Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What the Seer Stone!?! Or, Revelation and Culture

Yep, this is the rock everyone is talking about
For most Mormons, unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve been seeing a lot of one on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Maybe you shrugged your shoulders and scrolled down. Or maybe you totally freaked out. Most, I suspect, are mildly surprised, somewhat curious, and perhaps a little unsettled, but nothing you can’t get over. While not really “hidden” (as some would have it), it is true that we have not really talked much about it as Latter-day Saints. It has not played any real role in our social memory—that is, in the stories about who we are as a community, which we share and perpetuate as a community—so it is understandably unfamiliar to us. Those who dig a little deeper might find that there was a lot of this kind of thing in the early years of the Church. From not simply a historical, but an anthropological perspective, there is really nothing surprising about that the fact that as a community, we have only remembered the things we deemed important and forgot the rest. Still, finding that Joseph Smith’s story of an angel and gold plates can be told—as it most certainly was in Joseph’s early years—in a way that makes it seem indistinguishable from the popular folklore of the day can be a little discomforting.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

“The Fall Thereof was Exceedingly Great”: A Note on the Symbolism of the Great and Spacious Building

A Depiction of Solomon's Temple
A number of scholars have proposed that the “great and spacious building” seen in Lehi’s dream was the corrupted Jerusalem temple of late pre-exilic Israel. Theologian Joseph M. Spencer, for instance, saw the great and spacious building as “a reflection of the corrupt temple of Lehi’s day, from which the wealthy Jerusalem elite would have mocked the wild-eyed prophets who dared to retreat into the wilderness to eat of the fruit of the tree of life.” Thus, Spencer concludes, “Lehi’s dream of the tree of life was at least in part meant to be understood as a critique of the self-satisfied Jerusalem establishment.”[1] Writer D. John Butler expands on this argument by suggesting a number of wordplays. First, Lehi’s comparison to the field as a “world,” possibly ʿolam (עלם; ʿlm), he suggests is a world play on ʾulam (אלם;ʾlm), the term used for the temple porch or courtyard. Second, he notes that the term hekal (היכל; hykl), is often used to refer to the temple, in its most basic meaning is literally “big house,” or, “large building.” Lastly, he notes that the people in the building are dressed in “exceedingly fine” clothing, while in the Old Testament fine is the most common description of the priestly garments. Butler also suggests that the mists of darkness could be the incense from the temple, burned daily by the priests, suggesting that the corrupt Jerusalem establishment was daily leading the people astray.[2]

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dueling Perspectives on the Book of Mormon, History, Method, and Interpretation

In his first blog post on the Book of Mormon, Philip Jenkins declared without hesitancy, “If I look at the Book of Mormon as a historical text, as opposed to a spiritual document, it is simply not factually correct in any particular.” He goes on:
“In some controversial exchanges, I have been surprised to find how many clearly educated and literate Mormons think that the work can be defended as a work of history and archaeology. It can’t. The reason mainstream historians and scholars do not point out that fact more often is either that they are unaware of the book’s claims, or that they simply see no need to waste time on something so blatantly fictitious. This really is not debatable.”
In contrast, in a recent interview Brant Gardner remarked, “This is a very interesting time for Book of Mormon studies. … We are seeing more and better correlations between the text and the ever-increasing amount of information coming from archaeology and history, both in the Old and New Worlds. The future should see a continued expansion of and refinement of all of these fields.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ancient Book of Mormon Studies: A Selected Bibliography

In his back and forth with William J. Hamblin, Phillip Jenkins has flat out denied that there is any legitimate study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. Why? Because, he says, such work is never published in mainstream journals, academic (non-Mormon) presses, or presented at professional (non-Mormon) conferences. And, to boot, non-LDS scholars largely ignore it.

It is therefore for his benefit that I provide the following bibliography. It includes:

(1) works by LDS authors on the Book of Mormon published or presented in non-LDS venues;
(2) works by non-LDS authors on the Book of Mormon published or presented in non-LDS venues; and
(3) works by non-LDS authors on the Book of Mormon published or presented in LDS venues. Note that the only material included here published by an LDS press or journal will be material from non-LDS scholars.

I stress that the criteria is not agreement with the LDS position on the Book of Mormon, but engagement with it. The non-Mormon scholars may not agree that the Book of Mormon is ancient, but their willingness to engage the idea—and the LDS scholarship on the topic—certainly suggest that there is or at least can be legitimate study of the Book of Mormon as ancient, and most of these non-LDS scholars were impressed by LDS scholarship on the matter.

Some of these works are not directly on the antiquity of the Book of Mormon or even the Book of Mormon at all, such as the biographies of Joseph Smith by Richard Bushman, but nonetheless include engagement with (and even defenses of) ancient Book of Mormon studies.

As a final caveat, I note that this is not comprehensive. This merely represents what I was able to dig up in a fairly short time (aided, I must confess, by a brainstorming session with my friend Stephen Smoot). Still this should be enough to illustrate that ancient Book of Mormon studies is something that has been, published on and engaged with by both LDS and non-LDS in mainstream academia.

The Goose and the Gander

Scripture and “Western Liberal Orthodoxies”

James K. Hoffmeier is the leading advocate for a historical Exodus and the general reliability of the biblical text in reporting that event. His books on the subject were published by Oxford University Press, and he is a well-respected Egyptologist. In a paper published in 2012, Hoffmeier advanced the view “that the exodus and wilderness narratives are central to O[ld ]T[estament ]T[heology], and that without them, the tapestry of Israel’s faith and the foundational fabric of Christianity unravels.” (“‘These Things Happened’: Why a Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012], 106.) Hoffmeier marshals a number of passages throughout the Old Testament he feels illustrate the centrality of the Exodus to the faith of ancient Israel. Again and again, Hoffmeier notes, Israel was called to trust in the Lord because he lead them out of Egypt. The Exodus was thus foundational, and if it did not actually happen, then the primary grounds for trusting the Lord was a falsehood.