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A Mormon Reads a REAL Atheist’s Blog Post

Many have probably already seen the post, “An Atheist’s Response to the First 31 Pages of The Book of Mormon.” I am going to guess that fewer people have seen “A REAL Atheist’s Response to the First 31 Pages of the Book of Mormon.” This “real atheist” appears to be an ex-Mormon named Benjamin V. (or else a Benjamin posted this on behalf the atheist). In any case, this “real atheist” (RA from here on out) is much less flattering than the first, providing a critique of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. (In keeping with RA’s own practice, I will not link to either of these blog posts.)

RA was respectful in his critique, no snarky remarks or sarcastic jabs, which I appreciate. I nonetheless found his critique to be somewhat naïve not only of LDS scholarship, but of biblical scholarship more generally. In RA’s defense, he (I am assuming gender here) does admit, “I’m not an expert on Christian theology or the Bible, and I certainly don’t believe in much of either, but I do have a passing familiarity with them.” In the spirit of promoting a more informed discussion, I would just like provide an informed Mormon’s opinions of RA’s objections.

1. Pre-Exilic Jews: RA thinks Nephi’s frequent reference to “Jews” is anachronistic. He writes, “the term ‘Jew’ wasn’t coined until after the Israelites returned from captivity under the reign of the Persians.” RA then tries to predict the apologetic response:

Knowing a bit about Mormon apologetics, I’m sure some would like to explain this away by appealing to Joseph Smith’s imperfect translation skills. Perhaps Nephi used a word like “Israelite,” and Joseph Smith translated it as “Jew.” But there are clues in the text that would argue against this explanation. For example, in 1 Nephi 15:17 (on page 31, as it happens), Nephi refers to “…the Jews, or… the House of Israel.” Clearly Nephi was familiar with both terms, when only one would have been invented at the time of his writing. 

Actually, a more simple solution is that Nephi used yehudi (יהודי); plural yehudim (יהודים), which is translated as “Jew” (or in the plural, “Jews”) in the KJV, and even in some instances in modern translations like the NIV and the NASB. In fact, it appears at a rather high frequency in the writings of Jeremiah, Nephi’s contemporary (e.g., Jeremiah 32:12; 34:9; 38:19; 40:11, 12, 15: 41:3; 44:1; 52:28, 30). Though it more properly means “Judean” or “Judeans,” the distinction was not made in 1830. So, there is really no problem with Nephi’s use of the term. In fact, there are arguably a number of wordplays in the underlying text on the Hebrew meaning of the word.[1] An interesting point to consider, since Joseph Smith did not know Hebrew.

2. Egyptian Writing: RA’s next comments, “It’s hard to understand why someone who was born and raised in Jerusalem ‘in all his days’ would have known Egyptian at all.” This is not really a serious conundrum. Stefen Wimmer has documented several instances of what he calls “Palestinian hieratic,” an Egyptian script being used by Israelites in ancient times (cf. 1 Nephi 1:2).[2] According to Wimmer, this script was used in Palestine “probably over several centuries,” and its usage peaks in the late-7th century bc, coming to an abrupt end “after the Babylonian captivity.”[3] This is the very time period of Lehi, Nephi’s father (it probably would not have been his primary language, but nothing in the text requires it to be). Given that RA says he knows “a bit about Mormon apologetics,” I am little surprised he does not know about this, since it has frequently been commented on by LDS scholars.[4]

The idea that Lehi’s “children write their diaries in Egyptian,” is not really in the Book of Mormon. Nephi is not writing a “diary,” but an official record of his people, replete with an origin story meant to give them a sense of identity and meaning. Under such circumstances, Nephi was probably following the pattern of the Brass Plates, which were actually written in Egyptian (Mosiah 1:4). This resolves the contradiction RA creates by saying, “This document seems to have been written in Hebrew, but it is taken, in part, ‘that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers.’ So is the language (always singular) of their fathers Egyptian or Hebrew?”

3. Clarity About the Messiah: The next strange thing, according to RA is “their portrayal of the Messiah.” RA goes on to explain that there are few explicit prophecies of Christ in the Old Testament, and the prophecies of the Messiah that do exist provide a very different picture than the Christian version. He states that most Messianic prophecies are taken out of context.

 if you read the Old Testament and 1 Nephi back-to-back, 1 Nephi’s Messianic prophecies are wildly out of place. The Old Testament contains a few scant clues that (even if read the way Christians traditionally understand them) are so vague that they could only be understood in hindsight. Meanwhile, Nephi is receiving incredibly specific prophecies that could only apply to Jesus. The Jewish conqueror-Messiah of the Old Testament is nowhere to be found in 1 Nephi. In his place is a Jesus precisely described, right down to the time and place of his birth, his name, his mother’s name, and a description of John the Baptist. It also specifically refers to this Messiah as God, which would never have occurred to any Old Testament prophet. If anything like this had appeared in the Old Testament, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have questioned Jesus’ divine identity. (emphasis added)

Frankly, I think that RA answers his own question here. The prophecies are only “wildly out of place” if one rejects the idea of genuine prophecy. If we accept that God can, in fact, reveal the future, then there is no real barrier to believe that God could reveal even highly specific prophecies; nor can there be a reasonable objection to God revealing more specific prophecies to one group of people, and less specific prophecies to others. Within Mormon theology, agency is an all-important principle: people need to have the ability to choose. Thus, since highly specific prophecies like those in the Book of Mormon make it “hard to imagine that anyone would have questioned Jesus’ divine identity,” such specificity could not be revealed to those who would be there for his mortal ministry; otherwise it would be so obvious their agency would be compromised. Meanwhile, those who would not be there could have more specific details.

I get that this answer can come across as a bit of a cop-out. But the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to provide evidence that revelation is real. As such, it seems inappropriate, to me, to judge its historicity on grounds which rule prophecy and revelation out a priori. For what it is worth, some non-LDS scholars would dispute RA’s points entirely. Margaret Barker, for instance, has argued that Christianity was based on deep roots of pre-Exilic (i.e., before the Babylonian captivity) Israelite religion. When she commented on the Book of Mormon, she wrote:

The original temple tradition was that Yahweh, the Lord, was the Son of God Most High, and present on earth as the Messiah. This means that the older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah. Thus finding Christ in the Old Testament is exactly what we should expect, though obscured by incorrect reading of the scriptures. This is, I suggest, one aspect of the restoration of “the plain and precious things, which have been taken away from them” (1 Nephi 13:40).[5]

Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, has made a similar argument.[6] I have not yet read Boyarin’s book, but Daniel C. Peterson quotes him as saying, “The theology of the Gospels, far from being a radical innovation within Israelite religious tradition, is a highly conservative return to the very most ancient moments within that tradition, moments that had been largely suppressed in the meantime — but not entirely.”[7]

Nephi’s prophecies still might seem much too specific for those who refuse to believe in revelation, but in light of work by the likes of Barker and Boyarin, they really are not quite so “wildly out of place” after all.

4. Law of Moses: RA states that, “upon a cursory analysis of the text, I could find very little evidence that these people even knew what the Law of Moses was, let alone that they lived it.” Many who have given the text more than a cursory reading, however, have found that the law of Moses permeates the text. John W. Welch, who is an attorney and a scholar of ancient Jewish and Israelite law, has provided numerous studies of the law and the Book of Mormon. Welch has shown that the text describing Nephi’s “particularly grizzly murder,” of Laban, as RA calls it, was in fact consciously written with an understanding of the Mosiac law as it existed and was interpreted in 600 bc.[8] Welch has also thoroughly examined 7 legal cases in the Book of Mormon, finding them consistent with the ancient law of Moses.[9] What about the “holidays or festivals that play such an important role in Jewish life,” which RA says, are never “mentioned in the Book of Mormon”? Several scholars have shown that major sermons like those of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6–10 and Benjamin in Mosiah 1–6 are examples of just such festivals.[10] Several other aspects of the law of Moses have also been found in the Book of Mormon.[11]

Then there is the fact that, “the moment Lehi and his (non-Levite) family leave Jerusalem, they immediately set up altars and sacrifice animals in the wilderness, which would have scandalized a family of Israelites raised in the Deuteronomistic Mosaic tradition.” This actually finds an interesting solution in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the Temple Scroll allows such sacrifices if you are beyond a three-day journey from the temple.[12] It also worth pointing out that some have argued that Lehi was not fully on board with the Deuteronomistic reforms going on in his day, and in fact spoke out against them; in which case, his not being in full compliance with the Deuteronomistic tradition is not a serious defect.[13]

5. Miscellaneous Topics: RA states that, “there are so many other oddities that it would be ponderous to give an exhaustive list.” In that same spirit, I note that there are so many other responses, both to the topics I have chosen to respond to, and the ones I have not, that it would be a rather tedious task to keep going. He notes that, “structures that seem to be natively English,” and “phrases copied from the New Testament” which are, in my opinion, not surprising for an English translation made ca. 1830. He also notes “a pattern of prophecy that is highly unusual, consisting of uncharacteristically specific predictions from the time of Nephi to the time of Joseph Smith … followed by absolute silence about anything that’s happened since the early 19th Century, which would have been most useful to the stated audience of the book.” This, like the prophecies of Christ, are really a matter of accepting prophecy or not, and agency could again be invoked for the lack of specificity on details after Joseph Smith’s time—highly specific prophecy of events after its publication would have simply made it’s truth to obvious, and thus interfered with the exercise of true agency (which requires that competing explanations have seemingly approximately equal merit). I could go on with the issues I have skipped over, but will refrain.

Closing Comments

I appreciate that RA was willing to read and comment on the Book of Mormon, and his professional tone. I hope I have successfully engaged him with just as much professionalism. I realize that little of what I have to say is going to convince RA or any other atheist that the Book of Mormon is true. And, it is certainly correct that none of the above proves the Book of Mormon true. I have merely sought to add to the conversation, as I said before, with some reflections from a Mormon who considers himself well-informed. I hope that, at the least, I have shown some that the Book of Mormon merits a more serious reading. Much of what initially seems odd and out of place turns out to fit more comfortably than one would expect, and certainly more comfortably than what was known in 1830.




[1] Matt Bowen, “‘What Thank They the Jews’? (2 Nephi 29:4): A Note on the Name ‘Judah’ and Antisemitism,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 111–125.
[2] Stefen Wimmer, Palästiniches Hieratisch: Die Zahl- und Sonderzeichen in der althebräishen Schrift  (Wiesbaden: Harraossowitz, 2008).
[3] An English summary of Wimmer’s work, from which I have quoted, is  William J. Hamblin, “Palestinian Hieratic,” at Interpreter (blog), September 1, 2012, online at http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/palestinian-hieratic/ (accessed September 25, 2014).
[4] For example, Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “Notes and Communications—Jewish and Other Semitic Texts Written in Egyptian Characters,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996): 156–163; John S. Thompson, “Lehi and Egypt,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 266–267; Aaron P. Schade, “The Kingdom of Judah: Politics, Prophets, and Scribes in the Late Preexilic Period,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 315–319; William J. Hamblin, “Reformed Egyptian,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 31–35.
[5] Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2006), 79.
[6] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012).
[7] Daniel C. Peterson, “Messianic Ideas in Judaism,” Deseret News, June 14, 2012, online at: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765582991/Messianic-ideas-in-Judaism.html?pg=all (accessed October 23, 2014).
[8] John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1 (1992): 119–141.
[9] John W. Welch, Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: BYU Press and Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship, 2008).
[10] John S. Thompson, “Isaiah 50–51, the Israelite Autumn Feastivals, and the Covenant Speech of Jacob in 2 Nephi 6–10,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 123–150; John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).
[11] For example, John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), chaps. 16, 18, 24, 38, 39, 44, 50, 54, 56, 70, 72, 73.
[12] David Rolph Seely, “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 62–69.
[13] Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, “Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition,” in Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 143–172; Kevin Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 449–522; Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001).

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed your comments regarding agency and evidence. I hadn't made that connection before but it makes great sense and am certain it is a true principle thank you.

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