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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Mary at the Tomb: How We Can Easily Misjudge Evidence of a Miracle

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at the FAIRMormon Conference in Provo, where I spoke about the ancient biblical theme of "dust" that is so artfully woven into the Book of Mormon, a topic I've discussed here in the past and have published at The Interpreter (also see Part 2 and Part 3). For my opening slide, I selected a freely available image from the Media Library at LDS.org. The image depicts Mary standing at the empty tomb, with the "gardener" in the background, though of course it is actually the Lord, freshly risen from the dust.

Mary puzzling at the empty tomb: evidence of a misdeed or fraud?
 After selecting this image, it occurred to me that it is relevant to the issue of examining evidence for miraculous events, including the miracle of that voice from the dust, the Book of Mormon. I mentioned this both at the beginning and again at the end of the presentation, where I showed it again as I made my concluding remarks.

Mary is looking at evidence for the greatest miracle of all time, the miracle of the Resurrection of Christ. Yet as she beholds the evidence of the empty tomb, she apparently sees it as evidence of something wrong--a gross violation of Jewish practice, or perhaps deception, fraud, or theft. Thus, her question to the "gardener" was, "Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thous hast laid him" (John 20:15).

It was only when she recognized the voice calling to her and turned to look more closely at the "gardener" that she could see things more clearly: what she had encountered was evidence of a divine miracle, not wanton misbehavior.

The Book of Mormon is a continuing and powerful witness for the reality of the Resurrected Lord that abounds with evidences of the divine. But we can look at every aspect of the evidence with doubting eyes and see only fraud and deception. The numerous witnesses of the reality of the gold plates and of the translation process? We can see that as evidence of conspiracy. Other evidences can be downplayed, ignored, dismissed as a lucky guess, or recast as evidence of fraud pointing to Joseph furtively drawing upon various texts, maps, scholars, etc.

King Benjamin's speech, for example, can be seen as just a 19th-century religious revival meeting dressed up in KJV language, obviously a fraud based solely upon Joseph's environment, while others look at the same speech with astonishment as it abounds with Hebrew poetry (over a dozen clear chiasms and many other interesting forms of parallelism), reflects ancient Near Eastern coronation rituals, embodies all the elements of the ancient Near Eastern covenant formulary that was not elucidated until the 20th century, and poses numerous challenges to any theory that it was based on Joseph's environment. And yes, it appropriately and aptly connects the theme of dust to both coronation and covenant making, beautifully in line with modern scholarship on the rich covenant-based meanings of dust as motif in the ancient Near East. Not bad for a farm boy dictating for a couple of hours from his hat. Hats off to Joseph's technical advisory committee!

May we look past our initial assumptions of fraud and listen to the gentle, divine voice that beckons to us from the pages of this divine record from the dust, a new witness and source of evidence for the risen Lord and for the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is only when we listen more closely, then turn and look with a fresh perspective that we will be able to embrace with the joy the blessings that await us, and find the more powerful evidences of one of the great miracles of all time in the Book of Mormon. It is true, and there are rich evidences of its truthfulness that await you, though we are given the freedom to look at the evidence however we wish.


Mormonado said...

Jeff, this is an excellent observation. 'Process' is always secondary. The 'fruit' or the product is what is most important which contains the higher truth. It is not surprising that critics of the miracles of the restoration or of Christianity as a whole focus on the 'process', or the physical truth as a tool.

Anonymous said...

Interesting analogy!

For me, it brings up the question why would Mary Magdalen not have recognized the person who saved her from being stoned and to whom she devoted for the remainder of her life? That seems implausible at best. All the more so if she was one of Jesus' wives.

On the other hand, if Jesus had transformed his appearance deliberately so that she wouldn't recognize him, why would that be? Seems a bit cruel to toy with her emotions like that. What point would that serve? Isn't it a bit manipulative rather than illuminating how she could "easily" misjudge evidence of a miracle?

It's also interesting that of the four Evangelists I think it's only John who recounts the presence of a "gardener". That strikes me as curious.

Finally, what does any of this have to do with dust?

Anonymous said...

Hi 8:18 Anonymous,

- Where does it say that Mary Magdalen was about to be stoned?
- Where does it say that she was one of Jesus' wives?
- Where did you get the idea that Jesus transformed himself to be unrecognizable?
- And then you come to a conclusion based on an assumption that Jesus was being manipulative
- Why is it curious that people decide what to include and what to exclude when telling the same story?
- What does it have to do with dust? I'll take a stab at this one. Ecclesiastes 3:20 - Essentially from dust to dust. Rising from the dust is a metaphor for resurrection. The Book of Mormon coming from the dust is a resurrection of sorts of a the knowledge of a lost people.

Here is a Wikipedia article about Mary Magdalen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Magdalene


Anonymous said...

Anonymous 8:18, Mary was in deep grief. She was not looking for the risen Lord; no one had ever been resurrected before. She was looking for the body of Jesus, so she could “properly” wrap it with spices, etc, since the body had been hastily prepared for the tomb due to the coming Sabbath. It seems perfectly logical to me that she would assume any person there was the gardener - until Jesus spoke to her. Then she recognized Him.

Anonymous said...

Delete this post. It's stupid.

Anonymous said...

"Mary was in deep grief. She was not looking for the risen Lord; no one had ever been resurrected before. "

What about Lazaras?

Anonymous said...

Jeff, this is a bit of a straw man:

King Benjamin's speech, for example, can be seen as just a 19th-century religious revival meeting dressed up in KJV language, obviously a fraud based solely upon Joseph's environment.

My "anti" claim is actually not so exclusive. I'm not claiming that Joseph's cultural environment can explain everything about the Book of Mormon. Rather, the claim is more like this: The Book of Mormon resulted from Joseph (and perhaps others) using elements of their environment as grist for the mill of their religious and literary imagination. That imagination can, of course, produce elements not otherwise accounted for by the environment itself. But there's nothing in the Book of Mormon that compels us to see it as either ancient or divine.

Also, why the continued emphasis on chiasmus? I don't see the significance of it. Chiasmus is part of Joseph's 19th-century environment, for the simple reason that chiasmus is so prominent in the Bible, and the Bible, of course, was a ubiquitous part of Joseph's environment.

If Joseph was mimicking the style of the Bible, then it shouldn't be surprising that he would reproduce some its signature stylistic elements, such as chiasmus.

Any word yet on whether Stanford Carmack has gotten any of his linguistic arguments past secular peer review? I'm guessing the answer to this is "no."

-- OK