joseph Smith polygamy, etc.– as long as the teacher is prepared to teach it. In the 600 or 700 total hours of high school seminary, we can afford to spare a few minutes on these type of issues.

  34. Ben S.
    September 15, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    There’s no need to go deeply into history, as much as acknowledge that there is history there. I wrote a post a while back on this bit, and suggested that the manual could have said this quite easily.

    “while Christian and Jewish tradition attributes the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy to Moses, different kinds of clues in the text strongly suggest that multiple authors and editors at different times contributed to these books as we know them today. Mormonism is not committed either to strictly Mosaic authorship nor to other views. As the First Presidency said in 1910, it is not ultimately authorship that matters, but whether the doctrine is correct.”

    Also, Julie’s post on the next generation’s faith crisis is quite relevant, I think.

  35. Pierce
    September 15, 2015 at 4:34 pm


    Sorry to comment so much. All of this stuff is actually brought up in Seminary. Polygamy was part of last year’s D&C curriculum when they got to 132. The manual says this about the mark of Cain: “Do not speculate about the mark or curse placed upon Cain or upon some of his descendants.” I just taught about the Papyri of the BoA, etc. The complaint I’m reading here is there is isn’t an large amount of time spent diving into all of the history, all of the anti-mormon points and counterpoints, or all of the controversy surrounding it. There’s a reason for that. But we are bringing it up as part of the “context” portion of study and hopefully the teachers are at least pointing students to where to find additional resources.

  36. Tim
    September 15, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Good, then. Look like seminary’s come a long ways since I attended. (Although plenty of people read Section 132 and know about polygamy but still believe Joseph Smith didn’t actually participate, so I would hope there would be some mention of the more recent Joseph Smith polygamy essay as part of that discussion.)

  37. David
    September 15, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    At least for me, “internet and family settings” is a wholly insufficient answer. Let me rephrase the question: Inasmuch as the Church still consists primarily of what Jeremy Runnels calls “chapel Mormons” who are blissfully unaware of the “gospel topics” type information (witness the recent level of shock and surprise over the seer stone), should the Church itself take steps to better educate it’s own members? If so, in what official church setting (i.e. sunday school, seminary, something, not “internet and family settings”) should this education occur? I personally believe that the answer to the first question is “yes” and my answer to the second question is “I’m not sure, but I’m leaning towards some combination of institute and gospel doctrine, let me post a comment and see if others have useful thoughts on this.”

  38. Brad L
    September 15, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Clark, while there are those in the church who joke that Cain is Sasquatch, I can’t imagine that there are people who actually believe that idea simply because some random member joked about it, as you suggested in comment 12. If anyone in the LDS church believes/places some emotional stock in the idea that Cain is still living and is a tall hirsute person roaming the earth, it is highly likely that they do so because of what Spencer W. Kimball wrote in the Miracle of Forgiveness.

    Pierce, the seminary manual gives ample history lessons. By looking through these lessons it should be readily apparent that one of the main aims of seminary is to instill students with the general LDS narrative of the past. That cannot be emphasized enough. After all, one cannot “qualify for the blessings of the temple” (which is a stated purpose of seminary) without professing a particular narrative over some historical issues. To obtain a temple recommend, one needs to profess that he/she has a “testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer.” You cannot coherently have a “testimony” of this if you do not profess belief that Jesus Christ actually existed (and wasn’t a fictional character invented by Jews in the geographical region of Judea in the Roman Empire), and that in and of itself is a historical claim. Of course, it is generally expected that LDS people profess belief in all sorts of other claims about history besides that (i.e., the Book of Mormon contains the words of ancients in the Americas, men who literally communicated with God existed before Jesus Christ who actually predicted his coming, etc.), and for one to say that he/she doesn’t hold many of these historical beliefs will not go over well with other members and local leaderships. You’ll be considered to be lacking a testimony. The provision of historical context in the seminary manual is evidence right there that history is an extremely important part of seminary teaching. The truthfulness of the doctrines of the LDS church are contingent upon a good amount of the historical claims of the church being literally true. The doctrine is also meaningless without the historical context.

  39. Pierce
    September 15, 2015 at 6:50 pm


    The Cain thing is Mormon folklore. That’s all there is to it. People will choose to believe folklore or set it aside. But it is folklore at the end of the day.

    Secondly, I think you may be misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that history is not involved in Seminary or a study of the Gospel. If you look at the flow of studying a scripture block, history is part of “Context.” What I am saying is that Seminary /= History class. Context should lead quickly to all of the other points until the student can feel it and then apply it. Rest assured, history is there, but it is a part of a whole–which is something that many here may not fully grasp unless they teach. And I’ll restate this for good measure: high school kids want to feel doctrine and find relevance in their lives.

  40. Brad L
    September 15, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Yes, I can accept the Cain thing as Mormon folklore, but folklore that Abraham O. Smoot and Spencer W. Kimball believed to be true.

    As for history in seminary, I agree that the purpose of seminary is not to be a history class. But you originally claimed that “seminary has a special purpose that doesn’t include…history lessons.” And I pointed out that that is not true. I take it that by saying, “rest assured, history is there,” that you acknowledge your original assertion to be a misstatement.

  41. Brad L
    September 15, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    As the First Presidency said in 1910, it is not ultimately authorship that matters, but whether the doctrine is correct.

    I don’t think that LDS leaders’ current attitudes (or for that matter the attitudes of LDS leaders since Joseph Smith) about the authorship of pretty much most of the standard works reflect the sentiment of that statement. OK, I get that there is some wiggle room over the question of authorship while maintaining in tact the possibility of the doctrine being true. Yet the truthfulness of the doctrine in the text is largely contingent upon who actually wrote the scriptures. For instance, if we claimed that Joseph Smith was the author of the Book of Mormon and not ancients in the Americas, that would undermine the doctrinal claims in the Book of Mormon. Now, I get that you’re alluding to authorship of the Pentateuch. I’ll concede that you can coherently accept the books to contain some elements of true doctrine (at least the parts that the LDS church clearly identifies as true doctrine) while subscribing to the documentary hypothesis (although I will say that I think that most proponents of the documentary hypothesis connect that hypothesis to the idea that the Pentateuch is mostly made-up folklore passed down and amended over generations which is not unlike creation myths of other traditions). But by saying that a group of fiction writers or delusional people authored the text undermines the idea of the doctrine in the text being true, doesn’t it?

  42. Clark Goble
    September 15, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    I think seminary’s primary mission should be testimony building, learning the basic commandments and how to follow the spirit and then a basic knowledge of the scriptures. I don’t think you can have a basic knowledge of the scriptures without getting the basic history right. The history might be secondary to the other more important things taught, but it can’t be neglected either.

    I do agree that if a text is made up it significantly undermines the significance of the text. There may be true things in Hamlet or Richard III for instance. But we can’t tell they are true by reading the text.

  43. September 15, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    “a group of fiction writers or delusional people authored the text undermines the idea of the doctrine in the text being true”

    That’s hardly fair phrasing, nor does it actually take into account what we have a right to expect from ancient documents written to ancient standards. Inspiration today doesn’t make us write any differently than current standards. And we’ve hardly defined “true”, have we? LDS toss that word around, and rarely bother to ask what it might mean.

    Just for starters, I’d echo Kenton Sparks in pointing out that Jesus favorite teaching method was fiction, i.e. parables. History written 100 years ago doesn’t meet modern standards (e.g. History of the Church/Joseph Smith’s journal after 1838.)
    What then of “history” (assuming that’s the right genre, which it often isn’t) written 2500 years ago? What right do we have to expect it to be written to modern standards?

  44. September 15, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    And what if Genesis is a different genre or genres entirely?! How could we know?

  45. September 15, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    Heck, even the new NIV Study Bible relates Genesis 1-11 to Enuma Elish, (though it prefers) Atrahasis, and the Gilgamesh epic, because they’re older. Sure, it goes heavily for a Mosaic core, and takes all the options of early dating, but still makes these connections to ancient myth.

    It goes on- “The contemporary reader of Genesis should strive to read the text as it was originally intended to be read by the ancient reader—not to presume that one can carry into this ancient writing all the assumptions and questions that we might have today. This requires care and knowledge of the purpose for which Moses wrote the text. We should exercise care to read the Bible in a manner that remains sensitive to the literary clues and nuances that the writer intended. This approach is possible but requires study and the guidance of the Spirit of God…. The opening chapters of Genesis contain two complementary descriptions of creation: one panoramic, one close-up. The first creation account (1:1–2:3) describes God as the creator of the universe and of all life in it. The second account (2:4–25) focuses on God’s creation of the man and woman and their home. While it is possible that the account in ch. 2 continues the story of ch. 1, it may be that these are two creation accounts from different perspectives. Compare, e.g., the fact that each of the four Gospels has its own particular emphasis.”

    I’d be thrilled to see something like that in the manual.

  46. Clark Goble
    September 15, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Ben, honest question. Why should we be intimidated by parallels to the Enuma Elish or other sources? Consider that the creation accounts even in our own tradition seemed tied to a ritual reenactment. Consider that a major demonstrable influence on our own major ritual that includes such things is masonry, an older tradition with many non-Christian elements. We’re not bothered that Joseph Smith used this to restore something more ancient and that has a deep meaningful performance in our lives. That elements might be accidental and tied to these elements of genealogy and perhaps not in the original (say the five points of fellowship) seems to bother few.

    Yet when we suggest perhaps the same thing happened with the composition of Genesis, whatever it’s history, people get a conniption. Yet we seem more fine with influences on say Isaiah or the New Testament (clearly influenced by greek thought). It’s all quite odd to me.

  47. Clark Goble
    September 15, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    To add, without saying anything inappropriate, we don’t mind taking elements of a Disney film, Fantasia in our own accounts either. Texts usually are composites and what ultimately matters is what they say.

  48. Ben S.
    September 15, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    The NIV’s objection is that strong connections to Enuma Eliš place Genesis 1 in the 6th century BCE, and they want it to be much earlier than that so it can be more Mosaic.

    I, on the other hand, have no such objection (and don’t think LDS should either), and I argue at length for influence of Enuma Eliš on the current form of Genesis 1.
    I think Kenton Sparks’ JBL article Enuma Elish and Priestly Mimesis: Elite Emulation in Nascent Judaism really puts the nail in the coffin for the argument that P knew Enuma Eliš intimately.

  49. Ben S.
    September 15, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    Some quotes from it-

    “This is one in a series of articles in which I will present evidence for the close relationship that obtained between the Hebrew Priestly Writer and the literary traditions of Mesopotamia. I will argue that the Priestly Writer was an avid student of ancient texts and that his anthology of Israelite tradition was deliberately shaped to follow patterns and motifs found in Mesopotamian literature.”

    “P would not be the first writer in antiquity to adapt Enuma Elish to a new cultural context. The Assyrians made a similar move when, in their version of the epic, the national god Assur replaced Marduk.”

    “In the end, although some scholars dissent, it seems to me that there is good evidence that P knew Enuma Elish and adapted it to create his version of Israel’s creation story. Where significant differences separate the two stories, these arise especially when P asserts his views of anthropology and theology. Yet even these differences sometimes reveal the underlying influence of Mesopotamian ideas.”

    “Only when Genesis 1 and Enuma Elish are compared in relative isolation from this circumstantial evidence is it possible to evade the fact that P has imitated this ancient myth.”

    “evidence strongly suggests that P knew the Mesopotamian myth recited immediately before the kuppuru, that is, Enuma Elish”

    “The Priestly Writer cast older Israelite traditions in a form that emulated the elite traditions of Mesopotamia, and he did so in order to enhance and preserve Jewish identity in the face of threats raised to it.”

  50. Ben S.
    September 15, 2015 at 11:20 pm
  51. Old Man
    September 15, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Ben S.:

    A quick question…. Don’t most scholars date the Enuma Elish to c. 2000 B.C.E.? You know, just prior to Hammurabi? So why does the connection to the Enuma Elish have to swing the date nearly 1400 years? Couldn’t we easily look at this as an example of early cultural syncretism which occurred much earlier than expected?

  52. Ben S.
    September 15, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    Enuma Eliš likely adapts earlier Mesopotamian myths and themes, but “was composed… probably in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I of Babylon (1125–1104 B.C.E.). It celebrates the rise of Marduk, god of Babylon, to a position of leadership among the gods. It was only in the time of Nebuchadnezzar that Marduk was granted that status.”- John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 32.

    It is “a relatively late Babylonian conception of the creation of the physical world (including humanity), but its real focus is on the elevation of Marduk to the top of the pantheon in return for taking up the cause of the embattled gods, who build his great temple of Esagila in Babylon in recognition of his leadership.”- William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, COS 1.111.

    And from Sparks’ JBL article- “Mesopotamian influence was possible throughout much of Israel’s history, but it was most prominent during and after the exile” that is, 6th century BCE.

  53. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:05 am

    Ben, your original point was that ultimately authorship doesn’t matter, but correct doctrine does. Perhaps I should ask what you intended “authorship” to mean. For if you intended authorship to mean the precise person who inscribed/wrote down letters with some sort of writing device into a stone, metal plates, papyrus, a leaf, or paper, then it is true that it does not matter who did that. For historically, the act of transmission from speech into written form was often a multi-stage process involving many people, and one can imagine that a part of the original verbiage of Hebrew traditions and Jesus’ words was lost in the transmission process. But if that is what you meant by authorship, then I would say that that was misleading. I certainly can’t imagine anyone accepting the idea that Oliver Cowdery authored the Book of Mormon (believer or not) simply because he wrote down some of what Joseph Smith supposedly translated by dictation through the gift and power of God. Perhaps you don’t find that to be a fair example. OK, then what about the writers of the Gospels in passages in which they are reported Jesus’ words? Who is the author of those words? The writers of the Gospels or Jesus? If we accept the latter, then we can coherently accept that as doctrinal (reflecting God’s laws/words/ideas/plan for humans). If we accept the former, then we are essentially accepting the idea that the writers of the gospels attributed those words/concepts/ideas to someone who either didn’t exist or never uttered those words/concepts/ideas. In other words, we are essentially accepting that the writers of the gospels made Jesus’ alleged sayings all up. And that would completely undermine the idea of those words/ideas/concepts being doctrinal.

    The term “authorship” should refer to the person who originated the words, ideas, concepts, stories, and verbal illustrations. In fact, I don’t think that it would be a stretch to say that “authorship” is nearly synonymous with the concept of “progenitorship of words and ideas.” Now, reflecting on the words/ideas/concepts (I use this combinative phrase because technically the original words of many of the scriptures weren’t in English, but the ideas and concepts transfer from the original language to English, I could probably add illustrations and stories, but you get the point) of the Pentateuch. These words and ideas had to be authored by someone. Now the idea that Moses alone, Moses with others, or others without Moses transmitted these words and ideas from God and even took the liberty to generate their own words and ideas does not necessarily negatively affect one’s ability to coherently accept the passages as containing doctrine. But once you remove God from the possible authorship of the words and ideas contained in the text, then the only possible authors are mortals and the only possible mean of origination is human imagination and not divine revelation. And if God does not factor in to the authorship of the words and ideas of the standard works, then how exactly could we accept them to be contain doctrine? Perceptions of authorship of a text matter everything to what is accepted as correct doctrine.

  54. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Jesus favorite teaching method was fiction

    The ideas of the story of Jesus as fiction and Jesus taught by fiction are two completely different issues. My point has to do with the former issue at hand.

  55. Ben S.
    September 16, 2015 at 12:16 am

    This, “once you remove God from the possible authorship,” does not follow from anything else you’ve said.

    As for the words of scripture being something more-or-less like “direct quotes,” I don’t think that is a realistic expectation of ancient scripture .

  56. Ben S.
    September 16, 2015 at 12:17 am

    My point was, if Jesus taught primarily by fiction, why cannot other stories (speaking in general) also be fictitious? Are the fictions taught by Jesus untrue because they are fiction?

  57. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:22 am

    Texts usually are composites and what ultimately matters is what they say.

    If you completely relegate the question of how the LDS standard works texts came about to the status of insignificant and irrelevant to doctrine, the texts become symbols of a very abstract morality and justice, and Mormonism along with it becomes meaningless and lacking in substance.

  58. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:26 am

    Ben, perhaps you care to define authorship then. At any rate, you’re not addressing my main point. I hate to call your response a cop-out, but it kind of seems that way.

  59. Ben S.
    September 16, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Clarify your main point, then, because it seems to me that you’re pushing what Clark and I say to illogical extremes that I don’t feel bound to defend.

    “I am not really concerned, and no man of faith should be, about the exact authorship of the books of the Bible. More than one Prophet may well have written parts of books now collected under one heading. I do not know. There may have been “ghost writers” in those days, as now. The Lord gave Aaron to Moses in an equivalent capacity, and spoke to Israel through Moses by the mouth of Aaron. He may have done the same in other cases. If so, what of it?”- President J. Reuben Clark, On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life, 209-210.

  60. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:38 am

    I’ve stated my main point quite clearly, Ben. Several times at that. And you’ve responded with non sequiturs and tangents. Your dodginess and refusal to address the main issue at hand has become quite aggravating. Furthering this discussion with you seems to be an absolutely pointless endeavor.

  61. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:48 am

    Oh yeah, I’m going to just go ahead and interpret “I don’t feel bound to defend” as “I can’t defend.”

  62. Ben S.
    September 16, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Brad, you’re not the only one I’m talking to here, so what you feel is non-sequitor and tangential is just addressing or making a different point than you. It’s easy to misread online, non-threaded conversation.

    I’d note that you haven’t responded directly to my comments to you either. But feel free to stay or take your ball and go home, as you wish. We do ask that if you stay, you try to carry on the conversation politely, and refrain from questioning someone’s intelligence or faithfulness, which will get you banned quite quickly. The above comment will remain public, and not to your benefit.

  63. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 1:45 am

    Ben, I’m sorry if I came off as impolite or as questioning people’s intelligence or faithfulness. It wasn’t my intent. I also didn’t intend that last comment as a slight. I just really think that the position that authorship of scriptures is unimportant or irrelevant to the truthfulness of doctrine in the LDS context is indefensible. Nonetheless, I think I’ll make this my last comment on this post since I feel the discussion has run its course and is getting repetitive.

  64. Clark Goble
    September 16, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Brad, I think there’s a strong case to be made that a significant part of our concern should be the text in its final composition. Whether it’s made up or influenced by other texts can be distracting. The whole Bible as literature movement and similar moves with the Book of Mormon do get at that. However this still means the composition is a joint work. Elements that got copied over might be non-essential. I think we saw this with say the endowment and its reliance on masonry with many of the more masonic elements removed in the 1990’s. This more deconstructive reading that asks strong questions about source and questions why certain elements are in a text also seems a very important part of how we read the text. I often call this reading through a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion. I think both moves are important when understanding a text.

    For instance while the Torah in its final form should be read as a literary whole, knowing that it took that form some time after the exile can also explain a lot of issues within the text.

    In the same way some elements of the D&C seem odd unless you know that major parts of it were the texts from the Book of Commandments reworked with new names and sometimes redacted in places to fit more coherently with the revelations that had happened during the interim. However when you read things like D&C 6 and 8 knowing the more complex authorship helps you understand the text (not to mention the history)

    We might ask how significant those close readings are. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you but it almost sounds as if you think the only value of the scriptures is in a more simple reading that focuses on extracting major doctrines. If so (and I’m not certain that’s what you’re saying) then I’d just disagree.

  65. Clark Goble
    September 16, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Ben, while I fully agree fictions can be useful, I also think Brad is right that this can be problematic. Certainly fiction is an important part of the text. We can also look at composite texts like Job where you have the very beginning and end as one strata and then various poetic works in the center which I think even on a superficial reading appear later works. There may be people who still are bothered by considering Job largely a poetic creation to make points. That’s fine and won’t likely affect how they read it. But within Job there’s really nothing that rests on it being history that I can see.

    Contrast this with more important things like whether there were really Nephites and Lamanites or a real Jesus who was resurrected. So clearly in some cases the historicity matters a great deal. But even when we have historicity we can always raise the issue of historical accuracy (such as contradictions within the gospels). So even rejecting fiction hermeneutically doesn’t avoid the issue of discerning error.

    The easy solution is the sola scripture and inerrancy views. That is the Bible was inspired to be written such that a typical reader wouldn’t make major errors in their reading and what they read is correct within reason. I find a whole slew of problems with that view. I do think that via the spirit we can avoid error. (I take that to be the message of Ether 12 – as we read in the spirit we’ll get the message) Yet the weaknesses of men is always present. Simple reading aided only by our reason just isn’t trustworthy IMO. Likewise many questions we might have about what the text says are unanswerable or require much more careful reading and study.

  66. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    OK, one more stab at this in light of Clark’s comments:

    If author = originator of words and ideas
    If the scriptures = God’s words
    If doctrine = God’s words

    Then it logically follows:

    The more you attribute the words and ideas of scripture to mere mortals and people who weren’t supposedly God’s direct representatives, the less you can coherently say that the scriptures constitute doctrine.

    Call this simplistic, but then reflect on the 8th article of faith.

  67. Clark Goble
    September 16, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Well but Brad, aren’t most works not dictated by God? For instance look at the poetic works in the OT. Likely that was the result of a lot of compositional effort. While they were almost certainly inspired, it seems there’s a lot of human authorship in the texts like Isaiah.

    I think you’d have a point if God dictated everything. But that typically seems the rarity. Again, I’d point you to Ether 12 where Moroni seems quite upset at the effects of his human frailties. You seem to be discounting that element.

  68. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    Yes, most of the content in the standard works is not said (according to LDS doctrine) to have been dictated by God, but most of it is said to have been inspired.

    Yet, what are you taking to mean “divinely inspired text”? Towards which of the following understandings are you leaning?

    a) words and ideas that a mortal human is not generating of his own accord but because God is revealing those ideas to him
    b) words and ideas that a mortal human is generating from their own mind, but feel strongly would probably be in line with what God might say.

    If a, then authorship can still be attributed to God, and the text can be considered doctrinal.

    If b, then authorship must be attributed to fallible human minds, and its doctrinal content becomes questionable.

    Also, if b, why is the LDS church revering the standard works so much? Wouldn’t these “inspired words” be equivalent to a general authority’s opinion on doctrine written down in some book published through Deseret Book? I can’t imagine the LDS leaders saying, “don’t place too much stock in the Pauline Epistles or the words of Alma.”

  69. September 16, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Perhaps it is too late to interject, but one of the problems that never seems to go away is the fact that we analyze these texts as texts, through literate models and theories, and through literate assumptions. This is especially true of the Old Testament, which I think is where this post started. Much in the Old Testament descends from oral tradition, and oral peoples do not construct histories like literate peoples, nor do they construct texts in the same manner as literate peoples (e.g. most Egyptian texts are shorthand for related rituals).

    We always treat oral traditions like texts. This leads to errors and caricatures. I would not call oral traditions “fictions” either, even though they are not literate histories (i.e. give me the facts and only the facts). To believe that everything in the Old Testament is as reported is to project a literate view onto a literate text that has been rewritten by several scribes over centuries after transforming the older oral traditions. Please, there is going to be lots of problems. Ben S. likes to talk about genres, but the truth is by the time we get the Old Testament text it has already shifted through several genres. We have all lumped it together as “history” or “doctrine” because that is how modern literate people read these kinds of texts.

    And that’s okay. We should be able to talk about it, wrestle with it, disagree about it, etc. And I think that is what a lot of these blogs do. Sometimes the conversation becomes less civil, and that should not let us stop poking and prodding at these issues.

    When I taught the book of Job in GD last year (one 45 minute session for the entire book) I discussed how the wisdom texts in the Bible did not begin as texts; that is why Proverbs and Psalms are written and structured as they are (in Hebraic poetry, or in song, for example), because such things are how oral peoples transmit information. Parables are part of the Wisdom tradition, for stories are easily remembered by oral peoples. The primary audience for Jesus was not a bunch of literate scholars or apostles who are writing commentaries; his primary audience were oral, non-literate people, and he delivered his doctrine using oral, non-literate methods. On this point Ben S. is right when he says that Jesus uses fictions to teach. Once again though, in describing it in this way we are labeling literate methods onto oral practices.

    Wisdom texts are not historical as we define them, though they can be and often are rooted in historical fact. I suggested that Job was part of the Wisdom text tradition and probably was a compilation of a few different sources. I also suggested that Job need not be a historical person, and that the first chapter may have descended from an ancient drama as it reads like a prologue to an acted out play (a few scholars have suggested this before). It turns out that everyone enjoyed the lesson, even the “fundamentalists” of Mormondom who attended thanked me for pointing out things they had never thought of. So I think that if it is approached right, and with humility, we can discuss these things in GD, or Seminary, or Sacrament Meeting, etc. In fact, I think we should.

  70. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    John, thanks for chiming in, I fully agree that the OT is a differently constructed history through oral transmission. I just thought of a simple question that I probably should have asked way earlier, but would be good if you, Clark, and Ben S could answer.

    Does the Old Testament actually consist of God’s words and ideas/is it the word of God? If so, how exactly? And be as specific as you can.

  71. Clark Goble
    September 16, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    Brad (68) that seems a false dichotomy that runs aground with scriptures like Ether 12. Why can’t it be a kind of joint authorship. Certainly when I give a blessing and I’m truly struggling to give the will of the Lord it still feels that way. And the degree of inspiration going to my lips varies. Sometimes I feel very directed and even in word choice whereas at other times I have vague notions I try to put into word as best I can.

    The other problem with your (a) beyond it even being a stronger position than Evangelical inerrancy, is that we’d expect to have a single voice style in all scripture. We don’t see that.

    By presenting what I see as a false dichotomy you really are pushing people towards your (b) quite unnecessarily.

  72. September 16, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    I don’t have a lot of time for back-and-forth today, but I agree with Clark. My views on inspiration and the interplay between the human and divine in scripture will be in print next year, but I adapted part of it for a conference. The video is here, Christian Accommodation at Corinth

  73. September 16, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Brad (70). Your first question is a good one, and people have been wrestling with that for centuries. We believers certainly answer it in the affirmative. Your second question, “If so, how exactly?” is even better. Because it is such a simple question I believe it is rarely asked. As such, we let assumption fill in the answer, which of course means that tradition is what controls our thinking on the matter. And tradition, no matter how auspicious, may not be divine.

    As an aside, I am reminded of what G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “The ultimate paradox . . . is that the very things we cannot comprehend are the things we have to take for granted.” This is so true. Things like, life, consciousness, and the universe are full of mystery and we simply have to take them for granted when we discuss all our theories about them.

    So it is with the “Word of God.” The Word is something we literate people take for granted. And this can lead to exaggerations, if not errors.

    What is the Word of God to an oral society? Is it scripture? How could it be if they are oral? Is it the daily manifestation of angels? Now that’s absurd. So what is the Word? Once again we are told over and over that the Word of God is the scriptures (hold to the rod = read your scriptures). But this is again a completely literate view that takes almost all of oral history, which by the way, is almost all of human history, for granted. (On this point, I recently submitted an abstract to the Mormon Philosophy and Theology conference in October at BYU. The theme is on works and grace. My abstract asserted that the entire argument between works and grace is a literate construct. Oral peoples do not make that argument. My proposal was soundly rejected, so consider that as you read this.)

    It turns out that if you do a word search in the Standard Works for “Word of God” you get 144 references. Most of them refer to a worldview (i.e. the word of god was preached unto them). We assume that means the scriptures were preached. Not so. This is the oral word. A theological tradition is being preached. It is true that oft times a text is involved, and several references to the Word of God in the Standard Works refers to a printed text. But there are some significant exceptions. Let me list a few:

    Ephesians 6.17; Acts 4.31; Hebrews 4.12. In these verses the Word = the Holy Ghost
    1 Kings 12.22; Luke 3.2. In these verse the Word = Revelation
    Acts 6.5-7. In this verse the Word = Priesthood Organization
    John 1.1; Heb 11.3; 1 Peter 1.23. In these verses the Word = Christ
    John 1.1. This verse actually has several allusions to not only Christ, but to the framework of relationships that allow for the creation of the world (In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was WITH God, and the Word WAS God).

    We can begin to see that the Word is not just a printed text that results from God speaking to a prophet and then that prophet writing what God spoke to him down on paper. The Word is the intercession of the divine into the mundane, accounted for through the medium of the Spirit, revelation, but even priesthood power and organization. Hold to the rod takes on different connotations in this context.

    Principally, one of the definitions of the Word you will not read in a text is its liturgical basis. In oral societies the Word of God is the sacred rituals at the center of their cult. This is not idle speculation. Furthermore, in oral societies the sacred rituals are actually forbidden to be written down and are referred to through epithets and mythological tropes. Clement of Alexandria claimed that the true sacred things of God were never for writing. Well, that puts the “Word” in a new light.

    In an Oral society, the gods and their myths can constitute the Word of God. We literate peoples do no comprehend this, but God was revealing his word to oral peoples for thousands of years before writing and the printing press. This word had to be transmitted, and myth and ritual remain the “imprinting press of preliterate peoples.” This imprinting press works on different cognitive rules. And this is why the Old Testament is often muddled, because we are imposing literate cognitive rules onto oral tradition. As such, this makes a simple “Well is it the Word of God or not?” kind of question irrelevant.

    Sorry for the length of this post. You did say be thorough. But I am simply trying to show that many of our assumptions about the “Word of God” are modern and literate, and therefore quite temporal, and sometimes quite provincial. To an ancient priest of Britain, the Word would constitute the sacred dance within the wooden or stone henge that was aligned to the sun and stars as they, through ritual, song, and dance, reenacted the cosmogony. This was the Word for centuries, if not millennium. One ancient writer claimed that the entire philosophy of the Pythagoreans could be revealed in a dance. The Pyramid Texts tell us that Pharaoh knows the way through the celestial world because he has been properly initiated and knows the proper dances. All these references remind us that for oral peoples the divine Word was an acted ritual within a sacred space through initiation and dance. And this we have forgotten.

    And yes, you don’t get this in Mormon Sunday School. Nor, apparently, at the Mormon Philosophy and Theology Conference as well. :)

    Ultimately, I side with Clark and Ben when it comes to asserting that the divine word of God is a product of divine influence with a human touch. Prophets are not fax machines relating every word down that God wants us to know. This does not mean that the scriptures are less reliable. It does mean that they are a synthesis of divine will and human culture, and therefore are not inerrant or infallible. This latter idea is an evangelical fundamentalist position, and shockingly, and sadly, is a rampant assumption throughout LDS circles.

    On the contrary, LDS theology is rich and grand and more connected with the hoary past than all of Christendom. Go to the temple and witness the Word of God. Is it perfect and infallible? No. It is not. (And with these new temple films I am finding more fallibility with my culture all the time.) It is sufficient. And in a world that thrives on willful, spiritual ignorance, sufficient is a miracle.

  74. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Clark, I’m not presenting my (a) and (b) in comment 68 an either/or dichotomy, but as two ends of a spectrum of believers’ possible beliefs about the OT (note how I asked towards which end do you lean). I have no qualm with joint authorship theories, and it appears that most believers in the OT, even the inerrantists, subscribe to those. But there is an important difference between an inerrantist and someone like Ben S and that is in the percentage of passages that they consider to be God’s words.

    Suppose we looked at each passage and evaluated whether they were revealed by God or just personal speculation about God’s words (perhaps while feeling the spirit or some rush of inspiration), and we drew up in percentages in the following categories (some categories could be added or altered, but my point should be clear):

    1) x% likely to be direct revelation/solid representation of God’s words
    2) x% likely to be personal speculation about God’s words
    3) x% likely to be muddled representation of God’s words due to transmission of oral tradition
    4) x% likely to be personal musings while having a spiritual feeling

    An inerrantist would be high in category 1. Ben S and others like him, perhaps you as well, would likely be much lower in category 1 and higher in 2, 3, and 4 than an inerrantist. My question is how low can one go in category 1 before they can not really be said to believe that the OT is scripture and the word of God? It seems that some are so low in category one that it could be said that their beliefs about the OT are simply out of line with how the LDS church leaders view the OT. Also, if we have a very low category 1, then what is the point of considering the OT to be a text that stands apart as representation of God’s words than something like Tad Callister’s Infinite Atonement or Steve Robinson’s Believing Christ. Those are popular, influential books in Mormondom, but are they considered doctrine? No. Are they used in the correlated material? No. But the OT is.

  75. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Thanks, John. Although, I haven’t read the response yet. I won’t have time today or tomorrow to respond, so I’ll let it stand as is.

  76. Brad L
    September 16, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Also, thanks for the video Ben S. I’ll watch it when I can.

  77. Clark Goble
    September 16, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    Well I’m not sure we can know how much authorship is in any particular scripture. We can at best try to read in the spirit and learn as best we can. I’ll confess that I find many reasons to be far more suspicious of the Old Testament than I am the other scriptures though. Especially given the Book of Mormon treatment of the Old Testament.

    While the OT is used in correlated materials that’s hardly surprising considering a major course of study is the OT.

  78. BlueRidgeMormon
    September 25, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    Great discussion here! My inclination is to go back to the original thrust of the post, which involves what do do with/about all this stuff in Seminary. (Obviously there are much larger issues here that get technical rather quickly – and all of it points to larger eschatological/theological questions about what it means to believe in the scriptures.. but for now, I think the OP was initially more focused: how to treat these issues in the context of Seminary. I’m in year #2 of teaching early morning Seminary, so am in the thick of all this.

    With respect to the larger issues, I agree that moving toward more thematic content in instructional curricula (rather than textual) exacerbates the lack of knowledge/ability to grapple with these questions. And I agree that it’s not enough just to say “tackle the gospel topics essays and complex questions at home” (#31-32). The larger question of how IMPORTANT it is to determine authorship (Brad #63, Clark #65) seems in many ways to be beside the point, as well… regardless of how important we think it is to care about authorship, it seems (especially with the OT) that it’s difficult to definitively determine, in any event. So the question (again, going back to the thrust of the OP) becomes: how important is it to tee up the idea that authorship might in fact be indeterminate? (Versus, say, following the manual and just asserting that Moses wrote the Pentateuch).

    So on that front, there was a great discussion early in the comments. I can really appreciate the views of Pierce (comment #14, 29, 35) and I like the exchange with Julie (#23) and Dave (#26). In the end I’m more with Julie and Dave: I think it’s important to expose the youth to some of this kind of discussion as a component of Seminary. I suspect Pierce’s defending the status quo / manual has more to do with him being a release-time Seminary teacher (which I think makes Pierce a CES employee – correct me if I’m wrong). But to Pierce’s point, Seminary also doesn’t serve its purpose very well if ALL one does is delve into the gospel topics and controversies.

    My view is that the purpose of Seminary (or at least, early morning Seminary, where I serve) is threefold: 1) to provide an opportunity to give a spiritual experience first thing in the morning – to help the youth feel the spirit and charge that battery for the day. 2) nominally, as best can be accomplished, it should also be about learning the material (church history last year, Old Testament this year, etc). But let’s be honest – – those two purposes aren’t enough, are they? I mean, if all we want is just to have the youth feel the spirit in the morning, they could stay home and watch a conference talk or a Mormon Message and call it good. Ditto for learning the material – if that’s the primary purpose, there are other (logistically easier) ways to accomplish this. Distance learning of institute religion classes, anyone? What I’m saying is: it’s a pain to get a bunch of youth in a rural county all together in one physical place for 50 minutes every morning, and if it’s just to feel the spirit, I’m all for employing church media or other means.

    So to me that suggests that perhaps the most important objective of Seminary (and the reason to gather together, under the direction of a teacher) is the third one, which in my view is: 3) help the youth learn how to wrestle with, reflect on, and gain answers to questions they have about the gospel.

    Given that, again I’m with Julie and Dave, and I think Dave (#26) summed it up best – mix it up with some scripture football, and you’ve got a winner. In other words, I think all three of the objectives of Seminary I outlined are important – – but you can’t always do all three every morning. This week we’ve had a couple of straightforward lessons, but then two days on Noah and then a third debriefing and focusing on how to think about these stories, which was a more reflective day. So this week has been a little heavier on the “let’s engage in the questions” approach. Other weeks are full of more scripture mastery games and object lessons.

    Here are my two biggest challenges, however:

    1) The CES manual and online materials are abysmal this year. I only have last year as a reference point, but I’ve been totally underwhelmed by the manual for OT. We’ve scrambled and gotten a Jewish Study Bible and the Holzapfel book and several other resources to help – – but I’d say this has been the biggest obstacle. Contrary to Pierce’s (#35) suggestions, the manual is NOT that great at dealing with complexities. The OP is absolutely correct on things like the Book of Abraham, for instance: the gospel topics essay is much more comprehensive (yet still brief and accessible) than the one pager in the CES manual, which neglects to even mention the PRIMARY controversy around the scrolls, i.e. that the fragments translate differently than what we have as the BoA! (It brings up that the scrolls date to more recently than Abraham etc, but in my opinion the manual obscures the biggest potential problem…) Furthermore, the OT manual tends to treat all the OT stories very simplistically, and the “takeaway lesson” every time seems to reduce to the same thing over and over: disobedience means bad things will happen to you. So it’s been a little bit more work to prepare the same quality of lessons I did last year. (The CES manual for church history/D&C was terrific.) This is why Pierce seems mostly like he’s shilling for CES, but in my view (as a stake-calling, early-morning Seminary teacher), the resources this year are mostly inadequate.

    2) Some of the kids are feeling more challenged by me raising questions about the material than others. I think some of them may have never even thought about the possibility that the story of Noah’s ark might have been more metaphor than history, for instance. So, the kids are in different places on this stuff, and so that’s the other challenge: not all the kids (and their families) are as welcoming to the reflective approach, and it seems they might prefer the Sunbeam version of things.

    Anyhow, a long winded way of saying: I agree with the OP; the CES materials for this year’s Seminary curriculum seem insufficient.

  79. September 25, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for the comment, BlueRidge. I know another early-morning seminary teacher who just purchased the Jewish Study Bible to help understand and prepare. Hope it all comes together for you and your students.

Comments are closed.