Guess I should have been reading Religion News Service instead of First Things yesterday.
Something (doubly) ironic about this if I could just put my finger on it.
Guess I should have been reading Religion News Service instead of First Things yesterday.
Something (doubly) ironic about this if I could just put my finger on it.
So it looks like the fragment is not going to be published, at least not now and not in Harvard Theological Review. Why not?
If it is because of the ethical question, better late than never I suppose. But hasn’t whatever damage already been done there?
If it is because of the question of forgery, still why not publish? Questions of forgery were hanging and have continued to hang in the air around any number of material objects said to be from antiquity that happened to resurface one way or another in the last one hundred years, such as the Letter of Clement to Theodore with its quotation of a Secret Gospel of Mark or the Gabriel Revelation with its highly unusual medium of ink on stone. They were published. Why not this text?
If it has been forged, wouldn’t publishing it help lead to that determination? The credibility of HTR would not be at stake so long as the text has not been proven to be a forgery, and I don’t see that it has. What I see are some scholars saying it might be a forgery (including those associated with the original announcement of the text but who decided to treat it as most probably ancient), other scholars saying it was probably forged but they’re not sure, and only a few that are certain it’s a forgery, at least sometimes. I also see media outlets and other online venues acting as though the case is closed, and as though HTR’s rumored refusal to publish basically equals proof of forgery. Unless something like an ink test has already been done and the case is indeed now closed (actually, as Mormon history teaches us, it is not impossible to reproduce ink from a given time and place), I don’t know that the rumored refusal to publish means much about the antiquity of the text.
But as forgery is the new sensation, what would the logistics have been, if the text was forged?
Someone/s would have had to secure a genuinely ancient scrap of papyrus with at least one blank side. This would not have been terribly difficult for someone in or watching the antiquities market. (The text on the other side of the fragment is faint and has not been studied at all, as far I can tell. It looks like it might take something like infrared imaging to be able to read it. Its faintness compared to the ink on the side with the text about Jesus’ wife is not necessarily proof that the latter was forged, although it is definitely worth noting.)
Then the forger/s would have had to compose some lines of Coptic using bits and pieces from the published edition of the Gospel of Thomas, bits and pieces that are one, two, three, and at most four words in length (take a look at the side by side comparison here, noting that the Thomas material comes from various passages). This would have been somewhat difficult, requiring what amounts to maybe a semester of introductory Coptic study, perhaps less, depending on the diligence of the forger/s. They would have had to know enough Coptic to be able to rearrange these bits and pieces into new lines of text that are passable though admittedly not textbook grammar and of course incomplete. This would have involved such things as changing pronouns from masculine to feminine in order for the text to refer to Jesus’ wife, and adding a few other words here and there in more or less grammatical form so as to fit the changed bits and pieces from the Gospel of Thomas together. (I want to reiterate what I said before about determining literary dependence and how we get from that to forgery. There’s also this.)
In the composition of the text they also would have had to introduce some spelling variations and grammatical infelicities. It is curious to see how (mostly NT) scholars (and biblical textual critics) are assessing these, especially given the fluid state of spelling and grammar in other such heterodox Christian texts surviving in Coptic translation from Greek. On the one hand, if the forger/s simply employed a method of cut and paste (with some rearrangement) from the Gospel of Thomas, as some scholars seem to be suggesting, why would the forger/s not have spelled things exactly the way they appear in Thomas and without introducing grammatical infelicities? Especially if they knew enough to be changing pronouns from masculine to feminine and to be adding a few other words here and there in more or less grammatical form. Were they so careful that they actually introduced these variations and infelicities for the sake of verisimilitude and to cover up their tracks, not wanting the text to look too much like Thomas? (Spelling and grammar in everyday Roman Egypt, a multilingual environment, hardly matches what is in the standard academic reference books on Attic Greek and Sahidic Coptic that scholars use to learn the languages.)
Once the forger/s had a text composed, then they likely would have had to practice writing it out before committing it to the fragment. In their study of Coptic they may have done some practice handwriting already. On other scraps of papyrus they also likely would have had to experiment with various inks and methods of application, such as a small paint brush (brushes were used anciently, though a ‘pen’ would be expected in Roman Egypt). At any rate, they must not have practiced that much because the handwriting of the text is poor and does not look like other handwriting samples such as from the Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas itself in Nag Hammadi codex II. (In general, poor handwriting is not common in literary or even ‘para-literary’ manuscripts like the Nag Hammadi codices, but in documentary texts, especially personally written ones, the handwriting can be pretty bad; if this para-literary fragment is ancient, it would be unusual as has often been said.)
As far as the question of forgery is concerned, the interesting thing about the handwriting being rather unpracticed is that it is like the introduction of spelling variations and grammatical infelicities: if the forger/s knew enough about Coptic to be changing pronouns from masculine to feminine and to be adding a few other words here and there in more or less grammatical form so as to fit together an assortment of changed bits and pieces from the Gospel of Thomas, why not do a better job imitating the handwriting of that manuscript which is readily available in facsimile edition not to mention online? If it is a forgery, the forger/s must have gotten pretty lazy at the end, after having gone to the trouble of obtaining a genuinely ancient papyrus and learning enough Coptic to compose the text.
But then they may have gotten a second wind, forging a handwritten note (not signed or dated) and a type written letter (signed and dated 1982) in German, ostensibly from scholars who examined this now (in)famous fragment and also another papyrus of the Gospel of John some years ago (read about them here). Or perhaps the type written letter is genuine along with the papyrus of the Gospel of John that it refers to; whereas the handwritten note referring to the fragment was forged in order to tie the fragment into a genuine history and collection (admittedly it is curious that the letter does not mention the fragment and that the note is not dated or signed).
Oh, one other thing that the forger/s would have had to do is distress the fragment after writing the text onto it. This may have included trimming it down, fraying the edges, and abrading the surface (see). And just like the writing process, they likely would have had to practice this first on a few other scraps of papyrus. Getting it right the first time would be tricky.
That’s the way I understand it to have happened, if the text was forged. I’m still not convinced that it was. But who knows? Maybe we’ll know for certain one day if the forger/s are found out and admit to it. Until then … I’m popping some popcorn for this weekend.
Backlash against news of the Coptic papyrus fragment now known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife did not take long. There is the ethical question: does publishing (on) a text that appears to have been removed from Egypt illegally and separated from its archaeological context, including the rest of the manuscript, due to ignorance and/or greed, not promote more of the same? I think this is the truly compelling question, and it is one that I have to ask myself.
Realistically though, the question that will be discussed is the one of forgery. Here’s why I’m not convinced, at least not yet, that the text on the fragment was forged.
One. Yes, there are parallels with the Gospel of Thomas. Determining direct literary dependence has not been as straight forward as it might seem in the history of scholarship, even in the case of texts that survive in full. Before getting to forgery, it would need to be established that A) there is direct dependence rather than simply common (oral) background. Then it would need to be established that B) the text of the fragment depends on Thomas and not vice versa. Then it would need to be established that C) the text depends on the Coptic version of Thomas rather than the Greek. And finally it would need to be established that D) the text not only depends on the Coptic version of Thomas but the self-same manuscript in Nag Hammadi codex II. The coincidence of the line break is the strongest piece of evidence, but stranger things have happened. It’s no smoking gun. On the whole, I could easily imagine a scenario in which the ancient author knew Thomas and worked it into the text. Even assuming A-C does not prove forgery. Any one of the texts of the New Testament depends on another from the Septuagint.
Two. Yes, there is a parallel with the Coptic version of Matthew. But it is not at all clear that this parallel has an intersection. I would bet that countless such parallels two-and-a-half-words in length could be found between ancient texts in the same language that are known to be unrelated. Again, even if it is assumed that the text depends on the Coptic version of Matthew, and I am not inclined to make that assumption, this does not prove forgery.
Three. Is the Coptic sub-par? Well the same thing and worse has been said about the Coptic translation of Plato’s Republic 588a-598b in Nag Hammadi codex VI, which some experts says is so bad that the ancient translator might not have really known Coptic.
Four. Is it difficult to figure out how to restore what is missing from the text? There are such loose fragments in the facsimile edition of the Nag Hammadi codices and the Tchacos codex.
Five. The handwriting is not easy to date. Ok …
Six. The handwriting doesn’t look like other hands that come to mind. This is fascinating and when/if the text is published, it would be nice to see some Coptic and/or Greek comparanda in support of antiquity. If none are found, that could suggest forgery. Greek hands would have to be included in the search for comparanda, and I think it would take a seasoned papyrologist rather well read in both languages to be able to state matter of factly that the handwriting on the text is not literary, semi-literary, or documentary.
Bottom line. At this point, it’s not necessarily a forgery, and the plausibility of it being ancient is still very much real.
Should it prove to be forged, however, these few incomplete lines would be nothing next to the letter of Clement to Theodore. That forgery, accepting it was one, took rather extensive skill in Greek composition and handwriting. And if Morton Smith did forge the letter with its quotation from a Secret Gospel of Mark, he would not have been motivated by something so petty as cash from the sale of the manuscript. His motives would have been far more complex, honorable, and disturbing.
I have no idea how many Mormons there are in biblical and related studies. It’s a very small percentage, I’m sure. But they and Mormonism were nicely included in the two volume reference work, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. A Mormon scholar wrote the entry on the Testament of Adam, and Mormons in general are listed on the back cover (easily accessible here) along with Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as ‘people of the book.’
This was due entirely to the magnanimity of the editor, James Charlesworth, I suspect, who once spoke at BYU on the topic of Messianism in the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon (not to mention his once having been teacher to the founder of FARMS and to one of the chairs of BYU’s department of Ancient Scripture). His talk is about as genteel a treatment as could be hoped for from a bible scholar.
One of the challenges in the study of Old Testament pseudepigrapha is the issue of the (possible) later Christianization of texts that were (hypothetically) written by Jews. So of the “apparently later Christian” material in the Book of Mormon, such as Mosiah 3:8-10, Charlesworth says in his talk that it does not necessarily rule out Jewish composition before the Common Era:
In these three verses, we find what most critical scholars would call clearly Christian phrases; that is, the description is so precise that it is evident it was added after the event. The technical term for this phenomenon is vaticinium ex eventu. The specific details are the clarification that the Messiah will be called ‘Jesus Christ,’ that his mother will be called Mary, that salvation is through faith—indeed faith on his name—that many will say he has a devil, that he will be scourged and crucified, and finally that he will rise on the third day from the dead. Do not these three verses contain a Christian recital of Christ’s life?
How are we to evaluate this new observation? Does it not vitiate the claim that this section of the Book of Mormon, Mosiah, was written before 91 B.C.? Not necessarily so, since Mormons acknowledge that the Book of Mormon could have been edited and expanded on at least two occasions that postdate the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is claimed that the prophet Mormon abridged some parts of the Book of Mormon in the fourth century A.D. And likewise it is evident that Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century had the opportunity to redact the traditions that he claimed to have received.
Today biblical scholars are making significant and exciting discoveries into the various strata of ancient documents through the use of what is called Redaction Criticism, a method employed to discern the editorial tendencies of an author-compiler. Perhaps it would be wise for specialists to look carefully at this phenomenon in the Book of Mormon. The recognition that the Book of Mormon has been edited on more than one occasion would certainly explain why certain of the messianic passages appear to be Christian compositions.
After a fashion, here Charlesworth is defending Mormon belief in the antiquity of its founding scripture, though not a Mormon himself. And he is suggesting the use of tools of higher criticism to do it, namely redaction criticism.
Charlesworth spoke at BYU in the 1970s, a few years before volume one of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha was published. Since then, besides the waning of redaction criticism, there has recently been an effort to supplement his editorial work with another volume, simply called More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. I don’t know, but it is not impossible that a Mormon scholar or two is writing entries for the volume. Mormons in general might also be listed on the back cover when it is published.
All this makes the absence of any Mormon *texts* from the compiled volumes of Old Testament pseudepigrapha rather striking. Is it that friendliness and open mindedness only go so far? they cannot risk contempt from the academy, as the basic rules of scholarship prohibit something like the Book of Mormon from counting as biblical, i.e. ancient? or is it just that no Mormon text meets the criteria for inclusion in these compiled volumes of Old Testament pseudepigrapha (in brief, refer to the link to MOTP above for criteria)?
The Jacob (pseud)epigraphon in the book of Alma presents an interesting manageable case. Quoted by chief captain Moroni within the record of Helaman on the (large) plates of Nephi as edited by Mormon, the text proper is brief (Alma 46:24b-25 in bold):
24.Yea, let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph; yea, let us remember the words of Jacob, before his death, for behold, he saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said—
Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment. 25.Now behold, this giveth my soul sorrow; nevertheless, my soul hath joy in my son, because of that part of his seed which shall be taken unto God.
26.Now behold, this was the language of Jacob.
Could a text such as this be included? should it? why or why not? if it were included, what might the text edition look like? In a follow up, I’ll throw out some ideas, and, lest anyone cry foul, I’ll even look at how the Jacob (pseud)epigraphon is used in the book of Alma.
Need some inspiration for school, whether you yourself are just starting out, returning for yet another year, or you are going to be teaching the next group of collegiate hopefuls?
Look no further than Sidney Rigdon’s address to the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute, 1844 (you can read the complete record of the NLLI here in Jones’ edition):
Elder S Rigdon then took the floor and remarked that as it was getting late he did not feel as though he could deliver a Lecture and do justice to the subject without encroaching upon a late hour of the night he would however make some remarks upon the subject for the benefit of the Members.
He then in his usual pleasing style commenced with the early history of his own life showing that his own first studies were commenced in a circulating Library, he then set forth in glowing colors the beauties of and benefits derived from a Library – he showed that his own rise to notoriety were all derived from the previlege of a Library and then set forth the manner in which the members of this Library and especially the Youth of this City may receive the most possible benefits from this Library which is equal to the previlege of a College and often superior (for in the language of Burns men sometimes go to College they go in dunces and they come out asses. they go in dunces and they come out Blockheads after other very appropriate the Institute adjourned until a fortnight from to night J M Cole Secretary.
For good measure, here’s the Robert Burns passage (from Epistle to J. Lapraik, April 1, 1785) that Elder Rigdon was paraphrasing:
A set o’ dull, conceited Hashes,
Confuse their brains in Colledge-classes!
They gang in Stirks, and come out Asses,
Plain truth to speak;
An’ syne they think to climb Parnassus
By dint of Greek!
Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then tho’ I drudge thro’ dub an’ mire
At pleugh or cart,
My Muse, tho’ hamely in attire,
May touch the heart.
Clearly the take away is that if you don’t go to college and learn some Greek, at least the basic pre-med vocab or such critical terms in literary theory as ‘hegemony,’ you just might end up getting excommunicated.
In episode 24 of the Mysterious Cities of Gold, an ancient Mesoamerican manuscript is discovered inside a stone box underground. As explained during the mini-documentary that follows each episode, the real story adapted for the cartoon is that the find spot was an Indian burial at Palenque (and no manuscript was found; but you can virtually enter the tomb here).
Now the discovery of the gold plates has always been my favorite Book of Mormon story. That the angel Moroni was also understood as a guardian of treasure, be it Indian, Spanish, or pirate, (and whose body was buried with what he was to guard,) makes the story even better.
So I was a little crestfallen when John Sorenson says is his recent FAIR presentation: “How that record reached New York state and Smith’s hands, and how he translated it, are questions nobody is able to answer objectively at this time, but they pale in comparison to the one of how the original work came to be.”
All the same, I am excited to see the publication of Sorenson’s larger project, a life’s pursuit really. According to his presentation, the forthcoming tome offers hundreds of “’correspondences’ between the archaeological record for Mesoamerica and the text of the Book of Mormon.”
Mormon’s Codex, as the title suggests, appears to be about more than establishing historicity so as to support faith among Latter-day Saints. As Sorenson concludes his presentation: “Supposing it [the Book of Mormon] is authentic, it constitutes the oldest and most extensive Mesoamerican codex known. Scholars engaged in the study of that civilization have the possibility, and even the responsibility, of studying this unique document as such a codex.”
This is a bold and intriguing proposition. Mormons are to take the text as seriously historical but so are anthropologists and archaeologists in their understanding of Mesoamerican civilization/s. Alongside of other codices, such as the Maya codices, scholars are to use the Book of Mormon in their professional work. I can only wonder how that might go, being neither an anthropologist nor archaeologist.
My guess is that such scholars would be keen to know something about the discovery that led to the Book of Mormon. Since the artifacts of that discovery were repatriated, this guessing game has to be played without much physical evidence.
But based on reports of the discovery and descriptions of the artifacts, I would suppose something like the following as a hypothetical scenario that an anthropologist or archaeologist might entertain. A European breastplate and perhaps a sword as well were found along with what eyewitnesses described as a manuscript of gold-ish metallic leaves.
Other European breastplates and swords have been found in North America, though perhaps not as far north as upstate New York. For instance, in Georgia in 1982, three treasure hunters found a sword at an Indian burial site. Apparently the sword was carried to the Americas from Europe, perhaps by a member of Hernando de Soto’s exploration of North America after his involvement with Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. Then a Native American of what would become Georgia acquired the sword and was buried with it.
The gold plates themselves, of course, remain a mystery. Not only would they be “the oldest and most extensive Mesoamerican codex,” as Sorenson states, they would be the one bona fide metal codex found anywhere in the western hemisphere, I think.
At any rate, what is perhaps most fascinating about this hypothetical scenario is that within Nephite narrative, the breastplate and sword, these emblems of European invasion, become sacred relics of divine history, as if the Gentiles who came to the Americas were inspired. In a later post I’ll consider how the Book of Mormon itself is situated in relation to their crossing of the many waters.
Prior post on gospels, with link to series intro.
1. Of the four canonical gospels, John was probably written last, in stages, over the end of the first century and beginning decades of the second century. By that time, Jesus still had not returned, as it was expected that he would soon (1 John 2:18, 28), and the Beloved Disciple appears to have died when chapter 21 was written/added in the final stage (John 21:23; compare D&C 7).
2. Scholars associated with the German school of the history of religions theorized that the figure of Jesus as descending and ascending redeemer was based on a pre-Christian eastern pagan gnostic myth which these scholars reconstructed/invented primarily from late Mandaean and Manichean literature. Just as the theory was more or less discredited, among the Nag Hammadi codices ‘stupendous parallels’ to the Johannine prologue were found in an early Christian(ized?) text entitled First-thought in Three Forms, which describes the descent of the Word and seems to polemicize against Johannine Christianity. Debate continues (or has stymied) as to the relationship between these texts and another text from the same codices, the so-called Hymn of Forethought, recounting the descents and ascents of a redeemer figure, at the end of the long manuscripts of the Apocryphon of John.
3. Even if the people who wrote the fourth gospel did not know the synoptic gospels in their written form, they knew at least some similar traditions, which they seem to react to and rewrite in places.
4. Aside from Simon Peter’s patronymic, the only John mentioned in the text is John the Baptist (compare D&C 93:4-18 and this post), who is portrayed as fully recognizing Jesus, unlike in the synoptics. In Mark, the Baptist does not seem to recognize Jesus at his baptism or thereafter. In Matthew and Luke’s common source (Q), after the baptism he specifically asks Jesus whether he is the one (Matt 11:2-6 // Luke 7:18-23). This, despite the fact that in Matthew, according to the apologetic explanation for Jesus’ baptism, the Baptist had already recognized him (Matt 3:14-15; compare 2 Nephi 31:5-7); and despite the fact that in Luke, according to the infancy narrative there, the Baptist or at least his mother had recognized Jesus even before he was born (Luke 1:39-44). In John, not only is the Baptist sent by God (1:6-8), like the divine Word, but lesser than it, he recognizes Jesus at the baptism (1:29-34), contributes the very first disciples to Jesus’ movement, namely Andrew and perhaps the Beloved Disciple himself (1:35-37), and the Baptist defers to Jesus when his remaining disciples become envious of Jesus’ success (3:26-30).
5. Unlike in the synoptics, Jesus does not institute the sacrament on the evening of the betrayal in chapter 13. There is no (new) covenant/testament here. If the bread and wine are alluded to, it is in chapter 6.
6. Unlike in the synoptics, Jesus does not eat the Passover meal with the disciples on the evening of the betrayal either. Passover does not begin on Thursday. It begins on Friday, the day of the crucifixion in chapter 19, with Jesus as the l/Lamb, and to make a theological point.
7. The new commandment to love one another (14:34) does not necessarily support the idea, however pleasant, that Jesus loved and accepted everybody, and that his disciples did and should do the same. In chapter 8, the Johannine Jesus also tells people who disagree with him that they are worldly (8:23) diabolical (8:44) liars (8:55). And at least one member of the rather sectarian Johannine community says (1 John 2:15): “Do not love the world or the things in the world ….” Far from loving and accepting everyone, he naturally claims that he and his constituents are children of God like Jesus, as opposed to non/ex-community members who are children of the devil (1 John 3:1-10). The same or another member of the Johannine community warns against admitting and welcoming teachers with beliefs about Jesus that are different from his own (2 John 10-11), “for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.”
8. And yet, as cosmic savior, the Johannine Jesus atones for the sin of the world (1:29); God loves the world and sends Jesus to save it (3:16-17); Jesus dies for all the children of God, not only the Jewish nation (11:52) or the limited ‘many,’ for whom the blood of the (new) covenant/testament is poured out in Mark and Matthew.
9. But, unlike in the synoptics, Jesus does not suffer in the garden in chapter 18. This is apparently not a matter of the Johannine record being silent but a reaction to and rewriting of tradition. Whereas Jesus asks for the cup to be removed from him in his prayer to the Father in the synoptics, he does not pray at all in any moment of weakness in chapter 18. Instead, telling Peter to put his sword away, he says (18:11), “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” And earlier, in chapter 12, though troubled, he says (12:27), “And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (compare D&C 19:18). In fact the portrayal of Jesus in general is surprisingly, some have said even naively, not human.
10. As a final tidbit, unlike in the synoptics, Jesus carries the cross by himself in chapter 19. There is no question of him needing help from any Simon of Cyrene, or question of the divine entity that possessed him at his baptism now leaving its host, as some (later) Christians believed.
Because I can’t wait for August (I’m already on episode 11 of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, folks!) …
The other month in a Huffington blog post mentioning Larry Echo Hawk, Tim Giago asks some tough questions:
Is the Mormon Church stuck with an embarrassing book it cannot historically support? Will the Book of Mormon one day be rationalized as simply an allegory conceived and used by Joseph Smith, the founder, to inspire his followers? In the final analysis it all comes down to whether faith will triumph over fiction.
And I will continue to ask myself why any sensible Native American would belong to a Church that will not fully accept them until they become white.
Tough questions, as I say, and I leave it to others to try to answer them. What I would like to do in this post is read some fiction to get at the Book of Mormon from another angle.
In preparation for the release of the new season of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, rumored to be out in September (in French only?), here’s what I propose for August:
The setting of the Book of Mormon is entirely pre-colonial, of course (unless you entertain the secularism of that dangerous T&S). Still the book itself refers to colonization. And it was in the aftermath of colonization that the plates were discovered, along with other Book of Mormon artifacts; the English translation published too. Plus the text continues to impinge on issues in the (post) post colonial Americas and wider world (web).
Feel free to join in.
Maybe a blog post or two will come out of this.
One of my fellow saints recently asked me what I think of the late Hugh Nibley’s work. I began by saying that although I may have become disenchanted with his general approach, I continue to be impressed by how much he knew. Intimidated even. Next I mentioned some things I had picked up reading around in his biography, items that humanized him for me and made him someone I could still relate to, items such as his reluctance to take on the Book of Abraham academically and his breakdown/stroke and hospitalization in 1974 while working on The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Like all influential figures, Nibley ought to be reread, not merely dismissed out of hand as outdated and outmoded.
My interlocutor then asked what I meant when I said that I had become disenchanted. Hesitating some, I essentialized the Nibley approach: the amassing of parallels in ancient texts as proof of Mormonism based on the assumption that they were unknown to Joseph Smith, so the prophet must have arrived in the same place through revelation, of course. I explained that this approach to defending the church was actually–and not without irony–liable to do more harm than good, in my opinion. After the assumption is admitted and the parallels amassed, all that some punk needs to do is reverse the polarity, and voila, it looks like Mormonism can be accounted for through the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s. This is especially the case because Nibley tended to downplay the differences between the ancient parallels and Mormonism, while exploiting (some would say embellishing) the similarities. And so the LDS academic may be faced with the onerous task of undoing what has been done, de-emphasizing the similarities and stressing the differences, in order to show that Mormonism is not reducible to the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s, and so that Joseph Smith can be understood and appreciated as creative genius, exegete, theologian, innovator.
Consider, if you will, for example, what would have happened if instead of saying these words in his 1954 KSL radio broadcast entitled “Time Vindicates the Prophets” (The World and the Prophets [third edition; 1987, p.170-1])
With the exception of the verse just cited above [1 Cor 15:29], a few perplexing commentaries on it, and the unnoticed passage from the Pastor of Hermas, all our evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead in ancient times comes from fragments recently discovered. The possession of this strange and wonderful thing by the restored Church of Jesus Christ for over a hundred years would therefore seem to be an almost foolproof certificate of authenticity. The prophets of modern times remember the dead exactly as did those prophets of old, and in the growing evidence for the nature of that work among the first Christians, time has vindicated the prophets.
… Nibley had cited the following remark from Albert Schweitzer’s earlier monograph on The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (English translation; 1998, p.290):
Since Hermas, no theologian has had the courage to tackle the problem and solve it in this gallant fashion. All of them carefully evade the problem of the necessity of the sacraments and of the extension of the results of the death of Jesus to pre-Christian humanity. They make, for example, the pre-Christian generations attain to blessedness through Christ, between His death and resurrection, preaching to the spirits of the lower world, as is already assumed in the First Epistle of Peter (iii 19-20). But the problem is not only whether they receive the knowledge of Jesus and become believers, but rather how without a real act of faith and without sacraments they can enter into blessedness.
To say that Joseph Smith had the courage to tackle the problem and was able to solve it on what is a broader scale and in what is arguably an even more gallant fashion may sound a bit hollow when compared to notions of unmediated divine revelation. But is it not at least preferable to the situation that arises when our cherished parallels turn out to work against us?