Comparing the Book of Abraham and the Gospel of Judas

Ok, comparing these two books might seem a bit odd, but let me explain.  First of all, I’ve already done a few posts on Abraham.  In the first, I compared the Book of Abraham to the Koran, and wondered if Joseph might have translated an Islamic text, because the story found in the Book of Abraham where Abraham destroys his father’s idols is quite similar to a Koranic tale.  Then my second post on Abraham, I learned that this story is also found in the Jewish Midrash, so there is another non-biblical source for this story.

For those who don’t know the origins of the Book of Abraham, Joseph claims to have translated the Book of Abraham from some Egyptian papyrus that he purchased from a person exhibiting Egyptian artifacts.  The papyrus were originally believed to have perished in a fire, though some of these scrolls were actually discovered in 1967, and translated by Egyptologists.  The translation has no resemblance to the Book of Abraham, and seems to be a sort of funeral scroll.  Therefore, some people charge that the Book of Abraham is really a fraud.  Even if this is a fraud, how does this explain the similarities to the Jewish Midrash, and the Koran?

To counter these claims,  Hugh Nibley notes that not all of the papyrus was found.  Perhaps there were some funeral scrolls mixed in with the Book of Abraham, and perhaps the real Book of Abraham that Joseph translated was not found.  Many critics scoff at this claim.

However, I have also been learning about the Gospel of Judas.  Scholars have known for centuries that a gospel attributed to Judas existed, because of a reference by an ancient Christian priest named Saint Ireneaus in 180.  The Christian canon did not exist in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and St Ireneaus was of the first Christian leaders to try to create a canon of Christian writings.  He was one of the first to make the claim that there should be four gospels, and that many of the other gospels (at least 50 at the time) that were in existence at the time were false.  He specifically mentioned the Gospel of Judas as an especially dubious heresy.

Until recently nobody knew the Gospel of Judas existed.  Some Egyptian papyrus was discovered in 1978, and shopped on the black market for many years.  (It was actually advertised in the classified ads in the New York Times, and sold or stolen several times on the black market.)  There was even a National Geographic special announcing the discovery of the Gospel of Judas in 2006.

The discovery is very interesting, and the ancient document was written in an ancient form of Egyptian, called Coptic.  (Is this “reformed Egyptian”?)  The Coptic Christian Church still exists today, and dates from this early time period.  The copy discovered isn’t quite as old at Ireneaus, but dates to about the 1600 years ago.  It’s not quite as old as Ireneaus, but it certainly is ancient, and might be the same gospel he was referring to.  Ireneaus was talking about a Greek text, but he Gospel of Judas is probably a Coptic translation of the original Greek text.  (You may want to learn more about Gnosticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi Library from my previous post on this.)

Prior to the National Geographic special, rumors that the Gospel of Judas had been found were rampant among the academic community.  The book was mixed up with several other books (apparently these ancient Egyptians were trying to conserve papyrus), many of which had nothing to do with spiritual subjects.  Someone apparently leaked a photograph of some of these papyri on the internet, and most scholars were of the opinion that the Gospel of Judas did not really exist.  The internet photograph claimed that the writings were the Gospel of Judas, but the translation was obviously of another book.  So, the Gospel of Judas find was deemed a hoax.

However, National Geographic obtained the papyrus, and had some modern scholars translate it.  Sure enough, the internet photographs were genuine, but only contained a portion of the entire papyrus.  The Gospel of Judas, was mixed in with some other writings, and it is an extremely important and interesting find in ancient Christian writings, because it shows a much greater diversity of Christian thought.  The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text, which was a competing form of Christianity, and was just as big or bigger in some parts of the Roman Empire.  When Constantine converted to Christianity, he converted to Orthodox Christianity, and then set about persecuting the Gnostics.  Eventually the persecution forced them out of existence.

So, I want to quote from Bart Ehrmann’s book called The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  Bart is a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and participated in the translation of this lost gospel.  I just found some of the experiences with the Gospel of Judas as strikingly similar to Nibley’s theory about the Book of Abraham.  From page 67,

In chapter 1, I described my trip to Geneva in December 2004.  There I laid eyes on the Gospel of Judas for the first time.  I was obviously elated by the possibilities.  But as I returned from my trip I had more questions than answers.  I had looked over some pages of the Coptic text but had no opportunity to study and translate them.  What could be found on the pages I had seen?

…page 68

While still thrilled by the prospects, I found a discussion on the Internet that made my heart sink.

There is a Dutch blogger name Michel van Rijn who runs a very peculiar web site that specializes in debunking claims about modern art and ancient artifacts.  Van Rijn had gotten wind of the Gospel of Judas story, tracked down some leads, and learned that National Geographic was planning to spend considerable time and effort promoting the release of the document and its translation-and presumably would make a lot of money off it.  Van Rijn decided to explode the entire operation by publishing all the surviving materials before National Geographic itself had a chance to do so.

Van Rijn found an American scholar, Charlie Hedrick-a New Testament scholar I have known and liked for years-who claimed to have photographs of the Gospel of Judas and to have already made preliminary translations of them.  In order to squash any speculation about the Gospel, and to beat National Geographic to the punch, van Rijn published the photographs and the translations.  When I read them, I was massively disappointed.

The first text appeared to have nothing to do with Judas and Jesus.  It was a Gnostic document whose main figure was someone called Allogenes, who prays to God and hears God’s answer.  The text had Gnostic characteristics, and it would be of some limited interest to scholars of Gnosticism.  But as far as Judas and Jesus were concerned, it was a complete bust.

It is amazing how even those of us who teach for a living fail to practice what we preach.  Every semester in my undergraduate courses at Chapel Hill I have to tell my students not to trust everything they find on the Internet, since anyone can publish anything there, and there is often no way of knowing if the source is credible or bogus.  In this particular case, not having followed my own advice, I was completely taken in.

What I didn’t know at the time, but eventually came to realize, is that Hedrick had translated the wrong text.

My first indication that something was amiss came in July 1, 2005.  I was in New York on other business and had set up a lunch date at the Harvard Club with Herb Krosney, whom I mentioned earlier as the investigative journalist who had originally tracked down the Gospel of Judas, found that it was owned now by the Maecenas Foundation in Geneva, interested National Geographic in the story, and more or less single-handedly pushed the story forward-leading eventually to my hurried trip to Geneva six months before.  Over lunch in July I expressed my real frustration that the whole story was soon to collapse on itself, that there was not in fact much of a story at all, because I had read the Hedrick translation and frankly couldn’t understand why National Geographic was still interested in pursuing the matter.

Herb knew what was actually in the text, but he was not at liberty to give me all the details.  With a twinkle in his eye, he suggested that I not believe everything I read on the Internet (the advice I give students just about every week).  But I persisted; I had seen the photographs of the Coptic pages, they looked similar in quality to the pages I had seen in Geneva, I had seen Hedrick’s transcription of the pages, and I had checked his translation.  There just wasn’t much there.  All Herb could do was throw out a tantalizing hint: maybe Hedrick was translating a different part of the book.

It was only later that I realized what had happened.  As we will see in this chapter, when scholars first gained access to this manuscript and were able to determine its contents, they believed it contained fragmentary copies of three texts. Two of which were already known from earlier archaeological discoveries: the Letter of Peter to Philip and the First Apocalypse of James, copies of which had been discovered had been discovered among the writings of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945.  The third text was the gold mine: the Gospel of Judas.  But it was not until Florence Darbre, the expert in manuscript restoration, and Rodolphe Kasser, the eminent Coptologist responsible for editing and translation the text, had worked on the manuscript for three years that they realized what no one-including van Rijn and Hedrick-had before suspected.  The final part of the manuscript contained not just one document-the Gospel of Judas-but two.  The other one was a fragmentary copy of an otherwise unknown Gnostic treatise about this figure Allogenes.  Hedrick had assumed that his photographs were from the Gospel of Judas.  They weren’t.  They were from a different text.  This changed things drastically.

…page 70

One of the strangest facts about archaeological discoveries of early Jewish and Christian manuscripts is that the most spectacular finds are almost never made by trained archaeologists.  Most of them are the result of pure serendipity.  Moreover, they are typically discovered by people who have no idea what it is they have discovered and no sense of their real worth.

…page 71 [formatting slightly changed]

The limestone box contained four different manuscripts in codex form (that is, they were books, not scrolls).  Later scholars would identify these ancient codices as follows.  None of them, except the Gospel of Judas codes, has yet been published or otherwise made public:

1.       A mathematical treatise, written in Greek

2.       A fragmentary copy of the Old Testament book of Exodus, also in Greek

3.       A fragmentary copy of some of the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul, written in Coptic

4.       The codex containing the Gospel of Judas (as I will explain later, we have the complete beginning and end of the Gospel, and much of the middle, but some portions have not been lost because of the rough handling of the manuscript after its discovery; about 10-15 percent of the text is now unrecoverable), along with three other fragmentary texts, all of them Coptic:

a.       The Letter of Peter to Philip (in a version slightly different from the one discovered at Nag Hammadi),

b.      The First Apocalypse of James (also different from the Nag Hammadi version),

c.       And the Gnostic treatise on Allogenes (which is a different work from the Nag Hammadi tractate that is entitled “Allogenes”)

The discovery of the Gospel of Judas, with the initial skepticism of its existence lends credibility to Nibley’s contention that the Book of Abraham might still be still missing, and that they were combined with other non-religious texts.  Since I have been reviewing Rough Stone Rolling again, I decided to see what Bushman had to say on the topic.  From pages 285-6,

…Michael H. Chandler, who arrived in Kirtland on July 3, 1835, with four mummies and some rolls of papyrus.  Something of an opportunist and promoter, Chandler had exhibited the artifacts in Cleveland in March and come to Kirtland, he said, because of Joseph Smiths translating powers.  Chandler’s account of the mummies is full of contradictions.  He claimed he had inherited the artifacts from his uncle, Antonio Lebolo.  Lebolo had indeed obtained Egyptian artifacts around 1820 and distributed the finds to various European museums before he died in 1830, but no mention of Chandler or mummies were made in Lebolo’s probate papers.  He had earlier arranged for a Trieste merchant to sell eleven mummies that were forwarded to New York, and probably Chandler purchased the artifacts in New York, thinking to exhibit them and then sell them.  On inspecting the papyri, Joseph announced that one rolls contained the writings of Abraham of Ur and another the writings of Joseph of Egypt.  Excited by this discovery, he encouraged some of the Kirtland Saints to purchase four mummies and the papyri for $2,400, a huge sum when money was desperately needed for other projects.

Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham is best thought of as an apocryphal addition to the Genesis story of Abraham, in the same vein as the Enoch passages in the Book of Moses.  Characteristically, Joseph’s translated account did not repeat the familiar biblical stories, instead expanding on a few verses about Abraham’s origins in Ur of the Chaldees, adding material not mentioned in the Bible.  The published version contained two chapters giving an account of Abraham’s ordeal in Ur and his departure for Canaan and Egypt.

… page 290

The Abraham texts gave Joseph another chance to let his followers try translating.  While working on the Book of Mormon in 1829, Joseph invited Oliver Cowdery to translate: he tried and failed.  Now with the Egyptian papyri before them, Joseph again let the men with the greatest interest in such undertakings-Cowdery, William W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, and Frederick G. Williams-attempt translations.  Parrish was told he “shall see much of my ancient records, and shall know of hiden things, and shall be endowed with a knowledge of hiden languages.”

Through the fall of 1835, the little group made various attempts.  “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with [brothers] O. Cowdery and W. W. Phelps,” Joseph’s journal notes.  They seem to have copied lines of Egyptian from the papyrus and worked out stories to go with the text.  Or they wrote down an Egyptian character and attempted various renditions.  Joseph apparently had translated the first two chapters of Abraham-through chapter 2, verse 18, in the current edition-and the would-be translators matched up hieroglyphs with some of his English sentences.  Their general method can be deduced from a revelation given to Oliver Cowdery after he failed to translate the gold plates:  “You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you.”  One can imagine these men staring at the characters, jotting down ideas that occurred to them, hoping for a burning confirmation.  They tried one approach after another.  Joseph probably threw in ideas of his own.  Eventually, they pulled their work together into a collection they called “Grammar & A[l]phabet of the Egyptian Language,” written in the hands of Phelps and Parrish.

Of all the men working on the papyri, only Joseph produced a coherent text.  What was going on as he translated?  For many years, Mormon assumed that he sat down with the scrolls, looked at each Egyptian word, and by inspiration understood its meaning in English.  He must have been reading from a text, so Mormons thought, much as a conventional translator would do, except the words came by revelation rather than out of his own learning.  In 1967, that view of translation suffered a blow when eleven scraps of the Abraham papyri, long since lost and believed to have been burned, were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and given to Latter-day Saint leaders in Salt Lake City.  Color pictures were soon printed and scholars went to work.  The texts were thought to be papyri with his translation, and the same pictures appeared on the museum fragments.  Moreover, some of the characters from the Egyptian grammar appeared on the fragments.  The translation of these texts by expert Egyptologists would finally prove or disprove Joseph’s claims to miraculous translating powers.  Would any of the language correspond to  the text in his Book of Abraham?  Some Mormons were crushed when the fragments turned out to be rather conventional funerary texts placed with mummified bodies, in this case Hôr’, to assure continuing life as an immortal god.  According to Egyptologists, nothing on the fragments resembled Joseph’s account of Abraham.

Some Mormon scholars, notably Hugh Nibley, doubt that the actual texts for Abraham and Joseph have been found.  The scraps from the Metropolitan Museum do not fit the description Joseph Smith gave of long, beautiful scrolls.  At best the remnants are a small fraction of the originals, with no indication of what appears on the lost portions.  Nonetheless, the discovery prompted a reassessment of the Book of Abraham.  What was going on while Joseph “translated” the papyri and dictated text to a scribe?  Obviously, he was not interpreting the hieroglyphics like an ordinary scholar.  As Joseph saw it, he was working by inspiration-that had been clear from the beginning.  When he “translated” the Book of Mormon, he did not read from the gold plates; he looked into the crystals of the Urim and Thummim, or gazed at the seerstone.  The words came by inspiration, not by reading the characters on the plates.  By analogy, it seemed likely that the papyri had been an occasion for receiving a revelation rather than a word-for-word interpretation of the hieroglyphics as in ordinary translations.  Joseph translated Abraham as ne had the characters on the gold plates, by knowing the meaning without actually knowing the plates’ language.  Warren Parish, his clerk, said, “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of heaven.”  When Chandler arrived with the scrolls, Joseph saw the papyri and inspiration struck.  Not one to deny God’s promptings of Abraham and Joseph.  The whole thing was miraculous, and to reduce Joseph’s translation to some quasi-natural process, some concluded, was folly.

The peculiar fact is that the results were not entirely out of line with the huge apocryphal literature on Abraham.  His book of Abraham picked up themes found in texts like the Book of Jasher and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews.  In these extrabiblical stories, Abraham’s father worshiped idols, people tried to murder Abraham because of his resistance, and Abraham was learned in astronomy-all features of Joseph Smith’s narrative.  Josephus says, for example, that Abraham delivered “the science of astronomy” to the Egyptians, as does Joseph’s Abraham.  The parallels are not exact; the Book of Abraham was not a copy of any of the apocryphal texts.  In the Book of Jasher, Abraham destroys the idols of King Nimrod with a hatchet and is thrown into a furnace; Joseph’s Abraham is bound on a bedstead.  The similarities are far from complete, but the theme of resisting the king’s idolatry and an attempted execution followed by redemption by God are the same.  The parallels extend to numerous small details.

Joseph may have heard apocryphal stories of Abraham, although the Book of Jasher was not published in English until 1829 and not in the United States until 1840.  A Bible dictionary published by the American Sunday School Union summed up many of these apocryphal elements.  Whether Joseph knew of alternate accounts of Abraham or not, he created an original narrative that echoed apocryphal stories without imitating them.  Either by revelation, as his followers believed, or by some instinctive affinity for antiquity, Joseph made his own late-and unlikely-entry in the long tradition of extrabiblical narratives about the great patriarch.

…page 293

In light of Joseph’s language study, the Egyptian grammar appears as an awkward attempt to blend a scholarly approach to language with inspired translation.

So, what do you make of Nibley’s contention?  Is it plausible?

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82 comments on “Comparing the Book of Abraham and the Gospel of Judas

  1. Sorry I haven’t been able to comment sooner but I’m on vacation and haven’t had time. Not to mention I’m keeping up here using my cell phone and trying to post comments is not easy. I will have to make it quick before the page expires and I lose my comment. I’ve already lost a couple.

    Anyway, MH, it seems that the reason you give of simple obedience in the case of Judas is a bit disingenuous since you don’t accept the concept of an Abrahamic sacrifice. You donLt even accept that Joshua was commande to commit “genocide”. So how can you believe this was a matter of obedience? I know it was probably for my benefit but I just don’t see the point of Judas being commanded to betray Jesus simply on the basis of obedience. I can see it with Adam and Abraham and Joshua because there were either practical reasons attached to their acts or in the case of Abraham, he was not required to go through with it since it was only to demonstrate his willingness to obey.

  2. Tara,

    I agree that the idea that Jesus asked Judas to betray Jesus, doesn’t really match up with the Book of Acts, specifically, though I think it is important to realize that the writer of Acts probably places too much emphasis on the Jews crucifying Jesus, and not enough on the Romans.

    What do you make of President Kimball’s statement supporting the idea that Jesus asked Judas to betray?

    Pedro, thanks for the link–I didn’t know it was available online, but I have the book where it is translated too. I am of the opinion that the Book of Abraham might bear strong similarities to Gnostic beliefs–is that what you’re trying to say?

  3. CHJ, did you actually read anything I wrote above?

  4. This is a far more compelling comparison than a lot of what is offered up at FAIR, so thanks for your post. The parallel to other apocrypha (that was not available in JS’s day and/or that he didn’t have access to) is the most compelling stuff I read at FAIR on the BOA. Comparing to the emergence of the Gospel of Judas is helpful.

    Only thing to add is that when The Gospel of Judas aired on the History Channel, I was half-listening to it while I was doing something else. The show’s narrator read this passage from the Gospel text: [Jesus said to Judas] “You shall kill the man that clothes me.” My first reaction was “Jesus had a valet??”

  5. Thanks hawkgrrrl! (You didn’t know Jesus had a valet? I thought that was common knowledge.) 😉

  6. The difference is that we have the notes from Joseph Smith’s attempt at translation, and the translations he wrote down in the notes, next to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, are all egregiously wrong.

    And the idea that he somehow received revelation instead of translating is a non-starter. He believed he had translated them by the Power of God. If he didn’t, he was either capable of being incorrect about such things, or God allowed him to believe something that was incorrect, both of which bode ill for believing that the rest of Joseph’s revelations to be literally true.

    There doesn’t need to be a FAIR explanation, and a FARMS explanation, and a Nibley explanation, and so forth. If it is true, one explanation would be enough, and that would’ve been Joseph’s explanation. If it is false, one explanation is also enough.

  7. I remember we had an interesting discussion about the Gospel of Judas on my blog a while back, and how it could tie into the theory that Judas actually fulfilled a request by Jesus by betraying him.

    Reading the Wikipedia entry:

    “The Gospel of Judas does not claim that the other disciples knew gnostic teachings. On the contrary, it asserts that the disciples had not learned the true Gospel, which Jesus taught only to Judas Iscariot.”

    It’s a tough one for me. On one hand it seems unlikely to me that Jesus taught the true Gospel only to Judas. And yet I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with Judas seemingly being “predestined,” in a way, to betray Christ. Once Jesus said he was going to do it, it’s almost like it was a done deal already then. If Judas had changed his mind, then Jesus’ prophecy about his doing so wouldn’t have been fulfilled and that would have been problematic. Somebody had to do it, right, if it was part of the greater plan?

  8. My interpretation of the events seemed to be buried in your details. The fragments discovered were some of those “other” texts that were anagolous to modern scholars assuming the Gospel of Judas was non religious texts. I have no problem, and its no leap of faith but rather shown in this post, that the religious texts for the BoA were probably not found among the few that were but did exist.

    You also seemed to make a left turn in your post. You had a great beginning when you asked the question: If its a hoax why do similar stories keep popping up in more accepted ancient texts? Thats a question I would like to here critics answer. Why do books that are “obviously hoaxes” contain literally thousands of verifications and matches from contemporary ancient records? Joseph Smith could not guess right in that many things or plagarize that many sources.

    Personally I think Nibley was thinking out loud with his “inspirational text” theory for the funeral fragments. I think he was on the wrong track with his ideas, as exemplified by the debate surrouding the Gospel of Judas.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. I am still away at graduation so I may not have all that much time to devote to counter responses.

  9. FD, the search feature on your blog doesn’t work well. You’ll have to provide a link for your Gospel of Judas post. I’d love to see it.

    As for Gnosticism, it is a very interesting topic. Gnostics were competing with Orthodox Christianity for converts. One view of the Gospel of Judas, is to show that the Orthodox believers have it all wrong–they follow the 11 apostles, while Gnostics follow the true apostle–Judas. So this gospel could be seen as a political power struggle between the two competing forms of Christianity.

    I know Pres Kimball made a statement suggesting that Jesus asked Judas to betray him. Really, when we look at the last supper, why didn’t all the apostles try to tackle Judas when Jesus showed them who would betray him? Could it be that Jesus could just have easily have chosen someone else, like Peter? Could it be that Judas was just picked almost at random? Really, there is so much speculation about Judas.

    The Gnostics don’t believe in the resurrection. Rather Jesus death and teachings were much more important. Gnostics do believe in a form of exaltation; the purpose of life is to leave the prison of the body, and live with the gods. (Gnostics love the Gospel of John.) I think it’s important to remember this when looking at Judas.

  10. Morgan, I think you’re right about my left turn there. I decided to put that question with the paragraph before. And if CHJ is still here, let me ask you CHJ, “If it’s a hoax why do similar stories keep popping up in more accepted ancient texts?”

  11. Yes, I read everything you said. I found it unconvincing, and it still requires a lot of hand-waving and “explanation.” I prefer straight, simple, unvarnished truths, like the Gospel of Jesus Christ originally promised.

    And “similar” is a very vague word. You might say, if Creationism isn’t true, why are there so many creation myths? The idea of a son who conflicts with his father and goes away to another land is not uncommon.

    The Book of Abraham supporters better have a lot better evidence than what they’ve offered thus far, because they still have to explain all the evidence against it.

  12. CHJ, you’re the one doing a lot of handwaving. You haven’t addressed a single issue, and completely ignored my question in 8. Is that all you’ve got–“it’s unconvincing”? What’s so convincing to you? So far, you argument is amazingly weak.

  13. MH, the post I was referring to was actually about Bruce C. Hafen’s “Love Is Not Blind” talk, where he suggests that Jesus may have actually been requesting Peter to deny him. From there, you may remember that the discussion evolved into Judas and whether he really betrayed Christ in the way that we’ve assumed. Anyways, this is the post.

    “I know Pres Kimball made a statement suggesting that Jesus asked Judas to betray him. Really, when we look at the last supper, why didn’t all the apostles try to tackle Judas when Jesus showed them who would betray him?”

    That’s a good point.

    I don’t know, but I just sort of look at Judas as being in roughly the same position as Eve. Both had to commit a serious “sin” in order for the Plan to be carried forward. Someone had to do it. We revere Eve, realizing that she was simply part of a greater plan. Perhaps it’s the same with Judas and he deserves more respect.

  14. The problem with debating the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, or any other divinely inspired book from a scientific perspective (“JS Jr couldn’t possibly,(have plagarized/have guessed/have known/have had access to, etc., etc.)”, “how do explain these evidences”) is that the proponents of the books make initial assumptions that are non-scientific.

    It reminds me of a joke about an Economist and some others stranded on a desert island and the others ask the Economist how they could get off. The Economist says: “Easy – first, assume we have a boat.” Those of the restoration faiths often begin with the assumption that God has performed a miracle, and then ask others (like CHJ) to “offer evidence” or make an argument that isn’t “weak” in order to support their scepticism. It’s impossible to “prove” a faith-based claim untrue or to make a strong argument against a faith-based claim for the simple reason that, according to the claim, God can do anything.

    With respect to most claims, the party making the claim is generally required to prove the claim – this is especially true for those making extraordinary claims. No one assumes there is a Big Foot because critics have been unable to explain the random sightings and haven’t been able to provide “strong arguments” justifying why they are unconvinced. But BoM/BoA sceptics are presented with theories (such as the Nibley theory, and asked to justify their scepticism.

    Now, I don’t like arguing against the historicity or authenticism of JS Jr writings or any other books of scripture. Faith is faith, and if one has faith that God can do all things, then I don’t feel it is appropriate to challenge that faith. But when people try to “prove” or “explain” rationally, logically or scientifically something which is faith-based, I must protest.

    It is akin to making fun of Islam’s 70 virgins or other outlandish religious beliefs, without acknowledging that the Christian religion is based on a story of a man born of a virgin who could walk on water and lived after dying before flying into the sky. Miracle stories, by definition, are not grounded in scientific fact and cannot being explained or justified with scientific data.

    Morgan Deane; you state that “Joseph Smith could not guess right in that many things or plagarize that many sources.” But that is a rational/logical explanation. I would posit that, in a rational/logical world, it is far more likely that JS Jr could do these things you say he cannot, than it is that a dead person from South America can fly around handing out golden books and an invisible uber-being can implant foreign languages into a dude from New York. That’s illogical.

    Which is not to say it didn’t happen – but it cannot, by the definition of the term “miraculous” be explained logically or rationally. I would suspect no one here believes David Koresh was the Messiah as he claimed. Surely you don’t believe God is incapable of anointing Koresh as such? Do you have an argument supporting your scepticism that is “stronger” than CHJ’s argument about Nibley’s theory being “unconvincing?” Should you have a stronger argument in order to disbelieve an unproven and outlandish claim? Does the fact that it is unproven and outlandish, make it impossible?

    Hey, you want to have a discussion on Nibley’s theory, I generally disaprove of someone like CHJ coming in and just saying he/she “is unconvinced” and starting something. If people want to discuss their beliefs, they should be able to do so unmolested. But I struggle with people making miraculous claims, and then throwing the burden of disproving that claim scientifically, back on sceptics.

  15. Chicken,

    I am sympathetic to your point of view. I guess the problem I have with CHJ is the diversion tactics, and failing to discuss any of the points here. First, CHJ makes a factually inaccurate statement which Bushman discussed above: we have the notes from Joseph Smith’s attempt at translation, and the translations he wrote down in the notes, next to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, are all egregiously wrong.

    As Bushman says above, “Eventually, they pulled their work together into a collection they called “Grammar & A[l]phabet of the Egyptian Language,” written in the hands of Phelps and Parrish.–not Joseph Smith.

    Then CHJ talks about FAIR and FARMS explanations, neither of which I referenced, so this seems to be a diversion. Hawkgrrrl mentioned FAIR, but only in the context that she liked my explanation better, so CHJ is taking something out of context here.

    Then CHJ makes some reference to Creationism. Where did that enter into the conversation?

    CHJ seems to be using a lot of diversion here, so I don’t think it’s out of line to show how silly CHJ’s arguments are. To ask a question to explain the similarities between the BoA and other non-biblical literature is a fairly straight-forward question, and I can think of a few non-miraculous methods to explain this, but CHJ doesn’t seem to care about arguing merits, but rather simply arguing diversions.

    The tone seems hostile too, rather than respectful. If CHJ wants to put forth a respectful argument, I am fine with that. You’ll notice that I engaged Tara on the previous thread, and had no problem with her disagreement, because she was respectful. CHJ isn’t being respectful here, so I think a little burden of scientific proof is rather fair in this case, since CHJ hasn’t bothered to show any respectful proof to this point. Certainly CHJ hasn’t put in nearly the effort or tact that Tara did on the polygamy thread.

  16. FD, I don’t know, but I just sort of look at Judas as being in roughly the same position as Eve. Both had to commit a serious “sin” in order for the Plan to be carried forward. Someone had to do it. We revere Eve, realizing that she was simply part of a greater plan.

    I don’t know if I agree with that interpretation, but I agree that it is the common interpretation. My mission president made a statement that perhaps if Eve had not partaken the fruit, then the Lord would have provided another way to the plan, and perhaps this world would not be so wicked. I like this thought process, and tend to identify with it more than the traditional understanding of Eve.

    Perhaps it’s the same with Judas and he deserves more respect.

    I agree. It is funny to me that Judas was a well-respected name at the time of Jesus. Judas Maccabeas was a sort of George Washington about 165 years before Christ. He freed the Jews from foreign powers, and they experienced independence for about 100 years until the Romans came in and took over under Herod. (See my Hanukkah post for more info.)

    Anyway, Judas was a real patriotic name. Then when Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ, it became a name to represent Jews and anti-semitism, especially during the Crusades. I do think Judas gets a bad rap, and I like Pres Kimball’s thought that perhaps Judas was following Jesus request. I think we’re too hard on both Judas and Peter.

  17. MH – you are absolutley right that it’s not worthwhile to dump a “you guys are crazy” into an otherwise intellectual and civil faith discussion. I was just reacting to the efforts to have a non-believer support his/her non-belief in rational terms.

    But I agree – if CHJ wanted to bring something to the table, he/she should have done so in the spirit of respect – as we all should.

  18. “My mission president made a statement that perhaps if Eve had not partaken the fruit, then the Lord would have provided another way to the plan, and perhaps this world would not be so wicked.”

    That’s interesting that your mission president said that. I can’t recall ever having heard anything other than the standard view that Eve had to partake of the fruit, otherwise they’d still be in the same state in Eden. It’s interesting to think of what potentially could have been different in the world now if there had been another option for Eve.

  19. I see where you are coming from chicken. Basially, since any miraculous event is by definition illogical and unprovablee its unfair to shift the burden of proof.

    I have several problems with that line of reasoning. First, you seem to suggest that any faith cannont be logical. People like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Mormons like Orson Pratt and James Talmadge have shown how faith and reason are reconciled and even supportive of each other. Having a rational justification for faith is one of the most written about topics in Christian and philosophical history. When you say things like “its inherently unprovable” I think of Decarte’s extensive logical proof for the existence of God and think that you are just avoiding the question.

    So taking out the testimony of Mormons and anti testimony of people like CHJ, both can be rather subjective anyway, and you are left with more objective evidence. I still think this objective evidence is secondary to a testimony, as you mentioned, but in the marketplace of ideas I would never expect somebody to accept my testimony in place of research. I would not do that at graduate school, and I would not do it for skeptics of my religion. I would expect them to respect my position of faith, but they must get their own evidence from the spirit or from their research.

    My attempt to shift the burden was partly a result of frustration that in the realm of ideas critics like to present laundry lists of “problems” in the BoM in attempts to dissuade us from our beliefs. These are scientific claims that are supposed to cancel our belief (DNA, horses, the analyzed funeral fragment etc). But when we present a list of “hits” that support the BoM (Nahom, Chiasmus, GoJ being among non spiritual texts etc) they are ignored, downplayed, or we recieve an “anti testimony” about how ridiculous Smith still is, or how religion is already ridiculuous so asking for natural explanations is out of bounds and doesn’t matter.

    So in short: we play the game of presenting objective evidence when the critics don’t want or care about our testimonies, but when we ask for answers or explanations for our evidence some claim it doesn’t matter anyway. The question still remains: if you don’t count the religous explanation how do you explain the hits for the BoM (or the BoA since I am trying not to threadjack)? What is the response to our efforts to prove it? To use your analogy, what is the critics answer to the reams of evidence in support of Big Foot’s existence? Chicken, even your “logical” explanation is still a big “I don’t know buts its less crazy than believing God did it.” That does not address the evidence, you simply provided a wordy excuse for not engaging the research presented by Mormon Scholars. Granted this thread was more a question about Nibley than a presentation of evidence, but the post by you and CJH are two extremes of avoiding evidence. Hopefully MH will do another post soon about the topic of critics avoidance. Untill then I appreciate your view but I don’t buy it as much as you object to mine.

  20. I know this isn’t really at the heart of the topic, but the comparison of Judas, Eve, and Peter was brought up. I’m not ruling out the possibility that Judas was asked by Jesus to betray him, but I don’t understand the point of it if it were to be true. I can understand why Jesus would tell Peter to betray him, which seems to have been to keep Peter alive or at least out of prison. But I don’t see a logical reason for Jesus to request that Judas betray him, especially considering the brutal way that he was later killed by Christ’s disciples for the betrayal. It seems to me that Jesus could’ve surrendered to authorities rather than involve Judas or anyone else for that matter. To compare the role of Eve as being crucial to the plan of salvation to Judas as being similarly crucial does not sit well with me.

  21. Morgan:

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve been carrying on an extensive conversation with BTC for the last couple of days, and encouraging him to really look at some of the evidence, specifically including some of the work on your blog. I hope he has or will do so.

  22. FireTag, how does the CoC view the Book of Abraham (and Book of Moses)?

    Perhaps I should do a post on Eve. I don’t mind a short threadjack here–it is tangentially related. I’m not really fond of the idea that God seems to have given conflicting commands, and Eve was the one to make a decision to break conflicting commandments. Something just strikes me as really odd there. I don’t think God purposely gives us conflicting commandments.

    Tara, I was always under the impression that Judas commit suicide, rather than the disciples killed him. I know that gospels seem to contradict each other (he hung himself, vs jumped off a cliff–some think he hung himself on a tree overhanging a cliff and the rope broke, dashing his insides on the rocks). If Judas was just following Jesus’ orders, perhaps he was expecting another miracle from Christ. Jesus had escaped death before, and when he didn’t this time, perhaps it was too much for Judas to bear.

    I think it’s important to remember the mind-set of the Jews back then. With the independence ushered in by Judas Maccabeas 200 years before, many Jews expected Jesus to free them from the Romans. They weren’t looking at Jesus for the atonement and resurrection that we modern Christians just take for granted. I know for a fact that all the apostles were shocked and mourned greatly when Jesus died–it was extremely unexpected for them. Perhaps Judas took it especially hard, and he gets a great deal more blame than warranted. If Jesus needed to be turned over to the authorities in order to accomplish the resurrection, then it does seem that Judas actions were critical to Jesus overall plans.

    (I probably should have split this into 2 posts–the conversation seems to be turning in 2 directions–Judas and Abraham. Oh well.)

  23. Book of Moses is broken up and inserted either as a preference to Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible or in the appropriate points of Genesis, as well as in our D&C. It has been considered as canonical, but is never used as a separate “Book of Moses”. The other elements of the Pearl of Great Price have varied status. The excerpts from Matthew are inserted within the New Testament at an appropriate place. The First Vision and Articles of Faith are considered important historical testimonies in our faith, but not canonized. The Book of Abraham is not considered to be inspired in any way and has no status at all.

  24. OK, total threadjack here with Judas. I think you’re going to have to do another post, MH. 🙂

    Just something interesting that I had never noticed until I read it on Wikipedia under Judas Iscariot, “modern interpretations.”

    “Mark 16:14 and Luke 24:33 state that following his resurrection Jesus appeared to “the eleven.” Who was missing? After all that had transpired one would just naturally think it was Judas. Apparently not, because in John 20:24 we learn that the one missing was Thomas. Therefore the eleven had to include Judas. To further confuse things, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:5 that following his resurrection Jesus was seen by “the twelve.” This had to include Judas because it wasn’t until after the ascension, some forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), that another person, Matthias, was voted in to replace Judas (Acts 1:26). So, apparently Judas neither committed suicide nor died by accident. In Acts 1:25 we are told that Judas “turned aside to go to his own place.”

    Another clue confirming the absence of the Judas story in the earliest Christian documents occurs in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:28-30. Here Jesus tells his disciples that they will “sit on the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” No exception is made for Judas even though Jesus was aware of his impending act of betrayal. The answer may lie in the fact that the source of these verses could be the hypothetical Q document (QS 62). Q is thought to predate the gospels and would be one of the earliest Christian documents. Given that possibility, the betrayal story could have been invented by the writer of Mark.”


  25. FD, since Judas and his gospel talk so prominently about the betrayal, I don’t view that as a threadjack at all, so no apology necessary. The only thing is that we do seem to have two completely different conversations going on here (Judas and Abraham), so that can get confusing for some.

    FD, that is fascinating, but I do want to point out that the gospels seem to contradict themselves on this point. In Matt 27, it explicitly says that Judas returned the money and commit suicide, BEFORE Jesus was crucified.

    So, there is a real discrepency here as to whether Judas was present when Jesus appeared to the 11 (with Thomas missing.) Acts seems to view Judas as a traitor early on. However, there are some interesting dynamics going on.

    It is important to remember who the gospel authors were writing to. Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience. Mark is written for the gentile Greeks. Luke/Acts is written to people familiar with Christians, and portrays Jews in a very negative light. John may have been written to Gnostic Christians.

    As I recall, the same author wrote both Luke and Acts, and was quite anti-jewish. Matthew, on the other hand, wrote his gospel specifically to the Jews. While Matthew would like to show Judas as a renegade, and put an end to Judas life early in the story of Christ, the author of Luke wanted to portray Judas as representing all Jews, and was more anti-Jewish. Mark and John seem to ignore Judas death.

    So, while I find the modern day analysis interesting that Judas may have been there when Jesus appeared, I think it is hard to conclusively say that he was there, in light of Matthew’s words. Really, Corinthians, Mark and Luke are vague about Judas’ whereabouts, but it does leave open the possibility that Judas could have been in the room for Jesus first appearance to the apostles when Thomas was not there.

    It really seems to pit the scriptures against each other. If we believe Matthew’s account that Judas commit suicide before the crucifixion of Jesus, then he couldn’t have been there as the Wiki authors above suggest. If Judas was there when the resurrected Christ appeared, it seems hard to imagine that he would have commit suicide after seeing the resurrected Savior. On the other hand, Acts seems to blame Judas, and Matthias was replacing him. “Act 1:18 Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.

    Obviously there is a long tradition that Judas was the bad guy, but I don’t think we should be so quick to judge him. I do think there were many followers of Jesus who used Judas as a scapegoat, and there was probably a lot of thought going on such as “what if Judas didn’t betray Jesus? Perhaps he would still be alive and save us from these awful Romans.” Remember, Jesus was supposed to be an earthly king, according to these early followers of Jesus, who didn’t understand Christ’s spiritual role. I think there was a lot of debate going on about what Jesus role was, and Judas is an easy scapegoat.

  26. MH,

    Sorry, I had my facts confused. I was recalling a conversation I had a long time ago with Elder Joseph about Judas. One of the early church leaders (don’t remember who but I could find out; and no, it wasn’t Brigham) gave a discourse and said something about Judas being kicked by the disciples until his bowels spilled out. I guess that is a possibility but it seems pretty clear from the scriptures that Judas indeed committed suicide.

    Anyway, I still don’t see why a betrayal was necessary for Jesus to be crucified. You’ve stated that Judas may have been critical to Jesus’ overall plans, but haven’t given any indication as to why. I just have a hard time seeing it as necessary and can’t believe that Jesus would ask Judas to do that if it weren’t really necessary.

  27. Thanks firetag. I wasn’t expecting a thank you for my post. I was actually expecting something rather unpleasant. And thanks for the shout out, its humbling to know I have people citing me. And thanks for the original post MH, its always a good read about Mormon topics.

  28. Personally, I think there are 3 discussions here: Judas, Abraham and Eve (to a lesser degree) but I digress.

    That said, this cannot be a thread jack as it does relate.
    The Gospel (Christianity in this case) has several contradictions.
    1. Why did God require Eve to sin in order to further the plan?
    2. Why did Jesus ask Judas to betray him or Peter to deny him?
    3. Why does God’s plan require a Satan (opposition in all things)?

    possible thread jack:
    It is #3 that gives me the most heartburn. It appears that God’s plan required a Satan’s plan which opposed God’s plan. Seems a bit circular to me.

    Not to totally thread jack, I will attempt to answer MH’s questions here:
    1. Is Hugh Nibley’s theory plausible based on the journey taken by the Gospel of Judas?

    A. Anything that has not been disproven is plausible. Even things that are highly unlikely can be plausible.

    2. If the BoA is a hoax, why do incidents of similar context keep coming forth.

    A. I think what CHJ was trying to say (at least my take) was that these 2 things are unrelated. If the BoA is a hoax, it doesn’t matter how many supporting things come to the surface. On the flip side, if the BoA is not a hoax, it doesn’t matter how many non-supportive items surface. I think Chicken was trying to say this as well. Its not a matter of avoiding the question. I think it is more a matter of stating that the question is unanswerable.

    3. Could Coptic Egyptian be Reformed Egyptian (assumed of the BoM variety)

    A. I think that Coptic Egyptian is a good example of a type of reformed Egyptian as it was taking the Egyptian language and writing it using the Greek Alphabet instead of Hyroglyphs. That said, it could not have been the Reformed Egyptian of the BoM variety since it was not used until 700 years after Lehi would have left Jerusalem.

  29. Bishop Rick:

    I think all theories of the BofA or other claimed ancient Scriptural documents containing proposed historical elements are potentially falsifiable as long as you are careful not to assume the conclusion you draw and are willing to look for explanations for all of the evidence.

    Most science sits in a perpetual limbo where you converge on truth slowly as you take more effects into account in formulating your theory and more types of measurements to test it. A scientist has to remain perpetually open to better models: we’ll never go back to believing in a flat earth, but we now know the earth as a ball is a very poor model on which to base, say, a GPS technology.

  30. Tara,

    The “why” is always the toughest question to answer about anything. So your question of why Judas had to betray Jesus can really only be answered speculatively. If I may, I will try to use some of your logic to answer the question. In the past, you’ve basically said, if God says to kill, you kill (as in the case of Joshua.) So, if Jesus says to Judas to betray, then he should betray as an act of obedience. Relating this to Adam, Adam sacrificed because of obedience, not because he understood why. So, I guess the simplest answer to why Judas needed to betray Jesus was simply an act of obedience. Of course, this seems quite contradictory, but so does God command for Abraham to kill Isaac. I guess we’re just supposed to wrestle with the “why.”

    To look at this from a different point of view, I’m sure Jesus could have had a different plan that didn’t involve Judas betraying him. But for whatever reason, he might have chosen Judas to betray him. Just as Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac makes no sense (except in an act of obedience), Judas betrayal makes no sense.

  31. Bishop Rick,

    Since Eve seems to be getting much more attention than I ever anticipated, I think I’ll probably do a post on her, and try to tie in your points #1 and 3. I think you’ve got some interesting points, but with the already divergent topics of Abraham and Judas, I really don’t want to further digress into Eve, but it is certainly an interesting topic that merits further discussion.

    Regarding your point 2A, it seems to me that some here are arguing that you can’t mix religious and scientific arguments. (Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, Chicken, and CHJ’s point, but I think that’s what you’re trying to say.) At this point, I want to bring out one of my favorite quotes regarding the religion/science debate. It comes from Rabbi Maimonides, and I posted this previously in my post on DNA and Tradition, Guide for the Perplexed:

    “Although writing more than 700 years ago, [Rabbi Moses] Nachmanides’ message is even more clear and relevant today. His writings directed the person of faith to realize that there is much more hidden than revealed, both in the traditional Biblical writings and also in the natural world. Our challenge is to continually study and investigate both realms, with the realization that apparent conflicts are merely artifacts of temporary incomplete understanding in one or both realms. This avoidance of intellectual pride, allows the person of traditional religious faith to work comfortably within the framework of rigorous scientific hypothesis and empiricism. This is also in keeping with the rationalist approach in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.

    As for Coptic, I think it is older than you suggest. According to Wikipedia,

    Coptic belongs to the Later Egyptian phase which started to be written in the New Kingdom. Later Egyptian represented the colloquial language. It had analytic features like definite and indefinite articles and periphrastic verb conjugation. Coptic therefore is a reference both to the final stage of Egyptian after Demotic, and to the new writing system that was adapted from the Greek alphabet.

    I looked up New Kingdom, and it seems to date from the 16th to 11th century BC, which would pre-date Lehi by at least 400 years. Even if it is not Coptic, I think Demotic (650 – 400 BC) is a possibility for reformed Egyptian. Hieratic is another possible form of reformed Egyptian, though it appears in the 2nd century AD, so it is probably too late.

  32. More research is needed regarding Coptic Egyptian, but my understanding is that the spoken language matches your dates and the written language matches mine, which is why I don’t think it lines up with Lehi.

  33. Morgan, thanks for your post and I appreciate your position. I have not visited your site yet, but will certainly do so.

    You say that I seem to suggest that any faith cannot be logical. This is not what I mean to imply, but the answer really depends on your definition of “faith.” I have faith the sun will rise tomorrow, and that’s based entirely on logic. One definition of faith, however, is the belief in something that cannot be proved. As for Descartes, his “proof” of God, while an interesting philosophical brain-teaser, hardly qualifies as proof of anything (particularly due to its ability to prove, well, anything).

    My statement is more accurately presented as: miracles cannot be explained logically — because if they could, they wouldn’t be miracles. How did Jesus walk on water, or turn water into wine? If these were magic tricks, they wouldn’t be miracles. If we found out that they were illusions and not divine, what would that do to the Christian religion? Not only can I not explain them rationally, if I could, they would no longer be miracles.

    The Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham have similar miraculous origins. One can make an argument that they were both non-miraculously written, but their discovery and translation are definitely claimed to be miraculous. If one chooses to believe in that miracle, just as people believe in the parting of the Red Sea or the flooding of the earth, I am not one to challenge that belief. By calling myself a Christian, I instantly subscribe myself to illogical/irrational beliefs (virgin birth, raising from the dead, ascension into heaven) that I cannot “prove” and indeed, would not want to.

    And yet those who believe in the Book of Mormon/Book of Abraham, seem bent on convincing non-believers using logic and scientific evidence. In so doing, however, they tend to take a very non-scientific approach, specifically, by improperly classifying the incredible audacity of their claim.

    For example, if I were to tell you I was wearing a blue shirt right now, you would likely not require any other evidence than my word that this was true. You wouldn’t seek out witnesses or ask for a picture to analyze, because my claim simply isn’t very incredible. Now, if I were to say that I am wearing a blue shirt that was given to me by God in a vision and in so doing he declared me to be a prophet to restore the true word of God to the world — you would likely require a little more evidence. Frankly, you probably wouldn’t require any evidence; you’d probably dismiss me as a nut, which is the general reaction of BoM critics.

    But BoM believers tend to try and “prove” the BoM in a way equivalent to Blue Shirt believers proving my divinity by showing people I’m wearing a blue shirt. They’d publish pictures of my blue shirt. They’d have my wife and kids testify that I wasn’t wearing a blue shirt when I left the house – that, indeed, I don’t even own a blue shirt. See his blue shirt? He must therefore be divine.

    Again, this is not to say that the Book of Mormon is not divine just as it is not fair to say to Blue Shirt believers that the Blue Shirt is not divine. But neither can be proven logically to be so.

    I feel compelled and am uncomfortable a little in making my Blue Shirt analogy because it seems insulting, or lacking respect for the belief in the Book of Mormon. But that is precisely my point — BoM believers begin with an assumption that it is true and work from that starting point. Non-believers look at it as a Blue Shirt, which is why evidence must certainly be far more convincing than being able to show that there is a sign in Saudi Arabia that “could” mean “Nahom” and “could” be the name of a place. Or that there “could” have been horses in South America. Or that there “could” be some similarities in some stories in ancient texts.

    If you are trying to prove an extraordinary (miraculous) claim, one must have extraordinary evidence, or else there is nothing to discuss, other than amongst those who, by faith, already believe.

  34. Chicken,

    “One definition of faith, however, is the belief in something that cannot be proved.”

    I really don’t like that definition, and don’t believe that I have ever represented that as my position. Perhaps that is why there might be a disagreement?

    “My statement is more accurately presented as: miracles cannot be explained logically — because if they could, they wouldn’t be miracles.

    Joseph Smith always said that God works by natural laws (science.) We may not understand the principles Jesus used to walk on water, turn water to wine, but according to Mormon belief, it simply means that we haven’t learned the science to figure it out yet. I think it is very likely that we can learn these scientific principles. So, while they may be miracles today, in the future, these events will no longer be miracles, because we do understand the science behind them. I see absolutely no conflict in trying to use science to understand faith.

    If we found out that they were illusions and not divine, what would that do to the Christian religion?

    You seem to have left out an option here. What if they are not illusions at all? It could be that God uses science to actually convert water to wine–no illusion at all. In that case, it is definitely divine, but at this point, science and the divine seem to merge.

    Not only can I not explain them rationally, if I could, they would no longer be miracles. Ok, I guess I can agree with you there. If we can explain something, it is not a miracle. Perhaps Jesus would then be classified as a genius, like Einstien. However, Jesus is more than simply a genius, because he is proclaiming spiritual guidance, rather than merely being a really smart scientist.

    Frankly, there are people who believe that God uses evolution in the Genesis account. While believers may consider Creation as a miracle, is it somehow less or a miracle because we understand the God used evolution? I think people will disagree as to the answer to that question. I can see how some people would still proclaim evolution to be a miracle, while others would say it’s not a miracle because we understand it.

  35. Definitions vary. I didn’t claim you defined “faith” one way or the other, I was actually referring to Morgan’s post. Sorry for any confusion. I don’t necessarily like or dislike any particular definition. That particular example is from freeonlinedictionary.com/

    As for the discussion on the definition of “miracle” – I agree, it all comes down to your point of view.

    I’ve never heard that Joseph said God works through natural laws. I think this concept has some pretty serious fundamental theological implications about the nature of God. Maybe something you could start a thread about.

  36. Yes, the King Follet sermon comes to mind–but that is definitely off topic here. (Famous quote by Joseph Smith in that sermon, “there is no such thing as immaterial matter.”)

    By the way, which post of Morgan are we referring to? I don’t think I’m familiar with it.

  37. Comment #17 above. Thanks for the reference.

  38. Great post here at Mormon Matters that goes along with what we were talking about regarding Eve.

  39. Personally, I would like to see a post that shows how evolution could fit inside the Genesis account of creation. I predict a lively discussion there.

  40. Sorry to take so long in joining back in, but I had a long doctor’s appointment today.


    One of the first things my physics advisor hammered home to me as a graduate student was: “It only takes one unicorn to prove the existence of unicorns.” By which, of course, he wasn’t making a comment about unicorns. He was making a comment about a philosophy of doing science.

    The philosophy is wholeheartedly endorsed within the physics community as part of our scientific ethos, and I suspect it extends throughout the “hard” sciences. Once a question enters the scientific arena, we are no longer allowed to ignore data that is inconvenient to the theory. We don’t ignore “outliers” – without justification other than the theory we’re testing – without providing a scientifically credible rationale for doing so, even if the rationale is stated to be random measurement error. And if we say “random error”, we continue to use the outlier in our confidence assessments.

    At the very least, physicists must acknowledge the anomaly of the outlier. In other words, all of the scientific evidence comes in, or none of it does. Indeed, my discipline encourages me to pursue the data precisely because it’s in the conflict between experimental data and theory that we make progress toward better theories. For example, physicists have been chasing a minuscule deviation in the theoretically predicted acceleration of satellites traveling away from the sun (the so-called Pioneer anomaly) for a couple of decades now, and the more very clever explanations for the anomaly fail, the more people start to focus on the problem, and the more disciplines they bring to bear on it. Maybe it will turn out to be nothing; maybe it will turn out to be a decisive test between General Relativity and a competing theory of gravity called Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND). That’s why physicists continue to look.

    And it doesn’t matter what motivated the measurement in the first place. We get to question processes and procedures in measurement, but we are ideally supposed to try and do “blind testing” on the identity of the observer, much like a medical researcher is not supposed to know which doctor provided a test sample, but only the protocol followed in taking the sample.

    To apply this ethos to the unicorn example, the prevailing theory, based on reams of scientific evidence, is that no one-horned horses with magical powers exist. So if someone purports to have found a unicorn skeleton, I may be perfectly justified in ignoring the claim and put it down to hoax or misidentification of known animal by someone who had a little too much of the wrong beverages. Life is short, and I can’t investigate everything.

    Then a photographer takes a picture of the skeleton, and I see the picture over breakfast, and I don’t recognize the animal. Life is still short.

    Then a Customs agent tracking an exotic animal smuggling ring sees the same photograph, impounds the skeleton to see if it might be a dead rhino, and Customs pays for an anthropologist to take a look. The anthropologist concludes that the skeleton is a horse with one horn. Now I am perfectly justified scientifically in continuing to believe that one-horned horses do not have magical powers. But I am also scientifically required to modify my original theory to conclude that there is probably a genetic mechanism that can produce a birth defect that will cause a horse to grow a horn.

    Now a biologist asks for a DNA sample because she thinks understanding the mechanism might be very useful in looking for mechanisms to speed bone healing in humans or domestic animals. Her motive may be altruistic, academic, or profit-driven. It doesn’t matter. Now the skeleton is firmly on the scientific side of the ledger, and any and all scientific techniques becomes fair game to use.

    Somebody questions the skeleton’s discoverer, and finds that it washed up on a river shoreline. Tracing the river currents backward, they find 100 such skeletons, freshly killed at a single location. Now we have to expand our explanations away from hoax to include the possibility of a mad genetic engineer or unappreciated environmental toxin. Still more disciplines become involved. Still not a hint of magical powers, but my scientific theory of “unicorns” has to continually adjust to explain all of the findings, or it stops being scientific by this philosophy of science. There is no longer any going back to the original theory that the unicorn is the result of a hoax or a fool.

    The plates of the Book of Mormon may be an artifact that we can’t examine, but the Book of Mormon itself can be examined. We can examine both the Book of Abraham and at least fragments of the documents from which it originated. It is possible to reach different conclusions about each book independently (Historically, the LDS and RLDS branches of the Restoration obviously did).

    But the study of these Mormon scriptures crossed over the line from purely theological consideration to scientific consideration several million Mormons and more than a century ago, when Mormon studies itself became a recognizable scientific discipline. It doesn’t matter that the controversies arose over competing faith claims. The competition found things, including things that point toward both “yes” and “no” to the question of whether the Book is a 19th Century document.

    It is impossible to have a scientific explanation of “Mormonism” that leaves out a scientific explanation of the Book of Mormon. If the theory proposed is some form of fiction or hoax, than things that don’t fit the fiction or hoax theory must be noted as outliers or anomalies, and until explained, a scientist in my discipline must hold open the possibility of modifying the theory to best fit all of the data. I don’t expect to end up with anything “magical”, but I do expect to end up with a better picture of both science and theology. That’s been happening to me for the last half-century, and I surely hope it doesn’t stop now.

    I recognize that other disciplines take different approaches. This is the very point I tried to make in <a href=”thefirestillburning.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/science-tribes/” the blog post here : different scientific “tribes” have different views of how one proceeds in dealing with unexpected results, but none of the tribes, including my own, get to pronounce final judgment on why we search for answers or when we stop.

    So who has the burden of proof? Depends on the jury.

    I give highest weight to the personal revelation that has guided my life. My FAITH POSITION is that the Book of Mormon contains substantial portions of historically accurate information that allows me to regard it as “sacred” in a way I would not regard it if I became convinced it was “fiction”. I use it to judge and formulate my own behavior as I use the Bible. Indeed, it helps me decide how to interpret the testimony about Jesus in the Bible, not simply to echo the Bible’s witness.

    But I became a physicist in the first place because of one of those personal revelatory experiences in which I was commanded to study science, so I give next highest weight to what my POSITION AS A PHYSICIST tells me to conclude: the Book of Mormon is one big anomaly with insufficient evidence yet discovered to falsify either a 19th Century or ancient origin, and with sufficient evidence uncovered to raise serious scientific questions about either explanation.

    Consequently, my position as a physicist does not so much tell me what to believe as it tells me that pursuing more evidence is important. As I tried to make the point more explicitly <a href=”thefirestillburning.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/hot-jupiters-and-privileged-scriptural-frames/” in the post here, questions about Book of Mormon historicity, however resolved, will tell us something important about how to pursue peace and justice and the purposes of Christ in our modern world.

    BTC, I gather from your comments that you would give weight only to what rationality (and perhaps even reductionism) would tell you. So you’ll have to make a personal decision as to what the evidence says to you and what rationale you use. If you regard the questions as settled, then you do.

  41. @ FireTag

    “My FAITH POSITION is that the Book of Mormon contains substantial portions of historically accurate information that allows me to regard it as “sacred””

    Offer some examples please.

  42. FT – you are wrong to assume that I will only give weight to rationality. This is not my point. I will give weight to your testimony, just as I would hope others would give weight to mine. But, again, if someone goes beyond their testimony and tries to provide rational evidence, then I must counter that the Book of Mormon/Book of Abraham cannot be proven by rational means.

    For rational, scientific thinkers know that you cannot translate from a language you are not familiar (among other things). Just as you only need to fine one unicorn, you only need to find one anachronism to prove a document rationally false (notwithstanding Morgan’s “reams” of evidence). For example, the use of the word “compass”. You have pointed out that it is possible that, when coming accross a word for which there was no direct translation, God inspired JS Jr to see/understand an english equivalent. This may well be, but it is not rational – one must bring belief/faith/miracles into the equation to solve the anachronism.

    As soon as you bring the miraculous hand of God into your explanation, it has departed the world of science/logic/rationality. And that’s fine. But it is not rational.

  43. Oh – and I hope all went well at the doctor.

  44. BR:

    My FAITH POSITION is that there were Nephites, that Lehi left Jerusalem before its destruction, etc., etc. If you now ask me to prove it scientifically, you have now asked me to move into my SCIENCE POSITION, which I have already said will only justify the conclusion that we have an anomaly which can not be explained scientifically.

    BTC: Your comment again brings us back to MH’s point that you exclude the possibility that God may be natural, not supernatural. I believe God and reality are alternate names for the same thing. I believe reality has both personal and impersonal aspects. I believe the personal aspects are vitally important in any understanding of reality, not minor players. You and I are observable facts of the universe and we are personal. We exist in relation to the impersonal. But we decide what the meaning of that relationship is. I decide the personal is vitally important, and the impersonal does not stop me.

    You seem to hold to the position that “rational” worldviews must only regard the impersonal as fundamental. Who (or should I say “what”) says so?

    Got to call it a night, and I may not be able to check back before Wednesday.

  45. Chicken, can you comment on Maimonides’ point that the conflict between faith and science is really the absence of information in one or both realms. Do you agree or disagree with his assessment?

  46. FT: I’m not asking you to prove anything. That’s my point. If that is your faith position, I am not one to challenge it and I encourage you on your journey.

    MH: Again, it would depend on your definition of faith, but historically this has been true. Although also historically, the lack of information has been on the faith side. This is not to say there cannot be a lack of information on the science side, but this has not been historically the case.

    God or gods were, throughout eternity, generally used to explain gaps in science. When it rained, or snowed, or the sun came up, or someone got sick, or someone got better or the crops died or the crops grew, all were due to a god or gods. As science started to understand the nature of reality, the need for gods became more defined and we have generally settled on one God who, rather than making our crops grow if we pay due homage, gives us love, comfort and a sense of purpose.

    Of course we still use God to fill in science gaps and one of the greatest mysteries remains the human mind, that for centuries we have thought of as the soul. We now know the mind is much more physical than we would ever have given “natural science” credit for. Conditions of the mind we used to use to “prove” the divine (love, compassion, fear, hate) can be attributed to physical neurological states and even altered by physical events, such as trauma or disease.

    Does that mean it’s impossible that somehow the divine can work naturally with our mind to read words we’ve never seen (translate Reformed Egyptian) or make matter disappear or move to another plane of existence (like the plates), I suppose not. But this would not only represent completly new scientific concepts, it would contradict all natural scientific laws. And, to belabor an analogy, someone would have to show more than a blue shirt to get objective scholars to accept the possibility.

  47. Here’s another way to put it:

    Two men walk into a bar. The first one says, “I’m the Messaiah, the Son of the Living God!” The second one says, “No, I’m the Messaiah, the Son of the Living God!” Which one is telling the truth? The answer is: it doesn’t matter.

    If you believe Jesus of Nazareth of whom the New Testament was written is the true Son of God, you must also ackowledge that there were many who also believed and, in His name did unspeakably horrible things, from the Inquisitions, to persecution of Gallileo, to the Crusades, to Fred Phelps. You likely also acknowledge that tremendous good comes from the Church of England, the Anglican church that was founded by an arrogant monarch that wanted a divorce.

    If you claim to follow Jesus, but do harm to your fellow being, then it matters not if Jesus is truly divine. If you follow Henry VIII and do good and bring others to God, then it matters not that Henry was a murderer just trying to take the easy road. Similarly, it doesn’t matter which of the two men of my story are really the Son of God – what matters is your response.

    If the BoM/BoA are hoaxes perpetrated by an arrogant treasure hunter, and they lead you to change the world and bring about communities of love, then the books are as divine as any Bible. If the BoM/BoA were written by God’s firey finger and lead you to advance hate (as they once did with respect to African Americans) then they are worthless.

    Because God manifests Himself, for whatever reasons, in ways indistinguishable from mental illness and dillusion, the only way we can distinguish the Truth from the false is to judge them by their effect on the World. And if that effect is to bring forth the Love of which Jesus spoke, then it is Truth, regardless of origin.

  48. Chicken, you completely ignored my question about Maimonides. From the answer you gave, it seems you have a real bias against any sort of rational faith. You talk about how others define faith, not how I (or Mormons/believers in general) define it.

    If you’re going to lump all the Crusades, King Henry in with the bad religious people, then I suppose I can use the Nazi and Communist regimes to show how bad rationalist ideas are. After all, it was the Nazi’s who experimented with radiation on Jews to see what it would do to the body, right?

    Please don’t paint me with a broad brush. I find your illustrations overly broad, insulting, and frankly you seem to be arguing with another person’s definition of faith, rather than my (or rationalist believers) position. It seems you are using diversion to argue your point, rather than actually addressing the real issues here. You seem to completely reject that a faithful person can be rational. I completely reject this assumption on your part.

    Ok, perhaps I will do another post on faith vs religion, so we can better flesh out these ideas. I’d like to return back to Abraham and Judas now.

  49. I certainly didn’t mean to ignore your comment. In fact, I felt like I addressed it. I apologize if I wasn’t clear.

    You paraphrased Maimonides as saying “that the conflict between faith and science is really the absence of information in one or both realms.” We have struggled with a definition of the word “faith”. I answered your question qualifying that, without an agreed to definition of the word, it’s difficult to discuss. However, that said, I did say that this [meaning, Maimonides statement] has been historically true. This was meant to express that I agreed with him. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear.

    You say I don’t talk about how you define faith. You’re right, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But please don’t put words in mine. I didn’t lump the Crusades and the Inquisitors into a group to say religion or faith is “bad”, but to demonstrate that merely having faith in the “right” thing, doesn’t make one’s actions, necessarily “good.”

    I am also not saying that rationalism is “good” and faith is “bad”. I consider myself a faithful person and have said on several occasions that I respect and would not challenge one’s faith, even if that faith were in something that, from a rational basis, would seem illogical. If I were saying that one cannot be faitful and logical, then I would be insulting to myself, for that’s what I feel I am.

    You and FT seem to be missing my point. There is conflict between science and faith, as Maimonides acknowledges. To the extent gaps in science are filled in with faith, that’s fine, but it does not meet any scientific standards (hence, the gap). The Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham suffer from scientific gaps which would, from a purely logical standpoint, make them false. To the extent we fill in those gaps with faith, then that expression of faith is as valid as anyone’s and should not be disregarded based on reason. But I think it’s equally invalid to try to make the claim that the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham stand on their own using solely logic and reason – and not faith. Because I don’t believe they do.

    That’s my point. I don’t mean to define faith for anyone and have expressed openly that we have different definitions. I don’t mean to ignore comments and absolutely felt I was addressing yours on Maimonides. I reject the notion that one cannot be faithful and rational. I don’t mean to divert, but have intended to make a simple point and find myself defending yours and FireTag’s misunderstandings or mischaraterizations of what I’m “really” saying. I’m sure this is from my own failings to communicate.

    Sorry for any insult. It sure wasn’t intended.

  50. Chicken, thanks for the clarification, but I still think you paint with an overly broad brush.

    The Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham suffer from scientific gaps which would, from a purely logical standpoint, make them false.

    Wait a minute here. I’m willing to acknowledge scientific gaps, but to claim that these gaps therefore makes them false is going way too far. Perhaps you should say that there is not enough data to confirm the validity of the BoM and BoA. If you want to believe they’re false, then certainly you’re entitled to make that claim, but to state that they’re false solely on lack of evidence is arguing that absence of evidence is the same as evidence of absence. You’re simply going too far in a statement like that. FireTag mentioned outliers before, and these do need to be examined. Ignoring them leads one to conclude a position that these books are false. Let me give you a few examples.

    Man can’t fly. Now obviously people who believed men couldn’t fly, were suffering from an inadequate knowledge of aerodynamics. We talk of the miracle of flight, but it’s not a miracle, because we understand the principles now. Just 200 years ago, man can’t fly was considered logical, and man can fly would have been considered illogical. Using your logic, man would never have been able to fly, because the knowledge required broke all current scientific wisdom. Science has grown up to understand laws of flight.

    Gravity accounts for all motion. However, the theory of relativity and quantum physics seems to break laws of Newtonian motion. From Newton’s point of view, quantum physics breaks all logical rules, as does relativity. Therefore relativity and quantum physics should not exist, because they break laws of Newtonian motion.

    So, for you to make a statement that the book of Abraham is false because there are currently no logical ways to make it work and it breaks current scientific logic, seems to be much too broad a statement. Yes there are gaps, but you fail to acknowledge some of the outliers that I and FireTag are trying to illustrate, just as men ignored the outliers of birds flying 200 years ago.

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