John Hall and why we can’t have nice, biblical things (part 2)

This may become a recurring series. Who knows. There is a mountain of material with more coming out each year it seems. Anyway, today’s installment comes from John F. Hall, a former professor of Classical Studies at BYU and self-styled scholar of the New Testament. In his 2002 monograph New Testament Witnesses of Christ: Peter, John, James, and Paul (Covenant) the reader finds this (p. 59):

“Modern critics resort to literary analysis and redaction criticism to dismiss the accounts of Mark and Matthew in favor of those of Luke or John because “the more complex circumstances which the stories in Luke and John suggest for the calling of Peter have a plausibility that the brief Markan account lacks.” (14) Nevertheless, for those who accept the historicity of all accounts, there is no reason to reject any of the treatments. Although they are not identical, they are likewise not mutually exclusive, but compatible and complementary, open to synthesis.”

Please clap.

Modern critics? Resort? Oh geez. No. They don’t resort to literary analysis and redaction criticism, they use these as tools to do the work of biblical scholarship. Also, isn’t it great that in the 21st century Hall is still playing the harmonization game? Of course, gospel harmonizations are the close cousin to Barker’s (last post) patchwork quilt of decontextualized sausage linking.

This is why we can’t have nice, biblical things

Apparently this advertisement was sent to students and faculty at BYU who are in some way connected to the study of HB/NT.

“You are invited to attend a public lecture this Wednesday by Margaret Barker, the well-known British founder of the Temple Studies group in London. The title of her lecture on deification is “The Lord is One.” This presentation will be held in the Varsity Theater, in the Wilkinson Student Center at 4:00 pm, Wednesday, November 9.

After her presentation, Andrew Skinner, Daniel Peterson, and David Larsen will offer responses, followed by Q&A on the topics of theosis and temple studies. All are welcome to attend this event sponsored by BYU Studies and the Academy for Temple Studies.”



Daniel Peterson and Admitting Defeat

Some people just get a pass. It’s not right but it’s the way things are. Recently on our blog, Daniel Peterson’s piece in the Deseret News was noticed for its wholesale borrowing from unattributed sources that far exceeds the bounds of academic (and probably journalistic standards). Submitted as a student essay, this piece would have earned Peterson a trip to the dean/provost of students. Submitted to a peer reviewed journal, this piece would have garnered a swift rejection. Or had it made it to print, official censure. This is serious business.

But as it is, it looks like Peterson is going to escape any repercussions for this ethical breach and for publicly misleading thousands and thousands of DN readers. And apparently not even his friends/colleagues can make him own his wrongdoing. In a comment threatening legal action against FPR for suggesting this dishonesty, Blake Ostler also promised to make Peterson “come clean” if he had in fact been caught plagiarizing. TT’s subsequent post detailed how strong the case against Peterson is. Ostler, to date, has gone silent and has either failed to compel Peterson to concede mischief or has not attempted to do so, suggesting his initial promise was empty rhetoric. Furthermore, except for this brief threat leveled and then abandoned by Ostler, none of Peterson’s many, vociferous followers and friends have stood up to exculpate his actions on the one hand, or condemn them on the other. The radio silence is absolute.

Peterson has dodged this and apparently nobody cares.

Carry on. You can expect Peterson’s next Deseret News piece faithfully defending your faith to appear on schedule.

We admit defeat.

Tips for the future LDS grad school applicant

It’s grad school application season and students are anxious over GRE, letters of rec, personal statements, GPA etc. It’s a stressful time, we at FPR have been there. We sympathize. Many of us are now on the other side of the portfolio, whether for MA or PhD programs. I don’t speak for us all, but let me say a few things that might be generally true.

If you are LDS and are serious about doing graduate work in Religious Studies (broadly conceived), the Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Early Christian Lit., Late Antique, Patristics, etc., please know that admissions committees have and will continue to be concerned about whether you will be ready to handle their programs. Their concern is not just about your intellectual aptitude, but about the nature of your religious commitments. And it’s not really even so much about your religious commitments as your orientation to the world outside of you and whether you are capable of engaging your area of study dispassionately while honoring multiple points of view. If you are or have been interested in or involved in LDS apologetics, and if you have an online trail of this you are making your chances for admission slimmer than they need be. Look, there are lots and lots of LDS people in graduate programs in these fields and so you know that being LDS or being a BYU grad is not something that is hurting people in most circumstances. That being said, overly partisan or strident public expressions defending X historical point or attacking Y practical point or engaging Dr. Z can become an issue for admissions committees regardless of whether a candidate is religious or non-religious. Grad programs are communities and communities are people, people from all sorts of backgrounds.

I am not talking about liking the latest LDS meme on Facebook or (re)posting an inspirational quote from the last General Conference (depending on the circumstances, you may want to limit this as well). I am talking about blogging and publishing papers that are specifically apologetic. Let me give some examples and assess them for you, ballpark assessment of course. I will gear this towards BYU undergrads since numerically they are the largest group of LDS people to matriculate to graduate school annually.

1.You publish a paper in Studia Antiqua, a student run journal at BYU that sometimes trends apologetic or at least a little tone deaf to audiences beyond the LDS world: mild risk. I would avoid it, but it is pretty harmless.

2. You work as a research assistant with a Religious Education faculty member who only publishes in Deseret Book or equivalent venues and who is willing to grant you co-authorship or is willing to include your name in a prominent way in publications or presentations: strong risk. Avoid this.

3. You work as a RA with a RelEd faculty member who largely publishes in peer reviewed venues outside of the LDS world and is willing to name you as co-author or significant contributor: little or no risk. DO THIS.

4. You start a personal blog to defend the faith. Sometimes you end up belittling or attacking those outside your faith or those within your faith whose views differ from yours or whose place on the LDS spectrum is polar from yours: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS.

5. You are asked by FAIR or Interpreter to author or co-author papers, write book reviews, or otherwise attach your name to something these organizations do: Serious risk, DO NOT DO THIS. Do not do this no matter how flattering, how exciting, how faith re-affirming, how methodologically sound you feel it to be. These are big red flags to grad school admission committees. They are even red flags to graduate programs at BYU from what I hear from colleagues there. Again, it is not your religious commitments, it is your orientation to the world of ideas, religion more generally, and other people that are of concern to committee members.

6. You are asked by LDS or BYU professors who are local celebrities and long-time names in apologetics to work with them on their latest project on something that only deals with LDS matters or to rebut the latest faith-attacking thing from whatever source: Serious risk. DO NOT DO THIS unless you really, really need the job.

Listen, friends, we know that you want to help your faith community, we know that these various opportunities and venues are incredibly enticing (and let’s be honest, flattering), but if you are applying or will be applying to grad school, you simply must watch out for number one. You are number one. Not the big name apologist, not the security of your faith community (it will be just fine!), not anyone else but you.

Here are some criteria to help you assess whether something is to your benefit this application season.

1. Has the person you are working with/for on their latest apologetic project published in a peer reviewed venue or presented on something outside of LDS matters in the last year? If not, beware.

2. Does the person you are working with/for have connections to the broader academy, who can vouch for your abilities and help you gain admission? If not, beware. If this person only does things in the local, LDS scene, they cannot really assist you in the bigger world of the academy.

3. Does the person you working with/for have your best professional interest at heart? Does s/he/they offer you direct criticism to your ideas, assumptions, writing? Do they make you interact with the major trends of scholarship in your field? If not, beware.

4. Will this person treat you like a traitor if you go to grad school and decide that apologetics or a largely LDS focus is not best for you? If yes, beware.

5. Does this person badmouth the academy at large? Does this person have more grudges than relationships and friendships in the academy at large? If yes, beware.

6. Does this person have a proven track record of mentoring/helping students into grad programs? If not, beware.

Please be cautious and discerning, friends. We want to see you succeed. We want you as colleagues and conversation partners trained at great programs. We have been where you are and we speak with some collective wisdom, uncomfortable though it might seem to you right now.


I’m totally disappointed that learned, waggish friends on social media are not talking more about Marcus Petreius. I mean the dude’s name and his “career” suicide along with his proven military chops against insurgents and his open sympathies with the (lost) Republican cause are begging to be snark-mined. Facebook is just so hoi polloi these days. Sigh.

As a concession to the masses:

Those who don’t learn history are bound to blah, blah, blah, and all that.

Fundanibleists and Fauxpologetics

This comment by tom (#23) at Dave Banack’s challenging post over at T&S sums up why I think the Nibley approach to apologetics and its reception have, in part, had long term and still expanding negative effects on church members:

“Might not hurt to read a little Nibley along the way.. not exactly light reading, but take some time to examine the connections he makes with Enoch, Abraham, and ancient temple worship – through all the various non-biblical records that have come to light since the days of Joseph Smith. There really is a lot of evidence that Joseph was a prophet and that these restoration scriptures are really what they say they are.”

Here are some of the problems I see in these two sentences:

1. Nibley and his corpus of writings are assumed to be authoritative and can be wielded like a deceased General Authority and his conference talks.

2. Nibley’s work is dense and often impenetrable, and, therefore, just like Tallmadge’s Jesus the Christ, authoritative, irrefutable, irreplaceable, or un-updatable.

3. Obsession with finding ancient parallels and sources for modern LDS temple ritual revealing a basic assumption that ancient=genuine/divine

4. Strip-mining “non-biblical records that have come to light since the days of Joseph Smith” for the rare, usable nugget while disregarding everything else these texts offer or refuse to offer

5. Engaging in this strip-mining effort so that we can assertively and triumphantly ask: “How could Joseph have possibly known this?!”

6. Licensing every day members to make absolutist claims about the Book of Abraham, draw lines in the sand about its translation and provenance, make these criteria for heresy/orthodoxy and, to complete the circle, cite Nibley to prove one’s point about it.

7. Then drive by blog it to bash someone over the head

I value much of what Nibley wrote. His writings inspired a younger version of me and altered my life trajectory. But this continuing abuse of his work in the pursuit of faux-apologetics or chastisement is just plain bad.  And all too common.


Atheism vs Superstition

My man Plutarch is pretty awesome.  He is interested in all kinds of things, everything from discussing how young men ought to be taught how to properly and beneficially read poetry (lest they be sullied by the fake hocus-pocus crap and salacious stuff) to the parallel lives of Demosthenes and Cicero.  He is also an astute commentator on religious things.  He is a philosopher, in the sense that he lives a philosophy (an eclectic [Middle] Platonism), and he is a priest of Apollo at Delphi, a job he takes seriously.

One work that displays Plutarch’s interest in practiced religion is his de superstitione (peri deisidaimonias).  Superstitio, the Latin rendering of the Greek deisidaimonia, doesn’t quite do justice to deisidaimonia.  The two lexemes in the compound are deid, fear, and daimon, deity; so a periphrastic rendering would be something like terror of gods meaning terror for gods.  Anyhow, in this work Plutarch lays out his basic question: On the spectrum of religion, with atheism on the one terminus and superstition on the other, where does true religion lie?

Plutarch immediately demonstrates his detestation for superstition.  He points out that it is irrational, destructive, and a far worse condition that atheism.  One example of this odium for superstition that is of interest for students of Judaism and Christianity is Plutarch’s disgust for the account of the Jews refusing to defend Jerusalem’s walls on the Sabbath.  Instead of taking up weapons to defend themselves, their wives, and their children, the Jews, overawed by irrational fear of their god and his rites, sat idly and were slaughtered along with their non-combatants.  How awful the effects of superstition!

Atheism Plutarch sees as something like an unfortunate mindset that usually only hurts the atheist.  It is like a malady that can be cured while the disease of superstition has no remedy since the sufferer fears both the disease and the doctor.  The atheistically minded are often driven to a more hardened atheism due to the ridiculous and shameful actions of the superstitious, laments Plutarch.  This really chaps Plutarch’s hide.  The generally decent but misled atheists are being soured to true religion by those ignorant superstitious rubes!  I could go on for pages summarizing the spleen venting in which Plutarch indulges in his attack on superstition. Really, you should read the entire treatise, it will only take 30 minutes (here is a link at a rad website that devotes some loving attention to Mormons).

One might be disappointed to come to the end of his essay and discover that Plutarch does not spell out just where he places true religion on his spectrum.  But Plutarch does give us this: True religion lies closer to atheism than it does to superstition.

This feels right to me.  I do not agree with Plutarch’s vitriolic rhetoric and his dismissal of all superstitious folks as hopeless causes but I do think that true religion must lie closer to atheism.  I need a god who exists in a removed sense, cares for, provides for, and occasionally intervenes on behalf of humanity and individuals, not a god who is immanent, persnickety, officious, quick to anger, needy for appeasement, and the source of all good and/or evil.  Also I need religion that has a healthy regard for outrageous fortune.

But I also love and respect many people close to me who need and believe in religion much closer to the superstition terminus.  And these people are my co-religionists.  What about you all?  Where do you fall on Plutarch’s spectrum of religion?  Are you more a god fearer or an atheist?  Does or can Mormonism provide an umbrella spanning one end of the spectrum to the other?

You can put this in the strange but true bin

These days I am reading for my comprehensive examinations and almost daily I come across something that makes me silently chant the refrain:  There is nothing new under the sun.  Well yesterday’s discovery was a real head scratcher and one that might cause some blushing for those with tender ears and modest tongues.  So for those whose eyes cannot bear the sight of things unsightly I forewarn you: stop reading.

For the titillated: read on.

Sometimes you hear slang and you can sense that it is neological or you have a vague memory of a time when you are pretty sure that you did not hear it.  Like, da bomb, boo-yeah, or fo’ shizzle.  Well there is a certain slang phrase that has sounded new to me the few (rather unpleasant) times that I have heard it said and a quick check of the OED and Urban Dictionary confirmed its recent coinage and heyday (20th century, especially the last few decades).  Well you can imagine my surprise when I read this very slang in a text composed sometime in the late 1st or very early 2nd century CE.  IN GREEK!  Yeah, that’s right, the exact slang in highfalutin Attic Greek (Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions).  For you Greek nerds, the uppity LSJ doesn’t even deign to offer a definition for the phrase although one hardly needs to be given.  I read the sentence and then I read it again to make sure I wasn’t Freuding the thing up and it was right there to behold.

The word?   ἀποτρίβεσθαι in its masculine singular accusative present middle participial form ἀποτριβόμενον.  And it is taking this as its direct object: τὸ αἰδοῖον.  Yeah, you read that correctly.  Hard to believe isn’t it?  I am still dumbfounded.  I wonder how many school-boys tittered or turned red over this passage as they read it at boarding schools and prep academies during that briefest window of time when rich kids still learned Greek and the English version of the slang had gained sufficient currency to be commonly used by teenagers.  I can only imagine the reaction to this line of lines: τὸν Διογένη τὸ αἰδοῖον ἀποτριβόμενον ἐν φανερῷ.  Holy smokes.

Διογένη=Diogenes (the famous Cynic philosopher)

τὸ αἰδοῖον=his package



ἐν φανερῷ=in the open

Diogenes was rubbing [one] off.  Publicly.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Inspired Murder? Sure. How about Suicide?

For various reasons that I won’t go into here, I find the Nephi-killing-Laban episode to be the most striking story from the Book of Mormon.  If it is read as a retrospective account, it seems that Nephi or some later hand has crafted the story to certify that the killing wasn’t cold-blooded murder but an inspired killing that is beneficial both to Nephi and countless others.  In Nephi’s internal dialogue about whether or not to kill Laban, it is the divine permission/command that tips the balance in favor of killing even though Nephi offers some well considered reasons to the contrary.  Scary stuff.

Lately I have been immersing myself in the issue of Stoic suicide and I have been blazing through various Stoic thinkers who treat of suicide.  Two of the big names in this area are Epictetus (who now has a canonized dictum in the Mormon scriptural corpus thanks to a shout out by President Monson at the last General Conference) and Seneca.  Epictetus was a freed slave who became a famed Stoic teacher some of whose words survive through the efforts of a devoted student (Epictetus was born mid first century, died probably in the 130s).  Seneca was the personal tutor and confidant of Nero many of whose moral writings survive as well as some of his Latin versions of Greek tragedies (Seneca was forced to commit suicide by Nero in 65, a common fate for many elite Roman men in that year).

Seneca is famous for his obsession with suicide.  In his moral essays and epistles he lauds and romanticizes suicide not just as an option for the Stoic philosopher (for Stoicism did allow for suicide as a virtuous exit from life) but he more than once suggests that it is the mark of a true Stoic.  His hero, of course, was the Stoic Cato (the Younger) who disemboweled himself at Utica rather than surrender to Caesar.  But Seneca was not advertising suicide for the masses.  No, he revered the act too much for such vulgarity.  Only those with sound reasoning were justified in killing themselves.  For Seneca reason (ratio) was the deciding factor in the calculus of autothanasia.

Epictetus also preached suicide as a viable retreat from life and he frequently asserted that suicide is “a door that stands open.”  But Epictetus did not romanticize suicide like Seneca (partially because he did not live in the bizarro world of top echelon Neronian Rome).  For Epictetus suicide could rightly be committed upon certain conditions.  One set of circumstances would be if conditions made it impossible for the Stoic to live virtuously (although Epictetus does not make clear what conditions like these would look like).  The other circumstance would be if God/Fate/Providence/Nature/Zeus (varying Stoic names for the all pervading, immanent, pantheistic Stoic deity) permitted suicide, if God gave a sign.  Epictetus’ hero was Socrates and it is to Socrates that he looks for his position on suicide.  Plato offers a  Socrates that espouses the position that suicide is not to be engaged in unless deity gives a sign to do so.   Of course, such a sign did come to Socrates and his suicide needs no retelling.

So in my vastly over simplified discussion there is well-reasoned Stoic suicide proffered by Seneca and there is divinely appointed Stoic suicide taught by Epictetus.  Reason.  Divine inspiration.  Killing.  Based upon the Nephi-killing-Laban narrative as we have it, if Nephi were to consider suicide it seems that he would probably be an Epictetus man and err on the side of divine inspiration after a bit of reasoning.   If conditions were to come down to it, which suits you?  As much as I really like the idea of a divinely inspired, self inflicted exit from life (so much comfort and assurance!), I have to think that I would be a Seneca man and let reason carry the day.

You may also want to ask yourself WDJD (What Did Joseph Do)?

Old Fashioned Philology: Dead? Useless? Not so fast…

So I haven’t read this book and I am cherry picking a money-quotation but these words offer balm to my troubled soul.

“All the more reason that the sense of what is and is not a sound reading needs development in every historian who seeks to work with papyri–a sense that comes from reading a lot of texts and from working with the artefacts themselves, from bearing the editor’s and critic’s burden oneself.  It would be pleasant to be able to offer to historians in general the good news that all of that philological baggage and training really is not essential, that the doors have been flung wide open, but this is just not the case.

“The necessity of sound philological underpinnings to historical work is only part of the explanation of the durability of philology…it remains a fertile source of questions and insights.  The best collaboration, as Louis Robert never tired of saying, takes place inside a single brain, and it is above all the well-stocked mind that tends to generate connections previously unnoticed (Roger S. Bagnall.  Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History. 1995) ”

I am not a papyrologist but I believe in the value of general, wide reading of primary sources in their original languages.   But lately I have been feeling insecure because I get the sense that this is a dinosaur-mentality and that my training has damned me to the ranks of the intellectually obsolete.  And that I have wasted my 12 years of adulthood.

So thanks, Roger Bagnall, you made my day.