Take 2: Blumell, New Testament History, Culture and Society

Review of Lincoln H. Blumell, ed., New Testament History, Culture, and Society (Provo and Salt Lake City: RSC and Deseret Book, 2019).

In a recent blogpost (May 26, 2019), Kevin Barney published a favorable review of Lincoln H. Blumell, ed., New Testament History, Culture, and Society (https://bycommonconsent.com/…/review-of-blumell-nt-history…/), that was contextualized by its application to Kevin’s Gospel Doctrine teaching experiences and needs. I would like to offer a different perspective on the volume that seeks a context within a larger academic narrative and probes the quality of the book. This is not because the editor explicitly sought out such a context, but because of the fact that much of what comes out of Religious Education parades as scholarship and takes advantage of a receptive and believing community that wants support for its theology, practice, and belief. Many readers are not aware of the inner workings of Religious Education at BYU-Provo and its Ancient Scripture department, and many will be surprised to know that the department and indeed the college itself are cannibalizing its own believing scholars. The timing of this volume is particularly important because the editor of the volume is asserting pressure on the department of Ancient Scripture to eschew academic discussions in the classrooms as a type of blind devotion to faith tenets. The department has launched a series of lunch discussions that have as their intent an interest in defining orthodox positions on topics like the authorship of the New Testament, the tripartite authorship of Isaiah, the historical foundation of the biblical narrative and other topics. This editor is poised to leave a lasting imprint on the LDS community by presenting us with mostly underinformed historical discussions that avoid current academic work and withhold information in the hopes of presenting a faith-affirming narrative

Continue reading “Take 2: Blumell, New Testament History, Culture and Society”

The BYU Honor Code Office and the Idea of Reasonableness

Those aware of the similarities and differences between Brigham Young University-Provo (BYU), Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-I), and Brigham Young University-Hawaii (BYU-H) have grown accustomed to knowing that while BYU may have some interesting tendencies in its culture surrounding dress, grooming, standards in the apartments, and prior aversion to caffeinated beverages (they’ve progressed on that, yay), none of their wackiness comes close to what can be seen at BYU-I. There, in Rexburg, Idaho, students are not allowed to wear shorts at all (except and only when engaging in a sport for a class) anytime of the year. Recently, photos of the difference in the clothing cheerleaders are allowed to wear at both universities have been highlighted online and in social media.

BYU’s Honor Code Office has been in the news over the last several years for a handful of problematic practices and relationships between it, the Title IX office, and the private but recently decertified (because of these practices) BYU Police. In the wake of these revelations the BYU Title IX and Honor Code offices has shifted, attempting to rebrand themselves as aware of the systemic and cultural issues that are found on campus and highlighted in recent media coverage, and some have felt that the efforts of a few in the new office are noteworthy and suggest that real change might be coming soon.

It is in this context that I present to you few excerpts from the recently revised BYU Honor Code website. At first reading these seem to be a lot more appropriate in a BYU-I context, and show a surprising lack of self awareness in the way that they present answers to faculty questions about Dress & Grooming. Does this sound like the kind of appropriate change that will actually make a difference on campus at BYU, or does it sound more like the change is leaning toward BYU-I? I’ll you decided the answer to that question. The office clearly wants faculty to include the university’s Dress & Grooming standards on their syllabus (why doesn’t the university have that as a policy?), and they not only treat the adult students at the university like irresponsible ten year old children, the new website reads like an uncomfortable exercise in guilt tripping faculty to get after the students. While, again, that does appear to be a part of BYU’s history, does this sound more like BYU or BYU-I?

1. Question: Is a student’s fashion or overall appearance really my responsibility? Isn’t that the job of the Honor Code Office? Answer: Dress and grooming are often reiterated tenets of the Honor Code. The Board of Trustees regards all members of the BYU community as representatives of the Church and the University, and they have a definite view of how such representatives should look. They ask everyone in the community to take an active role in this matter and faculty members are key figures in this community. In short, yes! It is your responsibility and everyone else’s, too.

2. Question: One of my male students has shoulder-length hair; but when he comes to class, he keeps it tucked up under a cap. I told him I wouldn’t give him credit until he got it cut. He’s protesting that I can’t do that. Can I? Answer: Faculty members certainly can! They are the stewards for everything that happens in their classroom. Of course, faculty members credibility is enhanced if they are up front about their personal support of the university’s Dress and Grooming standards, such as placing a clear statement in their syllabi, and/or making appropriate introductory comments on the first day of class.

3. Question: One of my female students has shaved her head. Do I have a responsibility here? Answer: Yes, faculty have a responsibility in this situation! A girl shaving her head, a guy dying his hair bright blue, or any other extreme fashion is not appropriate for representatives of the Church and the University.

4. Question: One of my male students wears black clothing and eye shadow to class; and his fingernails are at least half an inch long. What can I do about it? Answer: That sort of appearance is not appropriate for a BYU student, particularly a male. It is suggested that a faculty member 1) invite the student in for a confidential interview to explain the issue concerning the student’s appearance and teach a principle; or 2) if the student seems unreceptive, contact the Honor Code Office. Also, faculty may take their own action, such as prohibiting attendance at class, until the necessary adjustments are made. Of course, this would be simplified if there had already been a clear statement in the syllabus, or otherwise, regarding support of the university’s Dress and Grooming Standards.

5. Question: In my eight o’clock class, one of the guys always shows up half-asleep and with a face full of scruffy whiskers. Isn’t that a violation of dress and grooming standards? How can I help him? Answer: A male student is required to shave at least every 24 hours. Although it’s conceivable that he’s within the limit according to the letter of the law, he is certainly marginal relative to the spirit of it. Why not have a confidential visit with him to discuss it, and challenge him to do better. If he has a scruffy attitude to go along with his appearance, give the Honor Code Office a call.

6. Question: One of my female students has a tongue post. You can’t really tell until she tries to talk; then it becomes very obvious. It must be a violation of some kind. What should I do about it? Answer: The only body piercing sanctioned by BYU Dress and Grooming Standards is a maximum of one per earlobe for women. No body piercing is sanctioned for men. A tongue post is not appropriate for either gender. Arrange for a confidential interview. Tell the student how you feel about that choice, and teach a principle. The faculty member may remind the student that class attendance may be prohibited, if necessary, and the Honor Code Office is available to help.

7. Question: I’m a male faculty member, and I do a lot of my teaching in a “pit”-style classroom. The raised seating reveals some sights that are downright embarrassing. It would really help if all of my students were in compliance with Dress and Grooming Standards; but I’m very uncomfortable approaching offending female students. Can the Honor Code Office help? Answer: It is best to cover the topic adequately in the syllabus and introductory comments at the outset; then follow up with general public comments along the way. If there are still have offenders who don’t “get it,” give the Honor Code Office a call. They will take it from there.

8. Question: Some of my students come to my class on the upper campus in P.E. clothing. They say it is “BYU issue”, so it’s legal, but the shorts are well above their knees. Is that appropriate? Answer: No! Although P.E. issue is appropriate for the course or activity for which it was issued, it is not appropriate for general wear in any other academic or public area. Invite the student in for a confidential interview, point this out, and teach a principle. Let the Honor Code Office know if they can help.

9. Question: A guy in one of my classes wears sideburns clear to the bottom of his earlobes. His hair is cut above his ears and collar, but it always looks windblown. His shorts come to the knee, but he has hairy legs. And not only that, on the warmer days, he wears sandals without socks! He and I have talked about his appearance, but he claims he is in full compliance with BYU Dress and Grooming Standards. I disagree. Which one of us is right? Answer: It sounds like he has a good case. Trimmed sideburns to the bottom of the ear lobe are permitted, along with hair which is off the ear and collar. Shorts to the knee and sandals, even without socks, are allowed. No mention is made of a windblown hairstyle or hairy legs in the Honor Code.

10. Question: Although I support the BYU Honor Code, I really don’t want to get involved with the hassle of enforcing Dress and Grooming standards in my classes. How can I help without getting bogged down in the details?Answer:

– Be a personal example.
– Publish a clear statement supporting the Honor Code in your syllabus.
– Be vocally supportive in your classes.
– Call the Honor Code Office, or the Student Honor Association (SHA), if either of them could help.

P. S. Yes, I noticed that I never said anything about BYU-H except to include them in the grouping of BYU campuses (there are more, actually). Do they do anything? I assume that they are at least allowed to wear shorts.

The Interpreter Stumbles over the JSPP

Since it’s inception (at Olive Garden ;>) in 2012 the Interpreter has published an article or book review every Friday. That’s over 300 pieces of “scholarship”! Among the publications are a number of high quality pieces. The vast majority of things they publish though, are mediocre at best; and far too many of their publications are just downright embarrassing for Latter-day Saints. We ran a couple of posts two years ago, for instance, on Duane Boyce’s 122 page “review” of the work of Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, and Grant Hardy. To repeat what I said on one of those posts: Givens, et. al are not above critique, but what Boyce offers is not thoughtful critique. His aim is to say what is necessary to steer others away from them—to erode confidence in them as sources of faithful scholarship; all the while denying this is what he’s doing. This is, as a matter of fact, a repeated M.O. at the Interpreter; they poison the well that other faithful scholars have dug. It’s now two years since Boyce’s earlier piece, and he is still publishing these reviews.

Their latest attempt to poison the well is to discredit the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Gee’s review of the latest volume points out hundreds of “errors.” Gee concludes, “Producing it incorrectly is arguably worse than not producing it at all.” While notably different from Boyce’s tactics, Gee is still bombastic, condemning, and aghast in his rhetoric. The problem, though, is that Gee is wrong. The vast majority of the “errors” are interpretational choices that align with the style guide detailed in the front of every volume. Gee neither understands the style guide nor leaves room for alternate readings of documents that he has no training to read. Indeed, while he is a trained Egyptologist, and the volume does deal with the Book of Abraham among other related things, he has no training in 19th century documentary history. I suspect that all of this plays a role as to why even BYU Studies refused to publish Gee’s review. Now the Interpreter has removed all original comments on the review and has added a number of significant edits to the review. See if you can guess which of these two sentences is a new addition:

“It is regrettable that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts several faithful Egyptologists among its membership, the editors deliberately chose not to involve them in any serious way. It is true that two of that number were given a month to peer review the volume and some of their suggestions were accepted, but no photographs were included in what was reviewed, nor did the Egyptologists see the appendix on the Egyptian characters.”

To my knowledge this is the first time the Interpreter has made substantive edits to a published paper. I suspect that there are authorities in either SLC or BYU that have pressured them to do this.

Articles at the Interpreter are supposedly peer reviewed, meaning that other scholars vet the quality of the work. This is usually done by removing the names of the authors so that scholars will judge the work on its merits. The names of reviewers are also usually withheld. The Interpreter, however, does not remove the names of the authors. This facilitates a system where people that are a part of the in-group have an easier time publishing their work. You can tell a lot about a journal by who they ask to do the peer review. For the Interpreter this is mostly a small group of the same folks, many of which do not have the proper training to vet quality scholarship. Imagine spending decades of your life to master a discipline, and then after submitting your work to a journal, a person who’s been interested in it as hobby (or perhaps is still a young undergraduate) peer reviews it. This would never happen at a respectable journal, but this kind of thing does happen at the Interpreter (and this is one reason why those with proper training for the most part do not submit their work there).None of this is surprising given that the founder of the Interpreter has barely published any peer-reviewed work in his field over his 40+ year career (I can’t find more than six articles and one book). This would not meet the standards at any institution that BYU sees as a peer; and it is an embarrassment for many at BYU.

As I’ve said in a previous post, the truth of the matter is that the Interpreter is to scholarship what McDonalds is to fine dining. Both create fast and tasty items for consumption, and if consumed in moderation both have a few decent things to offer. But anyone expecting quality scholarship from the Interpreter is more likely to see a Mc Filet Mignon in a drive thru near them.

Not even at BYU, where professors must publish research to be promoted (and gain BYU’s version of tenure), does publishing with the Interpreter count toward their research requirements. And even the College of Religious Education’s new Continuing Faculty Status guidelines rule out places like the Interpreter as an academic publishing outlet. The Interpreter might be run by faithful men (where are the women?) who on occasion publish decent scholarship, but “scholarship” such as Boyce’s (and Gee’s) serve as a reminder why the Interpreter is not considered scholarship by the larger community of scholars. Bad scholarship is not, indeed cannot be, faithful scholarship.

Early Anglo-American and British Descriptions of Native American Skin Color: Updating a Recent Paper

The Book of Mormon Studies Association is soon going to host its third annual conference, again in Logan, Utah at Utah State University from October 11–12, 2019. Having attended each of the two previous conferences I can simply state that the conference is growing and there have been many papers presented at the various sessions that have been thought-provoking, sparking ideas or at least responses to ideas I might not have considered if I had not attended.

One of those came the first year the conference was held, 2017, as a bright PhD student in the History department at the University of Utah, Jeremy Talmage, presented a paper entitled, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Race and the Book of Mormon.” In his presentation Talmage seemed to be arguing that readers of the Book of Mormon had for the previous 187 years had been misreading the text all along. While the Book of Mormon might describe the Lamanites as having a “skin of blackness” (2 Ne. 5:21) no one in early American history had called Native Americans “black” that he could find. He had searched all over in newspapers and books and had found nothing. So, early on in the book’s history readers of the Book of Mormon had imposed images of Native Americans onto the text’s description of the Lamanites and readers had been simply following that mistake ever since. The book never called them “red,” which is something you might expect in the early national period because that was the most common term used to describe Native Americans.

During the Q&A after the session the room seemed a little confused Talmage’s paper. He had argued based on one of the connections between Lamanites and Native Americans that the majority of readers since the book was published had mistakenly read the Lamanites as Native Americans, but what about all of the other connections? He claimed that the prevalent reading was mistaken but didn’t offer an alternative. I raised my hand and asked about other descriptions in the Book of Mormon that seem to be pretty clear connections to rhetoric used often in the early national period to describe Native Americans, like the constant reference to their “idleness” or being “idle” (cf. 1 Ne. 12:23; 2 Ne. 5:24; Alma 24:18), living “in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents” (Alma 22:28) and the counting of time as based on the number of “moons” (Omni 1:21). I asked that if you take the descriptions of the Lamanites holistically and include more than just the blackness or darkness (the more common phrase in the Book of Mormon) of their skin color doesn’t the book seem to intentionally be describing them in ways reminiscent of early nineteenth century Native Americans?

Although I failed to also include at the time the fact that Joseph Smith, Jr. believed that the Book of Mormon Lamanites were Native Americans, and that in Doctrine and Covenants 30:6 Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, Jr. are said to go on a mission to the nineteenth-century Lamanites (the Native Americans; see also Doctrine and Covenants 3:20; 49:24), Talmage agreed with me. The other descriptions of the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon do make it pretty clear that the Lamanites were the predecessors to the Native Americans. I was dumbstruck and did not know how to follow up because it seemed so contradictory to his entire thesis, then the session ended and we all headed on our way.

Since then I have seen a few people reference Talmage’s paper as if his conclusions are set in stone, particularly that, as Thomas Wayment put it in the BYU Religious Education Review (Winter 2018): 7, Talmage showed “that early Americans, including Joseph Smith, consistently described American Indians as red-skinned, not black-skinned (as in the Book of Mormon).” Like most historical topics, the actual picture of early American descriptions of the color of Native American skin is much more complicated than what Talmage presented in his paper. After about the fourth or fifth time I saw another person share Talmage’s claim I decided to look a little closer at early American literature to see what I could find.

Unfortunately, as tends to happen in Mormon studies fairly often, rather than double and triple checking Talmage’s work others were simply accepting it and moving forward as if it was an established conclusion. This is one of the reasons why the Book of Mormon Studies Association’s annual conference has not really included the public (although it has not only been lay Mormons who have cited Talmage’s paper), because the papers share preliminary work and not necessarily well-established and publishable essays. Many of them are simply not yet at the stage where the scholars have engaged critically with other scholars in their field on what they have written, which is why they present at conferences like these.

I will update Talmage’s claim that no one in early America, as far as he could tell, ever described Native Americans as black or having a skin of blackness with only three sources that I found in my research in a relatively short amount of time. The first source comes from the travels to America in 1795, 1796, and 1797 of Irish explorer Isaac Weld. His travel accounts were published soon after his travels and sold so well that by 1799 there was a second edition already in print. In the ensuing decades Weld’s travels were reprinted in William Fordyce Mavor’s twenty-eight volume series A general collection of voyages and travels, including the most interesting records of navigators and travellers, from the discovery of America by Columbus, in 1492, to the travels of Lord Valentia, originally published between 1796–1801 in London and 1796–1803 in New York. In Weld’s description of the Native Americans he comments in Volume XXIV on some of the similarities and differences between their “complexion” and European complexions. He notes that Native Americans “commonly” have “a copper color” complexion, but he goes on to complicate this generalization. According to Weld the complexion of Native American skin is copper,

“but…varies in the most surprising manner; some of them having no darker skins than the French or Spaniards, while others are nearly black. The contemplation of this fact, has induced many French missionaries, and other persons, who have resided for a considerable time among the Indians, to suppose, that their colour does not naturally differ from that of the nations of Europe, but that the darkness prevalent among them is to be solely attributed to their use of unguents, and to their constant exposure to the ardent rays of the sun, and the smoke of wood fires. It is indeed a well known fact, that their complexion at their birth is much lighter than in their advanced years; and it is equally true, that they endeavour, by every means in their power, to render their skins dark, imagining it will contribute greatly to the improvement of their personal appearance;”

Mavor goes on to comment on Weld’s description by providing the example of, “The Missisaguis, residing in the vicinage of the lake Ontario, are represented as the darkest of any Indians seen by our traveller, in the course of his researches; yet, even among these, are several individuals, whose complexions are comparatively light, which seems to corroborate Mr. Weld’s assertion, that the variety of hues is more particularly confined to certain families than to the tribes. The least variety is among the females, few of whom are darker than what we term a dirty copper-colour” (Mavor, A general collection of voyages and travels, 144–145; this is also quoted in Christopher Kelly, A New and Complete System of Universal Geography [London: Thomas Kelly, 1819], 554.). In the second decade of the nineteenth century this popular traveler, Isaac Weld, wrote a nuanced description of Native Americans. Although his writings did not greatly influence popular rhetoric about the color of Native American skin, the fact that he was engaging with European views prior to his own writing, and soon after Mavor’s engagement with Weld’s description, highlights the fact that not all Europeans accepted the idea that all Native Americans were simply “red.” Some were actually viewed as having a similar tone as Europeans, and others were considered to be black.

Hugh Williamson, a resident of New York writing for The Philosophical Magazine and Journal in 1816, wrote an article entitled, “Observations on the Hypothesis of some modern Writers, that America has been peopled by a distinct Race of Men and Animals; with some Proofs arising from the Natural History and Appearances of the new Continent in favour of the Mosaic Account of the Deluge.” While it seems pretty certain that Williamson would have disagreed with some of Weld’s and Mavor’s descriptions of the Native Americans, he too complicates Talmage’s claim that early Americans simply described Native Americans as “red.”

After noting that the extreme differences in skin color found throughout Europe are not exactly found in America, Williamson bases his understanding on the effect geography can have on skin tone, stating that

“Although no part of America is fitted to the production of a black skin, nor would many parts of this continent be expected to produce a skin perfectly fair, among the original inhabitants; we are not to believe, as some writers have alleged, that the American Indians are all of one colour. Their skin is tinged with a variety of shades between white and black; but there are Indians, as we are told, above the latitude of 45 degrees north, who are nearly white; and there are Indians in Guiana and Brazil, at a distance from the coast, whose skins are very dark.”

Hugh Williamson, “Observations on the Hypothesis of some modern Writers, that America has been peopled by a distinct Race of Men and Animals; with some Proofs arising from the Natural History and Appearances of the new Continent in favour of the Mosaic Account of the Deluge,” in Alexander Tilloch, ed., The Philosophical Magazine and Journal: Comprehending the Various Branches of Science, the Liberal and Fine Arts, Geology, Agriculture, Manufactures and CommerceVol. XLVIII for July, August, September, October, November, and December, 1816 (London: Printed by Richard and Arthur Taylor, 1816), 205–207.

For Williamson the biological reality of the color of Native American skin is on a spectrum between white and black. Native American tones might not get as light or as dark as what Williamson says you might see in Europe, it is problematic to simply state that they are all of one color. There is much more of a variety than some of his contemporaries then, and clearly many today, seemed to believe.

The third and final source describes a Native American who likely had Vitiligo, a condition where an individual loses the pigment in their skin. According to the author, Mr. Benedict, the Native American was happy about his turn to white, although, as Benedict describes, there were still certain parts of his body that had remained black:

“The following is an extract of a letter from Mr. Benedict, of Lebanon, to the Rev. President Stiles of Yale College, giving an account of a remarkable change in the complexion of an Indian.“This Indian is about forty years of age; he calls himself by the name of Samuel Adams, and was born at Frammington in the State of Connecticut; he is tall and well made, his hair is long and coarse, and of the pure Indian black, but grows out of a skin as white as a lily. He tells me that he began to whiten about two years before I saw him, which was in July 1786; the white first appeared upon his breast, and gradually spread from thence. I carefully examined him, and found him to be entirely white, excepting the prominent parts of his face, viz., his forehead, cheek bones, nose, and about his chin, which were of the pure Indian colour, and I think darker than common for that nation; the colors in his face did not form a shade by running into each other, but were both of them entire to the very line of contact, and exhibited a very grotesque appearance. His arms were white, but his hands were pyed, and his fingers the natural Indian color; it was the same with his feet as with his hands, they were interspersed with the natural tawny; his toes were black, but his legs and thighs are wholly white: what is worthy of observation is, that the white is perfectly natural, and very fair for an Englishman. I compared him with fourteen or fifteen other persons who were at my house, of both sexes, and he was visibly the fairest: he told me, that he enjoyed an uninterrupted state of health both before and since he began to whiten. He appears pleased with his transmutation; but, alas! he is still Indian enough to disregard his promise, and to intoxicate himself with spirits. By information of others, who have seen him since these observations were made the remaining black still continues to disappear.””

“American News,” in The Literary Magazine and British Review (January, 1789): 72–73.

For all of the authors quoted above Native American skin tones were viewed in the early national period as more complex than Talmage’s paper suggested. For one author some Native Americans are as fair as some Frenchmen or Spaniards, and some others are black. This blackness of skin can be attributed to their habits, their standards of beauty (another connection to the Book of Mormon, although the Book of Mormon assumes the opposite; cf. 2 Ne. 5:21), or to their exposure to the sun.

For the second author most Native Americans fall somewhere on a spectrum of lighter or darker reddish-brown skin, but, as the author says, “Their skin is tinged with a variety of shades between white and black.” And, finally, the third author viewed the change in one Native American’s skin color from black to white as something of an oddity, mentioning often that his health continued to be okay throughout the change, and unaware that some people can lose skin pigmentation.

Each of these sources offer a counter-narrative to the one presented by Jeremy Talmage at the Book of Mormon Studies Association conference in 2017. It is unfortunate that several authors since Talmage presented his paper have treated it as if held set conclusions, and hope that scholars within Mormon studies would be more careful moving forward to not simply accept the claims of a conference presentation but constructively engage with them and seek to complicate them more thoroughly by more rigorous recourse to the historical record.

Edit: I was completely unaware until this morning that Jeremy Talmage’s paper, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Skin Color in the Book of Mormon,” was going to be published today in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 28 (2019): 46-68.

Don’t miss this deal at Education Week

Sources confirm that Alonzo Gaskill’s book, The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Sacred Place of Women, is for sale again at the BYU bookstore in Provo — after it was publicly exposed as a deception more than five years back, after Deseret Book stopped selling it, and after Gaskill himself was forced to say sorry or whatever. As of press time, there were about a dozen copies on display for Education Week. If you hurry, you could still snag one to add to your shelf of modern fiction masquerading as ancient scripture.

“Teleiono”

For a while now, President Nelson has been including (ostensible) references to ancient biblical Greek in his talks, such as in his most recent one.

This could be seen as a good thing. If more and more leaders were to study biblical languages, perhaps more and more members would too, and maybe the Church would engage in mainstream biblical scholarship and even develop a viable hermeneutic for the 21st century.

But there are some issues with RMN’s references. Misspellings. Overlooked accent marks. Incorrect grammatical terminology. Questionable definitions. And because his references do not have accompanying citations leading to a dictionary or a grammar book — instead, the citations lead to his own previous talks or simply to passages in the New Testament — there is no obvious indication as to what sources he’s been basing his study on.

Particularly puzzling is his reference to “teleiono,” as found in a conference talk from 1995 and more recently in the current Gospel Doctrine manual, at Matthew 5:48. This is it:

The term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means ‘complete.’ … The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means ‘to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.’ Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’ …

Since “teleiono,” with an “n,” cannot be found in any dictionary or lexicon of ancient Greek, whether classical or biblical, you might suppose that we’re dealing with a typographical mistake.

There is indeed an ancient Greek verb “teleioo,” more properly transliterated “teleióō” (τελειόω). [Sidebar: unlike English dictionaries, in dictionaries and lexica of ancient Greek the lemma for thematic verbs is not the infinitive form/s but the first-person singular of the present indicative active.]

So maybe he was using the right dictionary for the right language but just accidentally wrote or typed the word a bit wrong. Or maybe the mistake crept in during the preparation of the talk for publication by editorial staff. 

That’s not what happened though. For one thing, you can clearly hear him say “teleiono,” with an “n,” in the recording of the 1995 talk (go to the 5:00 mark). And for another, that verb, which cannot be found in any dictionary of ancient Greek, can, however, be found in MODERN Greek dictionaries because it is MODERN Greek.  

Using a modern Greek dictionary to understand the New Testament is like using an Italian dictionary to understand Cicero. And to do that in a public address as a leader of a worldwide organization is what ancient Greeks would call hubris.

Alonzo Gaskill and BYU: In the Headlines Again

Last week an article appeared that claimed Alonzo Gaskill, (full) Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University (Provo) had repeatedly plagiarized from other publications in his books. Although it does seem that the document underlying the articles, which isn’t even a comprehensive survey of the evidence, reveals a repeated and willful pattern of plagiarism, this post is not about plagiarism. Instead, my purpose is to address an underlying issue: Gaskill’s claims regarding his academic credentials.

As of today, April 2nd, 2019, BYU’s Faculty Directory entry for Gaskill indicates that he has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, a claim that has so far proven impossible to verify. In light of the current standards for accreditation of an institution such as BYU, as well as BYU’s own published standards, this is quite unusual. In my opinion, these are the questions for which those interested in BYU’s academic accreditation and reputation will need responses:

• Did Alonzo Gaskill in fact complete a PhD, as he claims on his CV? Can he produce a diploma, which says those words? And not “DRS” (Doctor of Religious Studies, which is an unrecognized type of degree in the field)?

• If so, can he show that the institution was accredited by a recognized accreditation body, not, for example, an “acceptance,” that would make his degree legitimate?

• Can he produce the dissertation that he claims to have written, but for which no evidence has been produced? Does it have a standard cover page that reads something like “In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of…”, with the signatures of advisors who approved the dissertation? Were there advisors? Did he study under anyone? For multiple years?

• Can he explain why Trinity Theological Seminary, from which he claims to have a Ph.D., is unable to produce a record of his degree or his dissertation?

• Can he explain why he has produced no record of his degree, either?

• Can he describe the decision-making process that led him to seek a doctoral degree from an unaccredited institution?

These inquiries can be readily met by anyone with a degree from an accredited institution or from a hiring institution’s personnel files. However, I do not expect a response from either Gaskill or a BYU representative who speaks for the hiring process because merely being asked about this sort of information under these circumstances reflects very poorly on both.

Finally, I think that were Gaskill part of an institution other than BYU, he would most likely be terminated. A more merciful option might be to give him a four or five-year unpaid leave of absence to earn the needed degree from an accredited institution. As it is, perhaps the decision-makers hope that in the seven or eight years that remain before another accreditation cycle, Gaskill will retire. Alternatively, he could be temporarily removed from the scene by being called to serve as a mission president, although one wonders about the wisdom and morality of such a utilitarian approach.

In any case, it will indeed be interesting to see how this plays out.

Your Help Please: Who Was Surveilling Leonard Arrington While He Worked at BYU?

Leonard Arrington is known for producing some of the most important scholarly work on Mormonism during the twentieth-century, and for being the father or grandfather intellectually speaking of almost every historian of Mormonism over the last several decades. The first academic to be given the title “Church Historian” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (no one who previously  held the position was a trained historian), he worked in that position from 1972-1982 and was, with many of his colleagues in the history department of the LDS Church, subsequently moved to Brigham Young University to help start the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. Arrington’s departure from the historical department of the church and move to BYU came after it went public that there were disagreements and some infighting within the church hierarchy over what kind of history should be allowed to be written, who should be allowed to write it, and what kind of access to the historical manuscripts held by the church should be allowed to not only outsiders but insiders as well. This is all well documented in Arrington’s book Adventures of a Church Historian.

One interesting note that I recently came across in Arrington’s papers, that I have not seen mentioned in his diaries or a recent biography, is the possibility that Arrington was spied on while teaching at Brigham Young University in order to ensure that he wasn’t teaching anything too liberal. This is fascinating in light of the fact that at least a few employees in BYU’s Religious Education department had the same experience as recently as four years ago. If it is true that Arrington was also recorded then this suggests a decades-long tradition of BYU professors being recorded and spied on. That maybe this has happened not just every once in a while when a rogue administrator has feelings similar to Ernest Wilkinson’s, but a continuous attempt since Wilkinson to have near complete control over what is presented in the classroom.

The document itself is only a small piece of scratch paper. In Arrington’s hand the document says:

“Acc. to Jay Bell, David Handy was asked to spy on me at BYU class with a tape. 6/12/98”

I have a good idea who Jay Bell is, may he rest in peace. I do not know for sure, though, who David Handy might be. If you know who he is would you be able to share either here or send an email to yakovbentov at yahoo dot com? Thank you in advance for your help.

 

Faith and scholarship, yet again, and at BYU

Back in 2012, TT announced a series here on the balance or integration of faith and scholarship, revelation and reason, etc., in the context of Church Education at the BYUs. TYD contributed to the series. I took a stab at it then too. Unfortunately, the series apparently fizzled out after that. (My apologies, if I’ve missed someone.)

I’d be interested to read more from other LDS bloggers and commenters, especially those of you who think about religious studies and the humanities. Above all, I’d be keen to know how your thinking may have changed over time.

I myself am revisiting the topic now several years later.

The occasion is this: Rumor has it that, as a thank-you to faculty donors at BYU-Provo, LDS Philanthropies recently gave out pamphlets of a talk by Elder David A. Bednar, current member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and past president of BYU-Idaho.

The talk was originally delivered to BYU-Provo faculty and staff last year. So the pamphlet is something of a re-gift to them. And that emphatic repetition is probably no accident.

In fact, Elder Bednar’s talk itself underscores previous remarks by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, current member of the First Presidency and past president of BYU-Provo.

The part of the pamphlet/talk that I want to focus on is the following, where he says …

Elder Oaks has addressed challenging and hard issues in several BYU leadership conferences with the deans, associate deans, and department chairs. I now reiterate five of those issues:

1. Acknowledging the reality that the mission of Brigham Young University will not be attained in exactly the same way that other universities have achieved their greatness. It will become the great university of the Lord—not in the world’s way but in the Lord’s way ….

2. Aligning all aspects of the work performed at BYU even more closely with the purposes of our Heavenly Father.

3. Resisting external pressures that would prevent or impede the attainment of our Church and institutional goals.

4. Encouraging BYU faculty and other employees to offer public, unassigned support of Church policies that are challenged on secular grounds.

5. Inviting serious consideration of and adjustment to the patterns of what and how we measure student learning and faculty research and publication.

Elder Oaks can speak to these challenges in such a direct and clear way precisely because he left his professional and scholarly “nets” in response to the Lord’s call to serve as a special witness of His name in all the world. He has learned of and from the Savior, he listens to His voice, and he walks in the meekness of His Spirit. I admonish you to review and heed his counsel and instruction.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on these five points. Maybe you work at one of the BYUs. Maybe you’re an alum. Maybe you’re a student. Maybe you have family and friends that are.

Here’s my take, for now anyway.

The BYUs are, or claim to be, universities, and universities are first and foremost places set apart for critical thinking and the scientific method.

That does not mean universities must eschew faith, revelation, and the like, but they must begin with scholarship, reason, and so on. If they don’t, then they are not universities. Period.

Elsewhere, beginning with faith, revelation, and the like is by no means necessarily a bad thing to do – it’s just not the thing that universities do, or at least not what they should do.

If the Church does not want its universities to begin with critical thinking and the scientific method, the Church needs to get out of the university business. It’s as simple as that.

In that case, the Church would do better to invest its time and resources in institutes of religion, while selling off the BYUs so that the BYUs can in fact do what universities are supposed to do, you know, as accredited institutions.

That’s my overall comment.

About the specific points, let me just mention the fourth. Elder Bednar seems to be saying quite plainly that BYU faculty should back up the Church if ever the Church faces ‘secular’ opposition.

But that is not what universities are for. University faculty are not troops to be marshalled and commanded by religious leaders in various culture wars.

It is shocking that past presidents of accredited universities would not understand that.

It is also shocking that he/they would couch his/their commands as ‘unassignments’ on the one hand and apostolic admonitions – using ritual temple speak no less – on the other.

We are not within a thousand miles of a university setting at this point.

Furthermore, the notion that the Church and its policies ‘are challenged on secular grounds’ presumes that there are no challenges based on ethical grounds or the grounds of basic human decency. There are. Many.

And it is perhaps the most important job of any university to ensure that those sacred grounds of ethics and basic human decency are respected, even and especially by religious leaders.