The basic question at issue: what is the effect on a religious tradition of decoupling scripture from historicity, specifically for Mormonism? From what I gather from our Reverend's sundry comments, the effect is negligible because historicity is a kind of rhetorical buttress to some deeper religious claim:
This seems to me largely at odds with the one of most penetrating comments I have heard about the Book of Mormon and the origin of Mormonism, which was offered here by the esteemed Reverend. The more I think of our Reverend's insight about the Book of Mormon's origin as a tourist gimmick, the more I am awed at what a brilliant insight it is. It is not merely a clever observation, although it is clever, but it is an instructive one because it actually gets at the nature of Mormonism: religious belief is really a subsidiary to other empirical claims made Joseph Smith. Historicity matters in Mormonism because it is primary; historical claims like the existence of Nephites and so on are not simply chronologically prior to the religious claims of Mormonism (the Book of Mormon production was going on years before Smith was organized a church and started claim it as the God's sole representative organization); they are ontologically prior as well: if Nephites are a fiction, so is everything else. The religion was the branding packaged on the history, not the other way around. That basic structure still obtains.Kishkumen wrote: ↑Thu Aug 27, 2020 7:15 amI think it is very likely that scriptural fundamentalists believe that there is a real moral hazard in the average person abandoning a literal belief in the historical reliability of the scriptures. This is the underlying motivation for them to make the argument that the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are ancient. Some guy named Joseph Smith is not impressive enough if he says, "I saw God and here is what He taught me." Take that same Joseph Smith and credit him with seeing the lives of ancient Israelites in their interactions with God, and then you have something. It is a branding thing. People like what is familiar and are generally fearful of the new. So the new must be packaged to look like the old before people will even try it. Everyone in marketing knows this, and ancient authors knew it too. Moses did not write the Torah. To think so is really silly. Moses did not write the Pearl of Great Price's Book of Moses either. Same issue. But people know who Moses is, and they want to hear more from him, so they will pay someone else to hear Moses-style ventriloquism. Think Spiritualism and you have a clearer example of the same impulse.
I hope you can forgive my indulgent elucidations of what I mean; you can certainly ignore them...
With respect—and that is always what motivates my reply to our dear and aptly titled Reverend—I think that is because you are not a believer, so why would you see a difference? And you are voicing a view of the Hebrew Bible that makes sense to someone in their capacity or identity as an academic and/or professor but not to someone in their capacity as a believer who puts their money and time on the line, as well as much else. Such a person is not going to settle for something conceived of primarily as a work of imaginative fiction. Nor does the distinction made between the relationship of God and Moses on the one hand the historical accuracy of the Bible on the other seem so clear cut to me. If the Bible is not historically accurate to the extent that a historical Moses is possible, then that relationship could not have been possible by definition, and therefore everything that follows from it collapses into little more than a giant misunderstanding. Of course you can find Conservative and Reform Jews who will be open to the academic view you express here because for them being Judaism is about a shared identity rooted in historical experience and common practices (which are increasingly divergent). But I don't see much vitality in them; Orthodox Jews are the ones keeping the identity going by preserving the very things that made the historical experience possible in the first place, and I don't know that there are all that many that would see the academic view as harmless to their tradition as you make it seem. If the Documentary Hypothesis is valid, then why not drive your car on a Saturday afternoon to have a BLT or a cheeseburger? All those mitzvos are just the result of some editorializers and redactors in the Persian and Second Temple periods! It's easy to indulge a circular definition that, "well, whatever Jews do is Judaism, and Judaism is what Jews do," but the problem, as the Conservative and Reform people are experiencing apparently without grasping the reason, is that there have to be Jews to keep that going, and if Jewish children decide, say, to marry non-Jews when they grow up and decide there is no reason to keep Kosher etc., then you don't end up producing more Jews to keep a Judaism going that is recognizable as distinct form the wider culture around it. The existence in the first place and centuries-long persistence in Orthodox Jewish life of a text like the Pirke Avot ("Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elder, they to the prophets...") tells me that this history mattered all right and already in antiquity and was a concern. And in any case, in Judaism as well as in Christianity and Islam, the whole foundation of these religions as belief systems that structure practice and ethics is the idea that God is active in human history. It's one thing to disagree with that (as I do), but it's quite another to tell these people that it's no big deal.Kishkumen wrote: ↑Wed Aug 26, 2020 12:41 pmJoseph Smith's revelations belong to the same tradition albeit at a much later date. The world of Moses as described in the Hebrew Bible is one that was imagined by the author of the book centuries after Moses purportedly lived. Moses is important for reasons other than the historical. He is important as a figure who was believed to have had a special relationship with God. The conception of what that relationship was and its significance is what keeps people coming back to the texts, not the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible.
One of the pillars of Mormonism is that Joseph Smith was a prophet because of his interactions with Deity. Without a testimony of those interactions, there is no reason to read anything Joseph Smith uttered or penned. I have a hard time seeing the fundamental difference between the two in religious terms.
I agree that the conception of a relationship (Moses and God, Jesus and God, Muhammad and God) is at the heart of these traditions, but the question is what that conception is, and for almost the entire history of these traditions, the conception has been that these were actual and not fictively imagined relationships. Altering the conception in towards the latter changes things quite a lot and a serious implications about the tradition's ability to survive.
I bold those two words because I would say "and thus" rather than "and yet." Christians like Eusebius and Jerome knew there were problems with some of the attributions, and we can infer that the Tannaim also were aware of some, but there was no method within their intellectual culture to settle these questions in the way that modern scholars have.Kishkumen wrote: ↑Wed Aug 26, 2020 12:41 pmProvenance confers bogus authority inasmuch as the best evidence shows that we have no clue who wrote the vast majority of the books contained in the Biblical canon. So what does the identity of the author mean? The date of composition? Evidently people were blissfully unaware of their errors for centuries, and yet the Jewish and Christian traditions survived. One can either reject the evidence and insist that earlier assumptions about these books have to be true, or one can embrace the evidence and reframe questions of authorship and spiritual authority.
But the dichotomy you pose is not as relevant to Judaism and Christianity as it is to Mormonism because, despite the importance of historicity, it functions differently in Mormonism, and Mormons haven't yet figured out a way to restructure their traditions relationship with its historical claims. You mentioned the Book of Daniel, which instructive here because there actually isn't any empirical evidence that the text is from the 2nd century; the arguments are all deductive, and those deductions are based on certain assumptions (namely, that prophecy isn't a real thing, and if it were real it should be consistent). It doesn't fit our conception of what a sixth-century text should look like, therefore it is not sixth-century. It also doesn't fit our conceptions of prophecy: if a prophecy is detailed about certain events (e.g. the campaigns in Egypt of Antiochus Epiphanes), then it should be detailed about other events (e.g. Antiochus's death, which apparently was missed in this prophetic vision—a pretty big detail!). I share those assumptions, but I also admit that they are assumptions, and so I am not troubled when someone makes an argument starting from totally opposite assumptions (e.g. prophecy is mysterious and doesn't have to be consistent or as detailed in one layer as another). I like to study those views if they are interesting and I can learn something or be challenged; otherwise I ignore them. But I do think it is purely conceit to mistake prevailing academic opinion, largely derived from deduction, for empirically established fact. This is one reason the historical problems aren't devastating to Christianity and to Judaism, because you can't really argue about Daniel's dating (or whatever the case) if assumptions and deductions are the real issue. And sometimes you can't even really argue the assumptions. If an Orthodox Jew doesn't agree that Daniel is from the 2nd century BCE, the basis of that disagreement is that s/he doesn't accept your deductive reasoning or the assumptions from which it is derived.
Mormonism's problem is that it is empirically falsifiable on the assumptions that particularly its most partisan adherents (i.e. apologists) start from. Traditional Mormonism is so embedded in its empirical claims, that the unstated response by believers in their rejection of scholarship is so much more extreme: they are not just disagreeing with deductions and intellectual models; they are instead saying that all empirical knowledge about Egyptology, linguistics, and archaeology is wrong.
The most you can say about Moses, empirically, is that the Biblical account is not consistent with the current state of evidence for New Kingdom Egypt and that many of the most accurate details actually fit a later period. But that doesn't mean there wasn't a Moses and that that Moses didn't receive the Torah and Oral Law at Sinai. Maybe some authorial imaginations did play a part in filling out the story. The basic claims are not disprovable. If, however, it turned out that there never was an Israel nor an Egypt nor Hebrews of any kind and that no one ever heard any of this stuff until some guy published a book in modern times, then Moses might as well be a complete fiction. But the Torah at least came from somewhere that exists and from a culture (or cultures) that are recoverable to a certain degree. Similarly in the case of Christianity, Ephesians might not be by Paul; the Synoptics might be constructed from earlier material (although, again, that is pure deduction, not empirical); and we have no material evidence that Jesus existed, and certainly little textual—even all this doesn't make it impossible for there to have been someone named Jesus at that time who was, in fact, the Son of God who was crucified for this, that, or the other reason. It would be different, however, if it turned out that there never were Romans at all, there was no such place as Galilee, and no one ever heard of these things until some guy published a book. The gospels at least came from an environment that is known. The disagreement over the historicity of the Exodus is pretty minor compared to the disagreement over the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Whether they are true or not, Mormonism's claims are formally indistinguishable from fiction because they cannot be derived except through a single intermediary, Joseph Smith. They have so far failed every empirical test applied, and indeed, some like the Book of Abraham can actually be disproved empirically. The response of believers who explore the claims of the Church and the apologists has so far been, implicitly, to call into question whole fields of knowledge and to deny the validity of empirically supported observations. Knowledge of Egyptian is not just a scholarly construct that has been derived from some assumptions; we're never going to discover that, actually, we never knew the language all along and that the Mormons were right. It is empirically derived.
But the problem of history is deeper in Mormonism because it is even more central than in traditional Christian or Orthodox Judaism. In those traditions, the link to history is ultimately a metaphysical one and while the claims of each tradition transcend the empirically observable world, nonetheless there is a link to history. It is the history, in fact, which makes it possible to access the transcendental claims—that is the function of history in these traditions. Moses's receiving the Torah and Oral Law at Sinai isn't an empirical claim that, once proven true, thus proves Judaism "true." The reason the early Rabbis sought the connection to Moses was to infuse his authority on their own practice of Judaism, and for a modern Orthodox Jew, the same basically applies: the halakha is authoritative because it goes back to Moses. And Moses got it from God at Sinai, so it is actually through adherence to the halakha that you gain access to that same divine and transcendent origin, God. In Christianity, it is Jesus's act of self-sacrifice in history, the culmination of history, that is accessible to believers through the mass (or whatever each denomination does). Biblical history is the ramp leading up to it; it is not central to Christianity in the way that Jesus Christ is. There is, in other words, an ontological category that supersedes history but which is accessed through history. You can see an analog to this in relics: nobody wanted a piece of wood so that they could prove there really was a Jesus who was nailed to it; they wanted the piece of wood so that they could use that object in the material world to access the divinity. But finding chiasmus or an inscription like NHM isn't about accessing the divine so as to enter into that relationship with deity: it really is just about proving empirically claims made my Joseph Smith and his successors.
That is because Mormonism doesn't make transcendental claims primarily, or at least those that it does make are sequestered in the temple space (from what I can tell), and it is hard to tell what the ultimate ontological category is in Mormonism because god is not merely in the universe but in fact he is of the universe. He came out of it, like some pre-Christian god out of the watery chaos. I can remember times when people made fun of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in Church, but the joke is on them, because that is the only logical position for a monotheist to hold. No one perceives the problem in Mormonism because Mormons, again like what we see in pre-Christian religions, simply don't concern themselves with questions that transcend what is empirically accessible and concrete. It is even doctrinal in Mormonism that "all spirit is matter."
Whatever transcendental claims there are in Mormonism are actually subordinated to its historical claims, which is the reverse of what happens in Orthodox Judaism and traditional Christianity. Instead it makes empirical claims: Hebrews were living in America, for example, or Abraham wrote this book. A traditional Christian or an Orthodox Jew can tolerate a certain degree of skepticism about Abraham, but a Mormon can't, because if the traditional story is not correct, then the Book of Abraham is other than what it says. A traditional Christian or an Orthodox Jew can tolerate a lot of pressure from archaeology, but a Mormon can't because the whole thing unravels. Very little Hebrew grammar or Greek linguistics are going to interfere with the beliefs of an Orthodox Jew or a traditional Christian; they do cause problems for the Book of Mormon, and a knowledge of Egyptian is death to any but the airiest and fairiest metaphorical reading of the Book of Abraham ( even John Gee acknowledges this: only the spiritually superior, like him, can do the homework necessary to balance faith and Egyptology). In Christianity and Judaism, whether God made the world in six days or six billion years is immaterial for most people, and you can use literary approaches to escape this because the ultimate point is that God made the world. But you can't metaphorize the Book of Mormon or really even the Book of Abraham at this point in Mormon intellectual understanding: doing that would make it more dangerous to know English than to know Egyptian, because you can't say that Joseph meant X when he clearly and unambiguously meant Y.
These are all particularly examples but they support a general truth about the current state of Mormonism as belief system (which has implications for practice and ethics): in Orthodox Judaism and traditional Christianity, history is a manifestation of God's interest in the world and his action in it, but in Mormonism God's action in the world is evidence of a historical claim—history is paramount and God subordinate. Now, that does seem contrary to practice, I know, because the apologetic argument (and it is all really only one argument) is that if Joseph Smith didn't know historical detail X, then the presence of historical detail X proves the Church true, and from that, it follows that any claims made by the Church are also true. But something curious follows from this approach. Within the current understanding of Mormonism, it is impossible for there to have been Nephites without the existence of God. There existence thus proves the existence of god, but that means everything hinges on those Nephites—including God. It's the historical claims that are really central to Mormonism because God derives from them and because they are the evidence of that the relationship that Joseph Smith had with deity. This is how the early Book of Mormon functioned among believers: as a sign of Joseph's powers. Similarly with the Book of Abraham.
In general, though, I think we should not too readily dismiss the importance of history in the Judeo-Christian traditions (in which I include Islam) and for people who actually participate in these traditions in a substantial way. History does matter, but not because it is a piece of evidence to support a claim. History also matters in Mormonism, but exactly because it is a piece of evidence to support a claim. The thing that differentiates it in terms of the function of historicity is its problem. The mitzvot of the halakha in Orthodox Judaism and or the Divinity of Christ in traditional Christianity are manifested is history but are not proved by it because they occupy a conceptual space that transcends the materiality of history. Moses is the receiver and transmitter of the Torah, not it's author, and the divine Christ existed before the world was. In short, there are transcendent phenomenon above and beyond historicity in these traditions. What about Mormonism? But what transcendent phenomenon hovers beyond the Book of Mormon? Nephites either existed or they did not exist. They are not the vehicle for accessing what God "taught" Joseph Smith—their existence is what God taught him. If Moses's world is imaginatively filled in, you still have the mitzvot, but remove all historical claims implicit in the Book of Mormon and you don't have much. Nephites are not transcendent phenomena.
To my way of thinking, all of these have practical consequences. The Church and the apologists have focused their energies for nearly a century on shoring up the empirical claims through empirical methods. This is the whole game of apologetics: to make Mormonism seem empirically verified. They have relied on historicity so much in their thinking that they have not taken seriously the practice of being Mormon, something I can't stop pointing out. The result is that the slightest crack in the historicity claims brings down the whole structure in the mind of a believer. John Gee wants to dig in fight for historicity, and to be frank that is wiser than going the inspired fiction route because inspired fiction has exactly the same effect. I don't think it will be enough to repackage the empirical claims in such a way that they are not detected as new if this means inspired fiction. The only intellectual honest position for a traditional believer, at present, is the one that the Church advises: we just believe this stuff historically happened as an article of faith. That doesn't work, though, when there isn't much improvement to the quality of Mormon life. An viable intellectual system isn't the only thing that matters, but it does matter a great deal. People need good reasons to keep being Mormon and to bring up their kids as Mormons when the cultural pressure is all in the opposite direction.
But this will lead to an intellectually narrow conception of Mormonism, which has its own dangers. In my view, what Mormonism is lacking and where its intellectuals have been dismal failures, is something transcendent within its own tradition to supersede historicity. I think the temple might be the best place to find it, but as yet Mormonism has an underdeveloped temple theology, a bland temple liturgy, and a weird anxiety around the temple: it's supposedly the supreme experience of Mormonism, but it's a big secret because it makes Mormons look culty which goes against the push towards normalization. One gets the sense that the Church itself and a lot of its members are more uncomfortable with the temple than with the historicity of the Book of Mormon.