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MORTALS AS GODS


The title of this post is not in reference to the LDS doctrine of deification (that men can become gods), but rather an interesting trend in the Book of Mormon.

A couple weeks ago, my wife, McKall, was sharing some thoughts with me on Helaman 9, where Nephi has given (as a sign to the apostate Nephites) a revelation of the King's murder by his brother. As the events of this chapter play out, some of the people start to recognize Nephi as a prophet, while others come to believe that he is a god (See Helaman 9:40-41).

As my wife mentioned this (that some people started to think Nephi was a god), a realization began to hit me. This is a common theme in the Book of Mormon. After Ammon defends the Lamanite King’s flocks and servents, and fulfills all his other responsibilities, Lamoni becomes convinced that Ammon is the “Great Spirit” – even after Ammon tells him that he is just a man (See Alma 18:4, 11, 18). King Benjamin had to explain to his people that he was just a mortal man (See Mosiah 2:10-11). It seems that is was common among the Book of Mormon peoples to view men who accomplished great things as more than just men, but as deity.

This idea is extremely out of place in our modern society, and even more out of place in the world of Joseph Smith. It was outrageous to claim that a mortal man was a god in the religious culture of nineteenth-century America, and even today, the idea is only used as an exaggeration (i.e. one might say that Michael Jordan was a god at basketball, or speak of great Classic Rock artist such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones as “gods of rock ‘n roll”, but no one would seriously believe that any of these were actually more than extremely gifted mortal men). If Joseph Smith was making up the Book of Mormon, where in the world would he get this idea?

As out of place as this concept is in modern society, it seems to be right at home in the ancient cultures that the Book of Mormon purports to represent and be influenced by, namely Egyptian and Mesoamerican – neither of which is a culture that Joseph Smith could have known much (if anything) about. Thus, I suggest that this idea provides a subtle hint of authenticity to the Book of Mormon.

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Note: This posting is not meant to be a comprehensive study with a firm conclusion, but rather an observation and hypothesis in the which more research needs to be done in order to confirm or dismiss the ideas presented here. Hence, there are no sources or citations (aside from the scriptures referenced). If anyone knows of any research that could be useful on this topic (or if anyone knows if this topic has already been researched), then any information you could provide me, or any sources and/or insights you could share would be greatly appreciated.

Comments

  1. First, I don't think you can include King Benjamin's claim that he is not "more than a mortal man" as an instance of confusing mortals with gods. King Benjamin is not disabusing people of the belief that he is a god; rather, he is simply confessing that he is a fallible man, susceptible to the same temptations as everyone else. Politicians, especially amid scandals, say such things all the time--"I am not perfect", "I am only human", "I am a mere mortal", etc. So King Benjamin just doesn't want his followers to put him on a pedestal; he's worried about being lionized, not being deified.

    So you're left with only two instances in the BOM where mortals are confused with gods. And two instances do not a "theme" make. But that notwithstanding, I'll take up your question: "[W]here in the world did he get this idea?"

    First, it doesn't strike me as all that unusual an idea to begin with, so even if I couldn't locate an immediate source in Smith's environment for this idea, I wouldn't be impressed. Even you concede that, at best, this is merely a "subtle hint" of the BOM's authenticity.

    Second, I wonder if the "men as mortals" idea appears in the Bible.

    Third, many Americans in Smith's time were fascinated by ancient Egypt, whose mysteries were just beginning to be plumbed in the early 19th century. Smith didn't know much about ancient Egyptian (nor did Egyptologists, even), but he may have known that the Egyptians understood pharaoh to be a god.

    Finally, Native Americans and Mesoamericans would sometimes confuse Americans and Europeans with gods (given their wealth, power, and technology). Smith may have been familiar with the story of Cortez where Cortez was supposedly mistaken as Quetzalcoatl. Americans moving west were sometimes mistaken by Native Americans as a manifestation of the "Great Spirit"--the very word used to describe god in some of the BOM verses you mention.

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  2. Your discounting of the King Benjamin example only works if we assume a modern context for the BoM. But if we try to see the BoM in light of it's (potentially) ancient context, then King Benjamin's comments could very well be in reference to his subjects wishing to view him as deity.

    As for your other idea's, they make for some interesting possibilities, some which I may have to consider, though the only one I find particularly plausible off hand is that he may have been aware the experience of Cortez and others.

    Even if such information where available to him (which would need to be proved first), it would very difficult to prove that Joseph actually had that information and used it, as nothing outside the BoM (that I am aware of) betrays that Joseph was familiar with the experience of Cortez, or that he knew anything of the Egyptians at the time. I am not a familiar with a passage in the Bible where he could glean that idea either, except maybe in Exodus where God tells Moses that he is a "god" to pharaoh. But this doesn't really work, since this is God appointing a man to act as "god", where as in the BoM we don't have this as an appointment from God, but appraisal from other men. An appraisal, I might add, that is dismissed an rejected by each to whom it is given.

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  3. About King Benjamin: Sure, it could be an instance where his subjects see him as a deity. But it needn't be. The reference is, unlike the other instances, far from explicit. That's all.

    And you can't expect that I be able to "prove" that Smith was aware of the story of Cortez. All I can do is offer possibilities, not proofs. And at the point at which it's possible to explain something naturalistically, supernatural explanations (while possible) are not necessary.

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  4. Also, while I'm totally unmoved by your observation/argument, at least it's novel. I've never heard it before. So if it is original to you, kudos for thinking outside the box. It's refreshing to read an LDS apologetics blog that doesn't merely copy and paste from FARMS or FAIR.

    Keep it up.

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  5. Joseph Smith's awareness of Native American or Egyptian beliefs and culture can't be proven, but it is quite likely he was aware. As Americans moved West into the Ohio Valley, they came across Native American monuments which sparked interest in ancient cultures and ideas. Plenty of quasi-historical accounts were published and the spread across New England. Even though Smith probably didn't read a scholarly text on the subject, stories about the native american were all over the US and he likely heard lots of them. Fawn Brodie's 'No Man Knows My History' describes the intellectual context of 19th C New England well.

    p.s. Neal, I can't believe we didn't get together last time I was in Utah. I might be back in July; if I am, we'll have to make something happen.

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  6. Jon,

    Thank you. If anyone else has already addressed this topic (at FAIR or elsewhere), I am not a where of it, so it is original in that I thought of the idea myself.

    I'm not sure if you meant "Copy and paste" literally (as many "amateur apologist" tend to do just that, which I also find very annoying), or if you just meant it to mean that all the apologist are just making the same old arguments all the time and there is never anything really new (something I have also noticed and get tired of as well). Either way, I have no intention of ever literally just copying and pasting articles or video's from FAIR and FARMS. Of course, there will be other times where I am promoting more common arguments. When I do so, however, I hope to add my own insights. So I hope that it wont feel like I am just "copy and pasting" FAIR or FARMS material.

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  7. Drew,

    Buddy, thanks for dropping by!

    I don't doubt the possibility that Smith could have known something about the Native American groups around him. But (unlike Jon), I'm not satisfied with simply going with the "naturalistic" explanation because it makes the supernatural "unnecessary." There are always going to be alternate ways to explain things which can make the supernatural "unnecessary."

    As far as I'm concerned, there are two completing possibilities - either the BoM is fraud or it is authentic - neither of which can be proved. If authentic, it has eternal significance. Therefore, "subtle traces" of authenticity ought not to be merely dismissed on "maybes" and "could haves."

    My point is, in the end we need more then just our natural faculties of reason to determine the BoM's validity.

    P.S. I agree, a true tragedy. Let me know if you are back in July and we'll work something out.

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  8. "...either the BoM is fraud or it is authentic - neither of which can be proved."

    Are you saying that at present neither can be proved, or that neither will ever be proved?

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  9. Neither can be proved at the present. I personally doubt that either will ever be proved, but it is possible that some discovery could happen that could prove one way or the other.

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  10. Neal is spot on. This topic was discussed in the film "Journey of Faith"...you can see the relevant clip here: http://lehislibrary.wordpress.com/2008/04/04/by-small-and-simple-things-ii/

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  11. Thanks for the link James! I hadn't seen that before, nor had I heard anyone else talk about it, so thank you for helping me out.

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  12. I was going to bring up Cortez and the conquistadors, but since you guys beat me to it, I do have one thing to add.

    Looking at it logically, I find it very, very hard to believe that 1- Joseph Smith had more than a minimal awareness of the Native American's diefying these explorers (remember he had little education), and that 2- Joseph Smith would then tie this diefication of mortals into the Book of Mormon in an attempt to make the book more believable.

    I definitely chalk this up as one more tidbit of authenticity for the Book of Mormon. I find it to be a very weak foundation to say, "Well, Joseph Smith might have known that" every time something comes up to authenticate the Book of Mormon. Maybe this "wicked" tradition to deify mortals was passed on from generation to generation by the Native Americans so that when these men arrived they were received as gods.

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  13. Thanks again for your comments Scott.

    Just to add to you thought that is hard to believe that "Joseph Smith would then tie this diefication of mortals into the Book of Mormon in an attempt to make the book more believable", I too find this hard to believe for a couple of reasons.

    1. Smith never talked about it or brought it up, or tried to use it as evidence that his story was true. Which, if he was a fraud, we would expect him to draw attention to "evidences" to defend himself.

    2. The subtly of this detail tells me it was not placed in there as a "proof." It is so well integrated into the natural flow of the text and story, mentioned each time in such a passive and matter-of-fact way. This concept is something that seems to have been understood and common in eyes of the books author(s).

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  14. Neal, just been reading through your blog, or at least some of the posts at least, and agreed with almost everything you've said. I'll say from the off that you know much more than II do, so I put this forward tentatively, perhaps I've gone off completely. You said in one of your comments:

    "I am not a familiar with a passage in the Bible where he could glean that idea either, except maybe in Exodus where God tells Moses that he is a "god" to pharaoh."

    What came to my mind was an event in Acts (specifically 14:8-18, particularly 11 and 15), where Paul and Barnabas are mistaken for gods, and were named Jupiter and Mercurius. Of have I gottn it completely wrong?

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  15. Jory,

    Thank you for your comment. At the time I posted this and the subsequent comments, I had overlooked Acts 14. Later, I realized that the idea was there, but never got around to making that clarification here, so thank you for bringing that up.

    In my opinion, the question still remains, however, of how it is that this little (rather subtle, really) detail fits so nicely in the cultural context of Mesoamerica? Finding it in the Bible does not explain that.

    Furthermore, there is something to be said about the subtlety of the detail. Conscious forgeries tend to make a lot of the details they intentionally add to make the story "believable" while the small, subtle details tend to be unconscious reflections of the forgers cultural assumptions. As such, documents purporting to be ancient are very often authenticated on the basis of little things.

    Thus, if Joseph Smith was intentionally working this detail in to make his story more believable, we should expect it to be far more pronounced and noticeable. As it is, I (a lifetime member who has read the Book of Mormon numerous times as well as various books about the Book of Mormon) didn't ever notice it until about a year ago (near the time I wrote this blogpost).

    Again, thank you for your thoughts and question. Please come back and feel free to comment or ask questions anytime.

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