Round Table: Historicity and Revelation – Round One

Some of you may recall our prior Round Table, on Women in the Church. Encouraged by the interesting conversation and great commenting from that event, we decided to replicate the experiment, this time with a different cast of characters and a different topic: “Historicity and Revelation.” Sounds fun, no?

This time, participants included:

  • Scott Gordon, President of FAIR (bio available here );
  • Dennis Potter, professor of philosophy at UVSC (bio available here);
  • John Hatch, former Managing Editor of Sunstone and researcher (bio here);
  • Nate
    Oman, attorney, author, and blogger at Times and Seasons (bio here);
  • Rosalynde Welch, scholar, author, and Times and Seasons blogger (bio here);
  • Ronan James Head, FARMS scholar, blogger, and specialist in
    beekeeping (bio here);
  • Me, Steve Evans, lawyer, blogger, and all-around great guy (bio here).

The rules: a question is emailed, everyone responds and conversation ensues. It’s long, but it’s an interesting conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it. On with the show:

From: Steve
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Nate Oman, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan
James Head

Date: Apr 15, 2005 11:03

Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Hi gang,
First let me say that I feel slightly intimidated, posing a question to a group whose knowledge vastly surpasses my own.

So here is the first question for you: when does historicity matter?

Let me frame that question a bit, since it’s potentially quite broad. One of the challenges of the restored gospel is the introduction of new scripture with an historical basis: the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and (to a lesser extent) the JST. What are we to do with the historical claims of these documents? To what extent must a reader assimilate historicity as part of his or her testimony of the text? I think, for example of the Pearl of Great Price: in order for that document to bring me closer to Christ, in order for me to believe it to be true, must I also believe that the Papyri actually say what Joseph says it does?

Another example of the issue is found in limited geography theories of the Book of Mormon. I was taught, growing up, that Nephites and Lamanites were the (exclusive) ancestors of the American Indians, both in North and South America; it’s my understanding that this is still the widely-held teaching. Clearly, believing Mormons need not interpret the historical claims of the Book of Mormon in their broadest sense in order to believe in the Book and come unto Christ. Does this put us on some sort of slippery slope of ever-narrowing historical claims? How much of the history need be fact for the Book to still be true?

I expect definitive and universal answers from each of you, of course. This question is a bit of a well-worn chestnut, but it’s still fascinating.


From: John Hatch
To: Scott Gordon, Steve Evans, Nate Oman, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan
James Head
Date: Apr 15, 2005 12:05PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

First response – take that, Steve!

I can only speak for myself, but I find historicity to be of little importance in its relationship to the value of scripture in my life. I still talk about historicity a lot, and am fascinated by the topic, but its interaction with my actual use of scripture teachings seems small.

If we focus on the Book of Abraham, for example, we see that the scrolls have nothing to do with Abraham. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the book will never be vindicated, and it will continue to appear that there’s no possible way the book is an actual translation. Where do we go from there? The book contains some of Mormonism’s best doctrines, and I’m not about to toss those out the window over the translation issues.

On the other hand, I’m a bit uncomfortable with simply dismissing any challenge that comes along. Speaking frankly, I see it as entirely wishful thinking that Joseph didn’t think he was translating the Book of Abraham. He seems to have believed the book was a translation, or he at least presented it to followers as such. I find I can’t ignore that part of the story and must incorporate it into my belief system, just as I can’t ignore Joseph’s obvious belief in the hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon, and his pattern of telling stories about Nephites and Lamanites who wandered the western U.S. plains.

As Latter-day Saints, we tend to focus exclusively on the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham when discussing scripture historicity. The debate has raged for a long, long time in the larger Christian community over the Bible. I won’t pretend to know much about this; I’m largely ignorant on the
issues. Suffice it to say, both the Old and the New Testaments face plenty of their own dilemmas. Like the Book of Abraham, what do we do if we find out the four Gospels are largely political propaganda, meant to denounce the ruling classes? Does it make the teachings of Jesus any less valid on our
lives? I’d hope not.

A question of my own: Why is it (seemingly) acceptable for Latter-day Saints to believe that the story of Adam and Eve is not literal, or the flood, or the story of Jonah, or of Job (and so on) but unacceptable for Church members to believe the Book of Mormon is not historical? Is it the implications for Joseph Smith, or is it because the Book of Mormon is our own exclusive book of scripture?


From: Nate Oman
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan
James Head

Date: Apr 15, 2005 12:05PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Here is my response:

I think that questions of historicity have very little to do with our exegesis of the scriptures. To be sure, if we can locate a particular text as the product of a particular time, then we will get different interpretations on some issues. A good example of this, I think, is how we understand the Gaddianton robbers. If the Book of Mormon is entirely a product of upstate New York in the 1820s, then the Gaddianton robbers rather easily become Masons. On the other hand, if the Book of Mormon is largely a product of an ancient civilization, then the meaning of the Gaddianton robbers shifts. My sense is that these shifts in meaning are generally not all that important spiritually. Obviously, one might come up with shifts in meaning based on historical context that are spiritually significant, but my sense is that they are fairly rare.

On the other hand, historicity does have very important implications for how we understand the authority of scriptural texts. Our traditional account of scriptural authority rests on the notion that the scriptures give us some sort of privileged access to the divine. They teach us something about the purposes and mind of God that we cannot learn elsewhere and are regarded as more reliable sources of divine truth. The miraculous story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon becomes important because it warrants this authority. Historicity becomes important because it underwrites the miraculous story. (Incidentally, I think this also explains differences in LDS attitudes toward the historicity of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The authority of the Bible is ultimately warranted by the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, while the authority of the Book of Mormon is warranted in part by its historicity. The historicity of the Bible is thus not particularly important for warranting its authority to Latter-day Saints, something that is in stark contrast to the role of biblical historicity for conservative protestants.) The point of historicity is not that it necessarily changes the message of the text, but that it provides a reason to care particularly about the message of these texts rather than some other set of texts.

Various folks have tried to rescue authority without historicity by arguing for some sort of inspired fiction theory. There are two problems with this approach. The first is the question of whether or not such theories actually do provide some account of scriptural authority, or if they ultimately amount to a denial of scriptural authority, the claim that scripture does not provide us with any privileged access to the divine unavailable in other great literature on God. The second question, assuming that such theories really do (or attempt) to underwrite scriptural authority, is how one then understands the narrative of the Restoration. There is a crude response to this concern that goes something like this, “Because Mormons believe in continuing revelation, the past doesn’t really matter. We can turn on a dime.” Proponents of this response point to something like the end of polygamy as support for their thesis. It is mistaken, I think, for two reasons. First, as a historical matter Mormonism has not in fact turned on a dime. The end of polygamy was a long, drawn-out, messy, and traumatic affair. Second, continuing revelation itself must have its authority warranted, and this comes at least in part by showing its continuity with past revelation. Again, polygamy is an excellent example, in that the break caused something of a crisis of religious authority, particularly for Joseph F. Smith who actually ended the practice once and for all, which required a huge effort to show that current prophets and revelations partook of the same authority as past prophets and revelations. Hence, the problem of change cannot simply be dismissed by airy and glib gestures at continuing revelation. After all, change can also be evidence of apostasy. To bring this back to historicity, the question becomes whether it is possible for “continuing revelation” to reject historicity, while simultaneously maintaining sufficient continuity to warrant its own religious authority.

From: Steve
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Nate Oman, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan
James Head
Date: Apr 15, 2005 1:03 PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Nate, just as a follow-up: do histories as recounted by leaders of the Church have historical authority be mere virtue of the speaker? In other words, if President Hinckley declared in Conference (arguendo,
speaking as a Prophet) that the Book of Mormon inhabitants were in fact in Guatemala, would we as Church members be duty-bound to accept that history?

From: Nate Oman
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan
James Head

Date: Apr 15, 2005 12:05PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

My sense is probably not. (Remember that my opinions are probably worth about what you are paying for them.) First, I don’t think we have any clear rule or procedure that defines when a prophet is speaking as a prophet and hence it is almost always possible to “distinguish away” any single prophetic statement. Prophet authority, I think, is always enmeshed in the broader story of the Restoration and it is this story that ultimately warrants the authority of particular prophetic statements, which become authoritative not simply by virtue of who said them, when they were said, or how they were said, but also by reference to their relationship to broader stories of the Restoration.. My model here is Ronald Dworkin’s theory of law vs. HLA Hart’s theory of law. Second, I think that your hypo reverses what I see as the importance of the historicity debates. Historicity is not something that is warranted by prophetic statements, but rather is an assumption of the story that warrants those statements. It seems to me that we are “duty-bound” (whatever that means) to accept historical statements that are sufficient to warrant the religious authority of the scriptures and the Restoration. I take it that this universe of historical claims is smaller than the universe of historical claims made by church leaders.


From: Ronan
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 15, 2005 6:54PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

I think historicity is important, but there are a few times when it can be a little annoying.

Let me start with the Old Testament as that’s where I’m most comfortable. I understand the need to have many of the events and people in the OT to be considered “historical”. As Paul Hoskisson at BYU is wont to say, you can’t have an Abrahamic covenant without Abraham. So let’s say that we need the Exodus to be historical. It’s a great story, and a pivotal moment in God’s covenant with man. I am uncomfortable imagining that it didn’t really happen. I’m familiar with the arguments for and against it, but I feel compelled to believe in some kind of Moses, some kind of Exodus, some kind of Mosaic Law, rooted in actual events and not just scribal whimsy. Because if the foundational events of the OT are “not true”, how is the OT any better than any other ancient philosophy, many of which are ennobling and moral.

So, because I like what it means for me now (God’s actual appearance in human events is very comforting), I take the Exodus as being largely “historical” (even if it’s largely historical memory in its biblical version).

But what happens when I don’t like the consequences of a historical act? God said, “kill all the Ammonites, man, woman, and child”. Now, my God wouldn’t say such a horrible thing. So I can easily tell myself that probably this didn’t really happen, that the “conquest” of Canaan stems from the militaristic tales of patriotic Israelites.

Another example: was Job a real person? Let’s say he was. If we take that at face value then we have to also take the whole package: that God and Satan make bargains over human souls.

Blanket notions of biblical historicity are a double-edged sword, so beware.

Two final, random thoughts:
Was there really a Good Samaritan or is he just a fictional figure used to teach a moral truth? If so, how are Jesus’s stories any different from OT stories?

How do we know whether the Book of Mormon is striclty “historical”? I’m not talking here of whether it’s an ancient book or not (I believe that it has to be for the Joseph Smith story to have any value), but whether Mormon was a good 21st century academic historian, or a Herodotus, working from ancient sources (the Large Plates) but fleshing things out a little. Did Captain Moroni really say all those things. If he didn’t, is the Book of Mormon any less true?

From: Rosalynde
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Ronan Head, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 17, 2005 10:44AM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Well, then, let me be the first to say it: yes, historicity matters, a great deal. But scripture doesn’t have it. “Historicity” is not a particular quality or origin that some texts have and others don’t: all scripture originates in history somehow and somewhere, even if the specifics of that origin belie the claims made for it; thus all scripture is “historical” in this sense. “Historicity,” by contrast, describes the accuracy of our accounts of those origins–and this, I maintain, matters a great deal in the relationship of scripture to the truth claims of institutional religion. This is not to say that those institutions will necessarily fail if the origins of their scripture are shown to diverge from the authoritative claims made for those origins. On the contrary, I think that as the church more accurately understands the historical origins of its scripture, it will more accurately understand the processes of revelation, the workings of God in history, the meaning of prophetic authority–and this will ultimately work to its benefit, not its detriment. (Let me state here for the record that I believe that the Book of Mormon really does have ancient origins, as it claims–and that, because Joseph staked his prophetic authority on the book, this is central to the church’s self-identity–but that we ought not shy away from a greater understanding of the historical conditions of its emergence.)

From: Scott Gordon
To: Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Ronan Head, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 18, 2005 6:45 PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

I believe there are usually three issues that are related to historicity.

1) Are the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham ancient documents translated by Joseph Smith?

2) Are ancient documents (The Book of Mormon, the Bible, the Book of Abraham) completely “historical?
3) If prophets or apostles comment on these books of scripture, do they have the definitive word on it?

The first issue is of primary importance to members of the LDS Church as it reflects our belief in the divine calling of Joseph Smith. While there are members who do not accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I believe it would be very difficult to maintain faith in the literal restoration of the gospel without it. Many questions find their root in the primary question of whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. This is a question one must be comfortable with in order to enter the temple.

To testify of Joseph’s prophetic calling, we have reports of multiple visits of multiple heavenly messengers to multiple people. The existence of the messengers would testify of Joseph Smith and therefore the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Some of these messengers testified directly to the divinity (dare we say historicity?) of the Book of Mormon.

To support our belief in Joseph Smith and the scriptures, we have the testimony of the witnesses, we have the books themselves to study and compare in a rigorous, scholarly fashion, and we have our own divine manifestations of the Spirit.

The second issue goes to the question of scriptural inerrancy. Is it possible that the Book of Mormon is an ancient document, but that Nephi or Mormon wrote something down that is incorrect? We see this issue argued about the Old Testament quite frequently. Did the flood really happen on a global scale? Did God really have a contest with Satan over Job? Members of the LDS Church hold a variety of positions on this, and there is no litmus test of belief on any of these issues to be called to high positions within the Church or to attend the temple.

Because of the eighth article of faith we don’t seem to have a problem with the idea of mistakes in Bible. But, many members may squirm a bit when we think of the Book of Mormon in this fashion. Interestingly enough, the title page of the Book of Mormon addresses this by stating, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.”

Would God allow scripture to come forward that contains errors? One possible example is in the Old Testament. Deut 14:7 talks about the hare being unclean because it chews cud. Obviously hares don’t chew their cud, but it probably is a reflection of what man believed in Old Testament times. Is it material to our salvation? No. Was it material to the salvation of man during Old Testament times? Again, no. Therefore, it is a non-issue. Some may argue this is God speaking so it must be perfect or “God breathed.” While that may be true, it is still God’s words coming through man. Errors can creep in through the speaker, through transmission and through translation. There were no video cameras rolling, no tape recorders, no transcriptionists or court reporters present at most (may we safely say all?) of these events.

The third area is one that has been receiving some press recently and goes to the discussion of prophetic infallibility. If the prophet or an apostle comments on Book of Mormon geography, or even comments on a scripture during public discourse, is that the final word? If it is, it becomes very difficult to explain how we can have apostles and prophets who have differing opinions. Claiming that any prophet’s comment is “final” violates our fundamental beliefs in continuing revelation. It goes against the “line upon line” belief.

We have a direct example from Joseph Smith who stopped translating when he came across a verse describing the walls of Jerusalem and asked, “Emma, does Jerusalem have walls?” He clearly didn’t know!

I am a firm advocate in not looking just at what others have said about the scriptures, but to really look to see what the books themselves say. The Church teaches that the Spirit must come to every man, and it teaches that each can be educated through the Spirit.

Seeking the Spirit helps us the most with these three questions of historicity.

From: John Hatch
To: Rosalynde Welch, Scott Gordon, Steve Evans, Ronan Head, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 19, 2005 11:57 AM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Both Nate and Scott have touched on an important issue with regards to historicity of the Book of Mormon. We have almost no way to verify the book itself – it gives us few details of exactly where it took place and what we might be looking for if we are going to confirm its claims. The fact that members can believe the book took place over the whole hemisphere or that it took place in a small area in a small locale testifies to its ambiguity.

Therefore, we largely rely on the Joseph Smith story to support our claims of Book of Mormon historicity; we rely on one history to support another history. I find this creates several dilemmas, both in favor of and against historicity. The existence of gold plates has long been a challenge for critics; I find Dan Vogel’s argument that Joseph made the plates to be far, far too inadequate. Although Grant Palmer has an interesting perspective on the Three Witnesses, I too find his argument lacking. The Three Witnesses are a nasty stumbling block for naturalists. And then there’s the staggering results of the Book of Mormon – the millions of lives changed and converted is nothing to sneeze at. All this and more is pretty convincing in favor of the book.

On the other hand, however, there are countless challenges that are not easily resolved. Whether it’s Biblical plagiarism, overt 19th-century themes, or the overwhelming lack of physical evidence of the existence of a culture, these things are hard for me to waive a dismissive hand at. And while I’m aware that apologists over the years have gotten very good at offering plausible explanations for just about everything, I can’t shake the feeling that by the time we’re done answering every charge, we’re left with a book where nothing is actually what it says. When I step back and see the forest of apologetics through the trees of individual responses, I’m a bit bothered that: Horses aren’t really horses, sheep aren’t really sheep, swords aren’t really swords, millions of people aren’t really millions, the Hill Cumorah isn’t really the same Hill Cumorah, (if you use John Sorensen’s model) north isn’t really north, south isn’t really south, a narrow neck of land isn’t all that narrow, cities aren’t really cities, Lamanites aren’t really Lamanites, and so on.

Then there’s Joseph himself, the greatest dilemma of all. Nate pointed out the importance of authority, and Scott concurred by noting the importance of Joseph as a prophet. With authority seeming to be the central question, at what point do we accept authority despite Joseph’s obvious shortcomings, or at what point do we reject authority despite Joseph’s obvious prophetic abilities, and is there ground in between? In other words, does Joseph’s ability to invent stories surrounding the Book of Mormon (such as Zelph and the Kinderhook plates – I love Stan Kimball but find his explanation pretty wanting) and his teachings of a hemispheric model negate that authority? What about things outside of the Book of Mormon – his deception over polygamy, his retroactive changing of revelations, etc? (In short, does it follow that since he lied about some things, he could have lied about the Book of Mormon?) Do we just ignore these issues because they threaten the claims of authority? Or de we embrace them and reject authority altogether.

My hope would be that there’s something in between absolute claims of authority that make Mormonism “the one true Church” and absolute rejection of authority that says Mormonism is an invention of Joseph “the pious fraud,” as Dan Vogel labels him. That middle ground is what I’m trying to find, but it’s also admittedly difficult to do so without reducing Mormonism to just another nice Protestant church with nice old men for leaders. Regardless of ones belief, it’s pretty hard to deny that the claims of authority and the literal belief in scripture are what make Mormonism so fascinating, appealing, and for me, maddening all at the same time.


From: Ronan
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 20, 2005 9:25AM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

It is obvious from what John says that the pursuit of absolute historicity can only take us so far. Is this where faith kicks in?

Of course, let us not imagine that Mormonism is the only religion where historicity is a thorny issue. Perhaps we just care about it more because ours is a modern religion whose historical records are easily scrutinised.

From: Steve
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Nate Oman, Rosalynde Welch, Dennis Potter, Ronan
James Head
Date: Apr 20, 2005 9:42AM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Ronan, interesting point. I don’t know where faith kicks in, but in my mind I’ve secretly been afraid that the research and historical studies we perform are crutches of sorts: why do we need them? Shouldn’t our faith be sufficient on all these intersections of history and scripture?

From: Rosalynde
To: Scott Gordon, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Ronan Head, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 20 2005 2:40PM
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

Steve, I’m not sure that there’s an inherent virtue in faith when considering the origins of texts. I think you’re conflating 1) the initial faith necessary for sincere consideration the Book of Mormon, say, with 2) the faith that can result from that sincere consideration. Yes, the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to produce faith in Christ–the second kind, above–and if one comes away from the book without that faith, then any historicizing has been in vain. And at the moment, because there is not sufficient external or internal evidence to prove the origins of the Book of Mormon in ancient meso-America, faith (the first kind) is also necessary in accepting the book as a genuine historical record rather than a fraud. But if there were to appear sufficient evidence to prove the book’s historical claims–that is, if faith were not initially necessary for a sincere consideration of the book on its own terms–I don’t think that would take away from the book’s power, or from the moral choice necessary to faith: readers would still read the book, accept the Nephite accounts of an apotheosis, and gain faith in Christ, or else they would read the book, think the Nephites were crazy, and not gain faith in Christ. Historicizing scripture is not a substitute for developing faith in its message, nor can it be.

From: Dennis Potter
To: Rosalynde Welch, John Hatch, Steve Evans, Ronan Head, Dennis Potter, Nate Oman
Date: Apr 22 2005 4:13
Subject: Round Table —
First Question

As philosopher, I want to answer the question as to whether and when historicity matters by trying to do something to get clear on what historicity might be. Also, as a philosopher I fear that I might not be capable of actually giving a definitive and complete answer to your questions. Hopefully, something I say may help to further the conversation.

I take it that a claim is historical just in case it is a claim couched in the past tense and it happens to be true. The truth or falsity of claims about the past is problematic on the traditional correspondence theory of truth. This theory says that truth is a relationship between states of affairs that obtain (facts) and propositions. A proposition is true if and only if what it expresses is indeed a fact. But it seems that facts are in part dependent on the existence of the objects about which they are facts. So, the fact that Brutus killed Caesar is dependent on the existence of Brutus and Caesar and a relationship between them in which Brutus does something that is sufficient for causing Caesar to die. These things no longer exist. So, the truth conditions for claims about the past are problematic.

There is also another problem to consider. The above theory of truth seems to assume that there is a set of all possible propositions that can be expressed. These propositions are related to all possible facts that could obtain. It assumes that what can be expressed exists ontologically prior to any means of expression. Language is just a tool to get at these abstract objects that can be expressed. This view of meaning in language faces a severe challenge identified by Michael Dummett. It doesn’t explain how linguistic meaning can be learned. We cannot point to abstract states of affairs that do not obtain. We also cannot be sure that we really mean the same thing if the meaning is something that transcends material reality and observable conditions.

I think that the upshot of this kind of discussion (although there is a lot more to say about the above two problems) is that linguistic meaning must be determined by publicly observable circumstances of our linguistic practice. And, to proceed rather quickly, I believe that this means that we ought to look at the circumstances in which we take ourselves to be appropriately applying past tense utterances in order to understand their meaning and role in our linguistic practice. So, the question about historicity turns into a question about the conditions in which we make claims using the past tense.

But notice that along with the assumption that there is a unique set of possible facts and a corresponding set of possible propositions comes an assumption that there is a universal set of criteria for their proper expression. This assumption of the homogeneity of reason seems to be essential to 20th century scientism. I am not at all sure that we should accept it.

If we reject the idea of a transcendental repository of propositional contents for the taking, then we may be able to embrace a heterogeneous notion of reason. This is one in which the appropriate criteria of the application of a particular linguistic express may differ depending on the time and place of the application. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s view that different language games have different criteria for the use of the “same” terms. Given this, it seems that we might also assert that some historical claims have one set of criteria for application and other may have another set of criteria. Could it be that religious historical claims are of a radically different sort than political historical claims or even scientific historical claims?

At the same time, it seems to me that we should reject the traditional “dead” metaphysics of post-enlightenment thought. This is the idea that dead matter is the paradigm case on which we build our concept of doing ontology. By this, I mean things like rocks or elements. Their essence is identified with the properties they have. It is static essence that has nothing to do with their story or historical location. Science works within the ontology of dead matter and so does Modern philosophy. The upshot is that history, as a branch of science, is supposed to subordinate the story/narrative to the metaphysics of dead matter. Any story is reducible to a series of metaphysical states of affairs that obtain in four-dimensional space-time matter. We look at other “present” dead objects (as dead objects with various properties) and determine the extent to which they “verify” or “falsify” our story. In the end the story doesn’t have its own ontology, but is reduced to the ontology of “stuff” with properties.

I believe that there is an alternative to dead ontology. Let’s call it narrative ontology. This is a view that refuses to reduce the narrative to properties of dead matter. It asserts the relations of being in or playing a role in a certain life (i.e., set of stories) as being fundamental. So, for example, this old beaten wooden chair is the one in which my dad sat while he did his paper work. This makes it a radically different object (and object for me) than another chair whose “dead matter” analysis would say is identical.

Ok, I know that the foregoing was fast and loose, but it’s a start and I could say more. But here’s the implication for the historicity question. The historicity question as it is approached by most anti-mormons and by most apologists assumes the homogeneity of reason and the ontology of dead matter. It assumes that we can adjudicate the correctness of historical claims in science and religion in the same way and that this will be based on finding current “evidence” of what material states obtained at such and such a time in the past. It reduces the story/narrative of religious life to the ontology of dead matter, and commits “blasphemy” by allowing theoretical science a place in religious story telling.

Is the Book of Mormon historical? Well, it uses the past tense. And we must look at the religious practice of how we handle that past tense to let us know about the criteria for this particular usage. Will the Book of Mormon stand up to the scrutiny of scientific studies in archeology or the history of DNA? To ask that question is to misunderstand the religious narrative as something that could be parasitic on a more fundamental ontology of “stuff” and its properties that we can scrutinize and analyze with instruments. Where did the Nephites actually live? To try to pinpoint this or even to assume that there is a fact of the matter that can be stated in terms not germane to the story itself is to misunderstand the story and its role in our religious life.

We need an ontology of life and this will be an ontology in which a story can be as fundamental as a scientific theory. Given this, we need an approach to thinking the history of scripture that refuses the current field of play (anti and apologetic). Among other things, this will show that we just cannot disconnect the theology of a text from its story, as if the former were a set of propositions that could have been stated in logical form but weren’t. The past tense of the story matters for every telling of the story and so its historicity is always present in the ways we should think through the text.


  1. When John wants to define the anti-christ and, I suppose by extension, apostasy, he uses a definition very much tied to the historical event of Christ’s coming.

    So at least some historical events (and Christ’s coming probably tops the list), when denied, pretty much imply a state of apostasy.

    On the other hand, I feel no particular commitment to claiming absolute perfection for the scriptures, since the scriptures don’t seem to favor that.

  2. john fowles says:

    Steve, thanks for offering this excellent discussion.

    I have a question about your initial framing of the question. As part of setting up the dilemma, you state I was taught, growing up, that Nephites and Lamanites were the (exclusive) ancestors of the American Indians, both in North and South America; it’s my understanding that this is still the widely-held teaching. I’m wondering if this isn’t a bit of a straw man that leans the discussion (perhaps unintentionally) away from the possibility of historicity right from the beginning, in the foundational premises of the inquiry. I don’t remember being taught growing up that the Nephites and the Lamanites were the “exclusive” ancestors of the American Indians. Are you sure this is what you were taught? I remember being taught that they were ancestors of the Indians, but I am balking at your assertion that this exclusivity was or still is the “widely-held teaching” of the Church. What effect does this mischaracterization of the Church’s teachings have, if any, on the framing of this discussion of historicity? Does it make historicity out to seem like it says too much and therefore needs to be discounted?

    I agree with Rosalynde that historicity is very important, and for the reasons she notes. I would like to add something else that has been hinted at, but not strongly enough, in my opinion. Historicity of the Book of Mormon–in other words the ancient origin of that text, literally a collection of writings edited and compiled by someone named Mormon–is indeed, I believe very closely related to Truth, particularly to the truth claims of the Restored Gospel. On this point I am not merely referring to authority as some have already done above.

    Let us take an example to see what I mean by this. Let us say that some kind of ancient scroll or writing is found somewhere in meso-America by archaeologists, translated by academics, and then it is discovered that it approximates, very closely, the text of King Benjamin’s speech. Dating techniques place the origin of the writing near the estimated time of King Benjamin. Why would that be important? What would the implications of that discovery be?

    To believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ would still require faith, as Rosalynde pointed out. Viewed in isolation, therefore, all this would do for people’s faith in Christ would be to show them that people in meso-America shortly before the coming of Christ actually shared this crazy belief. But viewed in the context of JS’s role in the Restoration, this would have large implications for the truth claims of the prophet JS. At least it would imply that he was telling the truth about the Gold Plates and not lying. To believe the message of the Gold Plates would still require faith, and our salvation would still depend on our accepting Christ and his Atonement. But people would be forced to take that message seriously in the first place. Thus, historicity, including apologetics in favor of historicity, is important in my view because of its implications for the message of the Restored Gospel: it can underscore the truthfulness of that message.

  3. Either ya’ll aren’t interested in this, or you find Dennis’s response as intimidating as I do. Brother dialed it to 11 there.

    The historicity question as it is approached by most anti-mormons and by most apologists assumes the homogeneity of reason and the ontology of dead matter.

    If I understood the preceding correctly, Dennis seemed to be saying that the problems he finds with the “historicity” question is that it flows from the twin assumptions that: 1, Everyone agrees with me as to what constitutes a reasonable argument; and 2, we can only really draw objective conclusions about empirically verifiable objects and actions (feel free to correct me if I have gotten either one of these things wrong).

    Under these circumstances, what is the point in studying the past at all? In particular, what is the point in seeking to verify a particular way of telling the events? I suppose the answer would be so that we can tell stories that seem reasonable and true to us (I am not entirely adverse to an understanding of academia as advanced navel-gazing). However, this doesn’t necessarily make our stories more enlightening, more verifiable, or more compelling than stories told by children, bankers, witchdoctors, or lunatics.

    It reduces the story/narrative of religious life to the ontology of dead matter, and commits “blasphemy” by allowing theoretical science a place in religious story telling.

    This is the matter at the heart of current debates regarding Biblical historicity, in addition to those regarding LDS scripture. In the field of the Bible, the competing fields of literary criticism and biblical archaeology have come to an uncertain truce wherein they have decided that although one side can never throw out the other side’s evidence entirely, it is not possible to actually integrate knowledge from the two fields without observational interference. It simply requires too many assumptions on the part of the researcher in all known cases.

    That said, it is somewhat false to compare the state of Biblical historicity to that of Book of Mormon historicity. While there is some archaeological evidence that appears to support some Biblical claims without a lot of finagling, I know of no such evidence in the New World (in this, I am including both hemispheric and limited-geography models). (Should I take a moment to explain that I think that the Book of Mormon is an ancient record translated by Joseph Smith via divine inspirtation? Cause I do.) This, of course, doesn’t really mean anything. The absence of evidence, especially in a wet climate like Mesoamerica and especially in a situation where we are not terribly certain what we should be looking for, should not constitute proof of anything other than the absence of evidence. The situation in the Middle East is unique and it would be a tad absurd to assume that we will find extensive records like we have in Mesopotamia and Egypt elsewhere. Will we ever find extensive records in Mesoamerica (or the whole of North/South America) like we have in Egypt? No, nor should we expect too in any place outside of deserts, which we wouldn’t normally expect your ancient civilizations to want to inhabit. All of which is a long way of saying that the historicity of the Book of Mormon is likely to be up in the air for a long time for people who care about it.

    So, to get back to Steve’s original question, “How much of the history need be fact for the Book to still be true?“, I am not sure that this is right question. It will depend first on how you care to define “true” (which was ultimately what, I think, Dennis was trying to get at). A better question might be, “Should we care about historicity at all as part of our process in determining whether or not the Book of Mormon (Abraham, Moses, etc) is true?” I’m not sure. I think Nate, Rosalynde, and Paul Hoskisson are right in pointing to the issue of authority. You do seem to need an actual God and an actual Abraham for the Abrahamic covenant to be something more than a powerful myth. People point to the importance of establishing the historicity of LDS scripture to establishing the validity of Joseph’s position as a prophet, but this seems to me to be a different issue, somewhat likely saying that because Abraham Lincoln didn’t write all the things we thought he had (his secretary seems to have written some of his more famous letters) then Abe couldn’t really have been a very important president. It is going to be ultimately determined by your definition of what makes a prophet or a president, but most people probably won’t agree with you.

  4. JF: “Are you sure this is what you were taught?”

    YES. I would also argue that it is, to this day, widely held concept of BoM historicity. I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization.

    By the same token, I don’t think this example is central to the discussion, quite honestly.

  5. I don’t remember being taught growing up that the Nephites and the Lamanites were the “exclusive” ancestors of the American Indians. Are you sure this is what you were taught? I remember being taught that they were ancestors of the Indians, but I am balking at your assertion that this exclusivity was or still is the “widely-held teaching” of the Church.

    John, this is what I remember being taught. I don’t believe exclusivity was necessarily ever explicitly discussed, but it certainly was assumed. Even if you want to deny the “exclusivity” clause, the last line of the second paragraph of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon would seem to indicate that a limited-geography approach is not what the church explicitly endorses today (or ever).

  6. Dennis Potter states that, “We need an ontology of life and this will be an ontology in which a story can be as fundamental as a scientific theory.” I read this as a claim that the narrative of the Book of Mormon is important aside from any implications the book might have for physical reality.

    For example, suppose that a hypothetical team of infinitely coercive and well-funded anthropologists managed to do DNA testing on every indigenous individual in the Western Hemisphere and conclusively showed that all Middle-Eastern Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA was post-Colombian. This would seem to falsify the implication of the Book of Mormon that at least some indigenous Americans should have a genetic relationship to the Middle East. Yet, on Potter’s account that separates the value of the story from its physical-scientific implications, the accounts of Nephi, King Benjamin, Mosiah, Alma, Captain Moroni and the rest would be unaffected by this finding.

    Is this correct? If so, is it any different from what the unwashed masses describe as the position that Book of Mormon historicity is spiritually unimportant? I understand that Potter wants to use these terms differently, but in this last question, I’m trying to explore the relationship between his usage and what one might call “popular” usage–to the extent that such an abstruse academic debate could possibly have popular usage in the first place.

  7. John C.:

    How much difference would it make in your personal relationship to either God or the Abrahamic covenant if, entirely without your knowledge, it was nothing more than an inspired myth? If God suggested this account to Joseph Smith and, to a lesser extent, to Biblical writers, then its implications for your relationship to God are presumably true even if there was no archetypal founder of the covenant. So why should the existence of the archetypal founder matter to you? I mean, divine authority is not at stake in the question of whether a text is a parable or history…

  8. I dunno, I got the impression that he meant that he wanted an “ontology of life” wherein stories were as verifiably true as scientific theories (implying that even fiction could, in this ontology, be true). Dennis, please elucidate.

  9. RT,
    As we’ve discussed before, I don’t think it works terribly well if the Abrahamic covenant is a type of pious fraud. If we’re going to assume that God isn’t lying to us in telling us that it is a good idea to enter into these covenants, why would it be helpful to assume that he is lying to us about the covenants origin? In for a penny, in for a pound.

  10. Again, in an attempt at clarification, if stories are “verifiably true” in a way that includes fiction, then the possibly true content must be different from what a less-than-self-reflective historian would call the empirical evidence. If the content that might be considered true is the mythological component, rather than the logical component, then this seems to me to be a claim that the relevance of the narrative is independent of the truth value of empirical implications. Which seems quite parallel to what is often described as the position that historicity is irrelevant.

    I’m probably misunderstanding Dennis’s position altogether, and I request clarification. But that’s why we comment, no?

    John: With respect to the Abraham issue, sorry about the repetition, but this is a different forum. Since the exact same argument is being advanced with a different audience, it seems worthwhile to take another ride on this particular merry-go-round.

    Calling scriptural fiction a “pious fraud” or “lying… about the covenant’s origin” seems to me to be question-begging. These phrases import an extraneous value-judgement about the genre that makes it seem inherently undesirable but for reasons that are never made explicit. Are the parables of Jesus pious fraud or lies? Or are they simply devotional fiction?

    I’m not arguing that Abraham didn’t exist or that the covenant is purely a symbolic story. But I am arguing that it shouldn’t affect our religious experience if that turned out to be true. If I feel the spirit with respect to the Abrahamic covenant, that means the covenant is true for me. Isn’t that enough?

  11. Steve Evans says:

    RT: “If I feel the spirit with respect to the Abrahamic covenant, that means the covenant is true for me.”

    Interesting assertion RT – you might be a good Lutheran, but I’m not sure that makes you a good Mormon. Covenants (and their related cousins, ordinances) take more than good feelings or “feeling the spirit” — they take the Priesthood, or “feeling The Spirit”. If the major bases for our covenants are rooted in fiction, not fact (i.e, Peter, James & John never appeared to Joseph, Abraham never existed, etc.), it seems to me that all we’re left with are neat feelings. If we want to assert the necessity of ordinances done with God’s approbation, then symbolism and allegory can only take us so far.

  12. Nate Oman says:

    “I mean, divine authority is not at stake in the question of whether a text is a parable or history…”

    I think that Steve is correct to point out that our understanding of priesthood means that for certain actions the actual existence of actors matters. I would also point out that historicity may have important implications for prophetic authority, which is a fairly important concept for Mormons. Again, Lutherans don’t have this problem.

    With regard to Dennis’ claim, I admitt to being confused as to his ultimate meaning as well, however, I think it is fairly certain that RT is misreading him. Dennis is making a claim about ontology, which to my mind implies not that he is claiming that the normative or spiritual significance of scripture is independent of its historical verification, but rather that historical verification rests on a mistaken assumption about the nature of being as such. This means that by the standards of ordinary experience, Dennis is making a very radical claim, but given the metaphysical difficulties of accounting for ordinary experience and the history of differing philosophical approaches to ontology, this is probably not a prima facie philosophical objection. The reference to dead vs. living ontology is cryptic to me, but I am fairly certain that ontology refers to questions of being not to deliteralizing or mythologizing interpretations.

  13. Just to second Steve – it seems that everything Joseph wanted in the end was to Seal up individuals unto Eternal Life. Everything built up to this and it was the ultimate expression of his faith. To deny the reality of such power on his terms is to literally eviscerated Mormondom. We would be left with a dead institution, devoid of any power outside human ethics.

  14. …let me also add that I don’t think it is necessary that everything we suppose about Abraham, Elijah, Moses, Elisha and Adam to be true in order for Joseph to really have had power. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if their stories were wildly different than we suppose.

  15. By the way, I’m not a Lutheran and I don’t think the Holy Ghost is just neat feelings.

    I think priesthood authority is obviously an important part of the gospel. This is clear in all parts of the canon. It’s crucial for our understanding of God that this authority exist. It’s not crucial who holds it or has held it. If Melchezidek (sp?), to pick an example at random, turns out to be an archetypal symbol of a wise priesthood leader, rather than an actual person, this doesn’t seem to me to change the reality of the priesthood given his name at all.

    The logical connection between the existence of Abraham and the reality of God’s power as expressed in the priesthood covenant given Abraham’s name is likewise being left as an implication here. None of the comments has spelled out the reason that Abraham’s being a myth would imply that the priesthood covenants God offers us aren’t real. If, as I stated earlier, the Holy Ghost testifies to me that they are real, what else could possibly matter to me?

    What’s at stake in this discussion isn’t the reality of exaltation, prophesy, or the priesthood. I think we should be clear on that point. Instead, what is at stake are specific human interpretations of the meaning of each of those points. If Moses, for example, didn’t exist and Joseph’s experience with him was a divine allegory for the power, authority, and leadership role that was being given to Joseph–that doesn’t make the power, authority, and leadership role any less real or divine. It just changes our understanding of a historical event. Nor does it make God deceptive; symbolic communication is not the same as dishonesty.

    God’s power and authority, in conjunction with His spirit and some texts, are ALL we directly experience. The narrative content associated with these experiences reflects events not directly accessible to us. That’s the reason that I’m not sure we should particularly care whether the events actually happened or not. If our genuine experience of the divine confirms to us the reality of God’s plan and the covenants we enter, shouldn’t that be enough?

  16. RT, I spoke a little strongly before; I wasn’t trying to criticize you. But you clearly are willing to let more things be symbolic than I think the average Mormon would do.

    It’s true that symbolic communication is not the same as dishonesty, but treating symbolic communication as literal events (as Joseph Smith did) would be dishonest if those events did not take place as described. If Moses really didn’t appear to Joseph Smith in the Temple and confer keys, then I think that makes Joseph Smith a liar, not a conveyor of symbolic communication. This is because Joseph never treated these things as symbolic, but literal.

    It seems to me that by your logic, you’d be just fine if there were no literal First Vision, no real Golden Plates, etc. That’s too much for me.

  17. RT,

    And what of the Gospels? John says that the spirit of the Anti-Christ is to deny that Christ came in the flesh. Yet by your standard we should have no problem with that because it is a set of historical events and does not matter if it happened symbolically or literally.

    Certainly you don’t believe that, so tell me where you are drawing the line on which historical events matter.

  18. john fowles says:

    Steve, you were very dismissive of me early on in this thread, but it sounds like you are saying the same thing that I was in comment # 2. How do you see our positions as different?

    You also wrote It seems to me that by your logic, you’d be just fine if there were no literal First Vision, no real Golden Plates, etc.

    Maybe I have misunderstood all this time, I thought that this was basically John H.’s position, which has been one of the main reasons for my frequent arguments with him on various threads in the past.

  19. JF, I wasn’t dismissive of your entire comment, just your assertion that I’d mischaracterized things and set up a straw man. I still disagree with you on that point.

    As for our positions, our stances are probably different in degree rather than nature (i.e., I’d probably be willing to let more things be figurative than you).

    But as for your characterization of John H.’s position, I think you have indeed misunderstood all this time. He can speak for himself, but John hasn’t taught that there was no literal first vision, no plates, etc.

  20. Frank:

    That’s a great question. I think there’s a clear, easy distinction between the account of Christ and every other event in human history. Only in the case of Christ, there is no distinction between the message and the messenger. Christ and His atonement is the message of all other gospel events, so if it didn’t happen, then the underlying meaning of those other events is false. Symbolic communication is, after all, false if the ideas that the symbols represent are false.

    In every other case, the message, which is Christ, is separable from the messenger and the historical reality of the events. If there’s no Abraham, I can still have a relationship with Christ. Just not if there’s no Christ.


    One available possibility is that the visit of Moses was symbolic communication from God to Joseph Smith. We know that Joseph didn’t always understand his own mission completely. He seems to have believed in the continental theory of the Book of Mormon; he seems to have believed that his run for the US Presidency was a meaningful act; he seems at some points to have believed that he was supposed to escape his martyrdom by fleeing into the west. I don’t think we’re required to believe that Joseph always had a complete understanding of events.

    Again, I should reiterate that I’m not arguing that Moses wasn’t real. I’m just trying to claim that our faith shouldn’t really be affected either way.

  21. Let me clarify a bit of what I was trying to say about living/narrative and dead ontologies. The latter use scientific discourse as its model. Even ordinary discourse is understood as proto-scientific, if unrefined. So, any narrative is ultimately understood as being reducible to a set of expressions that can be couched in terms of a scientific theory. Narratives about the past are then merely cryptically worded theories about what happened in the past. These can be verified or falsified in the same way other scientific theories can be.

    I reject the idea that narratives about the past can be couched in a scientific structure. Narratives, like theories, on my view are linguistically fundamental. And I would even argue that ordinary discourse is more like refined narrative discourse than it is like refined scientific discourse. If narrative is linguistically fundamental, then the standards for its appropriate application are not reducible to scientific standards. Instead, narrative discourse has its own set of criteria and we must look at how we use it to see this. If this is right then the way many Evangelicals approach the Bible is just as wrong as historical critical views. And also, the attacks on or defenses of the Book of Mormon tend to both miss the point of treating it as a fundamental narrative. What criteria do Mormons actually use to determine its truth? That criteria gives its meaning for practicing Mormons and that meaning cannot be reduced to scientific claims.

    So, where is the ontology in all of this? I believe that 20th century metaphysics has largely embraced the idea that scientific discourse is the model of metaphysical discourse. The upshot is that metaphysics is about static objects with static properties. But if narrative discourse had been taken as equally fundamental, then we would have thought through metaphysical issues differently. The intense commitment to the primacy of their stories invites religious believers (and Mormons in particular) to think the material world differently than scientific practice. Instead of the dead materialism inherent in physicalism, they embrace a world of objects that get their meaning from their careers in life.

    When someone says to me, “But the Bible has some supporting evidence and the Book of Mormon does not,” they are entrenched in the positivism that take all discourse to be primarily scientific. But why should we embrace that positivism? Why can’t narrative forms of discourse be just as fundamental?

  22. Which gets back to my concern regarding “pious fraud” on the part of God? Do we have anything that would lead us to believe that God doesn’t consider Moses, Abraham, etc. real? I am not being facetious here. If God is misleading us benignly by pointing to covenants made with mythic persons (and always discussing those covenants in ways that make those people appear to have been real), how does that affect our understanding of Him as a God of truth? I simply don’t believe that it works. I don’t believe that we could have faith sufficient to save in a God who occasionally lies to us for our own benefit.

  23. Er, I was responding to RT in the above.

  24. Dennis,
    If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that we should take a given narrative as axiomatic for a given discourse and then operate within the rules of that narrative. How does that work in real life? “Today we’ll be discussing the truth of Book of Mormon, but only in terms of how the Book of Mormon encourages us to test its truth”? Are you limiting (valid) discussion on the Book of Mormon to those who have sincerely applied Moroni 10:3-5?

  25. RT,

    If you place no weight on the historical record, what do you actually know about Christ? Unless you are having private theophanies, very little.

    What events in the life of Christ are you willing to stake testimony on? What seperates these events from other scriptural events or the First Vision? For example, what if one claimed that the Gospels were fabrications and so was the Book of Mormon. How much would you actually be able to say about Christ and his covenants. If the record is fabricated, why not the doctrine? Maybe the doctrine is “symbolic” and not literal too.

  26. Frank,
    What is your testimony based on? Do you believe that Christ is your Savior or do you believe that Christ lived in Israel roughly 2,000 years ago and led a religious movement? Can you separate the two? Which of the above definitions is more important to your testimony?

    RT is suggesting that the separation is possible (not that he has done it). One person who did it and seems to have been an alright guy was Albert Schweitzer. The distinction isn’t impossible to conceive.

  27. Nate Oman says:

    Dennis: Thanks for the clarification. I have a couple of follow-up questions if you have the time.

    First, I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say scientific. By this do you mean something like emperically verifiable? Do you mean something like iinert and subject to strictly causal laws? In other words, is scientific meant to refer to a particular epistemological approach or a particular metaphysical approach? (Obviously, these things are related, but humor me with a simplification, if you can.)

    Second, I am not quite sure what you mean by “fundemental.” In what sense are you advocating that narrative discourse be treated as fundamental? Are you claiming that some how narrative contains differing ontological assumptions that somehow cut the universe to the joints better?

    I confess that I am not sure what to make of the claim that narrative contains its own particular brand of ontology. Suppose that I tell a story about Dennis Potter, a philosophy professor at a state college in Utah, who got up and went to work this morning. If I reduce this narrative to a string of factual assertions which are then falsified or verified by emperical observations of one kind or another (I take it this is what you mean by “scientific”), I would agree with you that such a deconstruction of the narrative misses some vital aspect of its meaning. On the other hand, it seems to me that the meaning of the narrative will shift depending of the sorts of truth values that I apply to it’s component factual assertions. Perhaps I make some sort of ontological mistake in the way that I conceptualize or verify those statements, but I really don’t see how such an ontological mistake (whatever it may be) comes from treating narrative or “scientific discourse” as fundamental. It seems to me that the two modes of discourse are inevitably intertwined and related to one another.

  28. I don’t have time to say much this week. Bummer that this was when this very interesting topic arises.

    1. I’m obviously very sympathetic to Dennis’ comments about truth, correspondence, and history. Yet I’m also very skeptical that these philosophical issues have much practical import in our discussion about historicity. I’ve discussed this before, at one time in a very long extended and perhaps tedious discussion with Dan Vogel over postmodernism and positivism. I think that in practice such philosophical notions don’t affect things as much as recent discussions suggest.

    2. I do think that we confuse the issue of what a community thinks of themselves and how they speak of themselves with issues of what really happened. The two aren’t the same. Rosalynde touched on this. I think we ought keep this separate. (And I think Dennis’ comments were getting at this as well)

    3. I think we ought distinguish questions of historicity from questions of the relative ignorance of scripture by lay members and even major prophetic figures. I think we want Joseph Smith to somehow have more knowledge of the scriptures than he does. Mormons tend to emphasize his scriptural illiteracy for his early life but then tend to move towards a kind of inerrancy for his latter life. I don’t think that justified. The greatest advance that the apologetic movement provided to the church in the 1980’s was to focus more on what the texts said rather than what people thought of them.

    4. We are trapped in a hermeneutic circle. We have to speculate. The more I study Mormonism the more I realize just how little we know and how much of our knowledge is vague precisely because of these issues. So I think questions of historicity have a huge import on the meaning of scriptures in practical terms. The problem is that typically we can’t answer the questions in an unambiguous fashion.

  29. Clark, take heart — rounds two and three will come in subsequent weeks.

  30. David Salmanson says:

    I am an outsider to all of this; I’m a historian whose work includes many LDS members. I’m surprised nobody has brought up Walter Benjamin’s
    The Art of the Translator yet. Benjamin’s observations about how translation, it is is to be comprehensible to the audience, creates a fundamentally new work that is only loosely connected to the old seems highly relevant here.

    To oversimplify, Benjamin would argue that for Smith to create a meaningful translation of the B o M, he would have to get parts of it wrong.

  31. I don’t know you’re reading this thread, Dennis, but I’d like to respond specifically to your comments on the nature of historicity. First let me clarify that I’ll be using the following terms:

    What you call, “rocks or elements,” I will refer to as “dry goods.”
    What you call, “dead metaphysics,” I will refer to as “the ontology of death.”
    What you call, “narrative ontology,” I will refer to as “the ontology of life.”

    First of all, the reason why we adopt the ontology of death is precisely because people generally agree about it. Consider the following sentences:

    1. David King Landrith stated, “I was in Philadelphia on such and such a date.”
    2. Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I was in Philadelphia on such and such a date, and I received a revelation there.”
    3. Joseph Smith said, “I was in Philadelphia on such and such a date, and I received a revelation there.”
    4. Joseph Smith said, “Nephi was in the geographical region now known as Philadelphia on such and such a date, and he received a revelation there.”
    5. Joseph Smith said that he translated a document that said, “I, Nephi was in the geographical region that will some day be known as Philadelphia on such and such a date, and I received a revelation there.”

    In order to avoid issues related to intentionality, let’s assume that these statements are true (i.e., the speakers actually did say what the statements claim they said) and leave aside the question of whether falsehoods are the result of mistakes or deliberate deception. If we approach these statements from the point of view of the ontology of death, then we assess them based on whether there is any evidence for or against someone being in Philadelphia on such and such a date.

    Sentence #5 has a different status from the rest. Specifically, it has an additional truth component. Statements 1 through 4 have two truth components:

    A. Did the speaker say such a thing? (we’ve assumed here that they did)
    B. Does the subject of the sentence do what the speaker attributes to him? (e.g., was Dave, Gordo, or Nephi in Philadelphia on such and such a date?)

    Statement 5 has three truth components:

    A. Did the speaker say such a thing? (again, we’ve assumed here that he did)
    B. Did Nephi do/say the things Joseph attributes to him?
    C. Did the speaker translate the document?

    Many apologetics for the Book of Abraham assume that statements of like C can be false (i.e., Joseph Smith didn’t really translate the Chandler papyri), without sacrificing the truth of statements like A and B (i.e., Joseph said he translated the Chandler Papyri and Abraham really did the things that Joseph’s translation attributes to him). But regardless of the relationship that we take to hold among the values of these truth components, we can at least agree that these are the components, because our ontology of death provides a framework in which we can all agree to the basic players in the story (in this case, a subject [Dave, Gordo, or Nephi], such and such a date, and Philadelphia). (I’d argue that the drive to preserve scriptural historicity consists of isolating the different truth components of scriptural accounts and showing how many can still be true in light of the falseness of others; e.g., in spite of the Book of Mormon’s own account, the Book of Mormon can be historical even if the Lehites, Jaredites, and Mulekites were not the only peoples in the Western Hemisphere.)

    I understand your theory of an ontology of life as follows: We should understand the historicity of the Book of Mormon insofar as it is embedded within the community from which it derives its meaning. Thus, the Book of Mormon must be understood according to the intersection of its own story with personal experiences of those who read it, because its own story is inseparable from the narrative of the lives of those who read it. In other words, by reading the Book of Mormon, we become part of a continuing historical process which cannot be extracted from what follows or precedes it. It is this historical process that defines the ontology and not vice versa. Please correct me if this is not an accurate restatement.

    My objections to this ontology of life is as follows:

    First, there many different readers of the Book of Mormon and many communities in which it functions. There is no basis for choosing among these to create anything approaching some standard for evaluation. The believer and the skeptic are alike participants in the continuing narrative of the Book of Mormon. Surely, you don’t seek for a kind of relativism in which the truth of the Book of Mormon literally varies according to who you ask.

    Second, the thesis that historical claims cannot be assessed outside of this rather bloated historical context is, to my mind, simply false. It is true that everything we do is related to something done in the past or something that will be done in the future. But, the purpose of a theory is to eliminate those relations which have a negligible influence upon the type of event in question so as to allow a more clear understanding of the salient forces at work, and the fact that theories work is proof enough that this type of elimination works. As demonstrated by the analysis of truth components A, B, and C above, such things are meaningfully separated and evaluated, even if their impact on the overall truth of the statement containing them is a matter of continuing controversy.

    Basically, Dennis, I’m faulting you for being too holistic. The role of the Book of Mormon in my life is logically independent from the question of its historicity.

    Third, considering statements 1 through 5 above, how do we determine which one should be true according to which standard? (I actually have quite a lot more to say about these 5 sentences, but I’ve taken up too much space already.)

  32. John C.,

    “What is your testimony based on? Do you believe that Christ is your Savior or do you believe that Christ lived in Israel roughly 2,000 years ago and led a religious movement?”

    What does it mean to be a Savior? LDS Doctrine ties this meaning to a specific historic event– Christ’s rising from the dead and His atonement. Furthermore, Mr Schweitzer aside, check out the Apostle John’s definition of antichrist, which is to deny that Christ came in the flesh. So yes, my testimony of Christ and his role is intimately connected, and should be, to the historic event of his living and enacting an atonement for us. My testimony of the Book of Mormon is also tied to the fact that the book is a witness of the event of Christ’s appearance to the Nephites.

    Speaking of witnesses, if history does not matter, why do we need witnesses?

  33. Nate Oman says:

    Shockingly, I think that I basically agree with DKL (aka AT) on this, although I am less confident than he is that I have actually understood what Dennis is claiming. It seems to me that the role of narrative in the Book of Mormon presents very tricky problems of interpretation, and any attempt to reduce that narrative to factual assertions that can then be verified will inevitably result in some sort of interpretive distortion. However, this seems to me to be entirely a matter of hermeneutics rather than ontology.

    (BTW, DKL, I was waiting through the entire post for you to invoke the concept of “dry goods.” I can only hope that it makes an appearance in a subsequent comment.)

  34. David, while obviously I can’t speak for Dennis, I didn’t take him to be implying the relativism you take him to be asserting. Rather, I take him to be asserting the following:

    1. the stories are a narrative filled with values. Just as when I tell a story of my life, I’m not focused on a scientific kind of narrative, neither are the authors of the Book of Mormon.

    Far from saying that any community counts as the source to interpret, I think Dennis is saying the communities of the authors count. That’s not to deny we can’t obtain meaning from the works independent of such things. (And I’d probably go farther along that line that either you or Dennis) But it seems to me that the mode is fundamentally different.

    2. The second point I took Dennis to be arguing is more an epistemological point that the scientific and quasi-scientific methodologies simply can’t converge on the sort of answers we wish. The narrative along with archaeological and extra-textual evidence is insufficient.

    Thus someone like Dan Vogel can assume a very naturalistic perspective and even claim that the Book of Mormon offers insight into Joseph’s psyche and his family situation. (Although I question whether that is really allowable by the standards of rational inquiry) Robert Bushman can take a very different approach. However because of the inherent limits of meaning and narrative, we can’t arrive at a truth, unlike in science.

    That isn’t relativism since he’s not arguing that any position is acceptable nor is he arguing there is no truth about the matter. He’s simply pointing out our ignorance.

    Dennis can, of course, correct my readings if I don’t represent him right.

  35. I guess that problem I see not only with the BoM historicity but the convincing studies on the nature of God and salvation in the BoM is that if all these studies are even partially right (and I don’t think we can deny them that) then to say the BoM is the “most correct of any book of earth” is absolutely wrong in almost every way.

  36. Jeffrey: Like to clarify? Which studies are you referring to, that you find convincing? And how does that invalidate Joseph Smith

  37. I’m thinking of pretty much everything published by signature on the Book of Mormon. It seems to be fairly well established that the God which the BoM describes is very different from teh sexually active council of Gods later described by Smith. If we also take into account the obvious influence which Joseph Smith and his context had on the text it would seem that not only is the BoM not entirely accurate theologically speaking, but historically speaking as well. In the face of all this, who could possibly claim that the book is the most correct of any book? What definition of ‘correct’ could they possibly be working with? I don’t think that this necessarily undermines Joseph all that much, but it should certainly undermine any kind of believe that even approaches infallibility for Joseph, the other BoM authors and by extension, our prophets living here today.

  38. Jeffrey G.,

    Apparently you are easily swayed if you take the Signature stuff as being sufficiently definitive to make the Book of Mormon wrong.

  39. Nate, I apologize for the lack of content on dry goods. My original post was about twice the length, and it was chock full of dry goods goodness; e.g., it included such insights as “In principle, it’s no more difficult to determine the whereabouts of Gordon B. Hinckley than a sack of flour.” That said, I’m curious why anytime anyone agrees with me they say stuff like, “Shockingly, I think that I basically agree with DKL…” ? I’m hardly the village idiot, you know.

    Clark, at some point it becomes fruitless to argue about what Dennis meant (“Follow the gourd! No! Let us gather shoes together!”) But your restatement of his position has more in common with the ontology of death than the ontology of life that he seems to want to espouse. Hopefully, Dennis will comment or explicate in another round his rejection of the primacy of dry goods.

  40. I’m not saying that the Signature stuff is fully persuasive in all it’s claims, but to say that there are no 19th century influences in the BoM is a stretch indeed. Surely they have established at least some credibility as seen in the increasingly popualr acceptance of the expansion model.

  41. Suppose one did agree that there were 19th century influences, such as (most obviously) Joseph using his own language to interpret the record. I mean, since it is in English at least somehow connected to modern times.

    How would that lead one to your much stronger claims that the Book of Mormon is clearly wrong in important ways? These seem to be two very different claims, do they not?

  42. Jeff G.,

    I don’t think we accuse Joseph (or anybody else, with the possible exception of Christ) of being infallible. Are you going Catholic?

  43. Shockingly, I think that I basically agree with DKL that he is not the village idiot.

  44. Frank McIntyre: Shockingly, I think that I basically agree with DKL that he is not the village idiot.

    You’re the man!

  45. To the extent that I understand what Dennis is saying (which is probably very nearly zero), I think he’s saying something much like my argument against the need for an actual empirical Abraham (not, to reiterate, against the existence of an empirical Abraham). Dennis says, “What criteria do Mormons actually use to determine its truth? That criteria gives its meaning for practicing Mormons and that meaning cannot be reduced to scientific claims.” Does this mean that what makes a narrative valid is how we use it? Surely, by the way, we have some criteria for accepting certain narratives as more important than others. After all, we like the Book of Mormon quite a lot but tend to disregard the Book of Zelph (see narrative altogether. If the difference is that we pray and receive a spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon but not the Book of Zelph, then that is presumably our definition of truth. But this definition is potentially separable from the historical and empirical question of whether there was actually a person named Nephi who travelled from the Middle East to the Western Hemisphere between about 600 and 580 BC.

    If the Spirit says the Book of Mormon is a true witness of Christ but the empirics (counterfactually) definitively disprove the existence of a Nephi meeting the above criteria, do we accept the narrative as true under Dennis’s epistemology? Or is it false because the events described in the narrative didn’t empirically occur?

  46. Frank: I think the reason we need witnesses, preachers, and texts is to give us a chance to feel the Spirit, no?

    “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)

    Again, the preachers and the texts (witnesses are always either preachers or texts, right?) that we have are important because they lead us to believe and to feel the Spirit. All in the present tense.

    P.S. Real names are all the rage, so I’m Jay Seawright. This info has also always been available at my blog. I just like the alias for novelty.

  47. John C,

    No, I don’t accuse anybody of being infallible by a long shot. But it’s not too far off the mark to say that most members consider God to be infallible and the words uttered by a prophet and found in scripture are God’s words. How far is this from infallibility really? What BoM studies are showing that even the highest revelation which we have received in this dispensation (the BoM) is very flawed on a number of accounts. What does this say about the other revelation which are not the “most correct”?

  48. Ronan brings up the fact that a preponderance of evidence indicates that Genesis and Exodus are almost entirely fictional, and the notion “If there’s no Abraham, then there’s no Abrahamic covenant.”

    But it’s also true that if there was no Jesus, then there was no atonement and no resurrection. And it seems to me that any very dispassionate evaluation of the New Testament points to the fact that it is almost entirely fictional. From my point of view, the fundamental reason why Mormon’s are Christian is because Joseph Smith said that he saw the Resurrected Christ, and we believe in the historicity of that claim. (Whether our belief in the historicity of that claim is derivative of our belief in the Book of Mormon or vice versa or entirely independent is a separate issue.) But it just will not do to say that the gospels are inspired fiction, because the atonement and the resurrection hinge on the fact that Jesus lived.

    I conclude (a) that the truth of scripture does (in some sense) hinge on their historicity (I’ve sketched out what I take this to mean in my lengthy parenthetical in comment #31), and (b) that historicity is a deep quagmire for any religion and every scripture.

  49. John H, I found Dan Vogel’s hypothesis that Joseph made the plates from scrap tin to be one of the most ingenious speculations in his biography.

  50. Nate Oman says:

    DKL, I don’t think that you are the village idiot, and niether, apparently does Frank. I didn’t know that agreement with you was always shocking. I just thought that it was shocking in my case, since in our last couple of exchanges I have disagreed with you. I would guess, however, that the “Shockingly, I agree with DKL…” prefaces have to do with the fact that you seem to have a carefully cultivated public persona of fearless contrarian and iconoclast. People are just being sensitive and giving you a way of preserving your persona, even when you are not being a fearless contrarian and iconoclast.

    I think that you are right with regard to the way that Mormons understand the Bible. I am less convinced that the NT is obviously fiction. It is obvious to me that the different Gospel narratives are structured around different and sometimes contradictory theological agendas and that we cannot expect any set of ‘historical’ narratives from the 1st or 2d century to conform to our standards of history. (Same thing goes for the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Josepheus, and other historians roughly contemporary with the Gospel writers.) I don’t think that fiction is quite the right word, however. Nevertheless, I think that for us, the Restoration warrants the truthfulness of key biblical claims, rather than vice-versa.

  51. RT,

    “Frank: I think the reason we need witnesses, preachers, and texts is to give us a chance to feel the Spirit, no?”

    But you are saying that it does not matter if the witnesses actually witnessed anything. A witness is more than a preacher, it is a claim to have seen something. The gospel establishes truth by calling witnesses and the Holy Ghost confirms the truth of those witnesses. But you are saying that the witnesses’ truthfulness is irrelevant. In fact, their very existence is irrelevant. In this world view, Mormon is just as powerful a witness even if he never existed. But then there is no more doctrine of “witnessing”, just preaching.

  52. Nate Oman: DKL, I don’t think that you are the village idiot, and neither, apparently does Frank.

    Yes. Frank is the man.

    Nate Oman: I didn’t know that agreement with you was always shocking.

    Well, it isn’t always. But if I had a nickel for each time someone expressed surprise or shock at agreeing with me or finding me to be reasonable, I’d probably have enough to pay my 8 year old daughter’s weekly allowance. But, for the record, I haven’t really tried to cultivate much of anything. I just convey my opinions about those things that animate me or make jokes about those things in which I find humor.

    Nate Oman: the different Gospel narratives are structured around different and sometimes contradictory theological agendas and that we cannot expect any set of ‘historical’ narratives from the 1st or 2d century to conform to our standards of history. (Same thing goes for the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Josepheus, and other historians roughly contemporary with the Gospel writers.)

    What I’m getting at is that the authors of the gospels seem to lack a basic knowledge of the geography of Israel (e.g., there’s no lake at Gadara or Gerasa, Herod’s castle was nearly a days walk from Pilot’s), its indigenous plants (e.g., the mustard plant is represented as a tree, when it’s a vine much closer to a strawberry plant), and the religious traditions of its inhabitants (e.g., the pharisees were pro-messianic in general, they rejected rigid adherence to rules as apostasy, and they typically took a wait and see attitude about specific messiahs as Gamaliel—an atypical Pharisee leader in the New Testament, but typical historically—does at the trial of Peter in Acts.)

    What’s more, New Testament stories often lack the kind of internal consistency one would expect of true stories. For example, at the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the charge advanced against Stephen is that he made blasphemous statements against Moses and God. Then false witnesses are produced who claim that Stephen said that, “Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.” Stephen then proceeds to offer a perfectly orthodox recital of Jewish history, and concludes (bizarrely) with an utter repudiation of the Jews. Then, when he claims to see the messiah (the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13) on the right hand of God, and the trial degenerates into a lynch mob. But the supposedly false witnesses relate what Jesus himself had said, the actual charges against Stephen are never discussed, and the Jews’ own tradition has it that the messiah would sit on the right hand of God and Abraham on his left. The best one can say about this account is that it is quite muddled.

    I could go on and on. I’m not saying that these are definitive arguments or arguments that cannot be answered. My point is that one can make a reasonable case for the point of view that Jesus never lived. This is what leads me to say that “historicity is a deep quagmire for any religion and every scripture.”

  53. Nate Oman says:

    DKL: I quite agree with you that a lot of the accounts in the NT are confused on the sorts of details that you bring up, but I hardly think that this constitutes a very good argument that Jesus did not exist. Lots of historians argue that we cannot rely on the gospels to provide us with accurate details about Jesus’s life or teachings, but I this is hardly the same as arguing that he didn’t exist. For example, many of the ancient biographies of Alexander the Great get confused about Persian geography, and offer (often wildly) contradictory accounts of his life, as well as all sorts of theological interpolations (after all, Alexander became a god all over the ancient Near East), but none of this constitutes a good argument that he didn’t exist.

  54. Yes, Nate, but there’s abundant evidence for Alexander’s existence outside of his biographies. Outside of the New Testament and few interpolated passages in Josephus, when in comes to historical evidence for Jesus there’s nothing but a black hole and a lot of auxiliary hypotheses explaining why there’s nothing there.

  55. Nate Oman says:

    DKL: It seems to me that the best evidence for the existence of Alexander are the Greek cities that were scattered all over the former Persian empire and the Greek kingdoms that sprang into existence immediately after his death. Within a generation or two of Jesus’s death you have churches and Christian communities scattered all over the Roman Empire and a body of writing (both in the NT and out) that purports to describe his teachings. In other words, I think that Alexander’s existence is uncontroversial because there is overwhelming evidence of his later influence on later history. An analogous (not perfectly analogous to be sure) argument can be made for the existence of a historical Jesus. Mind you, I don’t think that this argument gets you all that far, since the bare fact that there was a man in Judea named Yeshua Bar Yosef who preached in Palestine and was executed during the reign of Tiberius Caesar doesn’t tell you much of anything theologically.

  56. Actually, the best evidence for the existence of Alexander is probably the carvings of his name on buildings and stone tablets scattered all over his empire that are contemporaneous with Alexander’s conquests.

    And the early dating that you propose for Christian communities presupposes the veracity of the New Testament accounts to start with. There’s no good reason to date the purportedly historical portions of the New Testament earlier than the early 2nd century, a full 3 or 4 generations after Christ’s atonement.

    Moreover, there is good reason to suppose that the wealth of Christian and quasi-Christian writing that began to arise during the 2nd century AD started with Paul, who gives us little reason (beyond his own assertions) to believe that he was, in fact, a Pharisee or even a practicing Jew.

  57. If all I have to sacrifice in order to believe the NT is faith in the inerrancy of textual and archaelogical analysis , count me willing.

    Very willing.

    Consider it done.

  58. One could respond pretty much the same way to any argument against the veracity of any book, Frank. (e.g., “If all I have to sacrifice in order to believe the Book of Abraham is faith in the inerrancy of egyptology…”) I think this sidesteps the entire issue of historicity.

  59. DKL,
    Frank’s argument is the one most commonly encountered amongst Mormons though. If the academics cannot find proofs of the Book of (Mormon, Abraham, etc.), then I choose to believe what I believe the book says over the academics (this is more the case if academics find evidence that appears to contradict what the person believes about scripture). Dismissing the argument because you feel it isn’t cogent is missing the point.

    What if Frank was to say that history has shown that the general academic understanding of ancient history can change radically based on a few potsherds found in an unusual place or Bedouin peddling parchment found in a cave somewhere. I can’t speak directly to the NT because it isn’t my specialty and because the circumstances are a bit different from the OT, but I doubt that most historians are willing to go on record stating that various theories are facts in that period either. You can talk about scholarly consensus if you like, but that is far from a certainty.

    The truth is that Frank is calling scholarly consensus tentative, which it is. He is dismissing it if it disagrees with him, which is probably not the best approach to take with everything but, according to Dennis, he appears to have a right to do this. The problem is convincing people like Frank that the historicity matters, even if it leads to places (sometimes) that we don’t like.

  60. John C, the idea (which, unfortunately, all too often gets ignored) in reaching some kind of academic consensus is that it should follow the evidence to a reasonably rational conclusion. No matter how tentative or certain some scholarly consensus appears, it is always possible that new pieces of evidence can dramatically alter the range of rational conclusions. The question is not what are the conceivable range of these conclusions. The question is what bearing do they have on our understanding of the scriptures. Frank appears to be saying that in at least some instances, this rational range of conclusions has no bearing for him at all. Perhaps this is more or less true for everyone. Frank is, after all, the man. But I think that an overly broad willingness to avoid the rational conclusions of the best evidence available renders the question of historicity mute. Nevertheless, it does answer the question Steve posed at the outset “When does historicity matter?”

  61. David:

    I think you’re right. I think many believers in all religions, maybe even the vast majority, are willing to disregard the range of rational conclusions that can be drawn about their beliefs in light of the current evidence. The question I would pose is this: are you sure this is actually a bad thing?

    In effect, this comes down to our beliefs about the inherent value of faith. If we consider faith (e.g., in Jesus Christ or in the Book of Mormon) to be an inherently valuable thing, then it seems admirable to set aside the empirical evidence altogether, as I think Frank suggests above he is willing to do. If, on the other hand, we consider the value of faith to be contingent on some kind of correspondence between the belief system that is the object of that faith and the range of reasonable conclusions that can be held in light of currently-available empirical evidence, we may be inclined to think unkind thoughts about this approach.

    For purely extra-rational reasons, related to my own experience of the divine, I find faith in Jesus Christ to be inherently valuable. Hence, I would hope that nearly no empirical evidence could weaken that faith. Of course, it would certainly affect the range of things I find reasonable to believe in, but faith has very little truck with rational belief in the first place.

  62. By the way, it appears to me (from the fact that the many different discussions of this topic I’ve seen and participated in always seem to involve revolving subsets of the same cast of characters) that there are about twenty or thirty people in the whole church who enjoy talking about this topic. Which is, of course, inherent proof both that the theme of historicity is fascinating and important and that all of us who discuss it are intellectual and rhetorical superstars. So, cheers to us, lads!

  63. Sorry for not posting more quickly. I hope folks don’t mind if I rewind the discussion somewhat to Dennis’ comments.

    It seem’s Dennis’ point is really about scientific meaning and literary meaning. Put perhaps in an overly simplified manner, the kind of narrative the scriptures focus on is open to endless interrogations. That is, if we consider the set of statements translating the text or portions of the text, we have an infinite set. By scientific we often mean that a text can be reduced to a finite set of statements. In history, those set of statements are akin to simple statements of fact. (i.e. Bethlehem is in the Middle East) In terms of fundamental statements, this set is finite.

    What I think Dennis is saying is that the set of scientific statements can’t capture everything important about the text.

    To a degree I agree. However I hope Dennis isn’t saying that the scientific statements don’t matter. Personally rather than priviledging one above the other, as is so often the case, I think we need both. Beyond those two aspects to the text, we have the problem that the text is about things like justice, repentence, love, etc. Those topics exceed the text. The text can be seen as a flawed and limited attempt to bring us to the true meaning of those notions. But that means that to understand the text we must go beyond it in a certain sense. (Obviously not the sense of looking beyond the mark, but in the sense of looking to the mark)

  64. I think the idea that scientific meaning reduces a narrative (scriptural account, theory, whatever) to a subset of its empirical implications isn’t quite right. Instead, I think science is built around the idea that a correct account will have relatively fewer inconsistencies in terms of empirical implications than an incorrect account. Hence, the broader meanings of the narrative can be safely disregarded if the empirical implications are clearly in gross conflict with observations.

    This is, of course, only correct if the broader meanings are logically dependent on the empirical observations. As I’ve argued above, with respect to the scriptures, I’m not sure how often that’s actually the case.

  65. 1. The word egyptology has no place being in the same sentence with the word inerrant, much less being modified by it.

    2. Historicity does matter to me, but that doesnot mean that the scientific evidence is sufficient to shed important light on the question. The labor supply function for teenagers also matters to me, but that does not mean I know what it is from the available scientif evidence.

    3. Faith can be viewed as a kind of empirical evidence, just evidence that is not easily transmitted to others. There are actually lots of evidence of this kind. I would guess it is as easy or easier for me to test, spiritually, someone’s faith claims as it is for me to test the scientific claims of a researcher on ancient Mayan culture.

    4. Decent statistical work always gives both a “best guess” and an interval around that guess that indicates its precision. Thus, if I estimate that the labor supply elasticity of teenagers (to wages) is .5, I also might report that there is a 95% chance that the real value lies between -.2 and 1.2. Since that range takes in pretty much every value that anybody could possibly think was reasonable, the interval reveals that my estimate is not much more than a wild stab in the dark. Textual analysis has more difficulty reporting its interval, but the errors are all still there, they just can’t be so easily quantified. So it is perfectly possibly to be all in favor of hearing the most rational best guess, and then pretty much ignoring it because you think the best guess is uninformative. That’s quite scientific. Especially if I have access to other evidence, faith is, after all,the evidence of things not seen, that gives me a different and more precise piece of evidence. Gravity, on the other hand, is rather precisely measured, so this does not apply equally to all scientific answers.

    5. The fact that God is involved wreaks havoc with scientific methodology, even gravity. Based on a huge amount of empirical evidence, I would say the chance that somebody rises from the dead are extremely low, if that probability is being drawn from the same distribution as all the deaths one hears about. But Christ’s death was not drawn from the same distribution, it was drawn from a different one. And so those other deaths are not scientifically informative. Similarly, making inferences to religious events from what normally happens or should happen, when God is unobservably altering things in the background according to His plan (and He is a God of miracles), means that all such conclusions are subject to a horrendously large source of error. An error that goes entirely unquantified by the applicable researchers because they have no way to quantify it. Often, they deny it exists. That is their prerogative, but it does make their research less useful to me.

    6. So yes, I am always interested in hearing the scientific evidence, because sometimes it helps me differentiate between competing hypotheses, both of which are consistent with my beliefs arrived at through faith. But those results as a basis for religious beliefs, when based on textual analysis or archaelogical analysis, are like estimating the height distribution of American males using me and my brothers, then denying that anybody whose height fell outside the range of our family heights could possibly be American! My brothers’ height may be the best available guess, but staking your belief structure on it would be moronic. Compared to textual analysis, getting answers to prayer, a difficult and laborious process, starts to look downright easy.

  66. “I would guess it is as easy or easier for me to test, spiritually, someone’s faith claims as it is for me to test the scientific claims of a researcher on ancient Mayan culture.”

    Should we take this to mean that you have some sort of supernatural ability to test the claims of archaeology? I think you are comparing apples and watermelons here.

  67. Frank, saying that Christ’s death “was not drawn from the same distribution [as all the deaths one hears about]” begs the question.

    I wish you’d expand on what you mean by faith being a kind of empirical evidence and testing faith claims, because I do not believe I understand you. The way I see it, my belief system has no impact at all on whether (say) planets move in circular or elliptical orbits. Likewise, whatever the mayans did or did not do is logically independent of any opinion I hold about it.

    On a side note: What you describe in terms of intervals of accuracy only hold in deterministic systems, like quantum physics or polling. Indeterminate systems (like classical physics) are unable to provide such intervals of accuracy. (The irony is that most people believe that classical physics is deterministic while quantum physics is indeterministic, when the reverse is true [I’m drawing on Popper here]. But that’s a separate issue.)

    RT, I think you’re right that we’re in the minority in wanting to discuss such topics, only I’m not sure that warrants congratulations.

  68. John,

    Sorry, that was badly written! “spiritually” only modifies the first type of knowledge. The second kind would come from more typical knowledge accumulation.


    As to begging the question, I am saying that a scientist could assume that the Savior’s death was drawn from the same distribution, and then say that ressurection was improbable. But without that assumption there is little the scientist could say about the empirical validity of a claim of ressurection. And since that assumption is exactly what one is interested in, the science has little to say about the matter. The same problem is all over in Christian studies.

    By testing a faith claim, I mean that one can pray about it and see if one receives some personal manifestation of its truth.

    Intervals of accuracy apply any time one is drawing a sample from a population. The confidence intervals on some physical measurements can be very small, because the sample is an excellent representation of the whole. But any time one attempts to draw conclusions about a population from a subsample there is a possible sampling error. This is, of course, just one source of error. Measurement error, identification errors, errors in assumptions about distributions, biases of researchers, are all in addition to the sampling error. And all of these errors are likely to be rampant in the kind of research bandied about in Mormonism. Buyer beware.

  69. Me thinks some people here think too much. Could they try dumbing down the conversation a little so the average person might follow it. :) Or maybe they could translate it using shorter and choppier sentences below. Seriously, this has been very interesting. I wish I had enough background to understand half of this stuff though.

  70. David:

    I was using the nefarious curse of my generation, irony, when I congratulated us all for being among the few who like to talk about historicity. Unfortunately, it failed–one of the unwritten rules of irony is that, if you have to explain it, you look like an idiot.


    What is the measurement error in spiritual confirmation through the Holy Ghost? Before you answer, consider the fact that most Evangelical Protestants firmly believe that they have received a spiritual confirmation that they are on the Lord’s true and only path to heaven. Also, for example, one of my favorite little facts: Mark Hofmann’s father had received what he repeatedly described as an unshakeable spiritual witness that his son was innocent of all of the crimes he was accused of.

    If we accept as an explanation of these facts that spiritual confirmation through prayer and the Holy Ghost is a noisy channel of information, then we have to conclude that personal revelation also has unquantified and difficult-to-uncover errors. This isn’t really surprising; we’re mortal and, as Paul (in the hands of the KJV) so elegantly says, we see through a glass, darkly.

    I think the kind of faith in Jesus Christ that is willing to disregard considerations of rationality is valuable. However, it is important to understand that throwing out scientific knowledge on the basis that it doesn’t achieve godlike perfection IS a decision to disregard rationality. Rationality tells us (turning to statistics) that the average of multiple independent observations on any topic is less error-prone than any of the individual observations. If spiritual confirmation and scientific knowledge can be accepted as “two” (in fact, many more, but who’s counting) independent error-prone observations, the combination of them is better than either on its own. But achieving this combination requires a willingness to allow one’s own faith-derived and spiritually-confirmed beliefs to be altered, overwritten, and even destroyed by sufficiently-contrary scientific knowledge.

    If we decide in advance that this will never happen, we’ve moved to a realm where empirics are divorced from testimony. In that realm, historicity is a dead issue. History, in this perspective, no longer exists aside from myth, narrative, and theology. If we can agree that our religion is build on these latter three rather than on history, that’s fine. If we claim history as a central component of our faith, then we’ve adopted an epistemology and an ontology that are in conflict with our faith claims.

    Or, in the short, choppy sentences Barb requests… Frank, if you want to conclude that flaws in historical science justify disregarding contradictions between that science and your belief, that’s fine. You just have to remove historical beliefs from your faith claims. Once your faith claims are only about your relationship between yourself and God, history doesn’t matter to you, and the decision to disregard additional evidence about history doesn’t make your faith blind. But if your faith is in part about history, then you have to accept all additional evidence about history. To avoid irrationality, you must also accept that your beliefs can never in mortality be definitive.

  71. RT, sorry to ruin your irony by requiring an explanation. It just goes to underscore the point that Bob Caswell made several months ago when he said I was out of my league here.

  72. Thanks RT. Really, though do not change a thing for me. Obviously, I am not the target audience for this thread of very accomplished individuals. I am not sure if my mind would every be inclined to comprehend all of this even if it were broken into the minutest of parts. I have enjoyed what little I could follow though. Keep up the thought-provoking dialogue everyone. Do not dumb it down for the masses or for me.

  73. P.S. It’s an oversimplification to say the average of multiple independent observations is ALWAYS better than any of the individual observations. This issue has to do with the ratio of error variances in each observation and the underlying distribution. In the present discussion, it seems clear to me that both spiritual witnesses and scientific knowledge have important error variance but also important informational content. If we don’t agree on this assessment, perhaps we should discuss further.

  74. jonathanN says:

    From it’s inception, the Church has been ambivalent about historicity. Hence, the inclusion of the 3 and 8 witnesses’ testimony, intended to prove historicity of at least the golden plates but falling short of the type of proof the actual plates would provide.

    Fundamentally, historicity is what distinguishes us from all other religions; i.e., we believe that we have actual, tangible facts to support our spiritual claims. Or at least, until recently we did. Now many of us are backtracking on the reality of the Book of Mormon events, the reality of the Book of Abraham, and even to some degree the reality of the D&C, at least to the extent that the D&C teaches that the American Indians are Lamanites.

    I view the historicity question as fundamental to LDS doctrine. Without a factual basis for our faith claims, what is the difference between LDS and Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or general Christian beliefs? Adherents of each of these have “testimonies” of their faith, they demonstrate good works, etc.

  75. Jonathan,

    I call claims to have the priesthood of God, a unique set of vital ordinances, and a more direct if imperfect channel of communication with God a serious difference between LDS faith claims and those of the other churches that you listed. Entirely aside from history questions, these factors are reasonably distinctive. (The Catholic church, in particular, makes parallel claims–but those claims and the LDS ones are obviously mutually exclusive.)

  76. jonathan N says:

    RT, You’ve illustrated my point well. Most faiths have a system of Priesthood. I’ve been blessed by Hindu priests, for example, who also claim divine power through prophets, with their own temples and associated ordinances. They also enjoy direct communication with God (as does anyone who asks Him).

    I can’t think of a rationale for believing that distinctiveness signifies veracity. My point is that, without accurate and real historical events behind it, our religion has no more claim on truth than any other religion. Reliance on testimony alone seems to me to make our religion morally equivalent to any other faith system whose adherents also rely on their testimonies. I’ve had Muslims and Hindus, as well as non-affiliated believers in God, bear their testimonies to me and relate impressive stories of how God personally intervened in their lives. This is why I see the historicity issue as crucial.

  77. I just received this quote in my email.

    “Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty” St. Augustine

  78. Barb, great quote. I’m going to add it to my collection. Do you have a citation for where Augustine said that?

    Jonathan, the problem is that our beliefs about the historicity of LDS events are fundamentally based on testimony alone–and sometimes in the face of substantial, although not definitive, empirical evidence. Hence using historicity to distinguish our testimony from those held by believers in other faiths is circular logic.

  79. Doesn’t it matter that our faith reside in things which are TRUE? If the Book of Mormon is actually a nineteenth century document, aren’t its origins, and thus the originator, suspect, fallacious and unworthy of our veneration?

  80. Steve Evans says:

    Melinda, the question, as you’ve put it, is very important. I think that it is important to realize that we can accept different levels of historical accuracy and authenticity, and still consider something to be “true.”

  81. Melinda, that is certainly a common argument. Furthermore, the opposite argument (i.e., that we can believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet and the Book of Mormon as a testament of Christ, even if it turns out that the book is a 19th-century creation) has the disadvantage of being most prominently associated with ex-mormons like Brent Metcalfe.

    But let’s think about your question for a moment. What are we supposed to have faith IN? The standard answer is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, it’s important for our faith that Jesus actually be our Redeemer. The function of prophets, scriptures, etc., is to bring us into a saving and eventually exalting relationship with Jesus. This is why it’s unusual for us to discuss faith in the Bible or the Book of Mormon; these documents are supposed to build our faith, not be important objects of our faith.

    If the Book of Mormon were divinely given to Joseph Smith as a parable rather than as a history, would that make it suspect and fallacious? I think not–it would still be a powerful tool for expressing the truth that Christ is our Savior. (As I argued earlier in this discussion, are Christ’s parables suspect and fallacious? They, too, are fiction.) I’m not arguing for the Book of Mormon as parable, so I won’t bother dealing with its primary difficulty: the fact that Joseph Smith evidently thought the text was history. What I am arguing is that such an interpretation of the Book of Mormon or other historical claims should be seen as compatible with our faith in Christ and the divine plan of redemption.

    I think this inclusive view of our faith and our church is important because a fair number of people end up leaving (if already members) or failing to take the church seriously (if investigators or nonmembers) because they have half-considered understandings of the empirical evidence that lead them to conclude that traditional LDS historical claims are impossible. Explaining that our faith revolves around Christ and His divine plan of salvation rather than around history, and that a personal spiritual witness of that plan is individually available, may serve to remove some of the pressure that incomplete understandings sometimes place on these individuals.

    It also helps prevent us from building our faith around historical interpretations. This is crucial because we sometimes get history wrong. If we build human mistakes about history into the foundations of our faith, then we, too, become vulnerable in unnecessary ways.

  82. Melinda, the answer to your question is yes.

  83. JonathanN says:

    RT, doesn’t it beg the question to assert faith in Christ as the answer to historicity questions? Are you saying that if the BofM is a parable, it is still a legitimate teaching about Christ? What I find perplexing about this argument is that our faith in Christ relies on the accuracy BofM.

    In my view, without the historicity of the BofM, Christianity has no stronger basis than any other religion. The Bible, for example, as several people on this list have pointed out, is full of questionable factual material that leads many people to conclude it is a fable or a myth. Without the BofM to verify the Bible, it’s difficult to see how Christianity can hold up as much more than just another belief system.

    This is one reason why, IMO, the Christian world as a whole shoots itself in the foot by arguing against the BofM. on the other hand, when the defenders of the BofM are content with it as a fable, or when they decline to examine its historicity, or even when they make it solely a matter of “testimony,” the BofM cannot fulfill its purpose.

  84. RT,
    The parables are bad comparanda as they were never presented as anything but fiction. They were never meant to convey history, just doctrine. The historical material in the standard works, though incidental to its primary purpose, does mean to give a historical perspective to events. “This prophecy came this many years before Christ” is hard to allegorize away precisely because it is trying to convey historical material (that could potentially be rationally verifiable). If God knowingly presents us with a book that proclaims itself a history, all the while knowing that the book itself is fiction, God is engaging in pious fraud. This is exactly what he didn’t do with the parables.

  85. In other news, I second DKL’s answer to Melinda’s question.

  86. Jonathan, I disagree substantially. I think our faith in Christ is in serious trouble if it is based in any way on any text. It can only be based on an experience of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Mormon and other scriptural texts are valuable only if they open the doorway for us to receive the Spirit and move forward on building a personal connection with Christ. A perfectly accurate history that fails to do this is spiritually worthless; any text, no matter its origins, that succeeds at this task is of serious value.

    John, the gospels in the New Testament are most probably exactly the kind of fictional, falsely historical compositions you’re unhappy with. Furthermore, they were probably written for specific, human persuasive purposes. Do we therefore reject them even though they lead us into a spiritually meaningful relationship with Christ?

    With respect to the parables, my point in introducing them is to make clear that scriptural statements need not be literally true in empirical content in order to be scriptural. If we can concede that point, I’ll drop the comparison and we can move on to other issues.

    I understand the urge to specify that we are unwilling to accept scripture that does not meet our preconceptions in terms of history and origin. But who says God has to work according to our preconceptions? When we draw a line in the sand and declare that anything beyond it would be pious fraud, we are imposing our own requirements on God–not, in my experience, the wisest approach.

  87. RT,

    I’m with John C. and DKL here. The fact that parables can teach us important spiritual lessons does change the fact that the Book of Mormon goes to great lengths to emphasize that it is telling us a real history of a real people. Further, Joseph himself was unbending with regard to this historicity question (a point Terryl Givens devoted an entire chapter to in By the Hand of Mormon).

    So my answer to the original question is yes, historicity matters very much. Having said that, I do not think that modern interpretations of some of that history are all that important. For instance, it matters very much that such people as Nephi, Lehi, Laman, Lemuel existed. It matters that they started in the land of Jerusalem and ended up in the land of promise. Why does it matter? Because they directly and specifically say this is the case. The “Spirit of Truth” then is supposed to ratify this entire story as true. Either there are fundamental historical truths here or God is indeed involved in some sort of pious fraud as John C. noted. But that does not mean the Nephites and Lamanites had to fill all of North and South America. That is what I was getting at with my allusion to modern interpretations of the history.

    I think that we can safely assume there is some bathwater in our historical assumptions about most scriptural history, but it seems an indictment of God and his messenger, the Spirit of Truth, to imply there in no baby there at all. That baby is the actual history behind the BoM and stories of Abraham etc..

  88. Geoff,

    Okay, let’s talk about Joseph Smith’s beliefs about Book of Mormon history for a moment. Smith made repeated statements and even prophetic proclamations that are most consistent with the theory that the Book of Mormon is a history of the entire North and South American continents. If we want to reject this in favor of the quite small limited geographies that currently seem, to the experts, more reasonable and defensible, we have to accept the fact that we’re disregarding the opinion of Joseph Smith about Book of Mormon history.

    If the prophet could have been as far off on geography and history as confusing the story of a small part of Mesoamerica with the story of all of North and South America, he could certainly also have been wrong about whether the book was intended as history or parable.

    Furthermore, Joseph’s geographic misconceptions suggest, as I’ve argued above, that we humans are quite capable of mixing our own beliefs into the messages of the Spirit. Do you have witness that Nephi literally existed? But are you sure it comes from the Spirit, or was it your interpretation of the message that the Book of Mormon is a true witness of Christ?

    To put this another way, if someone could absolutely prove to you that Nephi didn’t exist, would that be enough to make you lose your faith? For me, the answer is no. What is the answer for you?

  89. Is it possible that Joseph Smith did not know the extent to which the BoM is historically accurate?

  90. Steve,

    That’s my point. If we accept that Joseph didn’t know how historically accurate the Book of Mormon was, then we have to conclude that we can’t use his beliefs and arguments about the book to prove that a belief in historicity is necessary for faith.

  91. Nate Oman says:

    Clark: If Dennis is only claiming what you claim that he is claiming then I have no problem with what he is claiming. Clearly, the meaning of a narrative cannot be exhausted by reducing it to a list of emperically verifiable propositions. However, it seems to me that Dennis is making a more radical claim, namely that narrative implies a seperate kind of ontology. In other words, he seems to be making claims not only about hermeneutics but about metaphysics.

  92. Nate: I think you’re right about Dennis’s claim. It seems to me that he sees narratives as semi-autonomously-existing entities. For instance, Dennis states that:

    “Will the Book of Mormon stand up to the scrutiny of scientific studies in archeology or the history of DNA? To ask that question is to misunderstand the religious narrative as something that could be parasitic on a more fundamental ontology of “stuff” and its properties that we can scrutinize and analyze with instruments.”

    If it is a misunderstanding to consider narrative as relying on the ontology of objects and entities, then it must, by direct implication, be true that narrative exists apart from objects and entities. This is not merely a claim that narratives convey complex layers of meaning; such a claim would simply suggest that the relationships between narrative and the ontology of objects and entities needs to be examined with care. Instead, the argument seems to be that narratives have their own realm of existence.

  93. “John, the gospels in the New Testament are most probably exactly the kind of fictional, falsely historical compositions you’re unhappy with. Furthermore, they were probably written for specific, human persuasive purposes. Do we therefore reject them even though they lead us into a spiritually meaningful relationship with Christ?”

    of course not. The Gospels are products of an era that had a different idea of “history” and how to compose than we do today. I don’t mind flawed history, I mind fiction that tries to pass itself of as accurate history.

    “With respect to the parables, my point in introducing them is to make clear that scriptural statements need not be literally true in empirical content in order to be scriptural. If we can concede that point, I’ll drop the comparison and we can move on to other issues.”

    Certainly. Happy to drop it.

    “But who says God has to work according to our preconceptions?”

    Um, He does. If He makes claims about being a God of truth who does not lie and then he gives us fiction as history, you don’t have a God of truth, you have a logic puzzle.

    Nate, Clark, RT: I also got the impression that Dennis was getting involved in metaphysics here. DP, more clarification please.

  94. In particular, I would like to give DP a forced-choice question. Would you be more inclined to agree with:

    (1) The narrative of Lehi’s family contains a theory of the biology and archeology of some region of the Americas and also contains additional content,


    (2) The narrative of Lehi’s family exists and has value in a way that is separate from any theory of biology and archeology.

    Position #1 seems almost radically uncontroversial; I don’t think anyone really believes that the Book of Mormon is nothing more than a collection of theoretical (or even theological) propositions. Position #2 or something like it, by contrast, would be much more interesting.

    My immediate questions would be as follows. First, in what way do narratives exist as something other than a set of claims that can be imagined in our mental processes about past, present, or hypothetical states of being? Second, as mentioned above, how do we choose between authoritative and useless narratives, once we divorce these from a scientific context of empirical falsification?

  95. RT,

    Smith made repeated statements and even prophetic proclamations that are most consistent with the theory that the Book of Mormon is a history of the entire North and South American continents.

    Joseph came to that conclusion years after translating the plates. This was the point I was making though. Joseph may have been wrong on that point. That does not mean the entire historicity of the BoM is suddenly in jeopardy though. The record itself made no such claims.

    …we have to accept the fact that we’re disregarding the opinion of Joseph Smith about Book of Mormon history.

    No, we don’t. We simply have to accept that we are disregarding an opinion of Joseph Smith about post-Book of Mormon history.

    If the prophet could have been as far off on geography and history as confusing the story of a small part of Mesoamerica with the story of all of North and South America, he could certainly also have been wrong about whether the book was intended as history or parable.

    I think you are conflating the actual record with later opinions from Joseph. Joseph never said “my opinions on the Book of Mormon are the most correct on earth”. He rather repeatedly reminded the saints that he was not infallible.

    As for spiritual witnesses — along with John C I don’t mind flawed history; I mind fiction that tries to pass itself of as accurate history. Passing something fictional off as something true is called a lie after all.

    BTW — even if Lehi is not the principle ancestor of Native Americans today, I have posted in the past on how he is likely a literal ancestor of them all in one degree or another.

  96. Now that I think about it, I did not defend the idea that Joseph was unbending on the BoM being a real history of a real people very well, I just said the record claims it and Joseph might have been wrong about some aspects of the history later.

    I should mention that I think the translation process is a key to this half-argument I started there. I lean toward a version of Blake Ostler’s expansion theory when it comes to the translation process. That means that the text did not come from Joseph reading a ticker-tape of text scrolling across a seer stone but rather the Spirit poured images and ideas and names into his head (with the proper interpretation thereof) and he dictated them in English the best that he could. If that is correct (and I know this is anything but universally accepted) then it is hard to get around the assumption that God was showing Joseph the events and histories of real people. If it was historical fiction then we run directly into that Godly fraud problem — aka a lying God.

  97. I agree with you, Geoff. I’d put it this way: The question amounts to how much privilege we should accord Joseph’s as a reader and interpreter of the Book of Mormon. As far as I’m concerned, Joseph is just another first reader of the Book of Mormon. We should privilege first readers’ interpretations of the Book of Mormon only insofar as we believe the Book of Mormon to be entirely a product of their environment (in Joseph Smith’s case, early 19th century America). The first readers’ impression of a new English translation of Plato, for example, shouldn’t receive any greater privilege than first readers (or any subsequent readers) of the Jowett translation based simply on their priority as readers (one could argue, on the other hand, that readers contemporary with Plato should receive some privilege based on their priority as readers).

    At any rate, you can’t privilege first readers’ interpretations of a book unless you believe the book is a product of their environment. Thus, the argument that the Book of Mormon is of 19th century origin based on the interpretations of its first readers is circular.

  98. David,

    Then you’ve ended up agreeing with me. What I claimed was that we can’t give Joseph Smith’s beliefs about whether the book was history any special weight. You evidently concur.

  99. By the way, I think this is a terrible format for this conversation. Because arguments emerge in bits and pieces, it’s hard for us to adequately engage each other. For example, I have to keep repeating the fact that I’m not arguing against BofM historicity at all. I’m arguing against the idea that historicity is necessary for us to believe in the book (or the gospel).

  100. RT,
    I realize that you’re not arguing against BoM historicity. What I have been saying is that the Book itself argues for its own historicity and, if the vehicle for the inspiration of faith in God is a Book that says that it is a history, one would think that it ought to have some historicity.

  101. RT,

    I actually saw that you were only arguing against the necessity of historicity but it’s always good to be reminded. That said, I have not seen any arguments that are remotely convincing against the need for historicity yet. Your comparison to parables falls flat because parables have disclosures. It looks like you read farther into DKL’s comment that was warranted as well. Simply because Joseph, as a first reader, may have made mistakes on post-BoM history does not imply that the record itself should suddenly be brought into question regarding its’ status as history. To put it more bluntly: I still contend that if this record is fiction then God is a liar. God guided the process of the translation and the record is unequivocal in its’ self-portrayal as real history. God then confirms the record is accurate to millions of us who ask him. How so we get around that?

    Earlier you said: To put this another way, if someone could absolutely prove to you that Nephi didn’t exist, would that be enough to make you lose your faith? For me, the answer is no. What is the answer for you?

    I ignored this because it is a loaded question and not fair at all. Lose my faith in what? How about if I asked you some similarly loaded questions: 1. if someone could absolutely prove to you that Jesus didn’t exist, would that be enough to make you lose your faith? 2. if someone could absolutely prove to you that Joseph Smith didn’t exist, would that be enough to make you lose your faith? if someone could absolutely prove to you that God didn’t exist, would that be enough to make you lose your faith?

    I think we should avoid all such ridiculous hypothetical questions because none has happened.

  102. ” we should avoid all such ridiculous hypothetical questions because none has happened.”

    Speak for yourself, Geoff!!

  103. Hah! Well alrightee then Steve.

    On a separate note — I am obviously not the only one that found my eyes crossing while reading the Dennis Potter portion of this post. It is truly amusing to see all these smart commenters in the thread vainly attempting to decipher that segment of the discussion. No one seems to be able to figure out what on earth he is really saying.

  104. Geoff J: No one seems to be able to figure out what on earth he is really saying.

    You must have missed my comment #31.

  105. Actually, I saw and appreciated your #31, DKL. And your interpretation of what Dennis said (and response to it) sounded pretty good to me. But others thought he was saying something else (see Nate in #33 and Clark in #34). So despite your excellent comment we still continued having a DP hermeneutics problem…

  106. The comments with respect to Joseph Smith were a direct rebuttal to the argument that Smith’s belief that the book was a literal history compels us to either accept the book as literal history or reject Smith as a prophet. Geoff is trying to stretch the argument past its purpose; I’m not surprised that it fails to achieve something it wasn’t intended to do.

    By the way, when was the last time you read a work of fiction that actually goes out of its way, in the body of the narrative, to point out that it is fiction? Such post-modern narratives certainly do exist, but they aren’t exactly the norm. I’m not sure we should have expected a BofM-as-parable to do this.

    Geoff, the “loaded questions” you’re worried about are precisely what a discussion of the need for historicity is about. This is exactly and only a debate about specifying the hypothetical findings that would cause us to lose our faith. So, I can answer: if it were proven to me that Jesus didn’t exist or that God didn’t exist, I would of course lose all faith. If Joseph Smith didn’t exist, I wouldn’t lose my faith at all.

    If these questions are ridiculous to you, I’m sincerely happy for you that you are so confident in your worldview. Furthermore, discussions of historicity, like this one, are irrelevant to you.

  107. Melinda says:

    I think the issue is that Joseph Smith did exist, and he either lied to further his own purposes, or there actually were golden plates that were written on by the hand of Mormon.

  108. The comments with respect to Joseph Smith were a direct rebuttal to the argument that Smith’s belief that the book was a literal history compels us to either accept the book as literal history or reject Smith as a prophet.

    It seems to me that a fictional Book of Mormon leaves us with either 1). A false prophet in Joseph, or 2). A lying God. The arguments I used were against either of those possibilities. Is there a viable third possibility I am missing?

    If these questions are ridiculous to you, I’m sincerely happy for you that you are so confident in your worldview.

    Awwww — That’s very sweet of you, RT.

    There are innumerable hypothetical worlds we could talk about. I just think we are not well served by picking one and talking about it in this discussion – especially when we have an actual world to deal with still. If nothing else it seemed unfair.

    So, I can answer: if it were proven to me that Jesus didn’t exist or that God didn’t exist, I would of course lose all faith. If Joseph Smith didn’t exist, I wouldn’t lose my faith at all.

    If that is truly the case then I must concur with the wise man that once said: “you might be a good Lutheran, but I’m not sure that makes you a good Mormon.” (See #11)

  109. “Is there a viable third possibility I am missing?”

    Yes. There are many gradations of possibilities, as well, that I think you are missing. Among them is the possibility that Joseph Smith received divine inspiration, interpreted it the best he could, and the BoM is the product. In other words, no one’s lying, it’s just a guy with a prophetic gift and calling trying to interpret all these images and messages as best he can. God doesn’t lie to him; Joseph doesn’t lie to us, but still we shouldn’t presume that the BoM is 100% what it seems to be.

    That is just a possibility; not one I espouse, nor one I think is correct.

  110. Steve,

    The problem with your suggested solution is that it merely makes Joseph a semi-false prophet and God a partially dishonest God.

    Joseph ends up being a deluded man who sincerely thinks God is telling him very clear messages (including proper spellings of ancient names, etc.) when in fact he is completely misreading the fact that God is only passing on a useful and very long and detailed parable. The result is a book that unequivocally portrays itself as a history of an actual ancient people that tells its’ readers to ask God “if these things are not true”. When those millions of people ask God if this record is indeed true he unequivocally tells many of them “yes!” Thus we have a deceptive God or, as enemies of the church prefer to assume, a lot of deceived Mormons.

    Now this explanation might work for a Lutheran, but it doesn’t work for a believing Mormon. That leaves me still wondering if there actually is a viable third possibility…

  111. God is silent all the time about how His word is to be interpreted. Does that make him partially dishonest?

  112. I dunno, Steve.

    Our scriptures say that God is not silent on anything that we properly ask for. Just one example of many:

    “And to them will I reveal all mysteries, yea, all the hidden mysteries of my kingdom from days of old, and for ages to come…” (D&C 76:7)

    Now I realize that saying, with Nephi, “have you inquired of the Lord” about the historicity of the BoM sort of ruins the fun of these discussions, but that is a pretty good response and it is where your last question naturally leads us.

    Of course that very fact may be the best argument that some aspects of historicity may not matter. For instance, I would concede that it doesn’t matter if the historicity of the BoM is ever scientifically proven or not (maybe this is part of Dennis’ point?). However, I believe that the realities that these people did exist and that the history actually happened are very important mostly because it seems to me that God has said as much to many, many Saints.

    And getting back to the original question of the post, I would posit that the historicity of the BoM and the story of Abraham we received through Joseph mostly matter to us because God has revealed to many saints through personal revelation that they really happened.

  113. I would like to try to make more explicit a couple of points which I think are sometimes being buried in this discussion.

    1. The argument that historicity does not matter, as advanced by RT, seems to beg an important question by assuming that Joseph Smith was indeed called by God and that the Book of Mormon was the product of divine revelation. If that premise is simply assumed, then historicity does not matter, except perhaps to the extent that history can be used as an interpretive tool. However, if that premise is not assumed, then historicity is critical, because the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the appearance of divine messengers in modern times is powerful evidence either for or against his claims.

    2. The argument that historicity does not matter assumes that one’s spiritual witness of the claims of Joseph Smith is not necessarily reliable, and that a testimony must be consistent with and should be tested against historical fact, as discerned by rational rather than spiritual means. If a spiritual witness is assumed to be the only way to know these things, then historicity is irrelevant.

    I don’t think the proponents of the different views about the relevance of historicity talk past each other unless they explicitly deal with these issues.

  114. Oops. My point 2 above should have begun with the sentence “The argument that historicity does matter . . .” The “not” should be deleted. My apologies.

  115. “God is not silent on anything that we properly ask for.”

    Then why are we having a discussion at all? Seems to me, speaking snarkily, that God would have told given one of us a definitive historicity answer at some point… :)

  116. Steve,
    Well, it’s just because no-one has asked me ;)

  117. Here’s my response to David Landrith’s very interesting criticisms of my position.

    1st Objection: My view implies relativism regarding the truth of the Book of Mormon (or other historical religious texts).

    Response: I agree that it implies relativism regarding the sense or meaning of the past-tense language. Claims that are to be adjudicated with scientific standards mean something different from those that are to be adjudicated with religious standards. This means that the truth of these different kinds of statements will be adjudicated in different ways. The religious linguistic practices that determine the meaning of past-tense language in religious discourse are locations of competition over meaning. There are usually dominant and dissenting ways of formulating the practice. All of them are equally valid with respect to the way in which they determine meaning. But some practices may be more acceptable than others, morally speaking. Once a practice begins to become fairly fixed in its usage (however) then standards of application within that practice have a certain internal objectivity. So, for example, if I adopt the practice of arithmetic, it will follow that 2+2=4. No other answer will do. Practices may also fail for another reason: they fail to enforce standards of application in a way that the community can adjudicate. Completely private languages are in this boat.

    2nd Objection: My view implies a radical holism that is implausible.

    In my view, something like holism has to be true unless we can get ourselves to accept the project of formal semantics. The latter (which I have recently rejected, but formerly defended with vigor) employs what are essential abstract metaphysical objects as meanings that can ground an atomistic (meanings of expressions are largely independent of each other) and logocentric (there is one standard of logical comparison between all assertive expressions in any language–this is not Derrida’s logocentrism, but it should have been). However, I reject formal semantics because I reject that anyone can learn anything about abstract metaphysical objects while they are learning language. Perhaps they can learn something about such object after having language (Cf. Hobbes), but not before. Language requires learnable conditions. These are observable. Once we go this route I don’t see how we can avoid the kind of holism that Quine accepts. The problem with Quine’s view, however, is that it retains the logocentrism of the formal semantics project. He recognizes this and makes arguments for it. But I find the arguments implausible. Instead, I argue that language could be heterogeneous with respect to the standards of comparison between assertive expressions. So, really I don’t accept holism as it manifests itself in traditional analytic philosophy. I do accept it in a broader sense. And this heterogeneous holism does require that one be inculcated into a certain practice to understand the meaning of expressions in that practice.

    The third objection is really a question. It seems to me that we need to locate the practice in which the statement occurs. Then we need to delineate the criteria of that practice that help to determine meaning.

  118. I found a typo in my second response to DLK’s criticisms. It should read as follows:

    “…The latter (which I have recently rejected, but formerly defended with vigor) employs what are essentially abstract metaphysical objects as meanings that can ground an atomistic (meanings of expressions are largely independent of each other) and logocentric (there is one standard of logical comparison between all assertive expressions in any language–this is not Derrida’s logocentrism, but it should have been) distribution of meanings throughout any language. …”

    BTW, I apologize for the obscurity of positions and arguments that I have employed in this discussion. There are three reasons for this obscurity. First, I am just not as articulate as I should be. Second, much of what I believe about the relevance of historicity to the truth of the Book of Mormon is informed by my views on the philosophy of language. I fear that in some cases I have assumed too much background knowledge about those debates (Wittgenstein, Dummett, Quine, etc.)

    Third, and most importantly, the view that I am trying to construct concerning what we should think about historicity is new to me. In the past I would have argued for a staunchly Realist and Logocentrist (in my sense) approach in which science is directly relevant to religious claims. Realism is the view that there are propositions that transcend any particular language where these serve as the common set of meanings for any language to draw from and that the truth of propositions is independent of how language is constructed. I reject this view now. (Although for various reasons I cannot emply the term “anti-realist” either.) Logocentrism is the view that there is ultimately one set of standards of rationality that apply to any domain of assertive discourse. I also reject this view. These two views were the philosophical orthodoxy of my training. It is hard for me to learn to talk outside these views. It is especially hard to do so without embracing the kind of anti-realism in Dummett’s work and the kind of relativism in Rorty’s work, both of which I reject.

    I thought that the round-table would be a good place to first try out this perspective that is new to me (although I suspect it is not new to many post-modern philosophers). As a consequence, my language and explanation strategies are not as clear as they will be once they has been refined in the face of criticism and discussion.

  119. Dennis, you’re doing just fine! I like the fact that I stretch a bit during our conversations.

  120. Dennis, I honestly appreciate your contributions. I am just worried that my attempts to interact with your comments sometimes are made ineffectual by a misunderstanding on my part (as opposed to the normal stupidity). The fault is not your erudition but my ignorance and, as I like learning, this is a fault I am trying to turn to my benefit. Thank you again for offering us your thoughts.

  121. Nate Oman says:

    I miss logocentric, utlitarian Dennis.

  122. Dennis be careful or you’ll be spouting Derrida and Heidegger. I differ with your view of realism, but then I consider Heidegger and Derrida to be realists. So take that for what it is worth.

    Regarding your two points.

    1. Relativism of the past. I don’t see how one can adopt a thoroughgoing relativism. We can speak how how some aspects of the past clearly transcend scientific discourse.

    For instance if we talk of Joseph Smith and Emma Smith as being in love in their youth, clearly that is tied to the meaning of love which science simply can’t speak to. Now one might argue (as it now appear you are) that love is an “entity” which is relative. Thus one must endorse a relativity in that the meaning of Joseph’s and Emma’s love arises out of the reader of history. However the alternative (and the one I guess I erroneously thought you were espousing) is that love is something more than what we think about it. Further it is beyond normal attempts at verification.

    This doesn’t imply a relativism though. Far from it. It rather implies an openness of the text (as opposed to the basically closed movement of scientific discourse). Further it implies a humility due to our epistemic limits on knowing what love it. (We must recognize that no matter how we study, love is both more and less than what we think it is)

    Do you really mean to adopt such a thoroughgoing relativism? (And here I always though relativism was the boogeyman of philosophy)

    One other criticism regarding practices is that you seem to suggest that there is no “right answer” to practice. You mention morals (which would, it seem, move us beyond relativism) But it seems this at best bifurcates the sense of meaning in the past. We have the sense as understood by the actors involved. But surely in that setting we need only ask what their practice was. We then have the sense of practice that is the ultimately correct practice that we ought judge the past through.

    To clarify this criticism, we can analyze the history of a slave owner both in terms of the practices of his day, in which slavery was not considered wrong, beating slaves was appropriate, and so forth. That will give a certain layer of meaning. We can then analyze the slave owner in terms of what we feel is greater moral understanding in which both slavery and violence are wrong. Now there may be the appearance of relativity here, but it is only because of our epistemic limits in knowing the practices of the past and the ultimately moral duties we have in understanding practices. i.e. it is a limit on knowledge and not a relativism at all.

    2. I agree with strong holism as well as strong externalism. So I have less to disagree with here.

    I would say that Derrida’s sense of logocentrism is actually a superset of what you call logocentrism. In fact I don’t think they are quite as different as you seem to. How one views it depends upon how one sees the relationship between general semiotics and logic. But that’s certainly not a discussion for now.

    You might, btw, enjoy Carman’s Heidegger’s Analytic which I’ve been discussing with Mark Wrathall. I suspect he may offer a form of Heidegger more appealing to you.

  123. Regarding your response to my first criticism, I have two responses. First, I don’t think that your relativism works in practice. Second, I don’t think that it speaks to the term historicity.

    I think that in practice your relativism is less palatable than you make it sound in your description. I’ll leave aside for a moment the question of past tense language, since presumably the standards which adjudicate truth conditions relative to a given community apply likewise to present and future tense language. Let’s say that within a certain religious community, statements relating to the design and building of canals are obtained from gazing at the entrails of sacrificed animals. Within a scientifically oriented community, statements relating to the design and building of canals are obtained from engineering text books and classes that teach from them. Given a conflict between the statements of each community, the question arises as to which community’s statements are preferable (this is the kind of Question that Lauden might ask of Rorty).

    Suppose that we hold a tournament wherein each community must build 6 canals, allowing each community to dictate the standards for judging 3 completed canals. If the the canal building language employed by each community is legitimate simply by virtue of the fact that each community succeeds in enforcing it, then it follows that there is no standard to determine a winner of our tournament. As a consequence, we have no way to explain why everyone outside of the stipulated religious community would prefer to have the scientifically oriented community produce its canals. I consider this consequence to be an unavoidable conclusion of the relativism you’ve posited, and I consider it unacceptable. Do you consider it to avoidable or acceptable?

    Regarding past tense language, this is probably a good time to go into one of the additional things that I had to say about my 5 sentences (incorporating the same caveats regarding intentionality), and I’m now able to state it rather more clearly than I would have before. You’ll recall that my first sentence was as follows:

    1. David King Landrith stated, “I was in Philadelphia on such and such a date.”

    There are several conditions that make my statement in sentence #1 true, given identical meanings attached to each particular word that makes the statement. Following are a few of them:

    First, if I actually was in Philadelphia on the specified date, and there is a community that accepts this as a condition for its truth. (I consider this kind of truth condition to be in keeping with 20th century scientism)

    Second, if I was in Yonkers on the specified date, but the notion of my having been in Philadelphia on that date is edifying and similar to many other edifying stories about cities, and there is a community that accepts this edification as a condition for the statement’s truth. (This kind of spiritual truth is the kind described by Price in his essay in American Apocrypha.)

    Third, if I was in Yonkers on a specified date, but being in Yonkers is kind of like being in Philadelphia, and there is a community that accepts this similarity between Philadelphia and Yonkers as a sufficient condition for the statement’s truth. (This kind of truth by proximity is often used by apologists)

    I’ve already argued above that we have grounds to consider the scientific truth conditions to be generally superior. I take you to be arguing that other conditions are equally valid within a community that is willing and able to enforce them. But at this point, I think it’s important to point out than when one refers to historicity, one usually refers to the scientific truth conditions. Thus, the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is whether there is a predominance of important statements which satisfy the first type of condition, as opposed to the second or third conditions or some other type of condition. Thus, I take your response that we need a new understanding of the term historicity to be saying that historicity (as traditionally understood) is not important.

    I realize that one objection to my approach is that my method of analysis favors modern empirical scientism right out of the shoot, and I’m not sure how to answer this criticism. At any rate, I’ve thrown this together on the subway and waiting for “Batman Begins” to begin (back: good flick; though it borrows some elements from Year One [same ending with the joker card], it’s not as Frank Miller as it should be; that said, it weaves the post-Moore superhero tail far better than any previous Batman effort, but not as well as Spiderman 2), and I’m out of time. So I’ll respond to your second point about holism later. (You’ve really abandoned formal semantics? Please say that you don’t now view positivistic empirical scientism as the security blanket for the culture of overreaching imperialistic globalization!)

  124. Incidentally, my preceding post was addressed to Dennis.

  125. Mark Butler says:

    Technically, we are not supposed to have faith in Jesus Christ so much as faith in his name:

    “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”
    (John 20:31)

    “Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:

    That the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
    (2 Thes 1:11-12)

    “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.

    If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.”
    (1 Peter 4:13-14)

    “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.

    And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.

    And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.”
    (1 John 3:22-34)


  126. Steve Evans says:

    geez Mark, a little late to the game…

  127. Mark Butler says:

    Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to the blogosphere in 2005.

  128. I just re-read this thread after linking to it from another comment. After seeing Geoff J’s confusion over the multiple interpretations of Dennis’s statement, is it too-much, too-late for me to gloat that I actually was the one (contra Nate, Clark, and others) who got what Dennis Potter was saying?

    (I just note that, because it kind of makes me wish that I’d gone further in studying philosophy.)


  1. […] THIS DIVIDED STATE contains numerous memorable scenes and unforgettable exchanges. Ken Brown, a Utah film projectionist who looks remarkably like Michael Moore, has some great moments posing as the notorious filmmaker. Sam Vreeland comes off a bit silly when he’s called on his apparently misleading claims about the funding of Moore’s visit, and he refuses (or is unable) to discuss the issue intelligently. But the most awkward moment of the film was probably when Dennis Potter, of LDS-PHIL fame (and who has participated here), poses a question to Sean Hannity concerning the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and the relative merits of “realism” vs. “neo-conservativism.” The heckling that Potter receives from the mob of assembled students is embarrassing (and not because of Potter). Even worse was Hannity’s complete non-sequitur response: “9-11 changed everything!” (Actually, Hannity’s response to the question was such a blatant non-sequitur that I wondered if this wasn’t a bit of creative, unfair editing on the part of the filmmaker). […]

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