Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Dumpster Diving with a New LDS Area Authority in Hong Kong

My wife and I had the pleasure of attending a multi-district youth conference in Hong Kong over the three-day weekend we just had in China. On Sunday night at the large LDS building in Wan Chai, Hong Kong (14 stories tall!), right before the testimony meeting for the youth was about to begin, a very nice LDS man from the Hong Kong area asked me if I was in the Shanghai District presidency, and would I be willing to sit on the stand with him and other leaders during the testimony meeting. "I guess so," I replied, "but first I need to do some dumpster diving."

Earlier that day, the 100+ young people from five districts across China did a service project on two floors of the Wan Chai building in which they cooked a delicious for two large branches of sisters from the Philippines who work in Hong Kong as maids, trying to make money for their families back home. There are many hundreds of LDS women from the Philippines working in difficult circumstances in Hong Kong. They spend their lives serving other people with little rest. On Sunday, they got to experience having someone else serve them for a change, and I was stunned by how excited and grateful they were. Giggling, exuberant, talkative, and just so much to be around. It helped that the food we cooked was well planned and really delicious, and it helped that leaders who knew and loved the Philipinas helped guide the event. It also helped that the youth were spread out across the dining hall so they would talk to and learn from the sisters they were serving. What awesome fun this event was!

The Philipinas love to take pictures, so we had two cool backdrops set up to facilitate photography. They were provided by a sister in one of the Hong Kong branches or wards, made by her daughter. Unfortunately, during clean up, they were rolled up and thrown out with the trash. When I learned of the problem and saw the frustrated look on the sister's face who was hoping to take the backgrounds back home, it seemed like a little dumpster diving was in order, though I worried that the odds of finding the remnants of the background would be low and that they would probably be ruined. Still, I wanted to try.

After I explained the situation and the reason for "dumpster diving," how surprised I was when the man who invited me to sit on the stand volunteered to lead the charge toward the dumpsters right before the meeting was supposed to start. He knew where they were and took me and another man from Beijing straight there. He was in a very nice suit, unlike my cheap one (about $150, tailor made at the South Bund Fabric Market in Shanghai, one of many important stops for your next trip to China!). I could see that this was a man for whom service came naturally, even when messy.

He brought us to the dumpsters and opened them up. Fortunately, before anyone had to get dirty, the leader from Beijing, Brother Sevy, spotted a clean, dry box with the sought-after treasure. The backdrops had been rolled and folded, and were not covered in remnants of curry chicken and rice. We unfolded them, rolled them properly, and soon had them back in the hands of the smiling sister who had loaned them for our activity. Whew!

Only after we got to the stand did I realize that the dumpster-diving Mormon who helped us recover our treasure from the trash was President Tai of the Hong Kong Area Presidency. Elder Benjamin Ming Tze Tai is one of the new Area Authorities who was just sustained in General Conference. Such a kind, sweet, and professional man. It's people like him that make it such a pleasure to be part of the Church and to rub shoulders with its leaders, even when that occurs in a Hong Kong dumpster.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Thought on Book of Mormon Origins

The full significance of Martin Harris's visit to Charles Anthon has been diminished in the way Latter-day Saints typically retell the story. A consequence of that visit was an apparent fulfillment of prophecy in Isaiah 29 when the learned scholar, Charles Anthon, declared that he could not "read a sealed book," after initially giving a favorable report to Martin Harris about the apparent ancient nature of the characters copied off the gold plates. We have since focused on the trip as fulfilling a prophecy and satisfying Martin Harris's doubts. But the real purpose of the lengthy journey to New York City and other stops was to find someone who could translated text. Significantly, at this time, Joseph did not yet know what language the plates were written in. Harris was not looking for a translator of Egyptian or reformed Egyptian (only European scholars could have provided any hope of translation from Egyptian at that time) or even some version of Hebrew. He may have been looking for experts in Native American languages.

A valuable resource on the details of Martin Harris's journey and its purpose is found in Michael Hubbard Mackay's chapter, '"Git Them Translated': Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates," in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 83-116. This chapter has kindly been made available by the author at Academia.edu, but please buy the book (one of my most treasured recent acquisitions, loaded with great material).

Mackay's chapter needs to be read in combination with his new book, Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, particularly chapter 3, which adds further details pointing to Joseph's initial desire to find a translator and showing that Joseph did not know what the characters were until he got information as a result of Harris's journey that suggested a connection with ancient Old World languages (specifically, his brother William Smith said that it was through Harris that Joseph would first learn that the script was some form of degenerate Hebrew mixed with Egyptian).

The more we learn about the details of the origins of the Book of Mormon and the translation process, the more we see a young, uneducated man discovering step by step what the treasure was that he had before him. He did not begin with a scheme to create something allegedly in an ancient Egyptian script that the would translate by the power of God. His initial desire was to find someone to do the translation, and he did not have any idea what language the script was. He would later learn that he had to translate, and during the translation he would learn that they were written in reformed Egyptian. This is not the fruit of a carefully worked out scheme, but more and more looks exactly like the kind of thing he and his witnesses testified of: an unlearned man doing something extraordinary with a genuine ancient text, miraculously preserved and miraculously translated.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

General Conference and Immigration

I've been deeply touched by the emphasis on service to refugees being advocated by the Church during this recent General Conference. Related to that was the message from Elder Donald L. Hallstrom, "I Am a Child of God," which showed great love and appreciation for the powerful faith of new Saints in Liberia, where he and some other leaders were among the first to return to that nation after travel into the nation was again allowed after the recent Ebola crisis was over. The story of such faithful Saints who have memorized so much of scripture and so many hymns reminds me of the immigrants and converts among the Nephite nation, the former Lamanites who called themselves Anti-Nephi-Lehites after conversion. Though given lands of inheritance, they were outsiders, cut off from their former culture and not really part of the new one. It seems that they turned to God and the scriptures for their support, developing their own Zion-based culture, producing families of great faith who would be a great blessing to the Nephites. I think we can look to Africa for great blessings and miracles in our own future.

Immigration and loss of roots is an ongoing problem in Africa, though it is dwarfed in the news by the immigration crises stemming from Syria and other nations whose immigrants are sweeping into Europe and other nations. I am glad to see the Church encouraging compassion and support for immigrants.

Contrary to some critics who insist that Mormons really aren't accepting of outsiders and immigrants, my family's experience suggests that love and acceptance of immigrants and strangers is a vital part of our faith and culture. Two of my siblings married immigrants, one from Korea and one from Brazil. In Appleton, Wisconsin, a large fraction of our ward was made of immigrants, mostly the Hmong people from Laos and Thailand, but also some from Mexico and other lands. One of my first callings in Wisconsin was being asked to reach out to immigrants in the area, and that began my study of the Hmong language and some Spanish.

After having worked closely with immigrants as their bishop, I was then called with my entire family to serve in a Hmong-speaking branch. The stories of tragedy and loss from the Hmong people, who fought and died to rescue Americans in the secret wars in Laos during the Vietnam War, inspired and moved me, and motivated me to create a web page about their story, "The Tragedy of the Hmong," in addition to writing an article that has been published in several sources. While I personally was an advocate for integrating the newly baptized Hmong people into a strong, functional ward rather than forming their own branch, we accepted the calling and strove to serve them for two years. The branch faced disaster, one of the most painful eras of my life, when a key leader there left the Church. Yet I remain his friend and was pleased to visit him and his wife when I was in Appleton on a visit from China, and was delighted to see he still had a large photo of his family with my wife and I from the day he went to the LDS temple with us. We love him and his family, and yearn for their happiness.

We are now strangers in China and though we live in unjust prosperity in the easy city of Shanghai, we can relate to a few of the challenges that strangers and immigrants face in strange lands, though precious few are given the advantages and ease that we have. Our lives, though, are deeply connected with others here whose paths have not been so smooth. The immigrants from the Chinese countryside fill the cities and are strangers and sometimes outcasts, seeking a better life without the benefits of health care and education that would be available if they stayed in their homelands, where jobs are scarce. They stand in great need of help also and represent a great challenge here in China that many are striving to address, but the challenge is so great.

In every nation, there is a need to do more for the needs of the immigrants and the impoverished in out midst. How we respond will determine who we are. May we listen to the wise counsel from General Conference and from other wise proponents of compassion to find better ways to help.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 Now at MormonInterpreter.com

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map" is the tongue-in cheek title of my serious look at detailed criticisms of the Book of Mormon evidence from the Arabian Peninsula. The Interpreter (MormonInterpreter.com) kindly published it. Part 1 was out on Friday, and Part 2 will be published next Friday. The "Dream Map" theme is my take on the theories that claim Joseph Smith must have seen a high-end European map of Arabia that had the name "Nehhm" or "Nehem" on it. That scrap of information could have revealed the location of the Nihm tribe in Yemen, whose tribal lands are now considered to correspond with the place "Nahom" where Ishmael was buried in 1 Nephi 16:34. Not only is that region the perfect place--the right place--for Nahom, being nearly due west of the leading candidate for Bountiful on the east coast, the existence of that tribal name in the region in roughly the right time in antiquity has been confirmed by three amazing altars from a temple in ancient Marib bearing the NHM tribal name. It's almost as cool as finding a Mesoamerican inscription saying "Welcome to Zarahemla, home of the Nephites."

The details of what Joseph could have gleaned from the best maps of his day is covered in Part 2, but in Part 1 I point out that theories based upon a "Dream Map" or other theories with Joseph as fabricator fail to account for the crown jewels of the evidence, fail to explain how the maps or other resources could have guided the actual recorded path, and fail to explain why Joseph and his peers never tool advantage of the built-in evidence for the Book of Mormon that they allegedly created. If they used information from maps or books to build in evidence or "local color" for enhanced credibility, why was it never exploited? Why not arrange for someone to "discover" the Nahom evidence on a newly purchased map to support the Book of Mormon? When related evidence came out in other sources, it was highly touted in LDS publications. Why neglect the evidence from Arabia, unless Joseph and his peers had no idea it was there? The potential link to a real Nahom-related name on a map would not be noticed until 1978.

Writing this article was an enjoyable process of discovery for me. I feel that I discovered a few interesting things along the way that might not have been widely appreciated before. For example, one of the complaints about George Potter's excellent candidate for the River Laman and the Valley Lemuel (see photo below) is its lack of a mouth, though Nephi says it has one (1 Nephi 2:8). Objections have also been made to the term "fountain of the Red Sea," into which the River Laman "emptied" according to 1 Nephi 2:9. In response, here is an excerpt from Part 1 of the article (footnotes deleted):

Critics in the 1850s guffawed at describing the flow of the river as going into the "fountain of the Red Sea" and some continue to object to Nephi's term. One can argue that fountain can have a broader meaning than a spring or subterranean flow of some kind, but the other uses of "fountain" in the Book of Mormon point to similar concepts: a physical or figurative source of a flow such as a spring. The Hebrew word typically translated as "fountain" (Strong's H4599, mayan) has the meaning of a spring, and is also sometimes translated as spring or well, giving it a subterranean flavor. Interestingly, that more specific meaning may actually fit the physical reality Nephi experienced.

Potter and Wellington, in Lehi in the Wilderness, observe that "the river flows under a gravel bed for the last three-eights of a mile as it approaches the Gulf of Aqaba."  They observe that the river may have previously had much greater water flow, and that the canyon floor is believed to have risen since Lehi's day, so perhaps it flowed directly into the Red Sea when Nephi saw it. On the other hand, I wish to suggest that even through the river flow may have been greater and the elevation of the canyon somewhat lower, what if the river still disappeared beneath the rocks as it approached the Red Sea in Nephi's day? By disappearing into the rocks adjacent the Red Sea, the water is obviously not disappearing completely, but is flowing into the Red Sea through subterranean channels, joining the underground springs that feed the Red Sea. In other words, the River Laman is now, and possibly was in Nephi's day, literally flowing into the fountains that feed the Red Sea.

If the river disappeared near the coast in Nephi's day as it does now, arguably flowing into the "fountain of the Red Sea," then perhaps this would also explain Nephi's repeated use of the verb "empty" rather than "flow." The river "emptied into the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:8), and again Lehi "saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:9). Waters disappearing, descending into the earth, could well be described this way. Perhaps Potter's candidate for the River Laman fits the details of Nephi's description even better than he realized, although it is difficult to know if the behavior of the river around 600 BC would be similar to its behavior today.

 Another objection to the leading candidate for the River Laman is that it lacks a mouth flowing into the Red Sea, apparently contrary to 1 Nephi 2:8, which states that the river "emptied into the Red Sea; and the valley was in the borders near the mouth thereof." Chadwick emphasizes this repeatedly in his critique, claiming that without a mouth, we can rule this candidate out and be certain that Potter has been looking in the wrong place.  One definition of "mouth" is:
something that resembles a mouth especially in affording entrance or exit: as
a: the place where a stream enters a larger body of water,
b :  the surface opening of an underground cavity….
Another dictionary gives one definition for mouth as "the outfall at the lower end of a river or stream, where flowing water is discharged, as into a larger body of water."  If Nephi understood that the River Laman, as it sank into the ground, was flowing into the subterranean waters that feed the Red Sea, or the fountain of the Red Sea, then the place where that stream disappeared and entered a larger body of water (the subterranean fountain) would appropriately be called a mouth. The Book of Mormon does not say that the mouth directly contacted the Red Sea. It had a mouth and flowed into a fountain, the fountain of (meaning "belonging to" or "associated with," I would argue) the Red Sea, and thus "emptied into the Red Sea," via the fountain. This understanding resolves the primary argument Chadwick offers against this candidate, for the river does indeed have a mouth where it flows into a larger body of water. And, as noted above, it resolves the objection to calling the Red Sea a fountain, which is not necessarily what Nephi is saying. It is also consistent with the ancient concept of interconnected subterranean waters that feed rivers and oceans.
What I enjoyed most about writing the article was the need to dig more deeply into some of the best writings out there, especially Lehi and Sariah in Arabia by Warren Aston, his 2015 masterpiece. The DVD, Lehi in Arabia, also beautifully illustrates the wonder of Bountiful. Well worth the time to ponder! There are so many gems from Arabia that merit more reflection, more study, and more exploration (with the help of more funding, of course). 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

A Mother's Attempt at Prayer

At our recent District Conference (Shanghai International District), an LDS mother in an exellent talk on seeking peace through the Gospel of Jesus Christ opened with her story of attempted prayer. With her kind permission, the story follows:
Several years ago I had a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and 1-year-old. I was praying one morning, and, as was normal, the kids were climbing all over me happily yelling and playing. Most mornings I would ignore it and continue to pray, but on this particular morning, I had just had enough of the noise and craziness. I just wanted a few minutes to pray without also simultaneously being used as a playground! So I stopped in the middle of my prayer and said in exasperation, “Can you just give me a few minutes of peace????” My kids stopped and my 2-year-old looked at me and said in his best tough guy voice, “You wanna piece of me?” Needless to say, my exasperation quickly melted to laughter. I don’t think I even finished my prayer. 
I love this story. Apart from its humor and the reminder of how much media can influence us  (I think the two-year-old must have picked up that line from Toy Story, is that right?), what I really like is an aspect my wife pointed out that the speaker probably didn't notice. What really impressed us is that this sister made it a habit to pray even in the midst of noise and the pressing demands of life. Even with kids crawling over her, she would seek a moment for for daily prayer.

Too often we find pressing schedules, changing itineraries, and the rush of life squeeze out quiet moments for prayer, and we zoom through our day running on spiritual empty. That mother reminded me that even things are rushed, noisy, and chaotic, I need to take time for prayer. Distractions are not an excuse. Though a hilarious two-year-old tough guy act can throw any of us for a loop. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Another Reason Why the Ancient Covenant Formulary Matters

Some LDS writers have talked about the ancient covenant pattern found in the Near East as possible evidence for the ancient authenticity of the Book of Mormon (where it may be present in King Benjamin's speech) as well as the LDS temple. Regarding its use in the Book of Mormon, see Stephen D. Ricks, "The Treaty/Covenant Pattern in King Benjamin's Address (Mosiah 1- 6)," BYU Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, Spring 1984, pp. 151-62. Also see Stephen Ricks, "Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6," in King Benjamin's Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275. For basic information on the covenant formulary and its presence in the Bible, see Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), p. 23ff, and Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 283-294. [Most of these references were added in an update on April 5, 2016.]

The six-part structure of ancient Hittite treaties, also found in the Bible, was only noted and studied in the 1900s, making it unlikely that Joseph Smith could have known of this or consciously imitated it. Osmosis, luck, and bad LDS apologetics are alternate explanations. But the understanding of ancient covenants is important for an issue of more general interest: the Bible and its origins.

In the debates over the origins of the Bible, a large number of modern scholars have found it fashionable to view the early books of the Bible as late fabrications largely composed after the Exile. The details of Moses and the Sinai covenant, for example, are often presented as a late evolutionary development not grounded in history. However, the presence of such ancient treaty structures, significantly different from known treaty structures in the Near East after the Exile, suggests that the accounts in the Bible have much more ancient roots.
The similarity of the form of the "Hittite" type of treaty with the structure of Exodus 24-Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua 24 directly bears on the question of the dating of these narratives. Many scholars acknowledge the antiquity of these biblical treaty-texts because of the similar structure of the six points of the Hittite treaties. Mendenhall, for example, concluded: "It is very difficult to escape the conclusion that this narrative rests upon traditions which go back to the period when the treaty form was still living." Klaus Baltzer maintained that "it remains, however, a striking and historically unexplained explained fact that the Old Testament texts resemble most closely the highly developed formulary of the Hittite treaties." Kitchen determined that "if we take the nature and order of nearly all the elements in the Old Testament Sinai covenant and its renewals [i.e., Deuteronomy and Joshua 24] ... it is strikingly evident that the Sinai covenant and its renewals must be classed with the late-second-millennium covenants."
Source: James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), Kindle edition, chapter 8, section IV, "Ancient Near Eastern Treaties and the Sinai Legislation."
Hoffmeir goes on to review the attempts of some scholars to dress the Biblical covenant material with much later robes, but the fit is rather poor.

My first introduction to these ancient covenant patterns came while reading Jon Levenson's marvlous book, Sinai and Zion. This aspect of ancient covenants deserves more attention for better appreciating the Old Testament as well as LDS material.

Professor Explains Why Mormons Don't Like Trump (and My Thoughts on Dissent)

I apologize for stepping into political topics in this post, which I prefer to avoid most of the time here. I especially apologize to supporters of Donald Trump, for I do recognize that there are intelligent, faithful people who feel he is right on enough important issues to merit their support. I can say the same about supporters of any other candidate as well, and do not wish to say anyone is a bigot, criminal, or idiot for supporting another candidate, no matter how dangerous and deceitful they may seem to me. Politics is a complex, emotional field and there are many different decisions that good people can make (or, in more cynical words, just as there are many ways to deceive the very elect, there are even more ways to deceive the "very electors," or something like that).  

A reader here at Mormanity asked me to comment on an article that initially resembled (but wasn't) just another critic of Mormons looking for faults in the things Mormons do. A Harvard-trained professor at Emory University, Dr Benjamin Hertzberg, wrote what I consider an unkind piece for the Washington Post deconstructing Utah's rejection of Trump not as a vote for religious liberty but more as a desperate if not deceitful attempt to look mainstream by fearful Mormons who allegedly might not really be so supportive of religious liberty for others. In "Utah’s Mormons rejected Trump and picked Cruz. Here’s why," the professor applies what must be Ivy League mind-reading skills as he explains what Utahans were really thinking as they overwhelming rejected Trump in the recent Republican primary.

First, let me note that Hertzberg does not share the refreshing outlook of Mike Donnelly, the Catholic man who is Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Mike Lee, who finds a community founded on kindness and service in Utah that he believed would thrash Donald Trump on election day (see "Why a Catholic Loves Utah–Especially on Caucus Day" at Meridian Magazine).  Hertzberg also doesn't share the positive response exhibited by Damon Linker writing for The Week with the intriguing title, "The GOP needs more Mormons." Linker lists six reasons why Mormons may not like Trump (these may not apply to all of you, but they fit me fairly well and a majority of my LDS friends and family): (1) we aren't angry people; (2) we object to vulgarity; (3) we generally dislike Trump's "garish lifestyle"; (4) we respect the law and distrust those who might set themselves up as authoritarians above the law; (5) we like immigration reform and have a positive view of immigrants (many of us want more legal immigrants and recognize how much they can contribute to our society); and (6) Mormon's don't hate Muslims.

On that last point, in my small circle of LDS friends here in China, Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to be an especially important factor in their dislike of Trump. You can't just trample the Constitution and deny religious liberty to a whole class of people. Mormons tend to get this. We can easily see that this is dangerous. So I cannot vote for Trump. That doesn't mean I want to embrace radical socialism or any other flavor of Big, Bigger, Biggest Government -- the lessons of China's painful history, especially the Cultural Revolution, have much to teach us about what happens when you stir up a generation to think that progress and prosperity comes by seizing other people's stuff.

When a Muslim worship hall (not yet a full-fledged mosque, as I recall) came to the Fox Valley near Appleton, Wisconsin a few years ago when I was serving as a bishop, I took my older sons with me to attend to the opening ceremony and public house. I wanted them to meet some of my Muslim friends and to appreciate the goodness in this other faith. More recently, on Christmas Day while in Hong Kong, our youngest son actually recommended that we visit a mosque there that we saw on the way, and we had a wonderful and memorable experience there (and I'm looking forward to what will be my third visit the next time I'm in Hong Kong at the end of April, hoping to meet my new friend from Yemen). I was proud of my son's willingness to learn about and respect another great faith. In my experience, typical Mormons generally respect other faiths, including Judaism and Islam.

Such points don't seem to count for much to Hertzberg. What's really driving the Mormon vote — as if all of Utah were just one big Mormon block, acting in lockstep — apparently is fear, coupled with a lack of courage, and certainly not any kind of genuine, principled concern about religious liberty:
As members of a minority religion, those in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are stuck in a Catch-22: They are bound by their well-developed fear of persecution to appear as American as apple pie, all the while preserving their radical religious particularity. It is this predicament, rather than a principled concern for religious liberty, that best explains Utah’s caucus results....
For a minority religious group such as the Mormons, religious liberty is both a necessary condition for their survival and a continuous threat to it. Without it, they could potentially be subjected to coercive restrictions... With it, however, Mormons have to deal with continuous and relentless historical examination of their founding theological claims and the ever-present fear that their youths will either leave the faith or radically reshape the way it is practiced and understood....
It is deeply mistaken to understand Utah’s decision ... as motivated by some principled Mormon concern for religious liberty.

What I see instead is the fearful calculus of a minority religious group that has legitimate concerns about the likely implications of the GOP’s increasingly punitive policies toward the religiously different — but does not have the courage to embrace their particularity and leave the party entirely. To do so would be to admit what is obvious to students of Mormonism: They are radically different from the mainstream of American Protestant religiosity. So instead of proclaiming their own difference, they stay, effectively, in the closet: They support the marginally more respectable Cruz over the brash and aggressive Trump. [emphasis mine]
It is a mistake, he argues, to see Utah's rejection of Trump as a vote for religious liberty since, he argues, Cruz has serious gaps in that area, too, and the lesser known, less liked John Kasich would be the right choice, he says, for a vote actually based on respect for religious liberty. Since Utahan's preferred Cruz, the only Republican candidate with a serious chance to compete with Trump, they must not really be for religious liberty.

I know some of you are going to say that I'm once again way out of my league in criticizing the  political thinking of a Harvard-trained professor of political theory, but when I talk with actual voters about how they vote, I notice that very few of them are willing to "throw away" their vote the way I often do and vote for, say, a third party or a remotely trailing candidate with little chance of winning. To me it seems that a majority of voters will select the lesser of two or three evils in order to support a less objectionable candidate with a chance of winning. That may sound crazy in the halls of Harvard, but it's what I see on the streets of American towns.

So yes, perhaps Kasich might be a better choice to make a statement on religious liberty for a well-informed voter (do they still have those these days?) willing to simply vote for the best candidate on the list. Actually, more Utahans voted for Kasich than for Trump, but many more supported Cruz, the only Republican candidate with a chance of beating Trump. Kasich has only won his home state, nothing else, and is a distant fourth behind Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Is it implausible that making a "practical" vote for someone with a chance to stop Trump was an important factor for many voters? To portray the overall outcome in Utah as the result of a perverse "fearful calculus" to make Mormons look mainstream without actually being very tolerant people strikes me as the kind of harsh bias and skewed mind-reading  we often find in anti-Mormon writings, where everything Mormons do can be cast in negative light and precious little credit given for what others can readily see as good.

At that point I had to wonder about Hertzberg. What makes him tick, or rather, what makes him so ticked about Mormons? In Googling him, I was quite surprised to see that he had been a professor of political science for a couple of years at BYU. In fact, he's LDS, which surprised me. Then came a critical insight. Very shortly after the LDS policy on children in gay marriages came out, he published a harshly critical piece on CNN.com in which he boldly states that he must stand against the Church. In "Mormons' unChristian policy on LGBTQ," published Nov. 13, 2015, just a few days after the policy was published, he declares that Mormons should "loudly and publicly object to the policy and demand its immediate retraction," and calls the Church's explanations for the policy "disingenuous." He urges dissent, and declares that he's doing it out of love for the Church and as means of sustaining its leaders:
Some will think that by publicly dissenting from the new policy I am not sustaining the First Presidency and the Twelve. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I dissent because I love Mormonism, and I cannot bear to see its leaders cause so much unnecessary suffering and harm. I dissent because obedience now costs too much, to my moral integrity, to the church, and to the families of Mormons whom I love.
This is certainly his right. Many of us struggled with the policy when it came out. Some have waited patiently to understand it and to better understand what the Church's concerns are. Some have reacted too quickly and harshly, in my opinion, and Hertzberg's prompt reaction of loud public dissent may be an example of that, though I am confident he is genuine and that he views his actions as loving and courageous.

Of course, we have to make our own personal choices in these difficult matters. I fear, though, that his anger or frustration over the same-sex marriage issue may have led him to become too critical. This has happened to many I know when they become frustrated or critical on one issue, that can then affect their approach to other issues as well.

Regardless of where Hertzberg is in his attitudes, which may be more benign that I gather from his interpretation of Mormon voting, I wish now to speak of the general issue of disagreement and dissent. 

I have a little experience in dealing with Church leaders and decisions from above that I object to. What I have learned over the years is that I rarely do wrong when I am charitable, when I assume that those in leadership positions with whom I may disagree are not acting out of vile hatred, fear, ignorance, and other evil motivations. This took some time for me to learn as I dealt with some painful circumstances when I served in some past leadership positions, but it has been a vital lesson for me.

We are rarely wrong when we take some time and consider that there may be reasonable thinking behind the actions of our mortal, fallible leaders, and that while they may sometimes be in error, the error is usually not because they are idiots and mean-spirited bigots, though few men are free of the many errors in thinking that can pervade human society in every generation. We are rarely wrong when we keep our objections, however well founded, and even anger to ourselves and wait for an appropriate opportunity to discuss concerns with our leaders. We are rarely wrong to be patient. And we are rarely right when we take our indignation to the public, however righteous we think we and it are. There's something about the psychology of going public and all the encouragement and attention that it brings that makes it very easy to step over the threshold from good-faith feedback to "kicking against the pricks." There's a reason for Christ's wise counsel: "in your patience possess ye your souls" (Luke 21:19), and I urge caution to those who want to stand as loud and critical dissenters. That's my view, anyway. 

It is common for dissenters to claim that their public criticism and denouncements are done to help the Church (though calling it a manifestation of actually "sustaining" our leaders is a bit unusual). It is common for them to call it an expression of love for Mormonism. They probably mean it. But while the GOP may need more Mormons, as Damon Linker suggests, sometimes we Mormons could use a little less love.

I hope members who feel a need to publicly criticize their Church can apply patience and faith rather than becoming vocal critics. I also hope that America will learn the lessons of history and come to its senses in preserving not just religious liberty but the many precious liberties meant to be preserved by the Constitution which gave us a small, weak Federal government, with vast powers reserved to the States and to the People, not in the hands of an autocratic executive (and his appointed cronies) able to launch wars, change or ignore laws, spend at will, and do thousands of things our Founders sought to prevent. May the blood they spent in bringing us liberty not be for naught. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

An Annoying but Beautiful Passage: Isaiah 55:8-9 ("My Ways Are Higher...") and Its Link to Continuing Revelation

Isaiah 55:8-9 may be one of the most annoying passages in scripture. Not because it isn’t true and beautifully expressed, but because of how it has been abused for centuries. Thousands of people have had serious questions about some of the most fundamental issues of their faith. Questions like, “If God and Christ are the same being, why does Christ pray to the Father? Why does he say 'my Father is greater than I'? Why does he say “not my will but thine be done?” In response, they may be told that it’s a mystery, it’s not supposed to make sense, and is something we cannot even hope to understand because God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours, so please quit asking such things.

Isaiah 55:8-9 has been used to shut down inquiry and to stop seekers from seeking answers. The abuse of this scripture is rooted in the false, man-made notion that revelation has ceased, that everything we need to know has been revealed and there are no more revealed answers to be obtained. So please stop seeking.

How grateful I am for the Restoration that reminds us of the ancient, biblical truth that God does speak through his prophets and apostles, and that there are more prophets and more words of God to come (e.g., Matthew 23:34 “behold, I send unto you prophets, … and some of them ye shall kill and crucify”; Rev. 11:3-12, speaking of two future prophets in Jerusalem; Amos 3:7; Joel 2:28-29; etc.). How grateful I am for Isaiah, the great prophet and poet who understood that the living God does not wish to seal the heavens but invites us to seek, to learn, and to feast upon the knowledge that He wishes to share and reveal.

Let’s consider Isaiah 55:8-9 in its context.

Isaiah begins with an invitation to drink deeply and feast, not to starve. The Lord is offering abundance:
1 Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

2 Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.
This feast comes by listening to what the Lord will speak and by participating in his covenant:

3 Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David….
We are commanded to seek the Lord, which is to seek more, and not to be satisfied with where we are and what we have already:
6 Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
This abundance of guidance and revelation for those who seek requires that we draw close to the Lord and repent of our sins:
7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
We need to repent that we might receive His words and revelation, because:
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Through seeking his ways, his thoughts, his words, and his revelations, we will receive the life giving waters he offers and experience the spiritual abundance He promises and the joy that God's word and guidance can bring:
10 For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:

11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

12 For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree: and it shall be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
An excellent companion passage is Jacob 4, verses 8 and 10, from the Book of Mormon:

8 Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God....

10 Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know that he counseleth in wisdom, and in justice, and in great mercy, over all his works. 

There are mysteries that are impossible for us to learn and understand--on our own. The Lord's response is not to say, "so quit asking," but rather to explain that the only way to get knowledge of those mysteries is through revelation. We are thus to treasure revelation, not to despise it. That includes revelation already given in the scriptures, personal revelation given to individuals, and revelation given to the Lord's servants, the prophets and apostles.

We should cherish revelation and ever seek to understand more. There are mysteries, but the Lord wants us not to give up and assume His higher ways are unknowable, but to come to Him and drink deeply of the wells of wisdom He offers. He pleads with us to accept His revelations so that we can learn from Him and see things as they are. He wants us to seek, not to shut down inquiry. Humbling welcoming and feasting on continuing revelation from the Lord is ultimately at the heart of Isaiah's message in Isaiah 55.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ready for Negative Interest Rates?

On a temporal note (the theme "provident living" being my excuse), here's a heads up on one of the craziest things on our economic horizons: negative interest rates. Desperate governments in Japan and Europe are turning to this ultimate expression of fiscal insanity in a bid to stimulate stagnant economies that haven't been stimulated enough by the massive market distortions created by artificially low interest rates. So now they want to force people to use their money to spend, spend, spend by essnetially taxing money saved in the bank. A negative interest rate means you pay the bank for the privilege of using your money. It's a vicious new tax on savings that no government should be able to impose on its people, disguised as just another carefully considered banking policy allegedly within the ever expanding powers given to the Federal Reserve Bank.

Negative interest rates haven't worked for Japan, and are likely to be a failure for Europe. So naturally, I expect the US to follow suit. The head of the US Federal Reserve bank, instead of mocking the insanity of such a move, recently said it was on the table for the Fed.

But won't negative interest rates just drive people to take money out of the bank and hide their cash somewhere? Yes, which is why some cynics think that it will be followed by a war on cash itself, making cash harder to use, so that everyone has to keep money in electronic form. In a world where thieves break through and steal with more power than ever before, that may very well be on the table also for our future monetary policy.

How do you prepare for a world with that kind of fiscal insanity? Turning some of your electronic bits into food storage is one way. Keeping cash on hand for now is also a very good idea, especially in light of the ability of hackers to wipe out accounts. I also think that it's smart to have some of your savings in precious metals such as silver or gold. I think over the long term these will grow dramatically in value, but make sure you are buying or investing in real physical metal and not just paper that someone claims represents gold. For retirement accounts, one vehicle that I like is the Central Fund of Canada (NYSE: CEF) where shares are backed by real gold and silver bullion.

Or you can just not worry about the future and trust someone else to watch out for you and your posterity. Your call!

Monday, March 07, 2016

The Chain that Veils: A Word Play in Moses 7:26?

As I'll explain in more detail in the near future, an important verse in considering possible connections between the ancient brass plates and the Book of Moses is found in Moses 7:26, which refers to a vision of Enoch:
26 And he beheld Satan; and he had a great chain in his hand, and it veiled the whole face of the earth with darkness; and he looked up and laughed, and his angels rejoiced.
Tonight as I was writing about this verse, I was curious about the imagery. How could a chain veil the earth? Chains aren't especially opaque. Fortunately, Hebrew is. So I used my Blue Letter Bible app to search for "veil" and "chain" in the Old Testament. The first hits I found for both gave me these words:
  • Candidate for "chain": Strong's H7242 (רָבִיד), rabiyd, a neck chain or collar according to Gesenius's Lexicon, used in Genesis 41:42 (Pharaoh gives Joseph "a gold chain about his neck") and Ezekiel 16:11 ("I decked thee also with ornaments, and I put ... a chain on thy neck").
  • Candidate for "veil"/"vail": Strong's H7289 (רָדִיד), radiyd, a "veil" in Song of Songs 5:7 and "vails" in Isaiah 3:23, a word which means something spread, a wide wrapper or large veil, or, in Gesenius's Lexicon, "a wide and thin female garment, a cloak."
Bring me down to earth on the problems with these proposals, please, but for now, I quite like these possibilities. If these words were actually used in a Hebrew document (say, on the brass plates--more on that later), then Satan's chain, a rabiyd,  wouldn't necessarily be something that looks frightening, but is something ornamental and attractive, the kind we might gladly receive and wear around our necks with pride, only to realize too late that, like the golden handcuffs we speak of in the business world, it limits our freedom. Satan's pretty chains are chains of slavery. They connect us to his crushing yoke and lead us captive into bitter servitude. And we like fools are happy to clasp them around out necks. "Wow, thanks, it's so shiny!"

Second, the veil as some form of radiyd would seem appropriate, for it would be a cloak, spread out widely over the earth. And what a nice word play with rabiyd. Four letters, three of which are identical, and the "b" and "d" sounds aren't that distant phonetically. To me, it sounds like a winner as far as Hebraic word plays go. But I really don't know, so I welcome your feedback. Of course, the Book of Moses has "veiled" as a verb, not a noun, but perhaps "veiled" could be translation of a construction literally meaning something like "to act as a veil." Let me know if that is a problem.

If this could be a legitimate albeit speculative word play in Hebrew that someone has already noticed and written about, either regarding Moses 7:26 or some extant Hebrew text, I would appreciate a reference to cite. I'm working on an article where it might be helpful to cite such a reference. In any case, I think that Moses 7:26, word play or not, has some significance for the Book of Mormon that I hope to discuss more fully as part of an article I'm working on. If the word play is plausible, it would add a little more intrigue to the beauty of the LDS scriptures.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Recommended Resources for Dealing with the Extremes of Biblical Criticism

For students of the scriptures who are interested in understanding modern debates over the Bible as history as well as the impact of Higher Criticism on the Book of Mormon, there are several resources I wish to recommend:
  • Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, 2nd edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) — a widely read, popular work that has introduced many people to source-criticism, the branch of Higher Criticism that examines the text of the Pentateuch especially to determine the origins of different hypothesized documents that were assembled together into its current form. Friedman offers arguments for a priestly source composed in the days of Hezekiah, well before Nephi, for those who have encountered arguments against Book of Mormon plausibility because of its heavy Exodus content, much of which is said to derive from the Priestly source, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, a source that has been given a late date by a number of scholars. Friedman's book carefully explains why Julius Wellhausen blundered in reaching that conclusion. Friedman is a strong advocate of the Documentary Hypothesis, which is still a subject of debate, but an important paradigm to consider. 
  • James K. Hoffmeir, Israel in Egypt: The Evidences for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996) — an extremely thorough examination of the plausibility of the Exodus in spite of the absence of clear archaeological evidence (from regions where it is unreasonable to expect the kind of evidence some critics demand). Hoffmeir, a significant scholar, provides a credible and wide-ranging case against the claim that the Exodus account was largely created after the Exodus. His approach has some lessons in methodology that are relevant to Book of Mormon studies.
  • James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) — a book that build on his previous case for the reality of the Exodus, now exploring what we can learn of Sinai and Israel's era in the wilderness. He shows that archaeological evidence, textual material, geography, place names, and personal names all combine to create a reasonable case for the historical reality of the wilderness tradition. He also updates some of his proposals made in his earlier Israel in Egypt to reflect more recent discoveries. Hoffmeir provides evidence, for example, that the wilderness itinerary in Numbers 33 has support from the 14th century B.C., in contrast with the widespread view that it must be from the so-called Priestly source of much later origin.
  • K.A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) — an extensive and colorful, if not sometimes overly passionate response to the many critics who minimalize the Old Testament. Based on abundant data, Kitchen concludes that we can firmly reject the hypothesis that the Old Testament books originated as late as 400 to 200 B.C., as many minimalists maintain, and that we have strong evidence for the reality of the Exodus from Egypt and a Sinai covenant that must have originated between 1400 to 1200 B.C. Kitchen's work is also useful in showing weakness in the methodologies used to downplay the biblical text, many of which may resemble some of the techniques used against the Book of Mormon.
  • James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, editors, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). Relevant highlights in this compilation include Richard E. Averbeck, “Pentateuchal Criticism and the Priestly Torah” and Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “Old Testament Source Criticism: Some Methodological Miscues.” Chisholm critiques traditional source-criticism (the Documentary Hypothesis) by exploring the two most famous "parade cases" from source-criticism, the Flood story and the account of David in Saul's court. He challenges the reasons given for viewing these as a patchwork from contradicting original documents and goes on to show that their literary design and coherence points to either a single source or a masterful blending if multiple sources were used. He condemns the arrogant attitude of many scholars who seem to say that "if the text does not fit my idea of what literature should look like, it must be flawed," when in fact a more careful reading can resolve alleged problems and reveal that the Hebrew author was more knowledgeable and skilled than the critics admit. I also recommend Richard L. Schultz, "Isaiah, Isaiah, and Current Scholarship," with important information relevant to the presence of allegedly late Isaiah material in the Book of Mormon, and James K. Hoffmeir, "'These Things Happened': Why a Historical Exodus Is Essential for Theology," which provides a good review of the rise of biblical minimalism and the devaluation of the Bible as a text with historical content, with a clear review of high vital the Exodus theme is throughout the Bible.
In addition to the above books, many shorter articles and papers could be cited. A few of note include:
  • Joshua Berman, "Was There an Exodus?," Mosaic Magazine, March 2, 2015 — a fascinating recent contribution looking at long overlooked evidence from Egypt in support of the reality of the Exodus. This publication in Mosaic Magazine includes responses from other scholars, both for and against.
  • Yosef Garfinkel, “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism,” Biblical Archaeology Review 37/3 (May/Jun 2011): 46–53, 78 (subscription required for the full online article). This is a bold critique of the biblical "minimalists" and their panicked response to compelling archaeological evidence for the reality of the House of David. The application of his insights to the Book of Mormon was appropriately made by Neal Rappleye and Stephen Smoot in another highly recommended work directly related to the Lehi's trail, "Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 8 (2014), 157-185.
  • Kevin L. Barney, “Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33/1 (Spring 2000): 57–99 — a thoughtful and frequently cited essay from a faithful LDS scholar who explores how Latter-day Saints may respond to widely accepted scholarly theories on the origins of Bible documents.
For those of you who find value in the Bible beyond its literary value (i.e., recognize that it is more than just pious fiction), do you have any favorite resources that have been helpful to you, say, in understanding the agenda and distortions of biblical minimalists, or in understanding the limitations of the Documentary Hypothesis?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Scholars and Faith: The Conversion of Heinz Cassirer

One of the tragedies of modern biblical scholarship is the unnecessary loss of faith it has brought to many believers who have mistaken the frequently shifting declarations of scholars for the bedrock of truth. There's much to say on this topic later, but for now I'd like to give a counterexample of a secular scholar whose exploration of the Bible brought him to a profound respect of scripture and of Christ. This story comes from Robert W. Yarbrough, "God's Word in Human Words: Form-Critical Reflections" in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeir and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), Kindle edition, Chapter 14, in the section "Shift Stories: Not a One-Way Street."
Heinz Cassirer (1903–1979) is one those people about whom one wonders, How did he ever come to make a profession of personal faith in Jesus? His family was of European Jewish descent, from the part of Germany that is now in Poland. By the late nineteenth century, the family grew so secular that they abolished circumcision of their newborn boys. Heinz grew up in Germany, the son of perhaps the world’s foremost Kant scholar of the age, Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945).

Ronald Weitzman wrote of Heinz, “His Kantian upbringing made him scorn the idea that any kind of ‘supernatural’ help could be called on to assist a human being in solving a moral predicament.” Heinz Cassirer lived a thoroughly naturalistic existence, with no interest whatsoever in religion. He found it expedient to flee Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933. He later learned of many relatives dead in the Reich’s death camps.

Heinz ended up lecturing in Oxford and then Glasgow. He had attained recognition as an authority on Aristotle while still a young man in Germany. At the University of Glasgow he taught philosophy for over a quarter century. He published commentaries on two of Kant’s critiques. He translated various Greek sources in addition to his studies on Aristotle. This is hardly a man to suspect of mean intellectual endowment.

Quite remarkably, as we survey his life as a whole, we note among his last published works a translation (into English) of the Greek New Testament, a feat he accomplished in just thirteen months (July 1972–August 1973). In addition, there is the intriguingly titled Grace and Law: St. Paul, Kant, and the Hebrew Prophets. These works confirm his personal acceptance of the gospel call to faith in Jesus as Messiah and personal Savior.

What explains his move from secular Jew to baptized Christian? At about age fifty Cassirer conceived an interest in religion for the first time in his life. He was convinced that Kant was the greatest ethical analyst of all time. Kant brilliantly limned the scale and pathos of the human ethical dilemma, but he offered no compelling or even sufficient solution to the problem. The accomplished Greek scholar Cassirer, having read (he said) pretty much the whole of the Western philosophical corpus, picked up the Greek writings of another brilliant Jewish thinker. We know this thinker as the author of letters with titles like Romans, Galatians, and 1 Timothy. What happened when Cassirer encountered Paul and his epochal claims? Cassirer “experienced a collapse, a total inward paralysis,” says Weitzman.

For the second time in his life Cassirer felt he had encountered a thinker who truly saw into the depths of our inner dilemma: we know the ought, but we do not and we cannot do all that we ought (cf. Romans 7). But unlike Kant, Paul offered a remedy. Paul pointed to another Jewish man, a first-century Galilean no less, yet someone more than just a man. For the first time in his life, Cassirer began to feel the promise and hope of Christian salvation. In 1955, Cassirer was baptized into the Anglican Church. After twenty-five more years of study, he produced his remarkable New Testament translation. In Wood’s words, “Cassirer was summoned to the reality of faith by listening to the testimony of Paul.”
Some believers have “experienced a collapse, a total inward paralysis” when they encounter the pronouncements of scholars, often disguised as consensus when they rarely are, who delight in undermining the historicity of scripture and thereby the reality of God and of Jesus Christ as Savior. It's important to see that intellectuals confronting the details of scriptural texts can be moved the other way as well. Indeed, there are important reasons to respect the power of the scriptures and to be skeptical about the claims of secular scholars whose critical theories of the moment are used to dismiss the message of the Gospel.

One of many related resources that might be helpful to some of you is James K. Hoffmeir's Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). This book is also relevant to the Book of Mormon for several reasons, such as showing the limitations of archaeology and, most importantly, demonstrating that there is strong evidence for the historicity of a Hebrew exodus from Egypt, which is relied on heavily and subtly by Book of Mormon authors, especially Nephi in his account of his family's exodus from Jerusalem.

A hearty thanks to the late Heinz Cassirer for his open-mindedness and willingness to confront the power of scripture. I'll close with a verse froom the New Testament, as translated by Cassirer (provided in Wikipedia's article about him):
What, then, is the nature of the person, whoever he may be, who hears these words of mine and acts on them? He is like a man of prudence who built his house on a rock. The rain descended, the floodwaters rose, the winds blew and hurled themselves against that house. But it did not fall because it was on rock that its foundations were laid. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Yoke of Christ: Ancient Insights Related to Grace and Works

Last year while pondering Christ's famous command to take his yoke upon us, I wondered if some of the symbolism of the LDS temple might be relevant. As I explored some early Christian and ancient Jewish concepts related to the yoke and the rest that Christ offers, I found connections to covenant making and related issues, including grace and works, that I felt were worth sharing. I also found an apparent Greek word play that adds further meaning to Matthew 11:28-30. The result of my explorations became a paper that I was encouraged to submit to the Mormon Interpreter, my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication on religious topics. The paper is "The Yoke of Christ: A Light Burden Heavy With Meaning," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 171-217 (URL: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-yoke-of-christ-a-light-burden-heavy-with-meaning/). I hope you'll take a look and share your comments.

On the topic of grace and salvation, which crops up frequently in the discussions here, I think the perspective of Christ's yoke can be helpful. Here's one excerpt from near the end of the paper, which draws upon an earlier section where I discuss the various meanings of the "rest" that Christ offers to give those who take up His yoke:
Finally, returning to the theme of entering the rest of God, Paul in Hebrews 4 clarifies the relationship between the grace that is offered and our need to labor, without which even believing Christians may be at risk of losing the blessing of the Lord’s rest. Paul thus prescribes actions to preserve that blessing, actions which we could call moving forward with the Lord’s yoke:
Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works. And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest. …

There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. (Hebrews 4: 1–5,9–11)
Of course, it is not the labor that merits salvation. Rather, after urging us to labor to gain access to the rest of God, Paul also charges us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Approaching the throne of grace and entering into the rest of the Lord is the ultimate purpose of the grace and mercy the Lord offers us through the Atonement. Our light burden carried forward along the way gives us no grounds to boast and in no way undermines the reality that it is through grace we are saved.

From the LDS perspective, the yoke of Christ is a useful image to describe the interplay of yielding to Christ, learning from him, and receiving at his hand blessings, guidance, and grace. “Learn of me” reminds us that the yoke is also a teaching tool, a tool for receiving direction and other blessings from the Lord as he leads us along the straight and narrow path, where our diligence is required but where his grace only can save. That perspective is hardly a Mormon innovation, but it resonates well with the teachings of scripture and with early Christian teachings. Consider, for example, the words of a prominent early Christian Father, John Chrysostom (c. 349–407 ad), Archbishop of Constantinople:
Fear thou not therefore, neither start away from the yoke that lightens you of all these things, but put yourself under it with all forwardness, and then you shall know well the pleasure thereof. For it does not at all bruise your neck, but is put on you for good order’s sake only, and to persuade you to walk seemly, and to lead you unto the royal road, and to deliver you from the precipices on either side, and to make you walk with ease in the narrow way.

Since then so great are its benefits, so great its security, so great its gladness, let us with all our soul, with all our diligence, draw this yoke; that we may both here “find rest unto our souls,” and attain unto the good things to come, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.

Friday, February 05, 2016

A Witness of Book of Mormon Authenticy from a Non-LDS Scholar: Translation of the Afrikaans Version

Faith promoting stories sometimes have obvious weaknesses that can justify discarding the story as just another errant rumor. This can often be the case when enthusiastic LDS believers repeat something they heard or even experienced long ago or report something they heard from someone else. Even when the story is generally accurate, there can be legitimate reasons for questioning and rejecting the story due to gaps, missing details, or outright errors such as mistakes due to details they didn't fully understand or recalled incorrectly.

The story of the translation of the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans is an interesting example of a faith-promoting story that was easy to dismiss because of some apparently illogical and questionable elements. In light of newly available information, we can now correct an error or two in the story and recognize that the story has significant value. In this case, it's a story of a non-LDS scholar who stood as a witness of the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

The helpful new information is the transcript of the talk given by the translator, Professor Felix Mijnhard, at the special conference in Johannesburg on May 14, 1972, when he discussed his experience in translating the text. This information is shared by Charles Pyle in comments responding to "Die Boek van Mormon" at UnblogMySoul by John Pontius, who shares his recollection of Dr. Mijnhard's comments heard while he was a missionary in South Africa long ago. 

In his translation approach that commenced with the middle of the text--before he ever looked at 1 Nephi--Dr. Mijnhard found strong evidence that the text must have originally been in a language other than English. He eventually found that Hebrew was an excellent fit, for when he translated passages into Hebrew before translation into Afrikaans, awkward English suddenly made perfect sense. This didn't happen with other target languages he tried. He came to this conclusion before he read 1 Nephi and realized that the book claimed to have ancient Semitic origins.

With some the gaps filled in and errors corrected, thanks to Charles Pyle's input and the transcript of the talk Mijnhard gave in 1972, Kevin Barney at Common Consent feels that the story some of us once dismissed now makes sense, but perhaps is not as dramatic as some may have thought. I think the story is deeper than just being a case of someone noting the existence of some Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon. In any case, it's a notable example of a non-LDS scholar finding what he felt to be compelling evidence for ancient origins (and divine origins) in the Book of Mormon.

Not all that glitters is fool's gold. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Another Book of Mormon Publication in a non-LDS Academic Source

Since some people refuse to seriously consider Book of Mormon evidence unless it's in a non-LDS academic sources, I'm happy to help these earnest pursuers of truth by pointing out occasional works that they can read and treasure. In addition to the work by Dr. John Tvedtnes that I mentioned in my last post, a more recent contribution comes from Noel Reynolds. I mentioned this a few weeks ago in comments to one of my posts here, but I should have highlighted it in a post of its own to help those who need peer-reviewed testimonies.
Related to the issue of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is the Hebrew tool called inclusio, in which a phrase at the beginning of a passage is mirrored at the end to mark a section. Interesting insight into a sophisticated case (or 3 related cases) of inclusio in the Book of Mormon is treated by Reynolds in a peer-reviewed publication: Noel B. Reynolds (2015). The Gospel according to Mormon. Scottish Journal of Theology, 68, pp 218-234. doi:10.1017/S003693061500006X, available for download at http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/facpub/1479/.

Reynolds' work reveals some consistent elements in the text regarding the Book of Mormon's concept of the core doctrine of the Gospel, and the way its authors use inclusio to emphasize it. It's one of many interesting subtleties in the composition of the text.

Speaking of chiasmus, one of my favorite works related to the Book of Mormon in a non-LDS publication is John Welch's chapter on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, included in the ground-breaking book on chiasmus that he edited, in collaboration with some significant scholars and published through a noteworthy publishing house.  The reference is: John W. Welch, editor, Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1981). This scholarly work in a non-LDS press with non-LDS authors (apart from John) includes a forward from Dr. David Noel Freedman.

I recommend reading David Noel Freedman's preface to the scholarly book, Chiasmus in Antiquity, edited by John Welch. The full text of that intriguing book is available free online at the Maxwell Institute. Here is part of what Dr. Freedman has to say:

The more extended uses of chiasm raise further questions. As with much of literature, especially poetry, ambiguity and obscurity are inherent in the form and content: chiasm only adds to the uncertainty and mystery. Scholars now recognize chiasms beyond the simple type described above, chiasms which involve passages of verse or prose ranging in length from a few sentences to hundreds of thousands of words. This more complex form of chiasm is not merely grammatical but structural or intentional; it systematically serves to concentrate the reader's or hearer's interest on the central expression. The number of such chiastic constructions which satisfy both sets of criteria: inversion and balance on the one hand, and climactic centrality on the other, is substantially less than the simpler mechanical variety. But wherever they are present, these structures may add novel perspectives and unexpected dimension to the texts in which they appear.

There is yet a further extension of the term chiasm. Even more difficult and controversial issues arise when chiasm is defined in terms of thought and theme, rather than the more visible words and patterns. Inevitably a large subjective element enters into these discussions, and the presence or absence of chiasm on this level can become almost a voter's choice.

Scholars, therefore, may range between separated areas of research in their approach to chiasm. On the one extreme, the phenomenon itself can be described or defined rigorously, so that it is verifiable and often self-evident; while in this sense it is part of a deliberate pattern of composition, it nevertheless leaves the wider world of symbolism and significance to others. At the other end of the spectrum, definitions and limits are hard to determine, and speculation is rife; but large issues of meaning and intention can be raised, and important questions about the nature and significance of extended literary pieces are considered. The study of these great chiasms has enormous implications for analysis and interpretation, but the wider the scope and the more extended the reach, the less certain the results necessarily become. In the end, neither approach will escape if carried to extremes.

Only a book with many varieties of presentation can display the present state of chiastic studies. While a great deal of important work has been done across the many domains of ancient literature, the study of ancient literary techniques is still in ferment and flux. A common fund of axioms and assumptions and a single sure-handed methodology are yet to be established. The present volume reflects accurately both the ferment and the progress which is being made on a variety of fronts, and is all the more to be welcomed for bringing together the results of research in different literatures of antiquity. The editor is to be commended for his catholicity and courage, and for his own original contributions in several domains including a unique treatment of the Book of Mormon. His introduction to the whole work is indispensable. [emphasis added]

--David Noel Freedman
Dr. Freedman has been called one of the world's foremost scholars on the Bible. You can also read about him on Wikipedia. He passed away in 2008.
Welch's book is cited by Roland Meynet in Rhetorical Analysis: An Introduction to Biblical Rhetoric. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 256 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 392 pp. I don't have access to it at the moment, but according to Noel Reynolds, "Meynet credits BYU’s own John W. Welch, whose 1981 book re-ignited chiasmus studies and helpfully provided the world of biblical scholars with the first complete bibliography of chiasmus publications, enabling contemporary scholars to get a grasp on the extent and quality of the work that had already been done."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Significant Scholarly Publication Includes Two Articles on Hebrew Elements in the Book of Mormon

For those who refuse to consider Book of Mormon evidence until it appears in academic publications subject to peer review, I'm happy to report that two articles from Dr. John Tvedtnes about Hebrew elements in the Book of Mormon appear in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics from the renowned publishing house of E. J. Brill in Leiden, Netherlands. The four-volume set was published in 2013. Brill describes the work this way:
The Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics Online offers a systematic and comprehensive treatment of all aspects of the history and study of the Hebrew language from its earliest attested form to the present day.

The Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics Online features advanced search options, as well as extensive cross-references and full-text search functionality using the Hebrew character set. With over 850 entries and approximately 400 contributing scholars, the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics Online is the authoritative reference work for students and researchers in the fields of Hebrew linguistics, general linguistics, Biblical studies, Hebrew and Jewish literature, and related fields. 

Access requires an academic account or payment, but you can read Tvedtnes' works on his website and see images of the printed work.

The first article is "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon":
Tvedtnes, John A.. "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon." Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics. Edited by: Geoffrey Khan. Brill Online, 2016. Reference. 21 January 2016
First appeared online: 2013
First Print Edition: 9789004176423
You can read the text at BookofMormonResearch.org in the article "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon." At the bottom you click on images to see the printed material. I recommend reading the printed version because it displays the Hebrew, while the webpage for this article does not (see image 1 and image 2).

The second article is "Names of People: Book of Mormon." Brill Online cites it this way:
Tvedtnes, John A.. "Names of People: Book of Mormon." Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics. Edited by: Geoffrey Khan. Brill Online, 2016. Reference. 21 January 2016
First appeared online: 2013
First Print Edition: 9789004176423
You can read the text at BookofMormonResearch.org in the article "Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon." The text provides Hebrew, but there it reads left-to-right instead of the normal right-to-left for Hebrew, possible an HTML or font problem, so I recommend looking at the images for the article as printed (image 1 and image 2).

Dr. Tvedtnes obviously had to be brief in these articles but has provided some tantalizing examples and good references for further study. One  problem, though, is that a couple of his examples of awkward grammar in the 1830 Book of Mormon (such as "because that ...") that look like good Hebraisms can also be explained as good Early Modern English discussed in Stanford Carmack's works. This could lead to trouble for some people, as in this hypothetical response:
My testimony was strengthened when I learned that the bad grammar in the Book of Mormon was actually good grammar in Early Modern English supporting the plausibility of divine translation with tight control beyond Joseph's abilities--and then I found out that some of that might actually be due to Hebraic influence in the original text coupled with tight translation preserving the Hebraisms. Miraculous Hebraisms or miraculous Early Modern English??--I was so confused. That's why I left and became Evangelical. It's all much more clear now with just one inerrant text.
I hope that doesn't happen to you. Hang in there. These things will be resolved with time. And maybe with the aid of further peer review.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What Did Joseph Know About the Structure of the Book of Mormon, and When Did He Know It?

The details of the translation process that gave us the Book of Mormon offer a variety of mysteries and challenges, but the greatest challenge is for theories based on Joseph Smith as author and fabricator. If he or friends of his concocted a manuscript, why go through the painstaking oral dictation process? Why not just bring forth the manuscript and declare the work done? And how could the dictation process be done by looking in a hat with no manuscript present, as confirmed by multiple witnesses, not all of whom were members of the Church? The details of the Original Manuscript and Printer's Manuscript confirm the story as told by Joseph and witnesses: one document was created by oral dictation written down by scribes, and the other was created by copying from the Original Manuscript.

I'd like to highlight one aspect of those details today that are worth careful reflection: the division of the text into chapters. Here is an excerpt from Royal Skousen's 1998 article, "How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon:  Evidence from the Original Manuscript" from the Maxwell Institute (here I used strikethrough instead of brackets to indicate deleted text):

The word chapter and the corresponding chapter numbers were not part of the revealed text
Evidence from both the original and printer’s manuscripts shows that Joseph Smith apparently saw some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending. Although this may have been a symbol of some kind, a more likely possibility is that the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph then told the scribe to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later.
There is considerable evidence in both manuscripts to support this interpretation. First, the word chapter is never used by any writer in the text itself, unlike the term book, which is used to refer to an individual book in the Book of Mormon (such as the book of Helaman) as well as a whole set of plates (such as the book of Nephi, meaning the large plates of Nephi).
Second, chapters are assigned before the beginning of a book. For instance, in the original manuscript, we have the following at the beginning of 2 Nephi:
         Chapter VIII

     second                Chapter I
The /\ Book of Nephi /\ An account of the death of Lehi...

Oliver Cowdery first wrote Chapter at the conclusion of the last section in 1 Nephi—that is, at the conclusion of Chapter VII in the original chapter system; our current chapter system dates from Orson Pratt’s 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon (which has 22 chapters in 1 Nephi). At this point, Joseph Smith had no indication that a new book was beginning. All he could see was the end of Chapter VII (namely, the words “and thus it is Amen” followed probably by blankness or maybe a special symbol). Later, when Oliver was adding the chapter numbers, he first assigned the Roman numeral VIII to this first chapter of 2 Nephi. But when he realized that this was actually the beginning of a new book, he crossed out the whole chapter designation and inserted (with slightly weaker ink flow) “Chapter I” after the title of the book, which originally was simply designated as “The Book of Nephi”. Later he realized that there was more than one book of Nephi, which led him to also insert the word second (with considerably heavier ink flow).
This system of assigning chapters also explains why the two manuscripts have chapter numbers assigned to the short books found at the end of the small plates (Enos, Jarom, Omni, and the Words of Mormon) as well as 4 Nephi. These books contain only one section, but at the beginning of each of these short books, Joseph Smith apparently had no knowledge that this was the case. This fact further shows that Joseph himself did not know in advance the contents or structure of the text.
Probably the strongest evidence that the word chapter is not original to the revealed text is that the chapter numbers are assigned later in both manuscripts. The numbers are almost always written with heavier ink flow and more carefully. In many cases, Oliver Cowdery took time to add serifs to his Roman numerals. On the other hand, his Chapter is always written rapidly and with the same general ink flow as the surrounding text. In the printer’s manuscript, at the beginning of Chapter XVII in Alma (now the beginning of Alma 36), the Roman numeral XVII was written in blue ink, not the normal black ink. This example clearly suggests that this part of the original manuscript itself did not yet have chapter numbers assigned to it when Oliver started to copy it, perhaps six months after it had been dictated.
Let that sink in. When Joseph finished First Nephi, he didn't know he was done. He just said chapter, and then continued dictation. When he began Words of Mormon and other short books, he didn't know there would be only one chapter and this no need for breaking it up into chapters at all. The evidence from the manuscripts suggests that as he was dictating his text, he was dictating something he was not intimately familiar with. He didn't know the structure that was to follow.

Some have supposed that his "hat trick" of dictating text could be done by just memorizing sections of an already carefully worked out document. If he were the fabricator of the document or co-conspirator using someone else's document, whether the document was memorized or just smuggled into the hat with a miraculous flashlight, he would at least have known when a book was finished and when a book was short without chapter breaks. The evidence from the manuscripts challenges theories based on fabrication by Joseph. 

A plausible theory for the Book of Mormon as a modern fabrication needs to account for witnesses--not only the numerous witnesses of the gold plates, but the witnesses of the translation process, and the surviving witnesses of the Original Manuscript and the Printer's Manuscript. Those manuscripts witness not only of the dictated, oral nature of the Book of Mormon translation, but also of Joseph's own ignorance of the structure of the text he was dictating. They also witness of Hebraisms and other artifacts of language that challenge any theory based on Joseph as the author. These witnesses need to be explained, especially the witnesses of ink and paper that continue to speak. Something fascinating is happening on those pages, and it merits further study.