Hooray, Utah! Hooray, Prophets: D&C Lessons 36 and 37

As noted in my last Back-Row Questions post, the D&C manual really stops revolving around the scriptures after it reaches the death of Joseph Smith.  Lesson 36 epitomizes this; the text for the lesson is Chapter 7 in the Our Heritage manual, and it doesn’t involve any material from the scriptures.  I really have nothing to say about this lesson.  It’s a good week to serve in the Primary, I guess.

Lesson 37, on the other hand, offers an actual scriptural reading assignment: Doctrine and Covenants 21; 43:1–7; and the ninth Article of Faith.  These are intended, I guess, to indicate our proper attitude and behavior toward the presidents of the church.  Yet there’s at least a bit of tension between this purpose and the texts in question.  These texts on their face are about Joseph Smith’s role, not about the role of the office of president of the church.  Consider D&C 21: 1-2:

Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ, being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof, and to build it up unto the most holy faith.

So Smith is characterized as seer, translator, prophet, apostle, and elder, a series of titles that are offered in conjunction with his inspiration to found and establish the church.  Obviously, that founding role is Smith’s alone.  It’s noteworthy that Smith is also the only sacred translator in the LDS tradition, and arguably the only seer.  On the other hand, he’s clearly not the only apostle or the only elder.  Regarding the title of “prophet,” it’s somewhat unclear how readily we ought to extend that label to others.  This section, really being about Smith only, offers no guidance.

Note also that this context of personal blessing to Joseph Smith is the frame for the following verses, sometimes used in the LDS community much more broadly to refer to all church presidents, all general authorities, or even all priesthood leaders:

Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith. For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.

The text of the revelation here is, as argued above, about Joseph Smith.  Do the same promises apply regarding, for example, Thomas S. Monson?  Maybe.  Who am I to say?  But if they do, we know that through some other revelation beyond D&C 21, and we should probably cite that revelation directly instead of referring to this narrower and technically inapplicable text.

Verse 9 offers an interesting anticipatory summary of Joseph Smith’s prophetic message:

For, behold, I will bless all those who labor in my vineyard with a mighty blessing, and they shall believe on his words, which are given him through me by the Comforter, which manifesteth that Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart.

In essence, then, the core of the message we are to receive from Smith as if from God himself is the idea of the substitutionary Atonement, with residual echoes of anti-Semitism.  The key elements of the message are: (1) crucifixion as payment for the sins of the world; (2) remission of sins; (3) the need for a contrite heart.  How many Mormons would announce this as the center of the Spirit’s message to humanity today?  This certainly represents a distinct, and probably substantially past, moment in how we conceptualized the core message of the gospel.

Regarding the residual echoes of anti-Semitism, note the “sinful men” phrase.  Of course, the people most likely to be historically responsible for any crucifixion at the time of Jesus Christ were the Romans, and if they (Pontius Pilate and cronies) are the sinful men in question, then there’s no issue here.  But this reads to me as at least a distant echo of the historically dubious but once politically useful tendency in the Gospel of John and throughout much of later Christianity to attribute Jesus’s death to wicked Jews.  Even if this is only an unintended reflection of other hateful textual traditions, it’s still troubling to me.

The section ends with an instruction that either Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdrey (the poor grammar makes the identification almost totally obscure) is to be “the first preacher of this church unto the church, and before the world, yea, before the Gentiles; yea, and thus saith the Lord God, lo, lo! to the Jews also.”  Jewish people are valued enough, or perhaps surprising enough as targets for missionary efforts, to rate two lo’s and an exclamation mark, it seems.  In fact, the D&C refers explicitly to Jews in at least 16 different passages — which is quite a reasonable amount of discourse considering that the early Saints had fairly modest connections with actual Jewish people.  There is probably a rigorous study of these references and of early Mormon attitudes regarding Jewish people and Judaism, but I don’t know where to find it.

D&C 43: 1-7 seems to utterly destroy the idea that Joseph Smith had a successor, other than possibly one of his sons.  Consider verses 3-7:

And this ye shall know assuredly –— that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me.  But verily, verily, I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him; for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead.  And this shall be a law unto you, that ye receive not the teachings of any that shall come before you as revelations or commandments; and this I give unto you that you may not be deceived, that you may know they are not of me.  For verily I say unto you, that he that is ordained of me shall come in at the gate and be ordained as I have told you before, to teach those revelations which you have received and shall receive through him whom I have appointed.

Note especially this phrase: “none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him.”  This passage seems to command us to disregard all commandments and revelations given by anyone not explicitly ordained by Joseph Smith to give commandments and revelations.  Most of Smith’s succession claimants based their argument in some instruction or ordination given by Smith, but really only his son, Joseph Smith III, claimed to have been ordained and appointed in this way by his father.  The other arguments, based on position in the First Presidency (Rigdon), assignment to establish Zion in Texas (Wight), angelic ordination combined with letter of assignment (Strang), position in the Quorum of the Twelve combined with temple ordinances (Young), etc., are all poor fits for this requirement.

One might work around this based on the phrase, “until he be taken,” although I’m not entirely sure whether this works.  On the one hand, the grammar of the D&C is often confusing, and it could be the case that the sentence beginning with “But verily, verily, I say…” has an implied qualification limiting its applicability to the period up to Smith’s death.  Yet that opening phrase is so sweeping and emphatic that it seems to me as if the text is pointing away from this possibility and requiring Smith to appoint and ordain his successor, whether Smith’s departure from office is due to death or to apostasy.

Even on this reading, of course, one needn’t conclude from this that these leadership succession options were therefore wrong.  But it may suggest that Young’s succession might have been to an office other than the one Joseph Smith held, an office to which Young was never appointed by Smith and an office without the calling to issue commandments and revelations.  Or maybe this section became inoperative when Smith died without satisfactorily clarifying succession in the case that his brother Hyrum died with him.  Invigorating and puzzling reading, in any case!

The 9th Article of Faith is nifty, if a bit epistemologically circular and possibly a bit falsified by other scriptures.  The Article says:

We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

This might be epistemologically circular in the following sense.  If we follow common tradition and regard God as being by definition truthful in his statements, then what this Article really says is that we believe the things that we know to be true about the Kingdom of God.  Well and good, and I’m sure most people would aspire to the same position.  But how do we know those things to be true?  Because they’re revealed by God, obviously — but how do we know that?  Ultimately because of the Holy Ghost, presumably.  But how do we know that the Holy Ghost experience is from God?  I guess fundamentally because the scriptures say so.  But how do we know the scriptures tell the truth?  Rinse, repeat.

The partial falsification of this statement comes from D&C 19, in which God tells us not to really believe scriptural statements that describe endless, eternal, everlasting, etc. punishment.  Perhaps a friendly revision:

We believe all that God has revealed, except for the parts that He’s revealed that we shouldn’t believe, all that He does now reveal until/unless he reveals otherwise, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give aheed unto all his words and bcommandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all choliness before me;

5 For his aword ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.

6 For by doing these things the agates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of bdarkness from before you, and cause the heavens to cshake for your dgood, and his name’s eglory.

Comments

  1. I think that the idea that gospel is Faith, Repentance, Baptism, and the Gift of the Holy Ghost is widely accepted and taught.

  2. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Yep, J., which is a very different presentation from that in D&C 21:9. In particular, we’ve really moved a long way away from the crucifixion idea so central to that earlier statement, and that verse suggests that remission of sins is available to contrite people whether or not ordinances are involved.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, I think you’re stretching a wee bit re: antisemitism, though I suppose it is a possible echo of earlier sentiments. Certainly there is a weird antisemitic quality to the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion in the Book of Mormon, for example.

  4. Aaron Brown says:

    Does Epperson’s “Mormons and Jews” contain any useful discussion of early Mormon attitudes to Jews and Judaism? I know it argues an anti-supercessionist thesis, and many critics find it unpersuasive (I haven’t picked it up myself), but I’m wondering if it contains any useful discussion of the topic.

    AB

  5. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Steve, I don’t think it’s explicit at all in this section, but the “crucifixion by sinful men” phrase sounds an odd note in my ears. You’re right that the Book of Mormon is much more explicit in this regard, saying explicitly that the Jews were the agents responsible for slaying the Messiah. This section is from a period when the Book of Mormon’s contents were still very present for the early Saints, so that seems to strengthen the case for a bit of concern about the “sinful men” phrase.

    The rest of the section, as well as other references to Jews in the Doctrine and Covenants, suggest a much more complicated symbolic relation with Jews, I think. More complex than I can work out here, in any case.

  6. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Aaron, I should probably look at it. I’ve been dissuaded so far by the very negative reviews and mentions of the book that I’ve seen.

  7. When you describe that many of the titles/roles belonging to JS ended with his death, I would argue that that is true in reality in many ways. Whether we call subsequent prophets seers, translators, etc. is somewhat of a moot point. We haven’t received any subsequent translations. And we haven’t really received many actual revelations per se. There have certainly been many administrative revelations, such as visions that polygamy wasn’t compatible with being full participating members of the United States, or a similar event decades later regarding blacks. There have also been implementations of “programs” such as missionary discussions, then no discussions; correlation; etc. But there doesn’t seem to have been really any new theological and fundamental revelations since JS time.

    Are there some that I am missing?

  8. I think section 138 by Joseph F Smith ought to count for something. Its a vision in the tradition of visions by prophets all over in the scriptures.

  9. #8: Steve G

    Correct. I agree with you 100% on that. Sorry I forgot that one. Any others?

  10. I was thinking more about this and wonder if we could include David B Haight’s vision of Gethsemene as he related it in the October 1989 General Conference.

    http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=9b7b6f708ee71110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&hideNav=1

    While I don’t think there is anything doctrinally new in his account, it is an extremely powerful witness of Christ.

    Were we to make a list of revelations that should be added to the Doctrine and Covenants this would be at the top of my list.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, I’m actually a fan of Epperson’s book, and I recommend it. (It can be accessed for free on the Signature site.) I’m aware of the negative take on it in the FARMS Review, and that review does raise some good points, but I still liked Epperson’s volume.

  12. I was hoping to be enlightened, but just a little disappointed. I hope you’ll forgive me for expressing a viewpoint that does not just say “good job”. Reading this conjures up images of someone who is going out of their way to be critical and contrarian. Forgive me if I misinterpreted…

    A lot could be addressed, but I’m not sure where or why you chose to ask readers if the “center” of the Spirit’s message today would be: atonement, repentance, contrite heart. I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone who has felt the spirit, the center of it’s message usually depends on what the message is? I’m assuming you’re not suggesting we should tally up all spiritual messages and make sure 51% of them focus on the above mentioned gospel principles, lest the scripture be in error?

    But anyway, I do think you could make a claim that the messages of the spirit can be connected back to Christ, as in all good things come from Christ. And Christ’s purpose on earth was the atonement. And he has commanded us to have a contrite heart.

    I’m guessing the purpose of this post is to try to present a critical approach to reading the manual, and by so doing, hopefully bring out some unique points. But some of it just feels like the author is patting himself on the back for his intellectual dexterity. (and he’s clearly very smart, and perhaps has way too much time on his hands :)

  13. sam, not quite — you reworded things substantially toward a 21st-century Mormon conceptual framework. The D&C statement is about crucifixion, contrition, remission of sins. My point here is that (a) our contemporary framework elaborates a lot on the “contrition” point, and (b) we seem to have a positive aversion to using the crucifixion as a central point in talking about the Atonement, the way this revelation does. That is, it’s a point about cultural change in how we discuss the gospel, not about some sort of tally of what the Spirit says, as if that were somehow possible.

    I’ve done a bunch of these posts at this point; they’re mainly about me saying what I think. No deliberate effort at a contrarian pose, etc. But also not necessarily a lot of enlightenment; I’m perhaps better at raising questions than answering them. Got any insight into why our language and conceptual framework for talking about the Atonement changes a lot over time; about the trace particles of anti-Semitic ideology in the scriptures; or about the requirement that Joseph Smith explicitly anoint his successor? I’d love to hear them!

  14. I really have nothing to say about this lesson. It’s a good week to serve in the Primary, I guess.

    This cracks me up.

  15. Eric Russell says:

    JNS, some members of the Sanhedrin clearly had a very evil intent, based on any reading of scripture. But regardless of the historical usage of one interpretation or another, to simply cast a less preferred reading as “anti-Semitic” is irresponsible at best.

  16. J Nelson:

    I find the assertion that calling Jesus’ crucifiers “evil” is anti-semitic to be strange. Are you suggesting that you don’t believe it is possible that they were indeed evil men?

  17. I’m not sure it’s possible to make a solid claim that the language and conceptual framework for talking about the Atonement have changed over time, based on only one verse of scripture.

    I can find scriptures that speak of remission of sins coming by the shedding of Christ’s blood, by belief in Christ, by repentance (contrition?), by baptism, by fire and the Holy Ghost, by obedience to the commandments, and by endurance through faith on the name of Christ unto the end. Which is correct All of them? I don’t find any one verse that names all of these, though I do find several that mention two or three of them in various combinations.

    I see little probem in the church putting greater emphasis on active measures we can do now, to receive the benefits of the atonment than on those that have been done for us two thousand years ago. If you don’t feel much of anything for Jesus Christ, how does hearing endlessly about his crucifixion or even a weekly memorial ritual have anything to do with you?

    Was Peter (Acts 2:23, 36, 5:28-30) an anti-Semite? It doesn’t seem very useful to me to go looking for trace particles and residual echoes of anti-semitism in the Doctrine and Covenants when the Book of Mormon explicitly condemns anti-semitism. (2 Ne 29:4-6, 3 Ne 29:8)

    Wilford Woodruff, for one, often claimed that Joseph Smith did ordain the Twelve as his successors in his last meeting with them before his death. (Gospel Classics:The Keys of the Kingdom, Ensign, April 2004)

  18. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Eric, the Sanhedrin was not responsible for killing Jesus. The scriptures that say this were written that way in order to place the blame on Jewish people rather than Romans. How is that not anti-Semitic?

    Trevor, the exact word is “sinful men.” The plural is a problem; Jesus was really ordered crucified by the Roman governor, as I understand it, because that’s how it was done. The plural suggests that a group — usually in tradition a Jewish council plus a Jewish mob — were responsible, which is historically implausible and is the cultural and theological root of anti-Semitism.

    Confutus, we can make a solid claim of cultural change indeed, based on the one verse: it puts the crucifixion at the center of the gospel message. When was the last time you heard a general conference talk that did that?

    I don’t disagree that many people find the new culture of the atonement better; my point is that it’s just new. The change may be totally justified; that’s fine. I’m just noting the change, not evaluating it.

    Peter as depicted in the New Testament is often anti-Semitic, to be sure. Later Christian communities wrote those texts, and they placed their views on the lips of actors in various moments. The Book of Mormon also contains anti-Semitism in the passages where it describes the Jews as having killed Jesus and where it suggests that they may have been the most wicked people of all.

    Also, an appointment of the Twelve as a group would fail to meet the strict criteria of Section 43, which requires Smith to appoint “another” in the singular, not “others” in the plural.

  19. I’m late to chime in, but I also find Epperson’s book quite useful.

  20. Eric Russell says:

    Right. Now, were these biblical writers the same guys who removed all references to Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdalene, and the royal bloodline – or were those different guys?

  21. JNS, I’m trying to understand what you’re trying to do with this anti-semitism tack. Are you saying that Jews had no involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus and that neither did anyone else except the “Roman governor”? It seems to me you’re sailing in pretty choppy waters to make that work. What is your evidence?

    It seems to me that those who crucified the Son of God, or had part in causing it to be so, can rightly be described as “sinful men”. This would then also apply to any Jews who were involved in that historical episode. I think there’s a persuasive argument that some leaders of the Jews in Jerusalem were irate at Jesus’ message and activities and wanted to try and kill him on that basis — whether or not their intentions were pure in this, the Law of Moses gave them a basis or justification for proceeding against Jesus but Jerusalem’s occupiers had jurisdiction over capital cases. Perhaps you think that whoever was involved had good reason to conspire to kill him and order it to be so and carry out the order and that therefore they are not sinful men, at least for their involvement in bringing that about? If Jews were involved, I think it’s fair that they be lumped in as among the “sinful men” without opening the matter up to a viable charge of anti-semitism.

    As for actual scriptural references to Jewish involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus (as you allude, this D&C verse actually isn’t such a scripture), of course there is the anti-semitic comma in the KJV that can be argued about but I do not think it is necessary to see verses describing the involvement of some Jews or their leaders in the crucifixion of Jesus as automatically “anti-semitic” as opposed to descriptive. That creedal Christianity did indeed use New Testament references to Jewish involvement in the crucifixion, and to general Jewish opposition to Christ and his teachings, as a foundation for two thousand years of anti-semitism does not mean that the presence of such a description of Jewish involvement is itself anti-semitism. In other words, a story’s use does not necessarily define its essence.

  22. Mephibosheth says:

    Eric, may I suggest an alternate translation. Each of the four gospels in mine says, “And thus we see, Pilate acted in a vacuum.”

    Just kidding. JNS’s posts seem overly pedantic to me, for example, above he’s making a federal case out of the use of a plural word men. But I keep reading them because I am always exposed to ideas I hadn’t heard before, e.g. that Pilate/The Romans were mainly responsible for Jesus’ death.

    According to this wikipedia article the main problem with the conventional account is that the Jews could have whacked Jesus themselves (like they did Stephen in Acts 6) had they been so inclined, and since they didn’t, that implies that the Romans had a bigger axe to grind. Right? If someone could point me to a better source, preferably an online article or something where I could learn more, I would appreciate it.

  23. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Hey, folks, the idea that the Roman government and not the Jews ordered the death of Jesus isn’t exactly novel or marginal. Crucifixion is a Roman punishment, right? In any case, this isn’t somehow originally my idea, nor is the idea that saying “the Jews” did it is anti-Semitic mine. A good summary source on this is John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, but there are others. Eric Russell, in particular, your analogy is out to lunch. It’s the difference between a mainstream historical assessment and a conspiracy theory!

    John F., the language in this section isn’t blatantly anti-Semitic, I agree. It’s an echo, a kind of language that is associated with anti-Semitism, and there are explicitly anti-Semitic claims associated with the description of Jesus’s death in 1 Nephi. This is a kind of anti-Semitism that’s broadly shared among Christians, but it’s also a historical distortion.

  24. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mephibosheth, you say pedantic, I say taking the text seriously… :)

    I’m glad you find interesting ideas in the posts. That’s all they’re for.

  25. Mephibosheth says:

    JNS, I don’t think anyone is arguing with the fact that Pilate pulled the trigger, but rather your idea that the Jewish leadership played no role Jesus’ death. Since President Bush was the one that ordered the invasion of Iraq, does that mean Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz etc have no responsibility for us going to war there?

  26. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mephibosheth, the idea that Jewish leadership was involved in a way parallel to that played by Bush’s advisers is actually disputed by scholars. It seems that Roman leaders often didn’t consult with local religious folks about who to kill. But — here’s an important point — even if a narrow group of elite Jewish leaders were involved, statements like those found in the Gospel of John and in 1 Nephi that “the Jews” in general killed Jesus would still be incorrect and anti-Semitic.

  27. JNS, I didn’t mean to say that you made up the idea that the Romans alone were responsible or that they were primarily responsible, nor the anti-semitic uses that possible Jewish involvement in Jesus’ trial and execution has served over the centuries. Obviously, I don’t think that you made those up. But I don’t think you’ve answered the questions I asked in my comment. I am fully aware of the different treatments of divisions or assignments of responsibility for the trial and death of Jesus. I am wondering whether, even if the “sinful men” in that verse does refer to Jews and only Jews, why that would equate with or raise the spectre of anti-semitism? Hypothetically, if the “sinful men” were Jews, would not killing Jesus, or having a part in delivering him up to the Romans to execute, perhaps qualify them for being designated as “sinful men”, completely aside from anti-semitism?

    As to my question about evidence, if you are bringing an argument that the Jews really had no part at all in the crucifixion or the events leading up to it, then what is your evidence for that? The textual evidence indicates otherwise, even allowing for possible biases in writing.

  28. But — here’s an important point — even if a narrow group of elite Jewish leaders were involved, statements like those found in the Gospel of John and in 1 Nephi that “the Jews” in general killed Jesus would still be incorrect and anti-Semitic.

    JNS, the anti-semitic comma is one thing and has been argued as a source of anti-semitism but I don’t think that a scriptural allegation that Jews were involved in the trial and death of Jesus, as found in the Book of Mormon, is necessarily anti-semitic in itself. Why are you taking that as a given?

  29. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John F., I think it is a given — the later sources in the New Testament are increasingly likely to use corporate attribution for the death, with the Gospel of John using the term “the Jews.” Collective blame of an entire ethnicity for a crime is inherently an act of prejudice and bigotry, and is by definition in this case anti-Semitic.

    Regarding Jewish leaders having little if any role in the crucifixion, it’s clear that the New Testament assigns them an increasingly important role as the gospels get later. The texts do indeed do that, as you say. Mark makes the decision to crucify Jesus out to be Pilate’s way of averting essentially unrelated political trouble, although he does have a story in the previous chapter in which a group of Jewish notables question Jesus but are evidently powerless to do anything else. That’s the best historical source among the gospels, so the broader claims are shakier.

    Let’s note as well that there’s a difference between the arguable claim that “Jews” were involved in the trial and death of Jesus and the claim in John and the Book of Mormon that “the Jews” were involved. One is a claim about some people, whereas the other is a claim about an ethnicity, and is inherently problematic.

  30. JNS, I’m not sure that it’s as problematic as you’re making it out to be, in the context in which it belongs — as ancient scripture. This is particularly the case with the Book of Mormon, given its Old Testament nature and affinities, including the unmitigated concept of corporate responsibility that prevailed in Israelite/Jewish law in the Old Testament and, accordingly, in the Book of Mormon as well. It is anachronistic to point to such references and say they are actually anti-semitic and inherently problematic because that imports a twentieth and twenty-first century way of looking at texts written hundreds of years before Christ, at the time of Christ, and written/complied 400 years after Christ’s coming. Rather than being anti-semitic in a creedal Christian way (that is meant to convey the entire package of anti-semitism’s arc throughout creedal Christianity’s approx. 1800 year history), it is merely corporate in the Old Testament way.

    The better anachronistic reading is to parse the designation into culpability for the Jewish leaders responsible for instigating the events that led to the Roman execution. In any event, anyone using even the Book of Mormon’s reference to Jewish participation as a pretext for anti-semitism is in the wrong and, interestingly, such a usage has never been prevalent in Mormon culture, as became the case in creedal Christian culture. Mormons, by contrast, largely always identified with the Jews, even though the reverse is certainly not the case.

  31. Mephibosheth says:

    JNS,

    No argument there. You just seemed to be missing the point of everyone’s comments. No one ever took issue with the idea that Jesus’ death was ordered by Romans, or that He died by a Roman means of execution. So to say “Hey, folks, the idea that the Roman government and not the Jews ordered the death of Jesus isn’t exactly novel or marginal” is kind of a bizarre comment to make, eh?

  32. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John F., I invite you to reread the 1 Nephi text and tell me that it doesn’t have a pretty negative and kind of extreme view of Jews at the time of Jesus. The exact parallel between the rhetoric there and that in the Gospel of John makes it yucky-feeling regardless of authorial intent.

    I agree that Mormons have been way less anti-Semitic than Christians in general, which is one reason that the notes of familiar Christian anti-Semitic rhetoric in the Book of Mormon and echoes in the Doctrine and Covenants throw me for a loop.

    Mephibosheth, if people agree with me that blaming “the Jews” for Jesus’s crucifixion is historically questionable, then why are they complaining? :) Eric in particular seems to find this idea way out there.

  33. Mephibosheth says:

    I didn’t say they agreed with you. I said “Pilate ordered the execution of Jesus” is a bizarre response to “Some Jewish leaders got Pilate to order the execution of Jesus.”

  34. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mephibosheth, good clarification. What’s the evidence that Jewish leaders did this? In Mark, Pilate decides to kill Jesus in order to avoid trouble with a mob primarily interested in the fate of some other person. Later gospels relied on Mark but elaborated and added a more vivid Jewish role. So it looks as if the later writers were working to get the Romans off the hook, but the most historically credible source makes the decision Pilate’s and doesn’t give much role to the Jewish leaders.

  35. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    All of which is to say, the sources that provide real evidence for the proposition that Jewish leaders had a meaningful role are late and come from a period when Christians were differentiating themselves from Jews and trying to improve their standing in Roman society. So it’s easy to see why this tradition moving responsibility from Pilate to Jewish leaders and eventually (in John) to “the Jews” developed as the texts got older.

  36. Mephibosheth says:

    Clarification was all I was after. I’m not interested in bringing evidence against the Jewish leadership of the time, especially if it’s the “mainstream historical assessment” that they weren’t culpable. I’m happy to take your/the scholars’ word for it.

  37. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Mephibosheth, at least “a mainstream historical assessment,” since historians (even the mainstream kind) aren’t the sort of people who tend to agree about things…

  38. This is the first time I’ve heard the argument that blaming the jews came much later in the gospels. This has been an interesting discussion to follow.

    Still I think its going too far to say “sinful men” is an antisemitic statement. If it said “sinful jewish people” than yes, or even “sinful jews” I could see your pooint. But how is “sinful men” antisemitic? Its not pointing to a particular ethnic group at all, but seems to me to be placing the blame on a few individual’s heads, not that of a nation.

  39. Steve, in the post and throughout, I’ve maintained that it’s at most an echo, not an explicit statement. It sounds a bell since it parallels other anti-Semitic rhetoric. That’s the maximum claim here; it’s not an accusation, just a point of discomfort for me.

  40. It’s unfortunate that you brought up the question of antisemitism in your post, Trevor, for it has hijacked the discussion and distracted from the real issue here which is that the leaders of the church today appear to have claimed gifts that were promised to Joseph and are using a revelation to Joseph to assert their own authority.

    Yes, Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, but so what? That doesn’t implicate ALL jews, only those few involved at the time. The debate about antisemitism in the scriptures implies a concern that the scriptures are claiming all Jews are Christ killers.

    It was Mormons who were responsible for the murders of the Fancher party. That doesn’t imply that all Mormons are Fancher killers.

  41. JNS wrote: Peter as depicted in the New Testament is often anti-Semitic, to be sure. Later Christian communities wrote those texts, and they placed their views on the lips of actors in various moments.

    Oh, very good! By that argument, we can ignore the text of the New Testament because anything at all could plausibly have been an invention of later Christians.

    I’m not sure you see a problem with accepting the opinion of skeptical historians about the NT over the text of the NT. I do.

    But even if one accepts the literal truth of the scriptures that assign primary blame for the crucifixion to the Jewish leaders at the time, it does not follow that the horrible treatment they Jews have received over the centuries has been justified or excusable.

    Neither the New Testament nor the Book of Mormon endorse reviling them, ostracizing them, driving them out, or using them as a scapegoat for all the ills of society. It is this kind of conduct that seems to be more properly labeled as anti-Semitic.

  42. I am planning on using scriptures related to ideas in lesson 36. I will be reading and discussing ideas in Isaiah 35, from which the lesson gets its title. I will be using 3 Ne. 11:38–40; D&C 18:4; 64:33–34 in connection with the story of the sandstone foundation. I will be using Mosiah 2:6 in connection with the story of Brigham Young picking the spot of the temple, and the city being built around the temple.

  43. I think (RE: antisemitism) there are two issues here.

    First, there are, in fact, gaping historical problems with assigning primary responsibility for Jesus’ execution to Jews or “the Jews.” Earlier gospels (especially Mark) not only assign marginal responsibility to the temple priesthood and sanhedrin (whose desire to get rid of Jesus is primarily political and a function of their own positions of power as collaboraters with Roman colonial power), but positions Jewish leaders in Jerusalem against the overwhelming majority of Jews in Jerusalem, Jesus’ most fervent supporters.

    The Markan narrative depicts “the Jews” — i.e. the Jewish people — as obstacles to the temple priesthood’s desire to have Pilate execute Jesus. They are unwilling to arrest him in broad daylight because he is so popular with the throngs of Jews on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. The best, most plausible historical reading of Jesus’ death — a reading, I might add, not remotely inconsistent with his being the Messiah — is that, as a result of his violent (in the sense of property descruction) protest in the temple, he was turned over by the temple priesthood (whose position and legitimacy his acts most directly implicated) to the Roman prefect (whose presence, with military reinforcement, in Jerusalem at the time was designed to prevent precisely the kind of rebellion and disorder that Jesus’ presence seemed to threaten), who had him executed as a run-of-the-mill political subversive.

    This, taken together with Jesus’ wild popularity among most Jews in the city, is hardly consistent with a reading that ascribes primary responsibility for his death to “the Jews”, a people perhaps uniquely wicked in all of history. A reading that assigns sole complicity to the Jews makes it into a kind of supernaturally and self-referentially evil religious murder as opposed to a standard, predictable, and hardly uncommon political execution.

    An entirely different question, as regards the original post, is — does the language “sinful men” explicitly or even implicitly connote Jews, the Jews, Judaism, etc., and does it partake of the historical anti-semitism that much NT writing (and much Christian contemplation of that writing) has capacitated and reinforced?

    I’m much mure agnostic on this question…

  44. Well put, Brad. “The Jews” were wildly supportive of Jesus; “The Jewish Leaders” were dead set on getting rid of him primarily for that reason: he was a threat to their own power and popularity.

    The Romans probably would never have gotten around to dispatching Jesus without the prodding of the Jewish Leadership.

    And now, can we please get off “the Jewish question” and discuss the meat of J. Nelson’s essay?

  45. Collective blame of an entire ethnicity for a crime is inherently an act of prejudice and bigotry, and is by definition in this case anti-Semitic.

    Not in the Old Testament or elsewhere in the ancient world, where corporate responsibility was a given and pretty much served as a driving force behind much of the substantive law that existed in many ancient societies, not just among the Israelites and later in Jewish law as well (and even stretching into the rabbinic period and beyond).

    I don’t think that Brad is saying anything very different than what I said in my comments. His phrasing might seem more acceptable because of how he frames it in vaguely Marxist overtones. Both you and he give perhaps a little bit too much credence to the “politicization” of the later Christian writings (for both of you that appears to be anything after Mark). Also, you both demonstrate a remarkable confidence or faith in the theory of Markan priority. This is of course a persuasive point of view, one that I agree with albeit with perhaps a little less certainty of knowledge. Even though there is good reason to believe in Markan priority, I find it a little irritating to see it taken as a premise so solid and irrefutable that an entire political argument can be built on it to frame post-Markan canonical writings as anti-semitic (i.e. the Markan author glosses over Jewish participation, not giving much detail, and noting the Roman jurisdiction and involvement, thus “the Jews” must not have been involved(?) and only brought into the picture by later Christian authors with a political agenda of taking power from the temple priesthood). We can understand post-Markan canonical writings in many other ways in how they reference Jews or “the Jews” than as being anti-semitic in themselves, even John in which “the Jews” are referred to as being at fault for the trial and execution of Jesus (because of the role of their leaders in conspiring against Jesus and making sure that he was gotten rid of because of the religious challenge he posed to their positions — and because what had become of the Law of Moses provided them with a basis for doing so). This can be viewed as a corporate designation much like Old Testament material instead of as political anti-semitism characteristic of medieval creedal Christianity and its secularization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The fact that creedal Christians began using it a couple of hundred years later and then consistently for nearly 1,800 years as an anti-semitic tool does not mean that the text itself is anti-semitic or meant to support anti-semitism. We can acknowledge the horrible abuses that the material was wrongly used to justify and commit ourselves never to engage in such behavior without pointing to the text itself as requiring such a posture. It seems more reasonable to see such a corporate designation as giving a pretext that willing men readily exploited for their own political purposes, than as anti-semitic per se, which seems an anachronistic reading in any event.

    Peter and other early Christians (including John, who seems to have endured the longest) suffered a lot of trials and pain at the hands of Jews who rejected their Christian message. Paul went around with other Jews searching out and arresting disciples of Christ before his miraculous conversion. This gives us a glimpse of what was occurring at the time in the relationship between traditional Jews and the “new Jews” who were disciples of Jesus Christ. Stephen was stoned by Jews who rejected his testimony of the Gospel and in particular in reaction to his statement about looking into the heavens and seeing Christ standing at the right hand of God the Father. If Peter and other New Testament authors (e.g. Luke, in writing the Acts) seem to be wary of Jews in New Testament writings, perhaps it’s not because of “anti-semitism” but because of their experiences in the thick of religious persecution that the and the other disciples of Christ were then suffering at the hands of Jews.

    None of the foregoing implies that many Jews in Jerusalem didn’t believe in Christ’s message and mission — that is obviously not the case since all of his first disciples were Jews and continued to consider themselves as Jews, particularly while he was still among them, and of course many converted and became his disciples after his crucifixion. But Jews who did not believe were nevertheless persecuting Christ’s disciples — we can infer on a daily basis. And because this happened, and following in the pattern of Old Testament religious and prophetic writing, not to mention well-known and ingrained functions of Jewish law at the time period, the episodes are described in terms of corporate responsibility etc. in the writings of the period.

  46. His phrasing might seem more acceptable because of how he frames it in vaguely Marxist overtones.

    Good grief, John.

  47. John,
    Perhaps my writing lacks a certain clarity. I wasn’t arguing that later canonical writings politicized Jesus’ death. Quite contrary — that Jesus was, in fact, executed for a political act, that the execution itself was a political act carried out collaboratively by the temple priesthood (a primarily political body comprised of a handful of politically and economically elite men who were, in fact, Jews) and the Roman prefect. I’m arguing that later descriptions reflect a religious impulse both to de-Judaize Jesus and a political agenda to de-politicize the entire mess. Nobody’s ascribing modern, secular anti-Semitic motives or agendas to evangelists. Nevertheless, you have noted yourself the anti-Semitic nature of certain KJV passages, passages equally subject to the apologetic explanations of your #45 (corporate designations, ancient legalisms, prophetic literary patterns, etc.).

  48. …vaguely Marxist overtones.

    Is there an emoticon for eye-rolling?

  49. Steve Evans says:

    Nothing vague about it, Comrades!

  50. Sorry, omit “vaguely”!

    Don’t worry though, I’m down with the Marxist reading of history and culture, even if I don’t think it necessarily works in all cases or scenarios.

  51. Steve Evans says:

    I’m just surprised nobody seized on Brad’s being “mure agnostic” on the question. Pick no Marxist agnostic until he’s ripe, I say!

    John, I’m just joshing you here. I think you’re right that you and Brad (and everyone else, for that matter) are really not as far apart as you all sound.

  52. . . . . as Steve noted while I was still typing.

  53. Should we prefer the claim that Jesus Christ was crucified by righteous men? On what basis are the people responsible for his crucifixion anything other than sinful? Isn’t crucifying an innocent man a sin?

  54. Steve Evans says:

    Mark D., tell that to the governor of Texas.

  55. Isn’t crucifying an innocent man a sin?

    A more interesting question is, what if the executed prisoner was guilty of the crime for which he was executed but was also the messiah and the son of God?

  56. Brad, that’s an interesting question and one I’ve long thought about. If that is the case (although no one I know of has made it a theological point) it’d form and interesting parallel to certain readings of Genesis 2-3.

  57. Not to beat a dead horse, but I am inclined to take the later gospels more at face value in their assessment of blame for killing Jesus.

    Take the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, for instance. The accounts, primarily that of Jospehus, indicate that a Sadduceen conspiracy was responsible for plotting to kill James while the Romans were switching governors and new one was en route. Josephus has little reason to shield Christians from Roman persecution. John Painter’s Just James has a good analysis of these accounts.

  58. The death of James, for a number of reasons, is not particularly comparable to the death of Jesus. Regardless of the strength of the historical case surrounding James’ murder, it has no bearing on the execution of Jesus. I haven’t argued for a conspiracy that didn’t involve any Jewish actors. Just that the killing, while it did involve powerful men, some of whom were, in fact, Jews, was primarily a political killing. It was their status as collaborators with the Roman occupation and their role in the temple aristocracy (the political and economic center of the Judaean state) that drove Jerusalem conspirators to plot against Jesus, not their status as Jews, per se. Josephus describes a political killing. So do I.

  59. Where have these posts gone?

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