Mormonism – D. Michael Quinn responds to Jerald and Sandra Tanner of Utah Lighthouse Ministry – part 2

Mormonism – D. Michael Quinn responds to Jerald and Sandra Tanner of Utah Lighthouse Ministry – part 2

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At this point I would just as soon end this letter, and let you decide how my observations apply to what you have read of the publications by Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Nevertheless, you have asked me to write you specifically about several major topics treated by the Tanners, and instead I have taken all this time to write about the general approach of the Tanners. My general observations about Shadow-Reality can be applied in various combinations to each topic they analyze, but I will spend some time with the major issues you asked, about.

I have already referred briefly to what I regard as the Tanners’ selective application of criteria with reference to the First Vision, but your letter indicated that you wanted a more detailed comment from me on the historical reliability of the First Vision. The polemical attack against the historicity of the First Vision centers on the varying accounts by Joseph Smith of that experience, and on these derivative issues: the date of the experience, the evidence for a contemporary revival, the use of the term “angels” to describe the experience, the question of whether there were one or two representatives of Deity, and the question of why Joseph Smith took so long to record (and even longer to publish) an account of this experience. During their discussion of the “strange accounts,” the Tanners state (on page 155): “It is very difficult to believe in the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s First Vision when there is so much evidence against it, “yet the Tanners had already rejected the First Vision several years before the early publication of these varying accounts in 1965, for Jerald Tanner initially requested excommunication from the LDS Church in 1958 and in 1960 Sandra Tanner requested similar action for her own membership “since I no longer believed Joseph Smith to be a prophet. . . .” (Page 574). Although the Tanners have used the varying accounts of the First Vision to support their preconceived rejection of the experience, these historical documents not only allow but require a differing interpretation.

A crucial question that is the starting point for interpreting the First Vision is: What significance did this experience (as related in any and all descriptions of it by Joseph Smith) have for Mormonism as a movement and the claim of the LDS Church to be a prophet-led restoration of the ancient Church of Christ? James B. Allen, now Assistant Church Historian in the LDS Church, discussed this question in 1966, but did not state the issue as pointedly as I feel the evidence demands. The First Vision experience of Joseph Smith, Jr. had no significance for his later claims about the Book of Mormon, his prophetic calling, or the concept of a divinely restored priesthood and church. In fact, every description by Joseph Smith of this early vision indicates that he regarded it as a personal experience to be connected with Mormonism only because it had occurred to the translator of the Book of Mormon and the first president of the new church.

Nowhere in any version of the First Vision can one find that Joseph Smith was referred to as prophet or agent of restoration, or that he was to deliver any message to any one (unlike the first chapter of the writings of virtually every Old Testament prophet). Several of Joseph Smith’s accounts of this experience indicate that his primary object in prayer was to obtain forgiveness of sins and his lesser object was to know about his religious affiliation. Joseph Smith’s communion with Deity answered both concerns, and his accounts of the experience indicate that he was willing to accept it as the “Final Vision” rather than the first of many to come.

Now if we are to believe the interpretation of Fawn Brodie as distilled and refined by the Tanners (pages 152-53), Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision prove that he was retroactively trying to invent a set of impressive credentials for his claim to be prophet-restorer. The evidence of the documents and the context of Mormon history, however, make such an interpretation utter nonsense. If the “First Vision” were an invention to bolster his prophetic claims, Joseph Smith failed repeatedly to include any reference to his receiving a special commission during his epiphany to do a prophetic, evangelistic, or apostolic work among the children of men. The accounts of the First Vision consistently describe an experience that was intensely personal for Joseph Smith, rather than a revelation of significance for his followers. Joseph Smith claimed that his commission to do a prophetic work among men (the Book of Mormon) came from an angel that no one had ever heard of before. If Joseph Smith were engaging in “improvisation” or “evolutionary fantasy” to provide impressive credentials for his prophetic office, his efforts were singularly unimpressive. This is a curious conclusion to make about a young man that Brodie and the Tanners are convinced had enough sense to fictionalize a five hundred page history of ancient people as an intentional fraud.

Furthermore, the distinction between private experience and divine calling explains the contrasting publicity given to the Angel Moroni story and the story of the First Vision. The visitation of the angel was preached and published from 1829 onward, yet even though the “First Vision” experience was described in the 1832 manuscript, “A History of the Life of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” another decade passed before Joseph Smith publicly aligned his spiritual autobiography with the official history of Mormonism. It is this distinction that the Tanners gloss over in their analysis (pages 150-52) of what they call “First History” published by Oliver Cowdery in 1834, in which he failed to include the “First Vision” even though it had been recorded as early as 1832. The 1832 Manuscript version of the vision was in the handwriting of Joseph Smith (even though a scribe wrote the rest of it), and was undoubtedly known to Cowdery (who was Church Historian from 1830-31 and Church Recorder from 1835-37), yet the “First Vision” is not in Cowdery’s narrative. The reason for the omission is indicated in Cowdery’s preface to this 1834 narrative: “a full history of the rise of the church of Latter Day Saints “The appearance of the Angel Moroni and his instructions to Joseph Smith about the Book of Mormon constituted the earliest sine qua non of Mormonism. As Cowdery defined his 1834 history it was natural to begin at that point, rather than to deal with the private experience of the First Vision that had nothing to do with the rise of Mormonism, except that it (like the bone surgery incident Joseph Smith included in one of the manuscript histories of his early life) was one of a mass of autobiographical details that would be of interest to persons trying to understand the life of the man who brought forth the Book of Mormon and Mormonism itself. When Joseph Smith finally published an account of the First Vision, he appropriately titled it (in significant contrast to Cowdery’s 1834 narrative): “History of Joseph Smith.”

The question of the dating of the First Vision is an issue that lends credence to Joseph Smith’s claims, rather than undermining them. In the criticism of others, it has been pointed out that Joseph Smith was not consistent in the dates he assigned to this first experience: in the 1832 document it was in his “16th year,” in the 1835 recital he was “about 14 years old,” and the 1834 version was a mass of precision and ambiguity: “in the spring of Eighteen hundred and twenty . . . in my fifteenth year . . . between fourteen and fifteen years old or thereabouts . . . a little over fourteen years of age.” If Joseph Smith had been dictating a contrived “improvisation” to the dupes who were acting as his scribes, it would have been no problem for such a charlatan to select an arbitrary date for the First Vision and then stick to it. This would especially be no problem for a young man who (according to the Tanners) had been able to dictate the convoluted narrative of the fictionalized Book of Mormon. On the contrary, the variations in dating indicate that here was a man trying to reconstruct events from his early life that he originally regarded as of significance to himself alone, but now have become of interest to people who are his followers and curious inquisitors.

In my own youth I had a religious experience (one of those primary evidences I referred to earlier) that was very compelling to me. Unlike Joseph Smith, I recorded the experience on the day it occurred, but it was about ten years before I felt sufficiently confident of myself and the integrity of others to relate the incident to a few close associates. I found that as I tried to describe the event from memory I could not remember my age at the time of the experience: over a period of time I variously told others that it had occurred when I was 15, 16, and 17 years old, and it required a re-reading of my contemporary recording of the event to verify my age. Had either Joseph Smith or I been trying to invent a youthful epiphany to validate adult pretensions, consistency would have been easy.

The question of the date of the First Vision leads directly to the issue of the Palmyra revivals, which Reverend Wesley P. Walters (The Tanners’ mainstay in their analysis of the First Vision–see pages 155-62) insists could not have occurred in 1820. Moreover, to cover what he regards as all reasonable alternatives, Walters also affirms that Palmyra had no revivals in the period 1819-23. Walters’ negative evidence seems impressive, but actually is the product of a strenuously narrowed field of investigation.

First of all, Mormon historians have made the whole issue vulnerable to attack by putting too much emphasis on the spring of 1820 as the date of the First Vision. The obvious uncertainty of the adult Joseph Smith’s memory and the ambiguity of his descriptions of age provide a possible time-frame for the First Vision that extends from the spring of 1818 prior to his fourteenth birthday (“I was about 14 years old”) to the spring of 1822 (“In the 16th year of my age”). Not only is it possible that Joseph Smith’s choice of 1820 was a compromise between the extreme dates his memory provided, but within the four-year span indicated in his efforts to reconstruct his early history the term “spring” could designate any day from an early March thaw to mid-June.

Moreover, it is difficult to be certain what year Joseph Smith actually remembered the revivals as having occurred. Aside from the fact that the chronology of the 1838 account that dates the revivals is ambiguous, the 1838 account also suggests that it required a lengthy period of time between the revivalistic awakening and Joseph Smith’s prayer for forgiveness and enlightenment: “In the process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect,” and later in the narrative: “At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs,that is Ask of God. I at last came to the determination to ask of God. . . .” Whereas the 1838 version is vague about the length of Joseph Smith’s religious pondering, the 1832 version does not mention revivals or religious excitement beyond his own, but indicates that his religious interest (which the 1838 version says was incited by the revivals) lasted for several years before he received the vision: “At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul.

. . thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart.”

The combined data from the 1838 and the 1832 accounts therefore establish the possibility that the religious revivals that impressed Joseph Smith had occurred as early as 1817-1818. Despite their insistence on the year 1820, the Tanners themselves present information that supports the above possibility: On page 65 they quote the 1887 book of M.T. Lamb that the revival occurred “sixty or seventy years ago”(1817 to 1827), and on page 156 they quote Reverend Walter’s verification that a religious revival did occur in Palmyra in 1817. Even if we accept the insistence of Walters and the Tanners that the religious excitement spoken of by Joseph Smith in the 1838 account had to occur in Palmyra (rather than in a larger surrounding area), the ambiguity of Joseph Smith’s own dating does not allow the year 1820 to be seized upon as the only date for the revival, the vision, or both. Intertwined with the historical issue of the dating of the revivals is the question of the location of the revivals that Joseph Smith said preceded the vision. Many Mormon writers until recent years interpreted Joseph Smith’s 1838 reference to the location of the religious excitement (“. . . in the place where we lived . . . in that region of country, indeed the whole district of Country seemed affected by it. . .”) as meaning that there was a religious revival in Palmyra in 1820. Reverend Walters has demonstrated that there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820, and therefore he and the Tanners claim that they have refuted the historicity of the First Vision, when all they have done is show that Mormon writers have misinterpreted the sketchy descriptions of the First Vision.

In an article that appeared in Dialogue before the revised edition of Shadow-Reality (but which the Tanners chose not to mention in their sarcastic dismissal of any claim that Joseph referred to revivals distant from Palmyra), Peter Crawley analyzed the religious autobiography of David Marks. He was a farm boy who was born only seven weeks before Joseph Smith and who from 1815 to 1821 lived in Junius, New York,only fifteen miles from the Smith farm. In a further coincidence (possibly related to Joseph Smith’s 1832 history and Reverend Walters’ verification of an 1817 revival), Marks stated that his intense interest in religion also began in his twelfth year. From 1819 to 1821, Marks walked to numerous revivals in towns as far as a thirty-mile radius from his home in Junius, but which he described as “confined to a few towns in the vicinity of Junius.” If one insists on 1819-20 as the time of the pre-vision revivals Joseph Smith described (instead of a very likely 1817 revival that did occur in Palmyra and which is supported by the 1832 account), then recent research has substantiated that within a thirty-mile radius of the Smith farm a dozen communities were experiencing religious revivals in the 1819-20 period. The categorical rejection of these evidences by Walters and the Tanners makes good polemics but not good history. A final issue about the revivals and the historicity of the First Vision concerns the role of Reverend Lane and the role of the revivals as catalysts for the First Vision and the Angel Moroni experience. When Oliver Cowdery presented his history of Mormonism in 1834, he stated that the religious excitement that preceded the Angel Moroni experience was represented in Palmyra by “Mr. Lane, a presiding elder of the Methodist church. . . .” Later commentators on this early history of Joseph Smith aligned the preaching of Lane with the First Vision and put both events in 1820, whereas research by Walters and others has indicated that Palmyra was not included in the ministry of Reverend George Lane until about 1824. Walters and the Tanners have used this information to affirm that there was no First Vision experience, but that Joseph Smith fabricated it as a prelude to his claims for the Angel Moroni visitation (pages 157-58).

The key to this issue may be a question that puzzled me about Joseph Smith’s early experiences long before I studied history seriously. Why was there a three-year period between the First Vision and Joseph Smith’s compelling conviction in 1823 that he was again in a condition of sin requiring earnest pleas for forgiveness? I think the answer historically has been provided by Reverend Walters: “no revival occurred between 1819 and 1823 in the Palmyra vicinity” (page 155). As was true of ninety percent of America’s population in the irreligious decades following the American Revolution, “conviction of sin” and the earnest desire to obtain salvation and forgiveness of God lay dormant and often faded until whipped into painful fury by a religious revival.

In Joseph Smith’s early religious history, there were two distinct religious revivals, not one, that served as dramatic catalysts and compulsions for him to become “convicted of sins” and to seek God in prayer. The first revival that affected Joseph Smith so greatly occurred in 1817-18 or 1819-20 and preceded his first prayer and vision. The second revival (in which Reverend Lane appears to have played a role) occurred about three years after the First Vision and resulted in the earnestness of Joseph Smith’s second prayer that occasioned the visit of the Angel Moroni. The three-year gap in Joseph Smith’s religious earnestness has never seemed very complimentary to the future prophet, but is historically consistent with the religious situation of rural Americans at the time, with the verifiable alteration of religious indifference and dramatic revivalism in western New York, and also with the tendency of history to reveal prophets as very human and fallible persons.

I acknowledge freely the sketchy character of Joseph Smith’s accounts of his early religious experiences and that some Mormon writers have been wrong or inadequate in their use of the sources of history. But the central admission of professional historiography is that both the historical sources and historians themselves are inadequate to the task of recreating the past “as it was.” As to the historicity of the First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr., the existing documents and evidences support the sincerity of Joseph Smith’s claims and memory, despite his obvious difficulty in remembering exact chronology. Whether one chooses to believe or disbelieve that Joseph Smith actually communed with Deity and angels is beyond the realm of history, and is a matter of faith (as is true of the revelations of biblical prophets and apostles, of Mohammed, of Jean D’Arc, of Ann Lee, of Bernadette, and numerous others in all cultures and at all times). In final reference to the First Vision, let me discuss some of Joseph Smith’s descriptions of the experience that have been used for criticism or ridicule. One objection is that the 1832 account indicated that Joseph Smith communed with only one representative of Deity, rather than with both the Father and the Son as separate personages, as stated in the conventional 1838 account. One Mormon historian has said that the personage described in the 1832 account “was obviously the Son, for he spoke of having been crucified.” That is not necessarily the case: the personage who led John the Revelator through his vision spoke as if he were Jesus Christ but when John sought to worship him, the personage protested that he was an angel and one “of thy brethren the prophets” (Revelation 22:6-16). Moreover, one revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants begins with the speaker identifying Himself as Jesus Christ, only to speak a few verses later as though He were the Father of Jesus Christ (D&C 29:1, 42), and another revelation begins with the speaker identifying Himself as the Father of Jesus Christ and ends with the speaker identifying Himself as Christ (D&C 49:5, 28). Aside from quoting the words spoken in the vision, Joseph Smith’s every retelling of the experience refers only to “personages” and identifies the speaker (if at all) as “the Lord.” Moreover, in the 1835, 1843, and 1844 accounts, Joseph Smith stated that the two personages did not appear at once, but that the second personage appeared “soon” or “after a while.”

I see no problem with viewing the 1832 description as Joseph Smith’s emphasis upon only a part of an overwhelming experience, and the absence of specific reference to two personages does not prove the later accounts to be fiction. Likewise, the most dramatic evidence of Christ’s resurrection is John’s claim that the apostles touched the wounds in His side and hands (John 20:20, 25-28; cf. I John 1:1), whereas that most crucial evidence of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is not mentioned in the earlier Gospels of Matthew and Mark, nor in the letters of Paul, Peter, James, or Jude. Even when mentioned in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:39-40), it could be understood that the apostles saw, but did not touch the wounds.

In a similar light, I am unimpressed with the Tanners’ polemical distress concerning the 1835 account of the First Vision: “As if this is not bad enough, Joseph Smith states that there were ‘MANY ANGELS IN THIS VISION.’ Neither of the other versions indicate that there were `many angels'” (page 147). That is no more disturbing than to acknowledge that only three of the four Gospels mention that Christ was in the wilderness forty days after His baptism, and that only Matthew and Mark stated that angels ministered to Him there (Matthew 4:11;Mark 1:13; Luke 4:13). As for the outrage of the Tanners that Joseph and others sometimes referred to the First Vision as a visitation of an angel or angels (pages 154-55), the King James version of the Bible (which was the source for the religious terminology of Mormon leaders as well as for most English-speaking ecclesiastics) often used the terms “man,” “angel,” “God,” and “Lord,” interchangeably to identify the same personage in an epiphany or vision (e.g., Genesis 18:1-3, 19:1, 17-18,32:24-30; Exodus 3:2-6; Joshua 5:13, 6:1-2, including page headings).

While we are talking about various historical accounts of Mormon history, I would like to respond to the Tanners’ criticism (pages 126-42) of the manner in which the official history of the LDS Church was written. They criticize the fact that deletions and additions were introduced into the original texts without acknowledgments in the printed history, that Joseph Smith’s autobiographical “History” was written in large part after his death by clerks and “historians” who transformed third-person accounts by others than Joseph Smith into first-person autobiography of Joseph Smith, and that between the first serialized publication of the history (1840s-1860s) and the seven-volume edition of the History of the Church in the twentieth century, there have been thousands of deletions and additions not noted in the text or footnotes. This is certainly all true, and as an historian I regret the confusion that such editorial practices have caused. Nevertheless, until quite recently official LDS history was written by men (often of limited education) who were not trained in methods of editing and history.

Moreover, even highly respected American histories and published documents of the past reflect the same problems that have plagued the early writing of Mormon history. James Madison made extensive changes in his own notes of the Constitutional Convention twenty years after they were originally written, and his “contemporary” Notes were published as he had changed them rather than as he had originally written them; Josiah Gregg’s autobiographical Commerce of the Prairies and Charles A. Dana’s Recollections of the Civil War were both ghost written; Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of George Washington (highly praised by nineteenth century historians) was almost completely plagiarized from other printed works; and Jared Sparks’ voluminous editions of the writings of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin contained as many as thirty unacknowledged deletions and additions in each document.

Our present standards concerning plagiarizing, footnoting, and editorial adherence to the original manuscript did not begin to penetrate even professional historical writing in American until nearly fifty years after the original composition and editing of Joseph Smith’s history, and were not generally reflected in non-professional histories until long after B.H. Roberts prepared the second edition of that history in 1900. What the Tanners isolate in Mormonism as evidence of devious efforts to misrepresent and deceive was more accurately an evidence of conventional problems in history writing. Even reputable historians distorted documents to enhance the image of the protagonists, and this practice was regrettably but understandably mirrored by Mormon historians who saw themselves as defenders against anti-Mormon propaganda. Painstakingly accurate, scholarly, and non-defensive Mormon history did not appear until recent decades, but is gradually becoming the hallmark of both official and unofficial Mormon history.

At this point, I will discuss at some length the nature of written scripture. This will touch directly or indirectly on every other major issue you asked me to discuss: changes in the texts of written revelations, nearly identical historical incidents that occur in biblical and Book of Mormon narratives, the apparent quotations of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price from phrases and passages of the Bible and secular documents, the seeming misapplication of biblical prophecies to LDS history, the concept and practice of “translating” in Mormonism, and the historicity of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham.

In a revelation Joseph Smith dictated in 1831, it says: “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language. . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24). This was stated in another way by Apostle and Church Historian George A. Smith: “When the Lord reveals anything to men He reveals it in language that accords with their own” (Journal of Discourses 12:335). In other words, a revelatory communication between God and man will be recorded in different expression and structure of language, according to the identity of the person receiving and recording the revelation. This is certainly evident when one compares the “word of the Lord” as revealed to Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the lesser prophets of the Old Testament. Unless there is a conscious effort to duplicate the phrasing of a revelation given to an earlier prophet (see discussion below), the same “word of God” to two different persons will be different.

Aside from the Word of the Lord being phrased differently by individual prophets, there is a more fundamental question about the ability of language to communicate a divine revelation. Brigham Young stated the language problem in this way: “Language, to convey all the truth, does not exist. Even in the Bible, and all books that have been revealed from heaven unto man, the language fails to convey all the truth as it is.” If formulating a divine revelation into words is difficult or impossible for mortal man, then this reflects directly upon the strict word-for-word significance of any written revelation.

About this problem, Brigham Young also said:

. . . I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, as far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.

Thus the problem of revelation is two-fold: the mortal prophet is incapable of assimilating or comprehending the completeness of divine knowledge and revelation and therefore the prophet-receptor’s own abilities, knowledge, and frame of reference are limiting factors of revelations received by him; secondly, as the prophet-receptor seeks to express the revelation of God in language, the words can only approximate the fulness of the message.

As much as we resist uncertainty by insisting on the word-for-word content of written revelations (the “jots and tittles” referred to by Christ), written revelation is an imperfect approximation of a communication between divinity and man that is ultimately ineffable. Therefore it is to be expected that as the prophet-receptor of revelation seeks to record that experience, he may experiment not only with phrasing but also with content. And as the prophet (or his successors) has further experiences of revelation that expand understanding of previous communications, those insights may simply be incorporated retroactively into the earlier texts. This later addition of new revelation into the texts of former revelation not only was done with some of Joseph Smith’s revelations, but modern scholars also suggest that this happened in the Book of Isaiah.

Mormons of various ranks have been responsible for misconceptions about the irrevocable and immutable character of the words of revelation, but the documents of sacred history do not support such attitudes. The evidence of LDS history also does not support the Tanners’ conclusion that the changes between the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants prove that Joseph Smith was a “deceiver”(page 28). If Joseph Smith were deceptively trying to introduce new doctrines he had failed to invent in some previous revelation, he could have simply invented a new revelation with the new information. Instead, he introduced the new material into the texts of previously published revelations. That is hardly an effort to deceive, since anyone living in 1835 (or thereafter, for that matter) could compare the two versions, but it does indicate strikingly Joseph Smith’s attitude toward the elasticity of written revelation. Thus, Apostle Orson Pratt could matter-of-factly state: “Hence, paragraphs taken from revelations of a latter date, are, in a few instances incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. Our resistance to this concept is fundamentally a religious manifestation of our inability to accept the uncertainty of change.

The characteristic of ancient literature (including the sacred history of the Old and New Testaments) is that it cuts through the impermanence of life by presenting history, drama, and religion in repetitive patterns. One authority has written that for these societies “an object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.” This insistence on presenting the crucial elements of life and religion in repetitive archetypes or patterns is fundamental to the literature of the Near East. This is why it is so laughable that the Tanners (pages 72-74) criticize the Book of Mormon for presenting incidents that occurred in very similar form in the Bible or Apocrypha. The Tanners, I trust, do not deny the historicity of the greatest event of the New Testament because of its similarity to a Sumerian myth that dating from 2000 B.C.: Inanna, the queen of heaven, desires to become mortal in order to visit the world of the dead. Her death comes as she is hung on a stake for three days and nights, after which time she is restored to life by two messengers sent from the supreme god, and after her restoration to life she brings from the spirit world all the dead. If the Book of Mormon did not contain events that were repetitive of other ancient Near Eastern literatures, that absence would be a significant internal evidence against its authenticity as an ancient text.

This ancient insistence upon repetitive patterns and archetypes is reflected in a distaste for “originality” that pervades written scripture. The Tanners have done a commendable job of showing the passages from the Book of Mormon that are virtual quotations or paraphrases of the Bible (pages 74-79), and had they wanted to they could have quoted from studies showing similar patternism in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants. Rather than discrediting these two books as legitimate works of scripture, that characteristic of apparent borrowing is completely consistent with biblical scripture. Large revelatory passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Nahum, Obadiah, and Zephaniah are so similar as to appear to have been used interchangeably by their authors as they sought to reconstruct the “word of the Lord” to them. Moreover, many standard texts of the New Testament in Greek list the hundreds of quotations and paraphrases from the Old Testament and Apocrypha.

Similar “borrowing” occurred in the New Testament. Concerning the Book of Revelation, one scholarly study states: “John was thoroughly acquainted with the Old Testament, and quotes or alludes to it throughout his book. It has been estimated that 278 verses out of a total of 404 contain references of one kind or another to the Old Testament. . . . yet in no case does he specifically mention a book of the Jewish scripture, and seldom does he quote verbatim.” In addition, just as Joseph Smith quoted from the familiar King James Bible in expressing the “word of the Lord” as he claimed to find it in the ancient text of the Book of Mormon, the New Testament writers consistently quoted from the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which was most used in the time of Christ, rather than going back to the earlier Hebrew texts of the Old Testament, and “Jews considered this a misuse of Holy Scripture, and they stopped using the Septuagint.”

The Tanners also feel that they have repudiated the ancient claims of the Book of Mormon through their painstaking survey of secular literature that was available to Joseph Smith, passages of which are very similar to passages in the Book of Mormon. Before I relate this issue to ancient scripture, let me give a few examples of the Tanners’ over zealousness to prove their point in this matter. For example, the Tanners (page 68) accuse Joseph Smith of borrowing a Book of Mormon phrase (Item Y) that the Gospel ministry should be “without money and without price” from the 1827 Wayne Sentinel (Item X). A far older and better known antecedent for either or both is Isaiah 55:1.

The Tanners raise the familiar objection (pages 84-85) to the Book of Mormon passage in 2 Nephi 1:14, that the description of death “from whence no traveler can return” is a plagiarism from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Josiah Priest’s 1825 Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed, or both. The Tanners’ criticism is not only an example of their in complete parallels but also of their suppression of evidence:

In Hugh Nibley’s Approach to the Book of Mormon (which they quote from on page 101) and Since Cumorah (which they quote from on page 88), Nibley points out that the phrasing of 2 Nephi 1:14 concerning death is not only similar to a poem by the first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus, but is also very close to descriptions of death in far more ancient Middle Eastern documents. In other words, Josiah Priest may have been quoting Shakespeare, who was paraphrasing Catullus, who was merely stating a common ancient Near Eastern poetry about death. Since the Tanners are convinced that the Book of Mormon is nineteenth century fiction, they cease looking for analogies beyond the contemporary availability of Joseph Smith in 1829. To return to the question of holy scripture quoting from or paraphrasing contemporary secular works, there is no difficulty at all in admitting (and even welcoming) the Tanners’ demonstration that in many passages from the Book of Mormon this may have been true. Remember, those who commit the word of God to paper (whether of a translation or a revelation) draw upon their own language and knowledge to do so, and this is precisely what we find in the Bible. For example, there are nearly 700 passages (representing every book of the Old Testament) that are quotations, paraphrases, or allusions to earlier texts of Egyptian, Sumerian, Hittite, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Assyrian, and other Near Eastern-Mesopotamian literatures (much of it quite “pagan” in a religious sense). The apparent indebtedness of the Book of Genesis to earlier Mesopotamian prototypes is such that the nineteenth century Assyriologist Delitzch concluded “that the Bible was therefore guilty of crass plagiarism,” whereas a more moderate recent scholar has observed that “there is nothing surprising about the fact that early Hebrew literature is replete with Mesopotamian motifs, especially motifs relating to pre-Israelite times. It is only lack of such themes that would be grounds for suspicion.” Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22 was “modeled on the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-ope,” which in turn was probably modeled on Phoenician maxims. Many of the Psalms mirror Akkadian and Ugaritic poetry, and Psalm 29 is “a relatively little changed adaptation of a Baal hymn…” In addition, passages in Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Habakkuk use names of the Ugaritic pagan gods for names of objects represented by these gods.

Moreover, parallels between non-biblical literature and later biblical texts continue within the New Testament. In a very cautious presentation of the similarities between the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community (“composed at various dates between about 250 B.C. and 68 A.D.”) and the New Testament, Theodor H. Gaster lists 140 passages of the New Testament that are conceptual parallels or textual quotations from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The significance of these parallels is still being evaluated by scholars, but a cautious interpretation of these parallels is indicated by Pierre Benoit: “We must accept as beyond dispute that many passages in the recently discovered writings of Qumran and the New Testament exhibit contacts that are very close, even striking. While this may be the result of an immediate dependence (in which case the New Testament must be the borrower), it may also be an example in the two communities of a way of thinking and speaking common throughout Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era.”

Many parallels, both direct and indirect, exist between the teachings of Christ in the New Testament and the Mishnah, Midrash Tannaim, and other Rabbinical writings that date either before or contemporary with the oldest New Testament texts. Some of the more obvious parallels are:

(Luke 11:2): “Thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth.” Cf. Rabbinical: “Do Thy will in the heavens above and give tranquility of spirit to those who fear Thee on earth.”

(Matthew 6:13): “For thine is the kingdom. . . .” Cf.Rabbinical: “For Thine is the kingdom.”

(Matthew 6:14): “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Cf.Rabbinical: “Whenever you have mercy on other creatures, they from heaven have mercy on you.”

(Matthew 6:26): “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap. . . .” Cf. Rabbinical: “Did you ever in your life see an animal or a bird which had a trade? And they support themselves without trouble.”

(Matthew 7:2): “. . . and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Cf. Rabbinical: “In the measure in which a man metes it is measured to him.”

(Matthew 7:7): “. . . seek, and ye shall find Cf. Rabbinical: “Seek and find.”

(Mark 2:27): “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Cf. Rabbinical: “The Sabbath is committed to you, and you are not committed to the Sabbath.”

(Luke 17:34): “I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed: the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.” Cf. Rabbinical: “If an Egyptian and an Israelite were lying in bed, only the Israelite was passed over.” (Ref. to last Egyptian plague in Exodus.)

Such parallels do not invalidate the originality nor the spiritual import of the teachings of Jesus, and scholars have suggested that despite the parallels, the ideas may have developed independently or have been derived from a common source. Moderate Jewish scholars have severely criticized the Jews who have used the Rabbinical-Gospel parallels as a polemical attack on Jesus.

Nevertheless, like the many parallels cited by the Tanners, these similarities exist. After studying the relationship between Rabbinical writings and the epistles of Paul, one scholar has concluded: “The source of Pauline Christianity lies in the fact of Christ, but in wrestling to interpret the full meaning and implications of that fact Paul constantly drew upon concepts derived from Rabbinic Judaism; it was these that formed the warp and woof if not the material of his thought.” With reference to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the manner in which the Word (Logos) is distinctively employed is also very similar to the earlier writings of Jewish philosopher Philo (ca. 30B.C.-40 A.D.), yet a biblical commentator makes the same suggestion about this similarity that has been made by Mormon scholars like Hugh Nibley and Sidney Sperry about the parallels between Book of Mormon passages and the New Testament passages: “evidences point rather toward a common background shared by both…”

Another issue central to parallelism and archetypes in ancient scripture is the question of prophecy. On pages 95-96, the Tanners dispute the use of Isaiah 29 and Ezekiel 37:16-17 as applying to the Book of Mormon (as indicated in 2 Nephi 26:15-17 and D&C 27:5), and the Tanners correctly state that Isaiah 29 was cited by New Testament writers as being fulfilled in Christ’s mission and that the context of the Ezekiel prophecy relates to the restoration of divided Israel, rather than to uniting records which the Hebrew word for “stick” in the passage did not signify. But the Mormon interpretation of these passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel presents a problem that is identical to the most famous prophecy that is cited as being fulfilled in Christ:

The quotation in Matthew 1:23 is taken from the LXX [Septuagint], not from the Hebrew, and is one of a number of such quotations used by the author of that Gospel to show that the O.T. foreshadowed the life of Jesus Christ. That he uses these without particular regard to their meaning in their original context is clear from the quotation of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15. This later “messianic interpretation” is derived from the conviction that the messianic hope had been fulfilled in Jesus. This conviction we may firmly retain, while recognizing that the N.T.’s use of Isa. 7:14 is based on an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew text, which must not prejudice our interpretation of this verse in its original setting. The word ‘almah means “a young woman of marriageable age,” possibly a virgin (cf. Gen. 24:43, Exod. 28:8 Prov. 30:19); if Isaiah had wished to make clear that he had in mind a miraculous virgin birth, he would have had to use the specific term bethulah. . . .The traditional messianic interpretation, on the other hand, proceeds from the premise that this passage must predict the virgin birth of a Messiah because Matt. 1:23 so interprets it. . . . This method of reasoning is not convincing, if for no other reason than that a prediction of the miraculous birth of a Messiah more than seven centuries later could hardly have served as a sign to [King] Ahaz.

Thus we find the scripture of the New Testament doing the same thing that the scripture of the Latter-day restoration does: claiming that prophecies (which in their context were fulfilled long before) have a later fulfillment.

Latter-day Saints and other Christians therefore face an identical question, the answer to which must apply equally to the New Testament as it does to Mormon claims: is it valid to regard a single divine prophecy as having application to completely different events, separated by great periods of time? I believe that such an attitude toward prophecy is valid, because biblical prophecy is presented in poetic form, the most central feature of which is parallelism. Therefore, the same elements of a prophecy may have one fulfillment that corresponds explicitly, and a separate fulfillment that is cryptic. That certainly is the implication of the New Testament affirmation that such things as the Abraham-Isaac test, the paschal lamb, and the serpent on the ensign were prophetic “types” of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Despite criticism by many biblical analysts of such a parallel character of prophecy, there has been a consistent tradition of regarding prophecy as parallel in fulfillment. This parallelism in prophecy and fulfillment gives greater meaning to Peter’s warning that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:20-21). Only a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit, can understand and declare the hidden parallel fulfillment of a prophecy whose outward fulfillment has already occurred. For this reason, it would seem to me that even the most conservative and honest biblical scholar is inadequate to criticize Matthew, as are the less conservative and less honest Tanners to criticize the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants identification of parallel fulfillments.

This brings me now to the final issue I will discuss in this already long letter, the Mormon concept of “translating” scriptures and the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. I think the best detailed explanation of “translating” as applied to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible, and the Book of Abraham has been given by Hugh Nibley, but I will suggest some bare essentials here. Despite the extravagant claims of Martin Harris, David Whitmer, William Smith, and Emma Smith (all of whom claimed that Joseph Smith was shown the exact words of the Book of Mormon by the Urim and Thummim (or Seer Stone), a revelation dictated through Joseph Smith indicated that translation was no automatic process in which the “right” words appeared in English, but instead a process of thought, energy, testing, and searching for the words that would case the translator to feel the inward burning of the Spirit that he had finally arrived at an acceptable rendition (D&C 9).

The Tanners mock the assertion that Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the papyri could have been made independent of the actual text of the papyri, yet all evidence indicates that when Joseph Smith revised the Bible (which process was repeatedly called “translating”) he did not go back to the Greek and Hebrew texts available during his lifetime. Therefore, for Joseph Smith, “revelation” and “translation” were synonymous, and I have already discussed the fluid nature of any written revelation. In contrast to the pejorative comments by the Tanners, Dee Jay Nelson, and others about the insignificance of a literal translation of the Joseph Smith papyri in terms of Abrahamic religion, the work of Hugh Nibley, Michael Rhodes, and Eric Olson on the Joseph Smith papyri have indicated some valuable insights into the published Book of Abraham in particular and Mormonism in general.

Right now I have neither the time nor the energy to dwell upon the specific issues of the literal translation of the hypocephali and papyrus texts, but I would like to mention two things that the Tanners return to repeatedly in their repudiation of the Book of Abraham: First, that there was no cryptic, hidden, second meaning to the papyri beyond the literal contents (pages 319-20), and second that the papyri are spiritually and scripturally worthless and pagan because they contain symbols of magic, names of Egyptian gods, and sexual imagery (pages 321, 341-43, 345-46). I have already referred to the fact that many Old Testament books, including the richly prophetic Isaiah, contain the names of Ugaritic gods, and by referring to Albright’s work one can find references also to magic symbols and names that are also incorporated in the Old Testament, but that are used in a religious context different from the pagan religions from which they were taken.

More to the point is the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament which has no reference whatever to any explicitly religious subject and which is filled with sexual imagery, yet which has been traditionally interpreted by the Jews as an allegory of the relationship of Yahweh and Israel, and by Christian interpreters as an allegory of Christ and the Christian church (or individual), or as an allegory of God and the Virgin Mary. I do not know the Tanners’ attitude toward the Song of Songs and I am not confident myself that the Song of Solomon is a religious allegory, but I am unable to deny that devout, intelligent Jews and Christians have read the exclusively sexual outward content of the Song of Songs and have found a profound religious message. I find it more plausible to believe that an ostensible Book of Breathings (that deals with life, death, resurrection, sexuality, and the gods) could have been the vehicle for cryptically expressing the ancient patterns of what the Gospel of Philip termed the “mystery,” and Mormons call “the endowment.”

Now let me go to what I must insist is the crux of the Tanners’ argument against both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham: that they are works of Joseph Smith’s own active, devious imagination (pages 88 and 332). At this point I will become anecdotal: When I served a proselyting mission for the LDS Church and was far less ignorant than I am now, my companion and I presented a copy of the Book of Mormon to a woman we had met on our door-to-door visits. Our experience was that if people accepted a copy of the Book of Mormon from us they would rarely read any of it, and what little they did read was the result of frequent reminders from us. So in two days we stopped by to encourage this woman to read twenty-five pages of the book. I was thunderstruck to hear her say that she had read it completely and was half-way through a second reading in which she was doing cross-referencing. She explained that she had obtained her D.D. in ancient semitic languages and literature, and said: “You have brought me a translation of ancient semitic literature. Where is the original text?” She hadn’t read the prefatory material about Joseph Smith, and I must admit I squirmed a little as I told her that the original text was unavailable for examination because it had been returned to the angel who gave it to Joseph Smith. She was disappointed, but said she was very pleased to have this translation, and then began leafing through it and read to us sections she described as semitic poetry. After a few minutes, she stopped and said: “You know, it was impossible for anyone in 1830 to make up these passages, because the original poetic forms that are apparent in this translation were not recognized by scholars at that date.” My missionary companion and I went home that day convinced that we had a new convert to Mormonism, but we were wrong. We spent many evenings with this woman (who was a devout Protestant) and her husband (who was a physicist and an atheist), only to find that both of them were somewhat (though politely) amused at our belief in the “one” true church, and Joseph Smith’s other claims. She was convinced the Book of Mormon was authentic, but regarded the rest of Mormonism as irrelevant. I suppose that she secretly believed Joseph Smith had somehow acquired an ancient text, had it translated, and then went on to make other claims. At any rate, we stopped our visits after a few weeks, and our encounter remains one of the most frustrating and interesting of my experience. Others have had similar experiences in finding great respect for the Book of Mormon among scholars of ancient literature.

The import of this anecdote from my own life is that both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as narratives in the English language must be consistent with the evidence of ancient Middle Eastern literatures in order for their authenticity to have any significance. Hugh Nibley has devoted several years to researching and writing about the evidences of support from documents and perceptions of ancient literature that were unavailable to Joseph Smith. His footnotes are far more extensive and erudite than anything I have presented here, and anyone who has the time and inclination can go back to the sources he cites to check his quotations and conclusions about the support for the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. The evidence of my experience and of my study leads me to accept the historicity of these two works, despite problems that do exist in archeological myths by overzealous Mormons and the exact role of the papyri. The question Jerald and Sandra Tanner ask about Mormonism in Shadow or Reality is more appropriate to be asked about their approach to analyzing Mormonism. They have not presented the reality of Mormonism, and they have not even presented the reality of what they regard as the sensationalistic, negative issues of Mormonism. The truly sad thing is that people seem to accept their presentation as honest, courageous, and significant. The Tanners proclaim themselves as crusading Christians against a monstrous anti-Christ, yet much of that which they ridicule about Mormon history and scripture is fundamental to Judeo-Christian sacred history and scripture. The Tanners’ attack on Mormonism is really a manifestation of their rejection of institutionalized religion: “God was not concerned with peoples’ church affiliations, but with a personal relationship. Christ taught a way of Love, not a religious system” (page 569). I am hardly impartial in this analysis of their work, and perhaps you should have written a non-Mormon who is divorced from or ignorant of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, despite my bias I have tried to present all evidence and analysis as truthfully and honestly as I can. How you respond to what I have written or how you incorporate my views into your own system of faith and evidence is up to you. I have taken the time I felt was necessary to respond to the urgency of your own request, and I hope that this letter has been of some use to you.


See a comparison of two different versions of this apologetic essay