Clay Painter of Mormon Expression interviewed Bob Price about his opinions of the Book of Mormon. Not everyone believes the Book of Mormon is a truly divine document, but I found it interesting to hear that Bob finds value in the Book of Mormon, despite his being an atheist. Regarding Mormon Expression, sometimes I find that it seems to be a rant against the church, but other times, it has some really interesting information. This podcast was one of those good episodes, so I decided to transcribe the entire half-hour interview. I’ll let Clay introduce Bob to you.
Clay Painter, “Hello, and thanks for tuning in. My name is Clay Painter and I’m a guest interviewer for this episode. Today we have the extremely distinguished guest, Dr. Robert M. Price. Bob Price got his Masters of Theological Studies from the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Drew University. Later he received a second Ph.D. this time in New Testament Studies from Drew University. He is a former pastor and now is an atheist but still finds religious studies fascinating. Furthermore, he still appreciates some religious liturgy and occasionally attends church services. Bob is a prolific author and a well-known scholar. His books include Deconstructing Jesus, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Reason Driven Life, and the Pre-Nicene New Testament. And those are just a very few of the many books that he has written. He is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, an interviewer for the Point of Inquiry podcast, and he runs his own podcast entitled the Bible Geek. Bob Price, welcome to Mormon Expression.
Bob, “Well, thanks for having me. It’s a great treat to be here.
Clay, “Yeah absolutely. I contacted you for this interview to primarily discuss one of your new books, Latter-Day Scripture, which is a critical examination of the Book of Mormon. Mormon Expression actually had a panel discussion of the book in episode 169, but I thought that it would be really great to hear you speak about your own work and again thanks for making the time.
Bob, “Oh, It’s great. No problem.
Clay, “Just to kind of give the listeners a heads up of where this podcast is going, like I said in that episode 169, the panel did a pretty good job at discussing what your main points of the book were, that the Book of Mormon is a pseudepigrapha and that you address it as a pseudepigrapha, and then you critically analyze it holding and revealing the multiple sources that Joseph Smith used to kind of create this pastiche work that the Book of Mormon is. But before we get to that, for listeners that aren’t acquainted with you, can you give us a brief summary of maybe your transition from Christian apologist to a pastor to a liberal Christian and now an atheist?
Bob, “Well, I was converted to, I guess I always believed in God and Christ and so on. Growing up my parents were Southern Baptists, but not militant. Once we moved from Mississippi to New Jersey when I was 10, we began going to a Conservative Baptist Association Church. I don’t know why the Southern Baptists hadn’t, but they quickly pressed home this whole business of accepting Jesus into your heart and all of that, and I did and I was pretty devout on into junior high and then high school. I was interested in this whole new thing. I don’t even know that I even heard the word apologetics yet, but I began to hear it suggested that you can defend the faith and show that it was very probably true or pretty much prove it was true with historical evidence and such. Geez, this sounded fascinating so I started reading all the stalwarts like John Warwick Montgomery and Josh McDowell and so forth, and I really got into this, Jay and Dee Anderson, and anything published by New Varsity, you name it. I was armed to enter the battle. A couple of years later after I had gone through college and studied more but also began to press home my own questions, I began to think, you know I think I’ve only heard one side of this. This is always kind of a danger for people who get into apologetics defending the faith because if you’re going to present arguments and you don’t want to come off looking like an idiot, you have to weigh the arguments yourself and say, now if I were not a believer, would I find this convincing? The more I did that, the more problems I had and then I started stumbling on other historical phenomena, kind of like the rise of Christianity, and I began to compare them and to understand what historical method was and I guess I was half way through my master’s program at Gordon Conwell even before I realized I just can’t buy this, the Biblical authority business just seems to me to die the death of a thousand qualifications. The notion that Jesus definitely existed and rose from the dead and that proves he’s the Son of God. That’s just full of holes. There’s no real reason to believe it and so I embarked on an aggressive reading program in other liberal neo-orthodox etc. theologians.
Once I got the degree out of the way, I started at Drew on another theology degree where I studied more of these people. I was rapidly becoming agnostic about any supernaturalism. I read Buldman and Paul Tillick and I thought now this is a good way of dealing with it. There certainly is such a thing as a religious experience. There certainly is profundity albeit symbolic in the Bible. So I kind of went to a very extreme, I’d say liberal type of theology, and figured I had some kind of Christian faith. I began going to a local Baptist church with a real fascinating pastor who was Southern Baptist, but much educated and very much into Kierkegaard and so on. I then went down to North Carolina to teach at a free-will Baptist college. I was still very skeptical and didn’t hide it, but I was loyal to the church. I began going to the Episcopal Church. I loved the liturgy etc. I started to think well probably there is some sort of God albeit, not really personal. About this time I had been down teaching at Mount Olive College about four and a half years. The pastorate from my old church in New Jersey came open and I applied for that. I was accepted. My wife and I and our new baby moved up there and I was pastor for that church for about six years.
During that time, I started the second Ph.D. program in New Testament at Drew University. The more I read of the old critics like F.C. Bower and so forth, and also the more I read by Jacque Derendaugh and Don Cubot I began to realize I had unexamined assumptions that there was probably no real reason to believe in spiritual entities more real than physical entities: in other words, Idealist Metaphysics. I then sort of moved over into religious humanism. Well the further I got into that I began to think that this is just religion eroding itself and sublimating into the air. It’s got less and less to it. It seems to be just trying to evolve into secular humanism. So I became a religiously friendly atheist and humanist. Well, I moved back down to North Carolina to be near my in-laws who were having health problems and started going to the Episcopal Church again and I thought, you know, I guess I can be a Christian without solving all the philosophical problems. I can enjoy the liturgy and the Eucharist and have spiritual experience, which I did.
But then I guess it just goes inevitably back and forth. I began to think, do I really see anything in this? It began to wear on me. So my fondness for and fascination with religion has never dissipated, but I kind of go back and forth on whether I want to identify with it, whereas I do know that I’m an atheist and a skeptic. You can not easily combine those. I guess I’m not hot and cold on that.”
Clay, “No absolutely. Thanks for sharing that story. I think this whole idea of examining critically and studying your way out of religion and religious belief is shared by many listeners that are going to be listening to that. So after you’ve done this and you’ve published multiple books, and you’re involved in the higher criticism circle, what draws you to Mormon Studies and the Book of Mormon? How did you even become involved in that?”
Bob Price, “Well, uh, I think it was now looking back a few years, I somehow got in touch with Mark Thomas at BYU. I got him to write a fascinating article for the Journal of Higher Criticism that I had started/edited, and he did this thing on basically a history of critical study of the Book of Mormon. People gradually trying to apply to the text methods of modern biblical criticism, and I just found the whole idea fascinating. I already figured it was a modern work. I’d read enough of it to know that and I began to read some of these symposia from Signature Books and I thought ‘Wow, this is just a burgeoning field of fascinating scholarly inquiry so I tried my hand at it and got involved with Mark and the Book of Mormon Roundtable and prepared papers for that, and that’s what most of the stuff in my collection Latter-Day Scripture is. I just found it so fascinating to consider what I already knew about the Book of Mormon in light of what I had learned about the Bible. For instance, this original debate that still rages: is the Book of Mormon from the 19th century or is it an ancient book?
Well, I figured that was settled but in light of Biblical studies, for it to be a forgery in a sense, a pious fraud, that looks a lot less bad in terms of the history of scripture because so much of all scripture is pseudepigraphical, it’s almost part of the scripture genre. It’s over-simplified to say this is a rip-off, it’s a hoax or a fraud. It’s not quite that way. It’s just certain writings on certain subjects have to adopt the pose of venerable, ancient, perhaps lost scripture in order to underline the depth and the archaic antiquity of the ideas they are trying to expound. And so, I wrote an essay that was in Dialogue I think, called Joseph Smith: Inspired Author of the Book of Mormon. I said, ‘you know you LDS Christians, you shouldn’t be that worried about this. Here’s what mainstream, at least orthodox, liberal Christians and scholars know about the Bible, an awful lot of it is fake, if you want to call it that. But that’s no real problem, maybe you could see it that way too and rid yourself of an awful headache, and it would make more sense if you admitted yes, Joseph Smith is the author of our scripture. Wouldn’t that actually befit his role as a founding prophet more than the idea that he’s just an archaeologist who’s stumbled on an ancient text? I mean he is the authority, you recognize that in your other books like the Doctrine and Covenants. Why not come clean and admit that yeah, he wrote this too, and that’s fine. He’s the prophet. Do you think he is or don’t you?
Of course, I don’t have the personal faith but I look at It in sociological terms. Is this man the founding prophet of a religious community? Yes he is. Is Reverend Moon? Yes he is. Functionally, the guy is a prophet and even a Messiah if you want to call him that. You don’t really have to push it farther than that. And once you see, ok I have a scripture here, revered by zillions of people, maybe I could be of some help showing how the dilemma is not as bad as they think it is, and that’s sort of the approach I’ve taken. I don’t regard myself as an apologist for the Book of Mormon, but I do think you can reframe the whole debate in a way that’s much more healthy and positive and productive.
Clay, “No that’s great. You know I hear you saying that Joseph Smith, he’s the author of the Book of Mormon, but let’s not worry about it so much because he’s just doing what thousands of years of history, you know historical prophets have done in the past when they’ve had a message, they’ve reframed it, they’ve claimed authority from other people that have religious clout. Is that correct? Is that kind of your main point there?
Bob, “Well, it’s half of it. I’d go on from there to say that once you recognize this isn’t just a straight forward history, nor is it just a hoax pretending to be straight forward history, you begin to open a window into understanding the deeper dimensions of the text. Once you say now, this sounds a lot like the Bible, but Smith wrote it, how’d he do that? Did he combine certain passages because he liked elements of this one and that one and cross them into a new synthesis? Well yeah he did, and this really did give me great respect for this man, as a creative theologian and writer. It’s just fascinating, the way in 3 Nephi for instance, his narrative of the Second Coming of Christ into the Western Hemisphere, the way he’s combined various elements of the gospels and why he did and the theological implications. This guys not–I mean even a non-Mormon, even an anti-Mormon shouldn’t look at this guy and say he’s just a hoaxer. No, No, No. You’ve got a real creative mind here, a literary genius in some ways. But you’d never recognize that. You’d never be free to recognize it if you didn’t realize the sacred game the guy was playing, just like the authors of Deuteronomy and the Book of Daniel, and the Book of Revelation and so much other biblical material did.”
Clay, “No that’s good. Let’s back up just a tad and talk about pseudepigrapha in general. You mentioned that the Bible is littered with pseudepigrapha. Do you have kind of — you mentioned three books there but what books in the Bible are fairly conclusively pseudepigrapha?”
Bob, “Well, unless you’re just a fundamentalist stopping your ears up, Daniel is just very obviously pseudopigraphical and there are many other books not in the canon that take the same approach where the author poses as some wise man of the past, usually more of a scribe than a prophet which is kind of a wink to the reader to signal that this is a literary work, not a transcription of a vision despite the content of it–it’s all a kind of a shtick. You summarize the history of Israel or the Church or whatever, up until your own time–you the writer, but you say that this is written by an ancient scribe who foresaw it. Why do that? Well, it’s a way–these things are usually written in times of great stress. It’s a way of saying, look, it may look like great chaos to you but God had a plan and that’s working itself out. It’s like a parable about divine providence you might say. Or sometimes it’s just a case like with the so-called Deutero-Isaiah, or 2nd Isaiah, or 2nd Zechariah. You had somebody that revered the oracles of an early prophet and had more to say in that community but humbly felt, who am I? I’m gonna put this under the aegis of the great prophet. I’m not going to have the brazenness to make myself equal with him. Another way with less admirable motives, you might say, ‘nobody’s gonna take me seriously if I used my own nom de plume. If I say here’s the prophecy of Bill or the Apocalypse of Chad. Who’s going to listen to this? So I better get a hearing with a great name and then the value of it will be apparent to the reader. That’s generally called a pious fraud. It is a fraud, but it is pious. So Daniel is certainly one of those.
Deuteronomy–Moses said all of this? There’s no way. The law is totally different than it was in earlier law codes defined in Exodus, etc. The whole premise is kind of vague and self-contradictory. Is Moses talking to the people who survived the 40 years in the desert? He talks to them as if they were, ‘you did this, you did that’, but then he says they’re all dead and so I’m giving you, their heirs, a pep talk about the law. Well what is it? This isn’t historical. It’s a chance to update the Torah, and the people think that’s really what happened under King Josiah, much, much later. Well there’s several of those law codes put under Moses’ name. The rabbis continue to say that they’re oral tradition of interpreting the Torah was part of the Torah, that ‘oh we really didn’t come up with this, Moses did, and he repeated it orally without writing it down and it came down to us.’ That’s pseudepigraphy. In the New Testament, it seems to me that the letters of Paul are pseudepigraphical. This is way out there, I mean very few scholars think this, but I follow the Dutch radical school of the 19th century that says that all of these letters are by different Paulinists, and that’s why you have so many different viewpoints in them. So I think they’re pseudepigraphical. The Gospels have no names on them, so they were really anonymous. It was somebody later on, perhaps Polycarp of Smyrna who kind of guessed who had written them, and that’s all it was. So by far, most of the Bible is anonymous or pseudonymous. The Psalms–there were originally no names on them. They certainly don’t go back to David.”
Clay, “Sure. Uh huh.”
Bob, “But neither do they claim to. That’s just an ancient editorial convention. We don’t know who wrote virtually any of the Bible, and when you have names, it’s either ancient guesswork or false pen-names. It’s almost the rule, not the exception.
Clay, “No, that’s great. You know, is it fair to say that if we’re going to objectively be critical of all of our scripture, not just our own scripture, not just someone else’s scripture, but if we’re going to be objective and unbiased, and if we’re gonna throw out the Book of Mormon, then heck, we might as well throw out half the Bible.
Bob, “Oh yeah, you’d have to, yeah.
Clay, “Or we can be kinder, accept it as pseudepigrapha, acknowledge that is shows insight into the men of the times who wrote it, and may say something about the sociology and religious evolution of that time, and analyze it as that?
Bob, “Yeah, and that can be edifying too for the reasons you just mentioned. Any fool can see that the Book of Mormon is the charter for what happened to the Mormon Church’s in their trek across the country. They had their own exodus, their own persecutions. I mean it’s fascinating. It’s this updating and Americanizing of the Bible and Christianity. That doesn’t contradict it being a modern work. In fact it makes — the truth of it is made all the more clear if you realize it was written in the 19th century. I can’t think of the name of whoever said this but in view of the whole DNA thing that just shot the whole premise of it to hell, right? That there’s no Semitic DNA in the American Indians. Some traditionalist Mormon made this great statement. He said maybe the issue isn’t really, ‘Are our stories true? Maybe the issue is are we true to our stories?â€™Â Bingo, There’s somebody that’s using his brain.”
Clay, “Absolutely, And to be fair, you’re not saying that as an atheist–I don’t think that you’re saying that Joseph Smith somehow foresaw the exile of the Mormons and how they had to trek across the plains, but more you’re saying that’s why it speaks to Mormons as scripture. Is that correct?”
BoB, :Yes. Yeah, I mean he already had adventures of a kind that almost placed him in the Book of Mormon, but yeah, had it gone another way, probably nobody would even remember it today, but they did see themselves in it.
Clay, “No, that’s great. I don’t want to change gears too much, but I’m really, really interested in how this was received at BYU, and how this Book of Mormon Roundtable shook out. What was that experience like?”
Bob, “Well, we had some people from FARMS, who as of course you know are kind of rock-rimmed apologists for the Book of Mormon as an ancient work. Is there a Jack Sullivan or something like that?
Clay, “There could very well could be, I’m not sure.”
Bob, “He’s a major character, it’s my failing memory. He’s very significant. I should remember his name but he’s written truckloads of stuff. He’s very erudite, but I think he’s wrong. I had a couple of friendly confrontations with him around the table and said, look, you just can’t ignore the fact that the King James Bible is quoted in this supposedly ancient work, and it’s not just mistranslation of the text and so on. Well, everybody was well-mannered, but that was pretty much the end of the thing. We had to have what turned out to be our last meeting in a library downtown or something. It was no longer under the auspices or should I say wasn’t even tolerated by BYU and they fired Mark Thomas and so they’re just not interested in any kind of revisionism, though there were several people in the roundtable who were traditionalist believers that said, hey, look any perspective that sheds any light on this thing, I want to hear it. It was a really great, creative collegial atmosphere.”
Clay, “No that’s good to hear that there was at least a mixed bag. There were those that were absolutely opposed to it, but those that actually maybe welcomed the intellectual honesty and intellectual debate in and of itself. No that’s great. I guess we covered a lot of ground on why we should examine the Book of Mormon, but should the Book of Mormon be important to non-Mormons, ex-Mormons, theists and non-theists? If so, why should it be examined? What does the Book of Mormon have to add to the religious discussion on a global scale, if anything? You know, maybe it doesn’t.”
Bob, “Well, I’d say it’s importance–this is obviously, you know, just my limited perspective, I’m not pontificating on anything, but it seems to me that it’s most important for understanding the Mormon Church, though it’s limited even there since very little of it appears to have determined the theology of Mormonism; Joseph Smith’s other writings did more of that. I don’t know that Mormonism would be much different theologically if you didn’t have a Book of Mormon actually.”
Clay, “Yeah, that’s true. I mean the theology within the Book of Mormon is fairly early 1800’s protestant, not at all like it is today, you know.”
Bob, “That’s right, yeah. What they have today is far more interesting. It’s fascinating stuff. I have to admit–well it’s interesting to me as a student of the Bible because it provides a kind of a testimony of how American Christians have always read the Bible, picturing ancient Israel as Christians already in advance. Of course, the Bible doesn’t actually put it that way, you have to read it in like Abraham and everybody knew about the atoning death of Jesus and his Resurrection and they were just looking forward to it happening and their faith is predicated on that. Well that historically [chuckles] that’s absurd, but that is what Christians have believed so the Book of Mormon does them a favor of actually in effect re-writing the Old Testament as if that were true, they just have it happen in the Western Hemisphere. So it’s very fascinating, but I have to admit I did not find much that was all that edifying about it. It seemed to me to be pretty turgid.
I gotta say on the other side though, well once somebody said to me, a young Mormon missionary that , have you read this thing, it’s so great and all that, and it couldn’t have been written by mere mortals or something like that, and I said, well, to tell you the truth, I find the Lord of the Rings to be more satisfying scripture, and I stick by that but I don’t mean to condemn the Book of Mormon, there’s a lot of the Bible that’s not that exciting either. I guess that’s not the point of it. There is in the Book of Mormon a curiously relevant, modern, narrative that you’ve got these people that share the heritage of Israel and they split and you’ve got the Nephites and the Lamanites and the latter group is dangerous to the former group. I know this is real politically incorrect, but it seems to me you’ve got a great analogy of what’s going on in the world today.
You’ve got Jews and Christians who are like the Nephites and radical Muslims who are like the extremely dangerous Lamanites who want to settle the hash of the Nephites. The Nephites better wake up and do something about it. I think that again you’re not really supposed to say that kind of thing.”
Clay chuckling, “Yeah that’s pretty inflammatory.”
Bob, “I don’t know what to think about it to tell you the truth. I’m not sure–well, I don’t know.”
Bob, “Well keep in mind that I say this only about radical Muslims and their sympathizers but according to an acquaintance, colleague of mine, Said Hussein Nasir, a very erudite Sufi scholar. He says, ‘oh it’s only about 10% of Muslims worldwide.’ Oh you mean 10 million? I’d say we’ve got a problem. I do not think that all Muslims are like this. I’ve studied Islam. I find Islam fascinating. I love Islam and the Koran, but you can’t ignore the danger that a huge army of fanatics poses.”
Clay, “Oh yeah, sure. Thanks for qualifying it as well. I guess to kind of close, as an outsider and as someone who has a lot of experience with higher criticism within Mormon scriptures and non-Mormon scriptures and just global scriptures in general, what guidance would you have for Mormons who have become disillusioned with the Book of Mormon, with the Book of Abraham, which is even more objectively pseudepigrapha. You know we’ve got the Book of Abraham, it’s the Book of Breathings. They’ve translated it. It doesn’t has nothing to do with Abraham. You know I see a lot of these people trying to fall back on Biblical scriptures and kind of entrench themselves in Christian scriptures. I guess as an outsider, would you have any guidance or suggestions for these people who have become disenfranchised from Mormonism and Mormon scriptures and are searching elsewhere?”
Bob, “Well, I would just plead for consistency that they shouldn’t think that the Bible is immune to the kind of debunking, if that’s what they call it that the Book of Mormon is subject to, and I guess what I’m really thinking here in terms of a pastoral concern, they’re just setting themselves up for another even worse disappointment. I would suggest that they might kind of take the view that reconstructionist Jews do and say, look, we have a community and a tradition and certain values that we believe in and we love. We have a book here that we find edifying that we love. Suppose it turns out that it’s fiction like The Pilgrim’s Progress, and it’s not history. How much does that really matter? Whatever Joseph Smith said or thought, we do know what he did. I mean it’s the same way most of us view Dr. King. This guy had his problems morally, but really who cares? Look at the balance. Look at the big picture, what this man did for everybody, and I say the same for Joseph Smith. I wonder if it’s not better to kind of take a de-mythologized chastened view and to say, I’m a Mormon and proud of it. Alright I no longer believe certain things, I put away childish things but does Mormonism stand or fall with them? I don’t think so. I mean if it does, you’ve got a pretty shallow faith. If Mormonism is really no more than a dubious belief about people that came to the Western Hemisphere back in the 6th century BCE, I mean even if that’s true, who cares? They ideas of Mormonism really have nothing to do with that. So I say don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Clay, “Yeah, no, that’s interesting, and it’s really interesting to hear from an outsider Bob. It seems like you have, on some of your work you’re considered, I don’t know, fairly fringy and radical with your Jesus Myth Theory, but then on the other side you’re incredibly moderate and incredibly accepting of religion in general and I don’t know if that makes any sense or not. But it’s interesting because what you say right now, and I’m not sure if I’m convinced of it or not. I’m not sure if there is a baby in the bathwater but what you’re saying right now is something that I hear many more moderate, liberal Mormons say, and that’s an interesting perspective, so yeah, it’s good to hear that from an outside source as well.
Bob, “Well if they find nothing of value in it, they shouldn’t stick with it, but I’m just thinking about the plight of those who say that it is a thriving matrix for their community and society. Well, that seems to me to transcend the issues that are bothering them. And it’s not necessarily all or nothing. If however it’s a burdensome experience, well, that’s another whole matter that you should leave it like I left fundamentalism.”
Clay, “Sure, no absolutely. Well Bob, if people wanted to learn more about your views, your work, your books, where would they go to find that out?
Bob, “Well I got this nifty website my wife made up for me called robertmprice.mindvendor.com. There’s an archive of my old sermons, my various articles on things, my short stories reviews, just anything and everything.”
Clay, “No that’s great. You know Bob, I want to thank you again for taking time to talk with us today. For listeners that are interested, go to robertmprice.mindvendor.com. You’ve got an upcoming book that’s published through Signature Books if I’m not mistaken?
Clay, “Perfect. So thanks for tuning on. As always, the discussion continues at MormonExpression.com.”
What are your impressions?