A Warning About Alonzo Gaskill’s New Book

Taylor G. Petrey is the Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of Religion, and Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Kalamazoo College. He holds a ThD and MTS from Harvard Divinity School in New Testament and Early Christianity.

As a scholar who writes about gender in early Christianity, I was initially happy to discover that Alonzo Gaskill, an associate professor in BYU Religious Education’s Church History and Doctrine department has recently published a book on supposedly ancient apocryphal teachings of Jesus related to women, titled The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Sacred Place of Women (Ceder Fort, 2014). I was quite disappointed to discover that the text Gaskill’s commentary is based on is a well-known forgery. Readers deserve to be warned against this problematic book in the strongest terms.

Claims about the words of Jesus should be held not only to the highest historical standards, but also to the highest religious standards precisely because of the authority that they wield. Gaskill’s book fails on both counts putting forth a false gospel as representative of Jesus’ teachings.

First, I want to discuss the fraudulent document, then how Gaskill represents it as authentic in his book. Gaskill is no doubt a fine person and strong teacher. His previous works have provided some nice insights into the gospel, and I hope that he will continue to bring some of his insights in future publications. However, his recent book The Lost Teachings of Jesus should not be distributed among the Saints.

Notovitch’s “Unknown Life of Jesus”

Gaskill’s book is based on Nicholas Notovitch’s hoax in 1890, “The Unknown Life of Jesus,” an account about Jesus supposedly preserved in the Pali language in a Nepalese Buddhist monastery. The document advances a theory that there is a historical connection between Jesus and India, that he both visited there in his youth and that his teachings circulated in India before they circulated in the Roman Empire.

Gaskill’s commentary picks up on a few passages about women in Notovitch’s “Unknown Life.” Gaskill also relies on Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s republication of this text. Clare Prophet is the wife of Mark L. Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a pair of New Age prophetic teachers in the latter part of the 20th century (you can see old videos of her on Youtube). She relied on her own visions and accounts of past lives in her ministry, and is one of the popularizers of the Jesus in India theory. New Age prophets and Theosophists have been attracted to this theory because of the desire to merge Christian and Buddhist thought, but such historical claims lack any credible evidence, relying on hoaxes like Notovich’s. Such theories have absolutely no credibility outside of New Age publications.

After over a century, the doubts of the authenticity and even the existence of a Pali manuscript about Jesus in a Buddhist monastery have been confirmed again and again. There is no evidence that such a manuscript exists, and the manuscripts some travelers claimed to see cannot be proven to say anything at all like what Notovitch’s “translation” claims. Further, it is worth noting that Notovitch does not actually translate these documents (he does not know the language), but reports on the translations that he claims he was told about by the Buddhist monks over time, acknowledging that he later compiled these diverse recollections into a narrative of his own design, “arranging them in consecutive order to form sense and deducing from them what forms my translation.” That is, he admits to creating the text based on things he was told, not the result of a close reading of an actual text.

The issue of historicity is not solely determined by the existence of some undated Pali manuscript, but is just as easily decided based on the content of Notovitch’s document itself. The entirety of the document is a kind of simplistic retelling of the Old Testament and the appearance of Jesus (Saint Issa). In the text, Jesus spends his teenage years in India and becomes a famous teacher of the Vedas, and taught that they were not divine. Jesus is also depicted as denying the divinities of Hindu gods, and challenging Zoroastrian priests on his way through Persia. Once he arrives back in Jerusalem, the story of Jesus is selectively reimagined. Notovitch constructs didactic sermons for Jesus in various circumstances that take aim at rival religious practices that say more about 19th century colonialism than first century Judea.

Gaskill’s Use of Notovitch

Gaskill does not apply any of the well-developed scholarly methods of determining the historical likelihood of authenticity of a saying of Jesus, or even for dating a text, nor does he use any ancient comparisons to locate the text historically or to find other ancient parallels that would help to provide some evidence of authenticity. Gaskill misleadingly implies that the historicity may be resolved by appealing to the accounts of Theosophical teachers, or his own spiritual confirmations. Presenting these teachings as actual, or even likely, sayings of Jesus has no merit.

Gaskill repeats Notovitch’s account of the origins of the text in his introduction as if it is factual, including the account of ancient Indian merchants acquiring the text. “Consequently,” Gaskill promises, “if their report is true, then their record of Jesus’s teachings was penned before any of the four gospels.” Gaskill repeatedly refers to these teachings as if they are authentic to the historical Jesus. The books is advertised an “extra-biblical text, thought to be the words of Christ.” Throughout his book, Gaskill calls them “Christ’s words” and the “lost teachings of Christ” or the “lost teachings of Jesus”. He uses the teachings as evidence what “the Lord has commanded,” and speaks consistently of the text as the words and discourse of Christ on nearly every page. Gaskill’s commentary asserts the historicity of the text consistently with his chosen constructions: “Christ here offers,” what “Jesus reminds,” “Christ calls,” “the Lord calls,” “Jesus declares,” “what Jesus was counseling,” “Christ speaks,” “the Lord instructs,” “the Lord informs,” etc.

The caveat “if” he applies to the origin story of the text is well worth noting, but Gaskill does not actually question this report. Furthermore, the “if” suggests that there is some credibility to the story. Gaskill relies on the Spirit to determine the ancient and authentic status of this text. He explains, “Though the location of the written discourse [e.g. in India] at the time the Bible was compiled prevented its inclusion in our New Testament, the Spirit of the Lord attests to the truthfulness of the teachings contained therein.”

Appendix A sets this document in the context of lost scriptures, and LDS prophesies of more scripture to be revealed. Gaskill suggests that even though it is outside of the current canon it is “of God.” He explains, “Many an inspired text that has the Spirit’s seal of approval on its content exists outside of our canon. The ancient text examined herein may be one such document, for its content finds support among the teachings of both ancient and modern prophets.” While Gaskill is certainly free to believe that this hoax is inspired by God as a matter of personal belief, his statement that it is an “ancient text” must be substantiated.

Only tucked away in Appendix B does Gaskill acknowledge that no contemporary scholars accept the authenticity of the text, and discusses the debunking of the document that took place within a few years after its initial appearance. Gaskill believes that all scholars are mistaken, and he takes a troubling approach to the question of historicity: “if Jesus didn’t deliver this discourse in the first century, He certainly has spoken the ideas contained in it through His living oracles in this dispensation. The words are true, regardless of when Jesus first articulated them.” (71) Are we really to conclude that whether by the mouth of the Lord’s servants, or by a 19th c. charlatan, it is the same? If Gaskill wants to write about his interpretation of modern prophets’ views about women, there is no need to link them to a fraudulent text about Jesus.

Concluding Remarks

The idea that a notable professor invokes the Spirit to testify in favor of a 19th century forgery should trouble us precisely because it reinforces the critiques about the gullibility and overeagerness of Latter-day Saints to accept factual historical errors based on our desires rather than critical investigation. The sort of paradigm exhibited in this book shows that a professor is not capable of distinguishing between an obvious 19th century forgery and the sacred scriptures of Mormonism, and chooses supposed parallels between modern prophets and a modern forgery as evidence of what Jesus would have said in the first century. That he finds resonance between 19th century LDS perspectives on women and this 19th century forgery’s perspectives on women should have encouraged Gaskill to investigate the shared 19th century milieu of the resonances rather than declare them both to be evidence of eternal truths. This is parallelomania run amok of historical tethers.

Comments

  1. Whoa.

  2. Scott B. says:

    Here’s Alonzo Gaskill’s description:

    http://alonzogaskill.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-note-to-reader.html

  3. Scott B. says:

    “In my original manuscript I discussed the controversy surrounding the text, its historicity, origins, etc., at the beginning of the book—and did so in more depth than in the published version of the text. However, each of the reviewers found that a distraction from the main purpose of the text, which was intended as a piece of devotional literature and not an academic treatise. Thus, it was recommended that I pare down the discussion to make it less academic in its tone, and also move it to an appendix, which I did. (In retrospect, that may have been a poor decision—as was including the text in the first place.)”

    Heh.

  4. “…as was including the text in the first place.”

    uhhhh….so, like, that’s pretty much game right there, right?

  5. Quickmere Graham says:

    Gaskill’s follow-up is basically a non-apology. It seems he’s doubling down by defending the book as “devotional” rather than “academic,” as though those categories are mutually exclusive, or as though the differences between them can excuse his promulgation of faith-promoting forgeries. It’s a shame that the book made it though the publication process to begin with.

    He claims that he made enough caveats in his book, but those three references don’t make up for the countless other lines in the book that refer to the document as the lost words of Jesus (including the title!). Why shouldn’t Latter-day Saints expect honesty and accuracy in devotional literature as much as in academic literature? He tries to let readers know about the controversial nature of his source in an Appendix, but even there he does not truly convey the likelihood that the source is a forgery. He says “In retrospect, that may have been a poor decision—as was including the text in the first place.” But then the book itself has no real purpose. It is billed as showing inspired alignment between the lost words of Jesus and the (highly selective) words of Latter-day prophets.

    Cedar Fort (for publishing it) and Deseret Book (for promoting it) really blew it on this one. This is a pretty serious indictment of the state of LDS “devotional” books.

  6. KerBearRN says:

    “The idea that a notable professor invokes the Spirit to testify in favor of a 19th century forgery should trouble us precisely because it reinforces the critiques about the gullibility and overeagerness of Latter-day Saints to accept factual historical errors based on our desires rather than critical investigation”

    Exactly. This book therefore should be deemed a failure (and an embarrassment) on both spiritual and scholastic grounds.

  7. “In writing this, I believed that the target audience would not care about the referenced controversy, and that academics would realize this was intended as a devotional piece…”

    So, um… The target audience was people who aren’t smart enough to know the problems with forgeries. Good job. Glad that BYU takes such great care with its faculty so that we can avoid academics taking advantage of the gullible and all that! Will he be refunding their money? How about it, DB? Cedar Fort?

    And devotional pieces don’t require as much honesty as scholarly work. That’s good to know, as well.

  8. Thomas Parkin says:

    The little boy that lives in my mouth is dictating a book to me. I’m sure you’ll all want to read it.

  9. If the Book of Abraham can be an “inspired translation” why can’t The Unknown Life of Jesus be an “inspired forgery”? I’m with Gaskill on this one.

  10. Yikes. Just as I was feeling cheerful at the prospect of BYU tuition payments, too….

  11. “In writing this, I believed that the target audience would not care about the referenced controversy, and that academics would realize this was intended as a devotional piece…”

    In what why is a lie a “devotional piece”? How does the spirit testify of this?

    21 And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

  12. Srsly, it’s shocking how much worse his “mea culpa” actually makes this.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    I’m not an ancient scripture expert, and I generally don’t follow the devotional work of BYU Professors. However the first analogous hypothetical situation I imagined was if someone 100 years from now were to use Hofmann’s JS III blessing (or any other of his forgeries) as the basis of a devotional work. That would definitely be something that one would want to steer clear of.

  14. I’m not the audience for this book so don’t know that I can comment on the book itself. From quickly reading his apology and Taylor’s post, I’ve gotten curious about the ways boundaries are being described in this interchange. I’m curious to think through the ways that our responses to this book would be different if he had used a novel, say Hugo’s Les Miserables, as the entry point into a devotional book like this. And had then indicated that he felt God’s spirit testify of the truth of the teachings within Les Miserables and then explored parallels in contemporary LDS teachings. Or if he had found sections of Blavatsky that weren’t quite as wild as the majority of her work, in which he pursued a similar tack. Would those elicit different responses from us than this specific book? If so, why?

  15. smb,

    Easy answer: if you purport to be bringing forth lost Jesus sayings, you are gonna get scrutinized to the highest degree. Case in point: The current debate on the Jesus’ Wife manuscript. There are no words more prized, examined, and debated in the history of western thinking and believing. These are THE boundaries.

  16. ahjeez, if the apology/clarification is correct, he was talking about the images that came to his mind and the doctrinal power of the Notovich account, independent of whether there really were a Pali Bible. By his report he is open about the fact that academics believe the book is a forgery/pious fraud (on a par with a novel, presumably) and he felt that moral truths were communicated via the Notovich account regardless of whether it was a flight of fancy on Notovich’s part. Again, I have no plans to read the book–the Jesus in India thing is pretty old hat. I’m merely judging from his report in the linked apology. I suspect that the boundaries operative here are not actually about words of Jesus vs. not. I think there’s something more, something about authenticity and gullibility and academic vs. lay and sophisticated vs. simple-minded. I’m curious about what specifically is being bounded.

  17. I’m confused. Is today April 10 or April 1?

  18. Quickmere Graham says:

    smb: He’s cashing in on the idea that these are legit sayings of Christ. He guides readers to the conclusion by observing that the teachings of modern LDS prophets (or at least the ones he proof-texts) align so well with this “purported” source, and well, the reader can do the rest. I’ve already seen blog reviews and comments about this book remarking how amazing it is to have this “knowledge” given by Jesus restored to us. This is entirely different from examining Les Mis. I would be very upset if my mom bought this book and believed she was reading the words of Jesus lost for ages and now discovered.

    The fact that the book heavily promulgates a benevolent sexism doesn’t help, either.

  19. smb: The apology/clarification is incorrect, and this has nothing to do with academic jealousy or arrogance. The book was written by a BYU academic making quasi-academic/historical arguments about Jesus for devotional purposes and can and should be judged on those terms. It makes the worst of academic blunders, shows extreme naiveté about the world of historical scholarship, and uses spiritual-cultural intuition to supersede critical thinking in a way that reflects badly on both BYU and the Church.

  20. Deseret Book product blurb: “‘The wife and the mother are the inappreciable treasures given unto you by God. They are the fairest ornaments of existence, and of them shall be born all the inhabitants of the world.’ This extra-biblical text, thought to be the words of Christ, is presented and explained by Alonzo Gaskill where he expounds the divine role of women in the gospel and family. This book will help you learn how to better appreciate and respect women and their part in God’s plan.”

  21. “The wife and the mother are the inappreciable treasures given unto you by God. They are the fairest ornaments”

    Oof! Objectification of women much? “the wife and the mother” like they are concepts or objects, not individuals. “given unto you” like an object. “Ornaments” are passive objects, not leaders, doers, agents unto themselves. It’s in a bizzare way impressive how much objectification they were able to concentrate into so few words.

  22. Thomas Parkin says:

    “They are the fairest ornaments of existence”

    They are also the loveliest ornaments on the Christmas Tree, the little darlings. Of course, you have to take them down. Otherwise, who shall bake the pies?

  23. fenevadka says:

    “He claims that he made enough caveats in his book…”

    Gaskill has a habit of using this claim to deflect legitimate criticism. In one of his previous books he made statements about terms in Latin and Greek that a first-semester student of either language would know were completely wrong. When I was involved in a previous interaction with him, he questioned my motives for pointing out how wrong he was and then said that if I’d bothered to read his footnotes, I would have seen that he was citing a PhD dissertation for his source, so he wasn’t accountable for the basic lack of knowledge of the languages he was expositing on (in a book that took the need for close attention to language as one of its central themes).

    Gaskill simply doesn’t take responsibility for his claims when they are proven to be wrong, so his response—shifting the goal posts—shouldn’t be surprising.

    This sort of writing gets under my skin, especially when published by DB (not this book, but some others) and, in the case of a previous book, appears with a glowing endorsement by Joseph Fielding McConkie that mentions McConkie’s “Professor of Ancient Scripture” title. In other words, this stuff gets promoted as though it has an official imprimatur from the church.

  24. Taylor showed me a bit of what’s being claimed in the book, and I see from various comments that marketing is playing on the esoterica side of this old book. While I’m still fascinated by the boundaries at play here, I’m inclined to agree that such practices are probably not good for the church body. A reminder of the complexities when RelEd spans youth ministry (its role within CES/seminaries) and the academy (with its academic titles and its location within BYU). A book like this would be pretty standard fare in some Evangelical youth ministry activities, but it has no obvious place within the academy. Which points to the broader questions of how important it is that RelEd shift from its historic role as a youth ministry to an academic role as a department of religion and which trappings of either are most important for this specific department at BYU. And the tricky question: would the RelEd professors who are primarily youth ministers (we should all be open here: there are many different professors within RelEd, some of whom are very typical academics and some of whom are clearly primarily seminary teachers and some who are in between) have the same devotional impact on their students if they were more clearly identified as seminary teachers rather than academics per se? I think they might, not least given the anti-expert strand in American and Mormon culture and the easy availability of the autodidact role.

  25. fenevadka says:

    One of my problems with excusing things because they are devotional and “not meant to be taken as scholarship” is that these books still make truth claims about matters of scholarship, not just claims about being inspirational. We aren’t talking about Chicken Soup for the Soul here, but rather a seemingly serious exposition of the words of Jesus. Precisely because of the centrality of those words to us, they are (or should be) subject to a higher burden of proof, but Gaskill’s argument and a confusion between Religious Education’s role as devotional or scholarly, muddies this in ways that tells us to play fast and free with those words. If we can accept what appears to be unambiguous fraud because it happens to contribute to our devotional aims, then we have given up caring about the truth and have made our religion into an idol of our own making.

    We come from a religion that claims to value the truth and, even leaving aside discussions about what sort of truth, we should be troubled by the use of falsehoods in service of a “greater” truth. They create a slippery slope and they do very real damage: many people leave the church over discoveries that things aren’t the way they were taught, and telling them “well, it was devotional and you shouldn’t take it as fact” seems like special pleading. In many cases we don’t know what happened (authorship of the BoA, for instance), and those ambiguous areas cause us enough grief without creating more where there should be no ambiguity: if we know (within as much surety as we can) that something is not authentic, we should not treat it as though it were. Or, alternatively, we need to be MUCH more up front about our method and reason rather than burying the disclaimers in footnotes and hedged statements that people don’t read.

  26. fenevadka says:

    But had Gaskill said, “I’m going to present to you a fraud because I think it teaches us something, irrespective of the fact that it is a fraud”, it wouldn’t have been published…

  27. fenevadka says:

    And, apropos to smb’s comment, I’ve heard that Gaskill is a tremendously inspirational teacher. His students, apparently, love him. So he fulfills the devotional role of Religious Education very well. But he is also put forward by the department as though he were a scholar, and he uses the forms of scholarship for his devotional arguments, and that confusion of channels creates problems. If he were “just” a religion teacher at BYU, we wouldn’t care about what he says nearly as much, but there is a wide group in the Church looking for authoritative knowledge that doesn’t attack their faith, and they do run into this sort of thing and end up getting themselves into jams when it turns out to be false.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    Here is how BYU religion professors used to react to literature like this:

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=5151

  29. I had hoped the Rel Ed department at BYU had rid itself of the Bott/Joseph Fielding McConkie types. They’re certainly a minority. I imagine their continued existence in the department must be a great frustration for the rest of the professors there.

  30. In some ways, Gaskill’s treatment of this is the logical extension of the 1992 FP statement on the KJV.

    “Many versions of the Bible are available today. Unfortunately, no original manuscripts of any portion of the Bible are available for comparison to determine the most accurate version. However, the Lord has revealed clearly the doctrines of the gospel in these latter-days. The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical passage is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.”

    IOW, the proper way to evaluate is not through academic means (which are certainly open to argument and counter-argument) but by simple doctrinal comparison, which seems to be what Gaskill has done.

    That statement is highly problematic, as it seems to assume much about doctrinal consistency that violates the central line-upon-line LDS principle. If we just dug up the Book of Mormon now, for example, would we reject it because its binary heaven-hell doesn’t match D&C 76? I’m a big fan of multivocality in the scriptures and modern day, and think assumptions of strict doctrinal consistency set people up for failure. http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2013/12/the-old-testament-scripture-apostles-the-priesthood-ban-and-theological-diversity-calibrating-our-expectations/

  31. That’s a strong comment, Ben S.

  32. hammer time says:

    Not sure how this is problematic when all religious writing are arguably false (and many by the same standards as the ones used to validate “the unknown teachings of Jesus”). All religion scholars are writing about controversial and unverifiable texts.

  33. No, they aren’t, hammer time.

    And Gaskill’s book appears to no longer be listed on DB’s website.

  34. #CUTalltheway

  35. Wahoo Fleer says:

    Looks like it (and this post) made the evening news: http://www.kutv.com/news/top-stories/stories/vid_10572.shtml

  36. Ryan Mullen says:

    Thanks for the context, Ben S. I am curious if you also see tension between the LDS teaching of dispensations and the line-upon-line principle. If so, how do you reconcile them?

    I realize this question is a threadjack. Is there a better place to ask?

  37. I agree! I don’t like this fictional book because it disagrees with the other fictional book that I believe in…

  38. fenevadka says:

    @hammertime. And I suppose you don’t see a difference between an oral history of Abraham Lincoln and _Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer_ either. But my guess with a comment like that is that you’re just trolling.

  39. fenevadka says:

    ♫ Send in the trolls ♫

  40. The Other Clark says:

    So, is Gaskill encouraged to take an early retirement like Randy Bott (blacks were less valiant) and Stephen Jones (9/11 was preplanned)? Or is a mea culpa sufficient to save his job?

  41. I found some more background. The publisher’s website contains an article by Dr. Gaskill describing how he came to find the “lost teachings” and his reasons for writing the book. Dr. Gaskill describes the “lost teachings” in the same light as the D&C and other modern scriptures – authentic words of the Savior which have been hidden from the world. He states, “I was struck by Christ’s words in this ancient, lost discourse, and how harmonious they are with the teachings of Latter-day prophets.”

    http://blog.cedarfort.com/alonzo-gaskill-from-bargain-bookstore-to-published-work-how-the-lost-teachings-of-jesus-came-to-be/

  42. In case it gets pulled, here is the full article from Cedar Fort’s website:

    From bargain bookstore to published work, how ‘The Lost Teachings of Jesus’ came to be
    by Alonzo Gaskill

    As a convert (from Greek Orthodoxy), one of the things that initially drew me to Mormonism was its expanded canon The fact that Latter-day Saints had so much more scripture than I did at that time was an undeniable draw. And, as one who absolutely believed in scripture and prophets, the thought that there could be more words from God’s authorized messengers than I was then aware of enthralled me. During the process of my conversion I began reading the seven volume “History of the Church.” There I leaned about the Doctrine and Covenants—something the missionaries had not yet mentioned to me. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of it. I read it with rapt attention. I couldn’t put it down. Words from God that, for the vast majority of the world, were lost. They were lost, not because no one knew of their location; but they were “lost” because the vast majority of the world didn’t know about the content of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, or the teachings of the Latter-day Prophets. And yet I had stumbled upon them… and it was life-changing! Absolutely life-changing!

    Fast-forward a decade or so. I was back from my mission, enrolled in graduate school, and teaching Seminary. As part of my master’s degree program, I took a class on ancient extra-canonical literature. We looked at religious texts from various periods in antiquity; texts that read a great deal like the Bible, and that claimed to be inspired of God. It was a fun study and, ultimately, led to an understanding that the ancients were not quite as narrow (as many Christians are today) in what they considered scripture. Many texts didn’t quite make it into the Bible, even though they were perceived by the early Christians as the “words of God” revealed through prophets, or even through Christ.

    Well, one Saturday afternoon I was rummaging through the shelves of a used book store, and ran across a curious text. The book, nearly 100 years old, had been discarded (apparently as part of an estate sale). And there it was, now in my eager hands, and bearing the hefty price tag of 65 cents. Within its pages was the personal account of a Russian journalist who, in 1887 in the mountains of Tibet, stumbled onto a scroll that recorded a discourse Jesus was said to have delivered in Palestine shortly before His crucifixion. Strange! Could it be so? It seemed worth the investment.

    I bought the book, read as I walked home, and found myself drawn to a particularly moving section. It recorded what purported to be a discourse by Christ on the sacred place of women. The Savior spoke of mothers and wives as “the most sacred beings after God.” He testified of their ultimate destiny to become as God is! He praised the power of righteous women to “ennoble men” and “tame the brute” in them. And, much like King Benjamin before Him, Jesus declared: “All that you do for your wife, your mother, for a widow or another woman in distress, you will have done unto your God.”

    I was struck by Christ’s words in this ancient, lost discourse, and how harmonious they are with the teachings of Latter-day prophets. The counsel contained in this forgotten sermon advises women as to what God expects them to be; it teaches men how they should think of, and act toward, their wives, mothers and daughters; and it informs children of their duty toward their mothers, grandmothers and widows. In an era in which women are objectified, virtue is demeaned, and mothers and homemakers are ridiculed for their choice to serve, sacrifice and love, I thought the world should know what I had stumbled upon in a darkened corner, on a dusty shelf, of a small, used-book store, in South Bend, Ind. And, thus, “The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Sacred Place of Women” was born!

    Ed. note: “The Lost Teachings of Jesus on the Sacred Place of Women” is available in bookstores and from online retailers.

  43. altar_ego says:

    I think it is relevant (i.e., I don’t mean to slander his character at all) to note that Gaskill has an online degree (Doctor of Religious Studies or something like that; not a PhD) from an unaccredited institution. I think BYU RelEd learned their lesson from his case, but it is certainly unusual for someone with that background to have been admitted to an academic department at a major university, let alone to have received (BYU’s version of) tenure in that department! Seminary seems like a better fit for his talents. In any case, for better or worse, good training in a real PhD program would hopefully have helped him see the horrible flaws in this book, devotional or otherwise. That’s the sympathetic reading. The unsympathetic one is that no training would have helped this: he knew what he was doing all along.

  44. I’m still curious about smb’s question– reading Gaskill’s “Note to the Reader,” he emphasizes that he isn’t trying to argue the historicity of the document, but use it as a literary device to springboard onto a discussion of modern teachings of the prophets and apostles about women.

    (His quote: “I used the supposed discourse by Jesus on the sacred place of women (amalgamated from the published texts of Notovitch and Abhedananda) because it was such a poetic and beautiful description of womanhood, and because it harmonized so well with what Prophets and Apostles have taught. It was merely intended as a literary device—as a “springboard” into a more pertinent discussion. As I noted several times in my book, I did not (by my use of the document) intend to endorse its historicity—something I, and most academics, seriously question.”)

    I don’t know if that’s actually how it plays out in the book, not having read it, but those who have– does it? Acc. to his note, he’s not trying to use the Spirit/current teachings to support or prove this text in some way, but the other way around– using the text as a ‘literary device’ to discuss current teachings. I would find his explanation more compelling if he used the text strictly as a ‘literary device’ and ‘springboard’ rather than as the core of the book, which is how it sounds from Taylor’s review.

  45. Bradley Kime says:

    Rachael, I haven’t read the book either but I think an important way to gauge Gaskill’s use of the document (literary vs. historical) is to look at readers’ positive reviews and blogposts. From the dozen or so I’ve looked at, comments like this one are pretty typical: “So could it be possible that a Russian journalist, Nicholas Notovitch, found an ancient text spoken by Jesus and hid over the centuries in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery? I believe it can.” Gaskill has done a lot of good as an educator and I wish him the best, but it seems like the book has, unfortunately, had its intended effect on many readers.

  46. smb, serious questions because I respect the heck out of you but am very confused by your definition of “devotional” and “youth ministry”: would it be ok with you if I were your child’s primary teacher, and I told them that Jesus said X, Y, Z, and represented them as actual quotes of Jesus, but actually they were complete fabrications? Would it be ok with you if I were a missionary and you invited me in your home to teach your neighbor the discussions, and I told faith-promoting stories that I represented as being from my personal life but they were complete fabrications?

    I just don’t understand a definition of devotional that hangs out a shingle saying, “lies totally welcome here!!” Your contrast with “scholarly” standards seems like a red herring. What does that have to do with it? We don’t need to have the concept of scholarly participate in this discussion at all to call misleading people wrong. If somebody swindles me in business, they aren’t wrong because they weren’t “scholarly,” they’re wrong because they misled.

  47. altar_ego says:

    Rachael: I think his note is deflection and revisionist history. The title of the book says it all, as does the Cedar Fort blog post copied above, here in the comments. He doesn’t present it as a literary device and is not up front with the reader about what he is doing. It is a major breach of trust, if not worse.

  48. ^ exactly, altar_ego, which is why I think his statement/”apology” makes things much worse.

  49. Cynthia (and others), I can (potentially) see a division between the two. If I’m teaching something more devotional, like Gospel Doctrine, and quoting Hebrews repeatedly, I may simply say “Paul.” Whereas in Institute, I’d spend time on authorship questions, make sure they understood “Paul” was shorthand for “the author of Hebrews” but probably didn’t write it, then go on to the content. I’m not going to interrupt my Sacrament mtg talk to go into authorship issues.

    That doesn’t map very well onto a blatant and admitted modern hoax, per se, but I can see a legitimate application of a distinction between the two.

  50. Gaskill’s explanation strikes me as grossly self-justifying and not remotely scholarly. I do believe that “devotional” works are different from “scholarly” works, but Gaskill’s rhetoric just makes things worse. As a scholar who occasionally dabbles in Mormon Studies, I find his explanation of finding the text and having his beliefs (mainstream LDS thoughts on women which, frankly, are condescending and insulting at best) confirmed by it to be just about the opposite of the scholarly process. He essentially gives his testimony in what Dave K quotes above. It’s not my place or intent to contradict or ridicule anyone’s testimony, but the process he describes of discovering the book and finding it moving is certainly not a scholarly one. That he has an academic appointment at any accredited institution raises as many questions about the institution employing him as it does about his “scholarly” research. He is a good example of why the Mormon intellectual tradition (if we even have one) lags so far behind other religions’ intellectual traditions. Scholarly investigation/research requires skepticism, objectivity and the courage to discover and report the truth even if it doesn’t conform to one’s previous views. Writing about or interpreting texts only in ways that confirm your already-held views is neither scholarly nor courageous.

  51. Thanks for answering, Bradley, alter_ego and Brad. That’s really too bad. (I was holding out some hope….)

  52. phew, I ran into his blog the other day and he was looking for advanced readers and reviewers (book reviewing is a hobby of mine) . . . I’m glad I passed, because I may have blown a gasket.

    ornaments? For once can I be the subject of my own story instead of an object in someone elses? ugh.

  53. You have to admit, though, this general conference was a lot more colorful with the ornaments placed front and center on the stage rather than off to the side. And I heard the conference center now has pictures of ornaments in the hallway. What a joy. Christmas all year round!

    [ducking for cover]

  54. What I want to know is how BYU justifies giving the title of “Associate Professor” to anyone with a PhD from an unaccredited online theological seminary. CES track or not, that’s absurd.

    Maybe a little more time in a real grad school would have helped him realize this wasn’t a good idea before it was too late.

  55. Orwell, he received a MA from Notre Dame, so he’s not completely uncredentialed. He says “I was reared Greek Orthodox, converted to Mormonism, then studied theology at a Catholic university and a Protestant seminary. It’s probably no surprise that I ended up teaching world religions for a living.”

    http://magazine.nd.edu/news/9886-musings-of-a-mormon-reflections-on-my-time-at-notre-dame/

  56. Don’t have time to comb through this, but there was a front-page article in the New York Times about a fragment of Lost Gospels of Jesus that they’re tentatively concluding is authentic.

    …Which is more primary textual evidence we have than for the Book of Mormon …

  57. Here’s a Washington Post article about the controversy. Looks like it very well could be ancient, very unlikely to be the new Da Vinci Code.

  58. Portia, totally different text. No one disputes this one is a modern hoax.

  59. Does anyone outside the Mormon community dispute the same about the Book of Abraham text? Not trolling, genuinely curious.

  60. J. Stapley says:

    Portia, behold, Mormon love for Margaret Barker.

  61. Did one of the previous commenters suggest that Gaskill would be more suitable as a seminary instructor?? Don’t we have enough problems already?? When I reflect on the certifiably insane things that used to be expressed while we were barely awake I am convinced that Bros. Monson, Eyring and Uchtdorf would collectively have strokes. BTW, this book appears to be a truly bad idea and a strong indication that the good professor has too much time on his hands.

  62. Ben S., I’m pretty sure the diploma mill PhD cancels that out.

    Seriously, though, if CES wants to accept those kinds of degrees for pay raises and things, that’s their problem; but they ought to reserve their slots in the Religion Dept. at BYU for those who have a legitimate education — especially if they’re handing out the title “professor” and “continuing status” (or whatever it is they’re calling their pseudo-tenure these days). These types of shenanigans reflect so poorly on the rest of the university — it’s a real shame.

  63. Portia, correct on both counts (BM, BA) but here at BCC omnia munda mundis. That’s because orbis non sufficit for this blogging species. It’s always ad astra per aspera!

  64. fenevadka says:

    Portia, the answer is no, they don’t take is seriously. They also don’t take the BoM as a historical document seriously, either. But that is a matter of principles. Mormons take it seriously because they believe it to be ancient (at least many do), but for other scholars, absent any provenance or physical evidence, the claim cannot be evaluated as a historical proposition since faith claims cannot be evaluated via scholarly methods. That isn’t to say that they aren’t true, but that there are no scholarly tools to substantiate them (just to call them into question).

    However, with the BoA and BoM, believers do make the claim in good faith that they are legitimate documents, while nobody accepts Gaskill’s source as legitimate.

  65. Ryan Mullen- Can you elaborate on your question?

    Orwell- I’ve not dealt with this kind of issue before, but it appears Trinity Seminary has been seeking accreditation for some time. Certainly, a PhD from an unaccredited school is far less than desirable, but is “unaccredited” equivalent with “degree mill”?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_College_and_Seminary

    FWIW, I’m not a fan of Gaskill’s work. I was asked to review his first book, and had far more criticism than the final version showed. (FWIW, I was in my early graduate phase when I wrote it.) http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/16/2/S00016-5176ad21e5e2e16Spackman.pdf

  66. fenevadka says:

    Ben, you were far kinder to Gaskill’s work than I was. The book was given to me one Christmas, and I couldn’t get past the uncritical and indiscriminate use of sources. Anyone who would take the Epistle of Barnabus as an authoritative source (I know, I know, that it was almost canonized) and then use its Classical-era bestiary to read symbolism into the Old Testament and to then use that to take pot shots at the use of birth control has very little credibility with me.

    But what I find interesting is how differently we read it. Whatever its faults may be, your review seemed to see it as an open-ended work that doesn’t force interpretations, while I saw its dictionary-style listing with statements about what specific names and objects as an appeal to a covert fundamentalism: you just need the decoder ring to understand what the scriptures “really” mean. So I saw it heading in the exact opposite direction of your review.

    And then it got problematic for me, in part because of the tortured reasoning to arrive at some of the potshots he takes at those who disagree with his doctrinal presumptions. It’s fine to point out that Adam and Eve’s aprons of fig leaves pretty clearly had something to do with fertility. But to then turn and talk about how those who use birth control will be condemned? That’s reading a lot into it that just isn’t there.

    Other things were just strange, like saying that Sherem’s name meant “pug-nosed” and that this was a fitting sobriquet for this anti-Christ. This I found troubling for a few reasons, besides just coming across as a cheap shot. First, we don’t know that it actually meant that, especially as the Book of Mormon provides some good textual evidence that Sherem wasn’t from among the Nephites and didn’t originally speak their language, rendering suppositions about names based on some putative resemblance to Hebrew pretty tenuous (an end-note to Hugh Nibley not withstanding). But even more problematic, should we assume that the shape of one’s nose actually tells us something about the state of their soul? The more you think about it, the more nonsensical the purported symbol becomes.

    And then I got tired of things like saying that the name Felix meant ‘deceitful’ (uhh, no, it is a first-semester Latin word and means ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’): when you start reading meanings into the text based on the language, you can’t afford to make mistakes like that. It’s a bit like reading Graham Hancock: when I find rookie errors in the parts I do know something about, I wonder how many errors he makes in the areas I don’t know about, and pretty soon I can’t trust any of it.

    Clearly I had problems with the book, even though I recognized that he wanted to do the right thing. But wanting to do the right thing and actually doing the right thing are two different things. I don’t doubt that Gaskill is a good teacher and tries to do good work, but he is doing it in a genre with very strict requirements for accuracy that the work simply didn’t meet. I care deeply about LDS scholarship and what gets presented to members. Gaskill’s work would have been par for the course in LDS apologetic circles some twenty years ago, but the standards have shifted and I do get pretty bent out of shape when I see things that drag us back to the sort of uncritical googoo-eyed acceptance of anything that confirms our faith that I grew up around.

  67. Ben S., “diploma mill” is not a precise term — do I think it’s likely he got the degree only for tuition payments and “life experience”? I doubt it’s that bad. But, if we’re going to cite Wikipedia, the label is often used more generally: “[…] it describes any institution that offers qualifications which are not accredited and/or are not based on proper academic assessment. […] The term ‘diploma mill’ may also be used pejoratively to describe a legitimate institution with low academic admission standards and a low job placement rate” (see here).

    I am not an expert on their academic standards, having never been a student there, obviously. But let me put it this way: accreditation is a really low bar. Even places like University of Phoenix and Kaplan University are accredited. Add fully online graduate degrees into the mix and that raises about a thousand red flags.

    So, I certainly can’t tell you precisely where on the diploma mill spectrum it would fall, but there’s no question in my mind that there is no university in the state of Utah that would hire someone to a tenure-track position with such a degree, much less award tenure. One google search on the name of that institution would send the application directly to the trash. Ironically, his MA from Notre Dame might be enough to get employment as a part-time adjunct somewhere, but such a questionable PhD would probably preclude even that.

    Perhaps the most damning evidence is that Gaskill himself appears to be aware of the problem. It is very difficult to find this information anywhere. None of his online bios mention it. It makes it look like he’s willing to leave out Notre Dame in order to avoid mentioning Trinity Theological Seminary. Even his BYU webpage, where such basic biographical details are customary, omits the names of the institutions where he got his degrees (though it conspicuously name drops Stanford, where he was institute director). I would be willing to bet that the Religious Studies Dept. actually doesn’t want that detail on a public faculty webpage. I finally managed to find it on a Maxwell Institute page (see here) — which probably requires it or something.

    FWIW, I have never met Gaskill, know virtually nothing about him, have never read anything that he’s written, and have nothing against him personally. This is a criticism directed at CES for allowing such nonsense (they also accept University of Phoenix graduate degrees, I might add) and at BYU for turning a blind eye. If BYU wants to hire CES-track religion faculty permanently, that’s their business. But they should call them instructors or something unless they have the credentials to back up the title. It’s an insult to the university’s legitimate faculty.

  68. This thread makes me a bit sick.

    Unlike my compatriot Orwell who has never met Alonzo, I consider him a friend and a mentor. I was introduced to most of the issues that get hashed over in the bloggernacle by him. Aside from the merits of this book, he is one of the good guys. He is talking about difficult issues and telling things like they are, at least in my experience.

    I am not familiar with this most recent book and apparently it deserves some criticism from those who have read it.

    But that isn’t exactly what’s going on here is it? This is like some sort of internet dog pile by those that should know better. There has to be a better way to take issue with a work then what is going on here. I expect better of BCC, its commenters, and its administration.

    Perhaps I’m a bit extreme here because you are talking about my friend, but how many of you have actually read the work in question in order to feel comfortable making some of your statements and how many are just here tearing down one of our own (as opposed to critiquing a specific work?) It is like all the worst aspects of FARMS…

  69. I currently manage the Author pages on the Maxwell Institute website. All of those author bios are hold-overs from the old website. I don’t know what criteria they used to use, but many author pages don’t have bios. The problem with bios is that they tend to become outdated. I’ve been thinking about removing specific bios from the pages of living authors and just leaving brief bios on the pages of authors who have passed away. Given the number of authors listed there, it isn’t a good use of time to keep them updated. So if Gaskill’s disappears in the future it’s for that reason, and not because of the place he received his degree.

    John: I don’t want to malign Gaskill’s character in any way, but I have read enough of he book to know it is massively problematic, that it was very irresponsible to publish it, and that Gaskill’s apology blog post does not do a good job of communicating just how much he tried to leave readers with the impression that the forgery was actually authentic.

  70. BHodges, his MI bio page isn’t even much of a bio right now. Just his title and where he received his PhD — which is why it struck me as something someone else probably would have put up based on internal information and not something Gaskill would have authored himself.

    Anyway, John Harrison, I didn’t mean to contribute to a dog pile. This blog post just made me wonder where he studied so I tried to check him out. It’s usually a bad sign when you can’t immediately determine that information (it’s invariably public for professor-level faculty at major universities). When I finally did track it down, it brought one of my longstanding pet peeves about CES to the surface. It’s not as if Gaskill were putting anything over on BYU & CES, he played by their rules — CES pays for and approves its employees’ graduate degrees. My issue is with what degrees they accept and how they present the credentials of their people with the titles they bestow.

  71. arJ, I hear you. I haven’t met Gaskill and I haven’t read his book. It sounds like a big mess, though. I would welcome it if he would like to respond to any of the concerns raised in this thread.

    I do think it’s vital to distinguish between the general character of a person and a publishing mistake such as this. Those who have met the man are universal in their praise of him as a good man, trying to do good things. Perhaps this post was a mistake in that light, because of the propensity of dogpiling as you point out. We shouldn’t be in the business of tearing down the reputation of a good person, even though that is a boom industry. That said, the book does sound like a big problem, it’s newsworthy and I don’t think it’s off limits as a discussion topic.

  72. Steve,

    I don’t have much of an issue with Taylor’s post, though the academic points could be made with kinder tone. Have all the discussion you want about the book.

    Some of the comments though are simply mean and somewhat ignorant.

  73. Agreed. Par for the course on blogs I suppose. We can do better.

  74. fenevadka says:

    John and Steve, as one who was quite critical, I should make an apology. It is very easy when dealing with problematic materials to forget the person behind them and to separate them. As I mentioned above, people whom I know who also know Gaskill have, without exception, been full of the highest praise for him as an educator and have found him inspiring and thought-provoking. I do not know the man, and for him my complaints with his work (which I know he has encountered and responded to, although anonymously) must have seemed very harsh. Obviously those problems touched a negative chord for me, but the reasons for that probably have little to do with Gaskill himself or even the bulk of his work. I should apologize directly for the intemperance of my comments about his work, but unless he is a much bigger man than I am, such interaction would probably represent an unwelcome intrusion from me.

    To be clear, I still find the work deeply problematic, but I have no reason to find the man to be such, and to the extent that my commenting drifted over the line, I apologize to all and shall try to do better. Thank you for pointing out that we can (and should) do better.

  75. altar_ego says:

    I am all for civil behavior on blogs, and heaven knows I would hate to have my own past trundled out for a public evisceration. But I do think that what is happening here is a result of the institutional illness that goes with a lack of outside scrutiny, peer review, etc., which would have been a part of a real PhD program and certainly would have been caught at any self-respecting academic department with outside reviewers for promotion and tenure. Now of course that would not have guaranteed that this Cedar Fort publication would have turned out any different, as a casual perusal of any Deseret Book catalogue will show. Few books there hold up to academic scrutiny. But they are not knowingly discussing a fraud as if it were authentic. And everything from the book to his “apology” points toward his awareness of the vast problems with the work.

    I will say that in addition to having read enough of the book to see that his apologia is ineffective and misleading, I have personally witnessed his style in public talks, which is as much a problem as this work and seems very much an extension of his speaking style. He has regularly mocked his colleagues (usually not present) in public (Sperry Symposia and other talks) for not seeing historical reality in anachronistic pseudepigraphy. His body of work and public talks point me to the conclusion that he knew what he was doing every step of the way.

    While I do want to clarify that I mean Gaskill the person no harm, I do not think we should shrink from talking about Gaskill the employee or public persona, or the way his published work and his training relates to broader institutional issues, such as peer review, tenure, hiring, RelEd priorities, etc. It might mean asking why he is employed at BYU and whether he ought to be. It might mean asking how he got promoted to Associate Professor with nary an academic paper or book, so far as I can tell, or asking why he is in Church History and Doctrine when his background is in Ancient Scripture. Such is the nature of the LDS public square, a space he entered when he published a book about Jesus’ “lost teachings” and asked for reviews. In any case, pointing out that his lack of proper training in his declared field has played a role in the current situation is not uncivil per se and is absolutely something that should be on the table in this case. I can’t speak for others, but this case is so obviously the example of why good (or even adequate) training at the PhD level is a crucial component of academic departments.

    If he disputes the claims about his training, it might be helpful to see him describe his program requirements. What kind of instruction was there? Residency requirements? Comprehensive examinations? Prospectus? Committee? Dissertation? Heck, even a link to a dissertation would be helpful, with the names of the committee. If memory serves, last I looked into the Gaskill hiring back in 2006, none of these were part of obtaining a degree. I do think one was required to submit papers written, so it wasn’t the lowest bar possible, but it was absolutely not representative of a PhD in religious studies, a title he trades on to sell books and maintain his employment.

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