Mormonism Blog
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September 7, 2019, 8:36 PM

The Non-Mormon Theology of the Book of Mormon



Today’s Latter-day Saints (with the exception of the Reorganized Church) reject the Nicene Christian doctrine of the Trinity. But the Book of Mormon actually affirms our doctrine of the Trinity more explicitly than the New Testament itself does! In fact, I can use numerous verses from the Book of Mormon itself to defend the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity and to refute the later teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young about God.

Some of these verses express the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity exactly. For instance, in Mormon 7:7, we are told that those who are found guiltless on the Day of Judgment shall sing with the choirs above “unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God.” 2 Nephi 31:21 says, “And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end.” Also, Alma 11:44 states that in the future resurrection, everyone shall be brought to court before the bar of “Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which is one Eternal God.” (See also 3 Nephi 11:27, 36.)

Other Book of Mormon passages give us clumsier, confused attempts to affirm the Christian Trinity by equating Jesus with God the Father (!) rather than saying that the two are one in substance but distinct in personality. In the third century AD, this approach (which was called Patripassionism, the belief that “the Father suffered”) was rejected as well-intentioned but faulty. The closest the Bible comes to this idea is where Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8), but the Biblical Jesus never says “I am the Father.”

In Ether 3:14, the LDS Jesus says, “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son.” In Mosiah 16:15, we read, “Teach them that redemption comes through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father.” In Alma 11:38-39, we read, “Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father? And Amulek said into him, Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and earth.”

Mosiah 15:2-5 exhibits similar conflation of the persons of the triune God: “And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son – The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son – And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God…”

There are numerous additional passages where the Book of Mormon declares Jesus to be the Father, or declares him to be God far more often and explicitly than what we find in the early cautious statements in the New Testament. The Book of Mormon reads like a book for which the great historic Christological debates have been settled in the distant past. It reads this way, even through the mouths of characters speaking purportedly hundreds of years BCE.

The God of the Book of Mormon, like the Nicene Christian God, is said in Mosiah 3:5 to be the one “who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity.” But Joseph Smith flatly contradicts Mosiah in a sermon on April 6, 1844 when he says, “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea.” (Journal of Discourses 6:3) In a classic sermon that is worth reading in its entirety (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Journal_of_Discourses/Volume_6/Character_and_Being_of_God,_etc.), Joseph goes on to spell out his doctrine of eternal progression: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens. That is the great secret…and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you…” This belief is nowhere to be found in the Book of Mormon, or in the Bible. It contradicts both.

The Book of Mormon reads like a product of the theology of the 1820’s. It is an impressive product indeed, reflecting both the rough education and the sharp mind of its author, able to retain and synthesize the preaching and religious literature of his day into a sizeable volume of work. I will give Joseph Smith credit for a masterful creation, but I would argue that the only parts of it that are revelation from God are the parts that are restatements of Biblical truth.

So why do we find the Book of Mormon to be more Nicene Christian than Mormon in its theology? I believe the book is designed to be a bridge document, whose purpose is to lead people to Joseph Smith as the source of new revelation, while attempting to temporarily affirm what is essential in Nicene Christianity. It is like the Quran, designed to lead readers to a new prophet while affirming as much Judaism and Christianity as possible.

I do not believe the story told by the Book of Mormon. But for those who do believe the book, I would urge them to believe in the triune God taught in this book, rather than in the later teachings of Joseph Smith and his successors. And if the choice is difficult, I would ask them to consider whether their leaders have strayed from the truth, and whom they should follow when forced to make such a choice.




September 7, 2019, 8:12 PM

Whose Word Can We Trust?



When any book that claims to be from God makes statements that cannot be verified, we can either take its claims on faith, or we can base our trust on the book’s track record of verified claims on other subjects.

My attempt to transfer my ordination credentials to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was rejected because I insisted that we need more grounds on which to believe the Bible than simply because it claims to be the word of God. I refuse to believe that a book comes from God simply because it says so. Any book can make that claim. (As Jesus asks, “Which is easier: to say, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise and walk?”)

The folks in the EPC thought I was demanding proof from God, rather than accepting the Bible’s word on faith. What I was saying was that we fallible humans need a little help from God to show us why we should believe the claims of the Bible, and not the claims of the Quran or the Book of Mormon as well. And what we need is more than simply the testimony of the Spirit, to which both the Westminster Confession and Moroni 10:4 ultimately appeal. The testimony of the Spirit can easily be misidentified.

And yet, I get it: as Cornelius Van Til argues, people can read evidence any way they want to. What some view as errors or falsehoods, may be seen differently by others. Only God can open our eyes to see the evidence for what it is. I’m just glad God has been merciful enough to give us a lot more than unreliable feelings to lead us.

The Bible and the Book of Mormon are the two books that make more historically verifiable claims than the scriptures of any other religion. The Quran is mostly Muhammad’s word on what Allah has spoken, although there are a few revisions of events narrated on the Bible, and items such as the Gnostic account of Jesus as a child making clay pigeons come to life. Here again, it’s the Quran’s word versus the Bible’s. But the Bible and the Book of Mormon make far more claims that can be tested.

I insist on being no tougher on the Book of Mormon than I am on the Bible. I’ll give the Book of Mormon the same benefit of the doubt that I give to the Bible. If the LDS wish to view difficulties in their scriptures the same way that we who believe in Biblical inerrancy see our difficulties, I will grant them that prerogative, even though I do not believe their book to be from God. I will even affirm the Book of Mormon to be more reliable in its teachings on the Trinity and polygamy than later LDS teachings.

I would not want to have to defend the Book of Mormon’s claim that on Good Friday, mountains and cities collapsed on the American continent (3 Nephi 8:12-19, 9:3-8). Granted, the Bible itself makes the more modest claim of a local earthquake on Good Friday (Matthew 27:51), which itself must be taken on faith, aside from a Talmud tradition of the Temple doors opening automatically 40 years before Jerusalem was destroyed (p Yoma 6:3, b Yoma 4:1). These are the sorts of historical references that can strengthen our confidence in a book that makes statements about God and morality which cannot otherwise be proved.

LDS scholars have tried to verify the Book of Mormon through Mesoamerican archaeology, with mixed results. The chief problem is our inability to correlate Book of Mormon personal and place names with what we know about ancient America, although the language situation and the scarcity of writing magnify the difficulty (see https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Book_of_Mormon/Archaeology/Compared_to_the_Bible).

Yes, for both Bible and Book of Mormon, absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. But the Bible’s text is so much easier to demonstrate as reliable. In cases such as Sennacherib’s showdown with Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-37 = 2 Kings 18:13-19:37) and Israel’s war with King Mesha of Moab (2 Kings 3), we have the opposing king’s version of the story, which correlates with the Bible’s version in amazing detail. In the case of the Gospels, we have the criteria of authenticity, where the testimony of the four Gospel authors can be rigorously cross-examined to show that it is reliable. (See next week’s post, “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph.”)

In either case, we all, both LDS and Nicene Christians, should reject the approach that treats our respective scriptures as mere inspirational fiction. To see the resurrection of Jesus as a well-intentioned myth is an assault on both of our faiths. And what good is an inspiring story about Esther, or Alma, that never really happened? For more of my thoughts on this, I invite you to search online for my 3-part series “Historicity: Does It Matter?” in the Presbyterian Outlook.

I have much less problem believing that Jesus could have come to America after his resurrection, than I do believing that our Native Americans are descended from Jews who crossed the Pacific in a boat in 600 BCE. And when we turn our attention to the Book of Abraham found in the LDS scripture Pearl of Great Price, I see overwhelming problems, although our LDS friends would choose to approach them differently. (We’ll save that for another post.)

Ultimately, if an authoritative text has proven itself reliable to us at points where we can verify its truth, we will trust it at points where its truth is challenged, whether it be the existence of Solomon’s empire, or the existence of Zarahemla. And when our two authoritative texts may fundamentally disagree, we must decide which one we trust more.




September 7, 2019, 8:00 PM

Did We Take Out Plain and Precious Teachings?



“Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.” (1 Nephi 13:28)

Is the Book of Mormon’s charge true? Who chose the books of the Bible? And what got left out, and why? Contrary to the claims of The Da Vinci Code, there was no top-down decree or official vote on the books of either the Old Testament or New Testament. The identification of which books were God’s word was a grassroots effort, a process that took place over time.

There are two ways we can tell which books people believed to be authoritative. One way is by popular usage: which books keep getting used or quoted as the word of God. The other way is when people make official lists, which at least give us the opinions of the people who made the lists.

For the Old Testament, Protestant Christians have simply accepted the unanimous Jewish opinion on which books were Scripture. The Catholics and Orthodox also accept the books that were included in Greek copies of the Old Testament, which the Jews never treated as sacred. There is much more that could be said, but there was nothing sneaky about the process.

The consensus around 180 AD about the New Testament canon (as we see in a text called the Muratorian Canon) was very close to what appears on canon lists in the late 300’s (the lists in the late 300’s are where we get the list we have today). If anything, the early church before 300 AD leaned toward leaving out books that we have included. A lot of early writers never quote James or 2 Peter. The list from 180 AD leaves out Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, and 3 John, plus it includes Wisdom (from the Old Testament Apocrypha!) and the Apocalypse of Peter (although the writer says some will not allow it to be read in church).

So, how did the early church decide what books could be trusted? For instance, how did they narrow it down to four Gospels and no others? We owe a tremendous debt to Christians who lived around 70-100 AD. They were the ones who could still remember what Jesus said and did, so they were in the position to know which books told the truth about Jesus. Luke was probably a major player in collecting these books.

The early church used four criteria to determine what belonged in their Bible: 1.Apostolicity (did it come from an apostle or someone close to the apostles who preached the same message?). 2. Antiquity (is it old enough to really go back to the apostles?). 3. Orthodoxy (does it fit with what we already know is true about Jesus?). 4. Usage (is everybody quoting it?).

Notice that the four Gospels are anonymous (there are no names in the text themselves – these books didn’t need titles to prove that they were apostolic), while the fake books relied on name recognition, which still failed to win acceptance for Peter and Thomas. An apostolic name on the label was no substitute for content; if the content is junk, so is the name on the label.

Pseudonymity (writing under false names) was a unique issue for Christians, because it impacted apostolicity. If a book claims to have been written by Peter or Paul, but it wasn’t, it’s not apostolic. The early church was not gullible. They were slow to accept 2 Peter as genuine, and many did not accept the Epistle to the Hebrews on the grounds that they did not believe it was written by Paul. But Hebrews never claims to be by Paul. I believe that it was written by Apollos of Alexandria, a guy who hung out with Paul and preached the same message.

So if we had locked in the New Testament canon around 200 AD, not all the books we have today would have made the cut. But early believers were unanimous in rejecting almost all of the books that never made it into our Bibles. This was not a top-down decree from some ruler or council. It was a grassroots effort, a process over time in which the whole group participated.

So who got cut out of the New Testament by the earliest believers, and why? There are 2 categories of books that did not make the cut. The first category is the books that were considered to be false teaching or heretical, which includes the so-called Gnostic writings. These include the Gospel of Peter (where Jesus stomps out of his tomb with his head in the clouds), the Gospel of Thomas, the “Infancy Gospels,” the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, and the second Apocalypse of Peter.

By the way, the Gnostic writings were not suppressed, as Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown would have you believe. The content of these books has been an open secret for over 1,800 years. Early Christians would yell, “Bad book! And here’s what it says!” So when 46 Gnostic books were unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, we found that the early church was telling us the truth about these books that they allegedly suppressed.

So Bart Ehrman is wrong when he claims that the Gnostics were victims. He thinks the early church probably had what we would call heretical beliefs, and that we “won,” not because we were right, but because we had the muscle to stomp out our competitors. No, the Gnostics were not oppressed underdogs; they were elitists. Both the Gnostics and the orthodox would have rejected the idea that both of them could be right. And nobody was in the position to force one conclusion or the other down anyone’s throats. Grassroots believers decided that the Gnostic books were bogus as a source of truth about Jesus.

So what was wrong with these books, then? The Gnostics believed that the material world was evil. They believed there were 2 gods: the evil creator God of the Old Testament, and the New Testament god of sweetness and light. Marcion (140 AD) was one of the first famous teachers of this heresy, although Gnosticism was already well under way in the 90’s, if not earlier. Marcion and the Gnostics threw out the whole Old Testament, and Marcion did a chop job on the New Testament as well, leaving only a mutilated copy of Luke, and 10 letters of Paul with everything Jewish cut out of them.

The Gnostics believed that Jesus was just a ghost. He appeared to be human, but he was not part of the material world. The Gnostics believed they had secret teachings of Jesus to help them rise above the material world. In earlier books, like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, the weird teachings are comparatively mild, but as time went on (past 200 AD), Gnostic teaching got more complicated. The Jesus of the Infancy Gospels is a holy terror who pronounces fatal curses on any playmate who crosses him up. In the so-called Acts of John, Jesus never left footprints. In the 2nd Apocalypse of Peter, the speaker sees someone nailed to cross, and someone above the cross, glad and laughing; the one who is glad and laughing above the cross is the living Jesus, and the one on the cross is just a substitute. The point is that Christians could tell this was a very different Jesus than the one found in the books they could trust. No less an LDS authority than apostle James Talmage agrees that they were false.

The other books that didn’t make the cut were good books that came along too late to make the publication deadline. These books show us what the early church really believed. There is nothing off-base or bizarre in them, but there is also nothing essential in them that is not already found in the Bible, and the authors are not apostles who lived in Jesus’ day. So the guy who wrote the list in 180 AD says that the Shepherd of Hermas is a good book, but it’s too recent to be an authority for their faith. Other such books include 1-2 Clement, the letters of Ignatius, Barnabas, and the Didache, all written from 95-130 AD.

Were there LDS books that were suppressed? There is no trace of these, and from what we have seen, such books would have been extremely hard to extinguish if they had existed. The Book of Mormon claim that plain and precious elements were removed from God’s word is unsubstantiated, both on the level of which books were included, and on the level of the text and translation of the books that the Nicene and LDS churches both accept. We’ll take a look at that subject in my next post.




September 7, 2019, 8:00 PM

As Far As It Is Translated Correctly



Article 8 of the LDS Articles of Faith states, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” So the LDS church accepts the Bible, with an open-ended exception. But Article 8 immediately goes on to accept the Book of Mormon, without exception.

So what exactly is the LDS church’s problem with our translation of the Bible? In my last post, we examined the question of whether books were left out of the Bible that were meant to be included. But is the Bible reliable? At points where the LDS church and Nicene Christianity disagree on Biblical teachings, the Latter-day Saints can claim that “plain and precious” Biblical teachings were either left out or changed.

So the issues are: 1. the reliability of the Biblical text, and 2. how to translate the text we have. Neither of these issues is thorny enough to substantiate the LDS claims that our debates about doctrine are due to either textual alteration or mistranslation. Let’s look at the evidence.

In practice, the Latter-day Saints have resolved the issue for themselves in two contrasting ways: 1. Joseph Smith made his own translation of the Bible, which has been published by the Reorganized LDS church. Joseph used the King James translation for his version, but made a few alterations. (See http://www.mormonthink.com/jst.htm.) 2. The main branch of the LDS church, however, rather than using Joseph’s translation, simply defers to the King James Bible, and appeals to their additional scriptures on issues where the Bible disagrees with them, where they can cite their 8th Article of Faith.

So how reliable is our text of the Bible? Centuries of uncontrolled copying before the Old and New Testament texts were semi-“standardized” may be seen as both a curse and a blessing. The curse is obvious: hundreds of pesky variations. But the vast majority of these are comparatively minor, and do not endanger the basic content of the text.

In fact, no textual issue in the Bible puts any important teaching of the Bible at risk. For example, there are cases where copyists tried to alter our belief that Jesus is God, but those attempted alterations failed to remove that plain and precious teaching. There are too many reliable copies and early quotations out there to hide the evidence as to what the Biblical text actually says.

That's where the not-so-obvious blessing of having so many independent early copies of the Biblical texts kicks in. Nobody was ever in a position of being able to change all of them, without the original reading being preserved somewhere. An early heretic named Marcion tried to pull off this stunt around 140 AD. He tried to cut everything Jewish out of his New Testament. But he did not succeed in his attempt. We have all the evidence we need that his Bible version was not the original.

Marcion’s failure to sell his chop-job on the Bible is why I would argue it is highly unlikely that anyone took out or changed any Bible verses that taught any LDS doctrines that are not found in our present Biblical text. The evidence for such a claim is nowhere to be found.

Neither can we find any evidence that the Bible has been mistranslated at points that are in dispute between Nicene Christians and the LDS church. But translation can make a difference.

For example, in Hebrews 7:24, the King James Bible says that the Melchizedek priesthood that Jesus has received is an “unchangeable” priesthood. The Greek term used here, a-parabaton, means literally “un-transferable.” The LDS church has a Melchizedek priesthood that has been passed to millions of priests. But the Bible actually says that Jesus’ priesthood is un-transferable. He is the one and only Melchizedek priest!

So neither text nor translation should be any excuse for faithful Latter-day Saints not to believe the Bible without exception. The same cannot be said when we apply the same questions to the Book of Mormon. Critics have counted 3900 changes between the 1830 version and the version we have today. Again, as in the case of the Bible, the vast majority of these are comparatively minor, such as grammar and spelling. But on what basis are these changes being made: textual, translation, or merely stylistic? We Biblical scholars are content to believe that God has the right to break such human-made rules in cases that do not jeopardize the reader’s understanding.

If one believes in the golden plates, then we no longer have access to the original language against which to compare or correct the Book of Mormon’s translation. However, if one believes the book to be entirely Joseph’s composition, then we have no translation issues in the Book of Mormon, only textual ones. But one change stands out and is worth pondering.

The 1830 version of 2 Nephi 30:6 predicts that the Lamanites (today’s Native Americans) would someday become a “white and delightsome people.” The handwritten original of this passage confirms these words. But in the church’s 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon, this reading was changed to a “pure and delightsome people.” Joseph himself tried to make this change in 1840, but later editions chose to follow the original reading.

We have the tools necessary to figure out an accurate text and translation for the Bible, accurate enough to meet our needs to know what God wants us to know. For the text of the Hebrew Bible, we have copies of the standard Massoretic text from as early as the 900’s AD, a text whose accuracy we can confirm and/or correct by comparison with the Greek translation (200’s BCE), the Dead Sea Scrolls (100’s BCE – 1st century AD), plus ancient evidence from the Aramaic, Latin, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. For the New Testament, we have Greek portions from as early as 200 AD, complete New Testaments from the 300’s AD, plus hundreds of later Greek manuscripts, early translations into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, plus hundreds of quotes from early Christian writers.

How do we sort through all of this evidence? Scholars have figured out how to weigh which sources are more reliable than others; the earlier and more diverse the sources, the better. We can also look for logical reasons why one reading may be the original and why the change took place. Sometimes we can tell that a letter or word dropped out or was garbled or was confused with another letter or word. Sometimes the shortest reading is best. In cases such as the ending of Mark, the last line of the Lord’s Prayer, or the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, we must ask: If the longer version was original, why would someone shorten it? And if the shorter version is original, why would someone add to it? Using textual analysis tools like these, we are left with little or no doubt about what God wants us to know.

Likewise, translation is not as mysterious as some might believe. Most differences in translation that do not affect the meaning are matters of personal style. Puzzling Hebrew words can often be deciphered from similar words in related languages like Canaanite and Babylonian. A lot can be learned from how a word is used by ancient writers. Did Paul mean “dung” or “garbage” in Philippians 3:8? I demonstrate how to answer that question in one of my blog posts in Biblical Words and World (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/2017/07/count-it-all-dung/), a blog where I have posted nearly 40 word studies to show how we can trace the meaning of a Biblical word. (Search for some at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tomhobson/category/biblical-word-studies/.)

All of this leaves little doubt about what God has said. The real issue is not what God has said, but whether we believe it.




September 7, 2019, 8:00 PM

The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith



Precisely who Jesus is, is absolutely central to the faith of the universal Church that holds to the Nicene Creed. We’re not just talking about his divine credentials. We’re talking about exactly what he really said and did. If Jesus is not who the Gospels say he was, if they lied or made it up, we need not follow him. Examining and weighing the evidence we have is crucial. We must be sure that we know the facts about Jesus.

Joseph Smith occupies a similarly pivotal place in the faith of the Latter-day Saints. He is not quite so central; no one believes Joseph to be God, or believes him to have died the atoning death that takes away our sins. But following Joseph is central to whether a person joins the true Church of Jesus Christ. So it becomes just as important to know the facts about Joseph as it does for us to know the facts about Jesus.

(At this point, I want to stop and make sure that our LDS friends are on board with Jesus, regardless of where the facts may lead about Joseph. If we can agree that Jesus is the One we must follow above all others, we can continue the conversation. I am determined not to say or prove anything that would cause a Latter-day Saint to lose their faith in Jesus.)

Now at first, it hardly looks fair to compare the evidence we have on the life of Jesus versus the life of Joseph. With Joseph, we have an embarrassment of riches. We have the LDS scriptures that come from his hand. We have his diaries, much of the content of which was incorporated into his six-volume History of the Church. In addition, we have truckloads full of personal and newspaper accounts from his contemporaries, both friends and enemies, about events from his life.

Because the earthly Jesus lived in a much more remote era, we have far less data to work with. Aside from the canonical Gospels, all we have are a handful of disinterested references to Jesus and his followers from Greco-Roman sources (Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny), a few late references from rabid enemies of his (Celsus, the Talmud), and traditions from the early church, with not much reliable tradition that is not dependent upon the Gospels themselves. There are also the non-canonical gospels, but these flunk the criteria of authenticity that we must apply both to the Gospels and to Joseph.

How I wish that we had the kind of diary and newspaper evidence for Jesus that we have for the life of Joseph! But what we have about Jesus, I believe, is sufficient. We have enough on Jesus to know whether our facts are trustworthy. And what we have about Joseph can likewise be tested and weighed for veracity. We need not take the word of Joseph’s enemies, if his friends or if he himself bears similar testimony. For both Jesus and Joseph, our evidence is as strong as we can expect from their time periods relative to our own.

Jesus scholars have developed their famous “criteria of authenticity” to identify portions of indisputable bedrock in the reported words and events from the life of Jesus. These criteria include multiple independent sources, embarrassment (do friendly sources report unflattering information?), dissimilarity (does the information make Jesus look different from his Jewish heritage and/or from the early church?), and rejection (do these words or events help explain why Jesus was arrested and crucified?). One or two of these criteria can be enough; there are plenty of rock-solid historical events from Jesus’ life that are only recorded in one source, but the more criteria that are met, the stronger the likelihood that we are standing on historical bedrock.

See how the baptism of Jesus meets these criteria. We find the event in 3 sources; John’s Gospel never actually says that John baptized Jesus. The event also meets the criterion of embarrassment on 2 counts. First, wasn’t Jesus sinless? How can he accept a baptism of repentance? Second, doesn’t this baptism make Jesus look like he’s submitting to John’s authority? Craig Blomberg writes, “Because of the theological problems created by Jesus accepting John’s baptism that symbolized repentance of sin, it is inconceivable that the early church would have created this story.”

Or try Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. Here we have 4 very independent witnesses, reporting a violent act of Jesus that does not appear to fit the rest of what we know about him, one that makes Jesus look politically dangerous to both Jews and Romans. Who would invent this? It would have been an embarrassment to report if the facts did not compel the Gospel writers to do so. The event certainly explains why Jesus was arrested and crucified. Here again we have historical bedrock.

Let’s apply these criteria to the life of Joseph Smith. A good place to start would be his death at Carthage, IL. Modern apostle John Widtsoe describes his death as like “a lamb to the slaughter.” However, the testimony of his followers on the scene from the History of the Church states that Joseph had a revolver and managed to fire four shots at the mob, two of which hit their targets, before he himself died of gunshot. The testimony comes from faithful LDS, not from Joseph’s enemies. These sources are unlikely to have invented such details.

Admittedly more problematic is the evidence on Joseph’s taking of multiple wives. Granted, we have multiple sources, both friend and foe. The criterion of embarrassment (friendly sources reporting unflattering facts) also kicks in, as does the criterion of rejection. The debate comes when we try to determine how many and which of the reports we believe, and what we think of them. Was Joseph’s earliest encounter, with teenaged Fanny Alger, truly a marriage? Or was it (in the words of Book of Mormon scribe Oliver Cowdery) “a filthy, nasty affair”? What about the taking of other men’s wives, or of minors, or of Patty and Sylvia Sessions (mother and daughter)? Even pro-LDS authorities admit that Joseph hid many of these actions from Emma and from the husbands involved. How does all of this factor into our picture of Joseph?

When putting together a puzzle, the person who gets the puzzle right is the person who uses all the pieces. Likewise, the truest picture of Jesus or of Joseph is the one that correctly uses all the pieces available to us. In the cases of both Jesus and Joseph, it is extremely important that we get the picture right. Our eternal future hangs on whether we correctly assess who they are and where they lead us.


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