Mormons and Easter

Thoughts from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous:

I’m kind of tired of Mormons trying to take Easter all serious like. It comes off as cultural appropriation because, let’s face it, we aren’t Christians like that kind of Christian. Easter is never going to stick because a) we have no connection to Christendom’s liturgical calendar b) our very few rituals are derived not from Christianity but from masonry c) we have zero aesthetic for public religious performance (cathedrals, pilgrimages, processions, art, clerical dress, etc.) d) Easter is always going to compete with General Conference and lose e) we don’t really care about the cross because of reasons f) we are a protest movement against both Catholicism and Protestantism and so we thumb our noses at their concern over Easter g) we are just exhausted from so many other religious and cultural duties and activities that we can’t be bothered h) it’s hard to get excited for resurrection when our theology makes it just another form of damnation without the highest temple ordinances (or, you know, plural marriage according to canon) i) our music sucks.

From the BYU New Testament Commentary to Denver Snuffer’s revelation

As you may know, the BYU New Testament Commentary project started in the early 2000s and has published volumes on the book of Revelation, Gospel of Luke, and 1 Corinthians. Another bit of translation originally done for the project was just published, though not by the BYUNTC; it was announced and published as part of a revelation of Denver Snuffer, who, as you also may know, was excommunicated by the mainstream LDS church in 2013 and is now leader in a restoration/remnant movement that considers the mainstream LDS church to be in a state of apostasy.

Here’s what happened. One of the members of the steering committee of the BYUNTC was John Hall. He was listed as such on the project’s website until spring of 2014 but was then dropped from the listing that summer and so has not been affiliated with the project for nearly three years now. Back when he was still involved, Hall piqued curiosities and also raised eyebrows with his translation of the opening of the Gospel of John. The King James Version reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” According to Hall, the verse should be translated: “In the ruling council was a spokesman, and the spokesman was among the gods, and the spokesman was himself a God.

Though it was never published by the BYUNTC (to the project’s credit, good fortune, or both), Hall publicly spoke about his translation of John 1:1 more than once, and he was speaking for the project, whether officially nor not. He spoke about it at an “Empty-Nester’s F[amily] H[ome] E[evening]” in 2006. You can read the blogged notes here. He also spoke about it at the 2007 conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, FAIR. You can read the talk here. Furthermore you can read about Hall’s translation as well as the BYUNTC in the second edition of P. L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, Oxford, 2013, page xliii. The notes from the 2006 FHE are admittedly paraphrastic. But they seem to be reliable enough, judging from the 2007 FAIR talk, which is Hall’s very writing.

Hall’s translation is wrong, or as FPR’s own TT has diplomatically put it, “highly problematic.” And it’s interesting to see how Hall may have adjusted his presentation to each audience, as though Hall himself realized on some level how problematic the translation is.

At the FHE, on the one hand, he is reported to have claimed that there is actual manuscript evidence for the plural “gods” in John 1:1 among the John Rylands papyri. The claim is simply not true, but no one at the FHE was likely to have known any better. It appears that Hall was referring to the famous John Rylands papyrus 52, which is in fact an early manuscript of the Gospel of John. However, not only does it lack any reference to plural “gods” in John 1:1, the manuscript lacks the entire opening of the gospel. It’s merely a fragment containing verses from chapter 18.

At FAIR, on the other hand, Hall didn’t claim manuscript evidence; he grounded his translation in the authority of Hugh Nibley. He said he learned it from Nibley while he was an undergraduate in Nibley’s class at BYU. Thus attributing the translation to Nibley, he presented it in terms of viable choices between the multiple meanings of words, and he had the Nibley of his memory gloss the Greek word for god as “godhead” and then “gods.” Of course, Nibley was no longer living, having died in 2005, so no one at the FAIR conference could confirm what Hall was saying, much as no one at the FHE was in a position to fact check his reported claim about manuscript evidence.

Following FAIR, there were some healthy skeptics and those who knew better than to believe him, but they weren’t going accuse Hall of willful deception. Later, commenting somewhat hyperbolically on the FHE notes in March of 2009, one person did accuse him: “None of the words he has selected for this are even associated with the words in the manuscripts. THIS MAN IS A LIAR! READER BEWARE!” At the other end of the spectrum, some people eagerly awaited more from him. Another person commenting on the FHE notes in March 2009 asked: “What is the status of this translation? Are any parts of it published yet? Is there an official website for it?”

Meanwhile Hall continued to be involved in the BYU New Testament Commentary project until 2014. For instance, he presented a paper at the project’s 2013 conference on BYU campus, where he was introduced as the team member responsible for the Letters and Gospel of John (he is not anymore). You can watch his presentation here. It’s a heady mix of scholarship and Hall’s brand of LDS ascent/temple theology and visionary mystical gnosis.

As early as 2010 Hall was also in discussions with Denver Snuffer. You can read Snuffer’s own blog posts here, where Snuffer relies on Hall for info about Greek language, the Johannine writings, and other books of the New Testament. And this brings me back to the recent announcement and publication that I led with, the announcement and publication of an alternate edition of Mormon scripture called “Restoration Scriptures.”

In short, Snuffer and the restoration/remnant movement are reinstating writings like Lectures on Faith, while cutting out others like the Song of Solomon and while adding still others. The additional scriptures include, among other things, Snuffer’s version of the Gospel of John, which is described as follows in the announcement: “The Revelation of the Testimony of St. John – as given through Denver Snuffer, Jr. – has been added. It will not replace the existing Testimony of St. John found in the New Testament, but will stand as it’s [its] own book.” Compare the heading to the book itself: “Below is a newly revealed account of John the Beloved’s Testimony of Jesus the Messiah:” Right after that is the opening verse: “In the Highest Council of Heaven there was One who spoke out. And the One who spoke out was among the Gods, and He was a God.”

Snuffer has revised and expanded it some, but this is Hall’s translation for the BYUNTC. Unlike Hall at the FHE in 2006 and at FAIR in 2007, Snuffer doesn’t claim manuscript evidence or attribute it to Nibley. He presents it as revelation, the ultimate source of authority for many Mormons, whether they be of this or that kind. I have no idea how many of Snuffer’s followers are going to realize or care that he has been influenced by Hall’s translation or that the translation is wrong. In a group that considers revelation to be chief, no amount of counter evidence tends to matter much.

Clearly I can’t end this post with that, and the buck doesn’t stop with Snuffer or Hall. As problematic as it is, Hall’s translation of John 1:1, just published as Snuffer’s revelation, is not really surprising.

Before Snuffer, before Hall, J. Reuben Clark hoped for an inspired, i.e., LDS, collation and translation of the manuscripts of the Bible. The BYUNTC made Clark’s hope something of a mission statement for the project. Hall referred to it in his presentations at the FHE in 2006 and at FAIR in 2007. You can read it right now on the about-us page of the project website:

Almost sixty years ago, President J. Reuben Clark wrote, “[I hope to] provoke in some qualified scholars having a proper Gospel background, the desire and determination to go over the manuscripts and furnish us, under the influence and direction of the Holy Ghost, a translation of the New Testament that will give us an accurate translation that shall be pregnant with the great principles of the Restored Gospel. We shall then have a reliable record of the doings and sayings of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ.” (Why the King James Version [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1956], viii–ix). A team of Latter-day Saint scholars has joined forces to produce a multi-volume commentary on the New Testament with a new rendition of the Greek texts of the New Testament books ….

Before Clark, of course, Joseph Smith claimed in the Book of Mormon that plain and precious things had been lost from the biblical books as they were copied and transmitted over the centuries, things that Smith claimed to restore. With respect to the Gospel of John in particular, he said he saw a vision of an autograph manuscript of John 21, written in the authorial first-person rather than the editorial third-person; see D&C 7 and my earlier blog post here. He also reworked the opening of John chapter 1 in his revelations, where it was promised that “the fulness of the record of John” would one day be had, thus creating a door for Hall and Snuffer to walk through; see D&C 93:1-18.

A final thought: Unless Mormonism as a whole takes biblical and religious studies scholarship seriously, neither the empty nester listening to John Hall’s translation for the BYU New Testament Commentary in 2006 nor the attendee of the restoration/remnant conference in St George in 2017 is going to be able to tell whether or not what they’re hearing is plausible. The same goes for the gospel doctrine class member who is studying D&C 7 and 93 this year in Sunday school.

Canonical Criticism of the Book of Mormon?

The following is a brief response to Michael Austin’s post “Canon as Context: Insights from the Bible Wars” published yesterday at BCC, in which he advocates that more students of the BoM should adopt something along the lines of the canonical criticism developed by biblical scholar Brevard S. Childs as a means of breaking through the debate over BoM historicity.

I practice biblical criticism, and while I appreciate Austin’s call to focus greater attention on the text of the BoM, I have reservations about a number of points he makes, including his description of canonical criticism and its relevance for the BoM.

First, I think Austin exaggerates the degree that Childs’ 1970 book was a paradigm shifter in academic biblical studies. It was provocative and made some waves, especially as some of his ideas were put into practice in his later publications. But the canonical approach as advocated by Childs has also been strongly criticized (e.g. Barr, Barton, etc.), to such an extent that it has largely been abandoned in contemporary scholarship.

Second, it is important to note that Childs himself did not see historical-critical methods as irrelevant or unimportant per se. In fact, he was a practitioner of conventional historical criticism in his writing and commentaries. Yet as a theological matter, he subordinated the insights of biblical criticism to the role of canonical shaping in determining the meaning of scripture for religious communities.

Third, the following paragraph is most perplexing to me:

“The result of Childs’ work was the emergence of a true third way between fundamentalists, who insisted on an absolutely rigid historical context, and liberals, who insisted on an almost purely ahistorical modern context for the biblical text. Both sides could play in the same sandbox. Both could read each other’s writings. Both could ask and try to answer the same questions. This didn’t produce a paradise of love, joy, and free ponies. But it was a reasonable middle position that produced, and continues to produce, a lot of very good scholarly work.”

I don’t think this accurately describes the development of biblical criticism after Childs. Childs’ approach wasn’t so much a middle way as it was a totally different theologically-oriented reading that could be adopted by those who already accepted the basics of biblical criticism. And I’m not aware of the “good scholarly work” that is still being produced in this vein. Liberals insisting on an ahistorical modern context for the biblical text?

On the other hand, I have serious doubts that Childs’ canonical approach is all that relevant for study of the BoM.

First, the situations between the BoM and Bible are very different, in my opinion. Childs’ goal was to revitalize the authority of the Bible and to make it theologically germane to present day religious communities in response to biblical criticism’s tendency to “otherize” texts to their original historical contexts. His solution was to make the interpretation of one part of the Bible subordinated to the theological interpretation of the whole. In other words, canonical criticism was a synchronic tool to bring greater coherence to the Bible, flatten out some of its contradictions, and revalorize aspects that don’t fit with modern Christian belief or ethics. That is obviously not what Austin is proposing we should do with the BoM.

Second, I think Austin severely exaggerates the degree to which the primary historical context of the BoM is unavailable. We have lots of archaeological and 19th century data that is relevant in this regard. No smoking gun, perhaps, but enough to make the argument for ancient historicity a real uphill battle. For example, while we don’t have the shipping records of Zarahemla, we do have examples of Reformed Egyptian, which I am very confident are not Egyptian, an alphabetic language, or any language whatsoever. And textual information internal to the BoM points just as strongly to a modern origin for the narrative– I find the statement “Nothing in the text proves or disproves its historical context because that context is completely unavailable to us as a reference point” to be agnostic in the extreme. It is worth reiterating here that Childs himself was not inimical to pursuing historical questions.

Third, “… it is impossible to situate the Book of Mormon in this context without rejecting the assumptions that have made it important to its religious community.” However, this is the problem that all religious believers face when confronted with modernist historical investigation of religious claims. The same for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others. Many religious communities have initially or at some point down the line made assumptions about the reality or facticity of their truth claims, which have later been called into question or shown to be based on stories or myths whose original function was very different from what later interpreters assumed. So the real problem here is the perennial one: how to accept modernity and historical and scientific investigation while also holding to traditional religious norms, categories, or beliefs that originated before or in conflict with modernity.

Fourth, “But this is not how the text is or has ever been understood by those who take it seriously. To reject outright the idea that the BOM is a historical document is to separate the text from the canonical context that makes it meaningful.” This is perhaps the most difficult and vexing aspect to deal with, because it is indeed the case that from the beginning JS claimed the BoM to be a historical account, and the BoM narrative portrays itself as grounded in real history. But personally I belong to the school who say, in order to avoid greater problems in the future we need to be free to ask the historical questions and then go from there about how we want to theologically evaluate the BoM as a community. In other words, I try to separate the historical and theological questions, because if we allow them to be entangled together it is inevitable that the latter will unduly influence the former.

In any case, I think it will become increasingly problematic for religious communities to require belief in something empirically verifiable (at least in principle) as a matter of tradition if they are not able to provide reasonable grounds for such a belief, which is where we are today with the BoM. I would also say that religious communities have to be able to mature and come of age intellectually, just as children eventually realize that the stories their parents told them when they were young aren’t all true. As children grow up they reevaluate these stories and incorporate their new understanding more or less into their evolving identity, without having to perpetually infantilize themselves.

One final thought, at a theological level a final form approach to the BoM or Bible (to be distinguished from a literary reading) presupposes their high inspiration as a matter of course. But for many the issue is that the high inspiration of the BoM is in fact the thing in question or potentially in doubt. So in my view, rigorous historical investigation and careful final forms readings of the text must go hand in hand.

Call for Papers: Book of Mormon Studies

Book of Mormon Studies: Toward a Conversation

Academic study of the Book of Mormon has never been more promising than at present. Royal Skousen’s work on producing a critical text is nearing completion, and the Joseph Smith Papers Project is making the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon widely available. Terryl Givens and Paul Gutjahr’s work has provided a basic outline on the reception history of the book. Brant Gardner has provided students of the Book of Mormon with a richly sourced and substantive commentary. Grant Hardy has introduced the content and the depth of the Book of Mormon into the larger academic world, and scholars associated with Community of Christ have recently made a case for renewed interest in the volume. The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies has begun to provide a space where various kinds of serious research on the book can be published. Book of Mormon Central has laid the foundation for a comprehensive archive of previous scholarly work. The Mormon Theology Seminar has begun assembling a body of close theological readings of specific texts. And promisingly, non-Mormon academic presses and journals have begun to publish important work on the Book of Mormon.

In the hopes of furthering all these developments, and of encouraging the pursuit of other directions, we would like to announce a conference to be held on October 13–14, 2017 at Utah State University. The purpose of the conference is twofold. First, we wish to gather scholars invested in serious academic study of the Book of Mormon and provide them with a venue to present their work and receive feedback and criticism. Ultimately, we aim to foster a community of academics interested in the Book of Mormon. To this end, the conference has no centralizing theme, but instead invites papers on any subject related to the Book of Mormon, from any viable academic angle. Second, in gathering interested scholars, we hope to use the occasion of a conference to lay the groundwork for a sustainable (but minimal) organization that can sponsor regular (annual or biannual) conferences on the Book of Mormon. To this end, the conference will include a meeting attempting to institutionalize a regular, repeating event for gathering scholars working on the Book of Mormon. We therefore invite the submission of full papers to be considered for presentation at the conference, particularly from scholars interested in promoting academic work on the Book of Mormon.

AWARDS

Three awards for most outstanding papers will be given:
$750 first place
$500 second place
$250 third place
One award for most outstanding graduate student paper:
$500

KEYNOTES: Jared Hickman (Johns Hopkins University) and John Turner (George Mason University)
DATE: October 13–14, 2017
LOCATION: Utah State University
SUBMISSION DATE: May 15, 2017

Send submissions to bookofmormonstudies2017@gmail.com. Submissions must include a full-length paper (3500–4000 words, excluding notes), a 300-word abstract, a brief CV (no more than two pages), and full contact information (including student status if applicable). Complete details available at http://bookofmormonstudies.com.

The death of Book of Mormon antiquity research?

Book of Mormon antiquity research has changed a lot since since the late 1990s. Not so long ago, it appeared that the future looked bright for the project to authenticate the BoM. Even in 2005 Richard Bushman could write, “the proponents [of an ancient BoM] are as energetic and ingenious as the critics in mustering support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. On the whole better trained, with more technical language skills than their opponents, they are located mainly at Brigham Young University and associated with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). As a loosely coordinated group, they are as assiduous in demonstrating the historical authenticity of the book as the critics are in situating it in the nineteenth century” (Rough Stone Rolling, 92-93). But of course today FARMS with its university backing no longer exists, the quality of apologetic work produced through its intellectual successor The Interpreter has deteriorated, and the general sense is no longer onward and upward.

Nevertheless, in my view the most significant development that occurred during this period with long term implications for BoM apologetics is not the dissolution of FARMS and subsequent reorganization of the Maxwell Institute, but rather the failure of this earlier generation of scholars to convince people in my generation who went into biblical and ancient studies more generally to continue the struggle, not only that this was a fight worth having and sacrificing for but that it was grounded in the best available methodologies and scholarly bodies of knowledge. If you can’t build up supporters from those with the relevant professional training to say something informed about BoM historicity, then you have already lost. No matter how many articles you publish by enthusiastic layperson students of the BoM, the scholarly discourse is eventually hollowed out and devitalized and its credibility diminished. As with organic life, intellectual traditions can wither and die.

This, I would submit, is what is happening with traditional BoM antiquity research. I am aware of no one of relatively recent professional training in historical methodology or biblical or ancient studies who has attempted to give any kind of evidence-based justification for belief in a historical BoM or provided a competent response or accounting for the many ways in which our present knowledge of the Bible and its historical development militates strongly against a literal understanding of the BoM story. So either people have the requisite training but choose not to use it for this purpose or they bring their training to bear in only a very selective, limited, uncritical, and one-sided fashion.

Chaoskampf, the Garden of Eden, and the Mountains of Lebanon

I have a new paper up on the Garden of Eden that explores its mythological background in Canaanite-Israelite mythological tradition. Among other things, I argue that the mysterious ʾēd that comes up to water the ground in Gen 2:6 is correctly translated “flood” and that the motif hearkens back to an ancient Canaanite myth in which El created the world through defeating the primordial Sea monster. This discovery then leads me to reconstruct how the biblical Garden of Eden story has evolved over time, with particular emphasis on the identity of YHWH-Elohim and the original mountain location of Eden in Canaan. I show how at an earlier stage in the narrative the divine protagonist was likely El rather than YHWH-Elohim and that the site of Eden has been adapted from Mount Lebanon to a non-defined place somewhere on the eastern horizon.