American Pseudobibles (and the Book of Mormon)

American Pseudobibles (and the Book of Mormon) March 6, 2014

Americans during the Revolutionary era and the Early Republic lived in a world suffused with the Hebrew scriptures. That reality, already charted by many historians (including Mark Noll, who once termed the Old Testament (“the common coinage of the realm”), is only the backdrop to Eran Shalev’s remarkable American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War.

Most expansively and simply, Shalev argues that “political Hebraism” led Americans — both those more and less religious) to identify their new nation as a second Israel, a nation chosen by the Almighty for special purposes should it remain true to its founding principles. In his conclusion, Shalev observes that because “the United States was created in the shadow of the biblical Israelite nation … [it] should not surprise us that so many of its citizens still ardently believe that God regards their nation with special favor.” During the revolutionary years, Americans read the Old Testament through the filter of Whig republicanism (and vice versa). For instance, Gideon became a noble, republican military leader who refused offers of kingship (a la Cincinnatus and George Washington). Americans saw their own polity (or desired polity) reflected in pro-monarchical Israel, their desired leaders in the judges chosen by the people for their virtue.

Despite the subtitle, Shalev actually delves into more than just “political Hebraism.” Rather, he shows how deeply the Old Testament pervaded American culture in many different and unexpected ways. For example, he offers a concise summary of theories about Indian Israelitism (especially the Indian’s possible descent from the lost ten tribes of Israel). Along the way, he also offers a sharp (and to my eyes, original) analysis of both the possible production and the reception of the Book of Mormon.

It turns out that the Book of Mormon was one of many “pseudobibles” that Americans encountered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of the earlier entries were political satires, such as the 1773 Chronicle of the Kings of England and 1774-1775’s The First Book of the American Chronicles of the Times. The latter, for instance, featured “Mordecai the Benjaminite (for Benjamin Franklin) and Thomas the Gageite (Thomas Gage, the military commander of Boston).” Such texts were composed in the idiom of the King James Bible, repeating ad nauseam “And it came to pass…” Richard Snowden’s enormously popular The American Revolution; Written in the Style of Ancient History (1793) concluded chapters in keeping with the ancient chronicles of Israel: “And the rest of the acts of [Lord] Dunmore, and all that he did … are they not written in the book of Ramsay the scribe?” The latter reference is to David Ramsey, an early historian of the revolution. A number of pseudobiblical publications fashioned themselves as the translations of ancient records, mysteriously or miraculously preserved.

Now the Book of Mormon was quite different than these texts, as Shalev readily acknowledges. For starters, it was certainly not a political satire, regardless of the extent to which nineteenth-century concerns intruded into the text. Providence, not politics, was its central concern. Shalev also might have mentioned that the Book of Mormon sharply diverges from any sort of Hebraism through its relentless focus on the character of Jesus Christ (though that is in keeping with the shift toward “New Testamentism” present in the United States by 1830).

Nevertheless, Shalev suggests that “the unique combination of the biblical form and style that the Book of Mormon shares with the pseudobiblical texts, as well as their distinctly American content, provide a case for seeing Smith’s book as meaningfully affiliated to that American mode of writing.” It strikes many modern non-Mormon readers as bizarre that the Book of Mormon appropriates language from the King James Bible. It would have seemed less bizarre and even familiar to many Americans of the time.

Shalev points to evidence that the pseudobiblical texts were readily available in Joseph Smith’s Palmyra. Whether Smith translated an ancient record or otherwise produced the text, moreover, it is more comprehensible in light of Shalev’s language that he would employ the idiom of the King James Bible for what he brought forth. In other words, what Smith produced was unique, but not without relevant antecedents. Furthermore, given how strongly many Americans thought of themselves and their nation as a Second Israel, perhaps it was not so far-fetched that the cradle of what might become a New Jerusalem should also have a more ancient sacred history.


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  • Is the New Testament also to be considered a pseudobible tacked onto the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible?

  • The WordTree Foundation has been recently studying the pseudo-biblical genre and has made clean, hand-corrected and computable text available here:

    Also, we’ve attempted to summarize what we’ve found between The Late War and the Book of Mormon. Any impressions? Comparison here:

  • No.

  • David Tiffany

    As with any writing that could be considered pseudobiblical, it must pass the test. It must stand up to the scrutiny of the Scriptures (the Bible) and pass. Is it truth, or does it contradict the truth.
    The Book of Mormon does not pass the test. It teaches that precious truths were taken away from the Gospel that we read about in the Bible by a devilish Gentile church. That never happened. The true Gospel of Christ taught by the early Apostles in the Scriptures is if fact complete and correct.

  • > does it contradict

    That is a rational standard. It’s why I throw out the imposter* Paul, and read only Jesus’ words, minus the corruption.**

    Paul’s Contradictions of Jesus

    * “Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Corypheus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” ~Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson’s Works, Vol. ii., p. 217)

    ** “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803

  • David Tiffany

    “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God…” Romans 1:1.
    So, the Apostle that God chose to bring the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, you label as an imposter. Dangerous.
    And that is how cults are formed. First, marginalize the Scriptures and call them into question as to their truth. Then replace it with your own.

  • Self-referential credentials aren’t all that impressive. Shoot, I just got called to be an apostle now. Gonna believe me?

    > And that is how cults are formed.

    Yep. You’re in one, one that has totally abandoned the founder’s teachings, in favor of the impostor’s corruptions.

    • Jesus: “Call no man your father on the earth.”

    • Paul: “…you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father…when I preached…”

    Who is right? Both can’t be right.

  • DougH

    Naturally, the Book of Mormon is in Biblical English. As the satires mentioned demonstrate, that was what everyone in America thought scripture was supposed to sound like. What would have been bizarre was if it hadn’t been.

  • laverl09

    Let me give just five examples of truths of the Bible that are being left out of today’s Christian teachings:
    (1) In Ephesians, Paul says that the foundation of the Church is built on apostles and prophets and that they were to remain in that position so
    that we not be swept by every wind of doctrine, AND until we all come to the unity of one faith The reason that we are now swept by every wind of doctrine and have not come to a unity of the faith is that the apostles and prophets are no longer functioning as the foundation of the Church.
    (2) Jesus said that to enter heaven we have to be born again by water as well as by the spirit. Today, we see very little emphasis in the Christian community on the (Romans 6:1-6) immersive burial of our old selves in the water as a symbol of coming out a new person symbolically resurrected in Christ.
    (3) The entire chapter 15 of I Corinthians is a sermon by Paul about the
    resurrection. He uses the contemporary practice of
    (4) baptism for the dead as evidence that there was a belief of life after death and he even taught that there are
    (5) three major divisions of resurrected beings–the top he called celestial and compared it to the glory of the sun; the middle he called the terrestrial and compared it to the glory of the moon; the bottom he compared to the glory of the stars. And since he said in verse 22 that “As in Adam all die, even so, in Christ shall ALL be made alive”, he is saying that ALL who die will receive a designation of glory in the resurrection.
    Due to today’s adherence to the non-biblical Athanasian Creed (deeply certified by Aristotelean Aquinas), the definition of God as immaterial (including Jesus after his resurrection) and that to be one with them (John 17) we also have to become immaterial, Christian tradition is currently denying Paul’s teachings of the resurrection.
    So what precious truths have been taken away?
    (1) Apostles and Prophets,
    (2) Baptism by immersion,
    (3) a belief that ALL who die will retain a resurrected body,
    (4) baptism by proxy for those who died without a knowledge of Christ (the proxy to be effective only if the person chooses to follow Jesus after they die (see I Peter 3:18-20;4:6),
    (5) there are three major divisions in our resurrected heaven with a “glory” compared to the sun, the moon or the stars.

    I could continue on and on, but this is enough for now.

  • DougH

    Actually, the Book of Mormon states that the truths were removed from the scriptures before the Gentiles ever received them, so the Gentile Church never saw them.

  • BartBurk

    There are over 1 billion Catholics who are unified in the Catholic Church. Other Christians have simply apostatized from the one true Catholic Church which has held a consistent faith since the times of the apostles. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would lead his Church to a fullness of truth and said he would never abandon it. The idea of a Great Apostasy is simply a Mormon invention.

  • DougH

    No, there hasn’t been one consistent faith since the times of the Apostles. Even proto-orthodox theologians such as Origen held to positions that were later considered to be heretical, much less all the other Christian groups that weren’t proto-orthodox at all such as the gnostics, marcionites, and ebionites.

    And there is a difference between Jesus never abandoning his Church and that Church abandoning him.

  • BartBurk

    Again that’s a Mormon idea that has no basis in fact. If Jesus promises to never abandon the Church I guess I would trust in his promises. Christ is the one who holds the Church together not men. If Christ failed to live up to his promises by allowing the Church to go astray then he wasn’t who he claimed to be.

  • DougH

    It’s hardly just a Mormon idea – it is, after all, fundamental to all Protestant sects, isn’t it? That the Church had gone astray and needed to be returned to its original, pure form. The difference between the Protestants and the LDS Church is over the possibility of making that return without a renewal of the authority to act in God’s name with a fresh revelation.

    As for Christ not *allowing* the Church to go astray, are you going to claim that we lack free will, that Christ will force us to stay in the true Church? As C. S. Lewis said, either we will join with Christ in saying to God, “Thy will be done,” or God will reluctantly say to us, “Thy will be done.”

    Besides, if you are referring to the Gospel verse where Jesus says “the gates of Hell will not prevail against it,” there are two possibilities for “it” – the Church or revelation. And even if you assume he was referring to the Church, it could still fall away without being “prevailed against” so long as it accomplishes its purpose – the New Testament records the martyrdom of some of the Apostles and tradition records all of them dying for their Faith. Were they “prevailed against” because they were killed? Or did they accomplish their earthly missions despite their deaths?

  • BartBurk

    Of course they accomplished their earthly missions. They converted thousands to Christianity and ordained Bishops to continue their ministry after the death of the apostles. These Bishops then were led by the Spirit to continue the ministry of the Church to our own day.

    There is nothing in Mormonism that would recommend it as a replacement for the Catholic Church. We could go into all of Mormonism’s fallacious beliefs, but that would be beyond the pale of this conversation. I will mention one — the Book of Mormon’s teaching that Native Americans were cursed with a skin of blackness because they were unrighteous Israelites is racist. We now know through mtDNA studies that Native Americans descended from Siberians who migrated to the Americas long before Book of Mormon times. No Mormon has a good answer for that.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Oops. The idea of a great apostasy is a Biblical invention. 2 Thess. 2:3.

  • DougH

    Of course there’s a good answer for that. The DNA studies only prove that *most* Amerinds aren’t descended from Israelites. They certainly don’t prove that around fifty people at most arrived from the Middle East in an already occupied Mesoamerica around 2600 years ago, which is what the Book of Mormon supports when you read it closely.

    As for the racism of the “skin of blackness,” I would imagine that there were plenty of bigots among the Nephites, just like there are among Christians. But like the Bible, whatever some critics of the Bible say, the BoM itself is not racist. Jacob, the younger brother of the prophet that reports the curse, later tells his own people that those cursed Lamanites are more righteous than they are – that the despised Lamanites sin through ignorance, and still have healthy, loving families. Centuries later, large numbers of Lamanites are converted by missionaries, and when driven out of their homes they take refuge with the Nephites and their sons fight alongside those Nephites against their former people. Later still, the Lamanites are the righteous people sending missionaries and prophets to the wicked Nephites – one such is named, Samuel the Lamanite. And when, after centuries of all being a single people, they again split up into “Nephites” and “Lamanites” the division is between those that stay faithful to the Church and those that apostatize rather than by “race” (by then they’re probably all the same skin tone, if not much earlier). But the children of those that stayed faithful don’t continue in the faith, either, and by the time the “Nephites” are wiped out by the “Lamanites” both sides are equally unrighteous and atrocity-prone. No, overall the BoM portrays the Lamanites as being no worse than the Nephites and sometimes better. Just like everyone else.

  • ElGuapo

    This work with The Late War is the most significant thing to come out of Book of Mormon studies in forever. Keep up the good work!

  • BartBurk

    You are right. The Protestants fell away and the Mormons made it worse.

  • Actually, Paul and his disciples have simply apostasized from Jesus.

    Jesus: Call no man your father.

    Paul: You have only one spiritual father. For I became your father.

    Clearly, Paul is an imposter.

    “Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Corypheus, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” ~Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson’s Works, Vol. ii., p. 217)

  • I don’t see any of the NT here:

    The Tanakh
    Though the terms “Bible” and “Old Testament” are commonly used by non-Jews to describe Judaism’s scriptures, the appropriate term is “Tanach,” which is derived as an acronym from the Hebrew letters of its three components: Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    OK, well I’m glad that you agree with me about apostasy. We can discuss what went wrong historically, now that you don’t deny the possibility, but the discussion is book-length, more than can be covered here.

  • David Tiffany

    1 Nephi 13 from the Book of Mormon:
    24 And the angel of the Lord said unto me: Thou hast beheld that the book proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew; and when it proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord, of whom the twelve apostles bear record; and they bear record according to the truth which is in the Lamb of God.
    25 Wherefore, these things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.
    26 And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.
    According to verse 26 it was after the Gentiles received them.

  • DougH

    Right you are, mostly, my bad, I got the timeline slightly confused. Verse 29 adds:

    29 “And after these plain and precious things were taken away it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles; and after it goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles, yea, even across the many waters which thou hast seen with the Gentiles which have gone forth out of captivity, thou seest—because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the book, which were plain unto the understanding of the children of men, according to the plainness which is in the Lamb of God—because of these things which are taken away out of the gospel of the Lamb, an exceedingly great many do stumble, yea, insomuch that Satan hath great power over them.”

    So while plain and precious things were taken out, it was done while the church that eventually replaced the apostles was still small, before it became a major power in the Empire – before the larger Gentile world became Christian.

    Basically, the answer to the question of which of the many sects that sprang up after the apostles died was doctrinally correct is “none of them.”

    I’d think there would also be some question as to how much of the Bible this would apply to.

  • David Tiffany

    With what Paul says in Ephesians about the foundation of the Apostles, it’s important to understand that you cannot build a building on an incomplete foundation. Jesus is the cornerstoned, the writings of the early Apostles is the foundation, and the building is being done by God. The foundation is complete.
    When Jesus spoke of being born of water and the spirit, He was speaking of natural and then spiritual birth. Yes, water baptism is important for a person to identify him or herself publicly as a follower of Christ, but consider the thief on the cross who was not baptized.
    Concerning the Mormon practice of baptizing for the dead, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul mentions people baptizing for the dead, but he doesn’t go into detail concerning the practice. He doesn’t say, “We baptize for the dead,” or, “You baptize for the dead.” He doesn’t say it is their practice. In chapter 15 he is obviously dealing with the issue of the resurrection. In reading that chapter we can understand some were believing there was no resurrection.
    It’s important when reading verse 22 to also read verse 23. Then we learn who the “all” are. First Christ, then the firstfruits, then all who belong to Him. In Romans chapter 8 Paul says, “…and if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”
    I could go on, but I would rather ask a question. Mormons recently have said they should be considered Christians. With the several ending points you made above about current Christian tradition, why would you want to be identified with one? Why would you want to be identified with mainstream Christianity?
    You take one creed and identify all Christians with that. That’s very misleading, or you don’t fully understand. God the Father is Spirit. Jesus does have a resurrected body. His children will have a resurrected body. All will be raised, but not all will go to heaven. Neither Paul nor Peter said they practiced baptizing for the dead.

  • BartBurk

    The Book of Mormon never mentions non-Israelites during Book of Mormons. It totally missed it. The lands were supposedly preserved from their being other peoples, but Mormon apologists have to ignore what the Book of Mormon says.

  • BartBurk

    I do not accept any possibility the Catholic Church fell away.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Well, OK, you’re in denial. But don’t tell me that the Bible says it can’t happen, because 2 Thess. 2:3 explicitly says otherwise. History reveals too much corruption and too much false doctrine to allow anyone to prevail on a claim that the Catholic Church never went astray. Sale of indulgences was sort of the last straw. Martin Luther was right as far as his critique of an oppressive, unsanctified priesthood was concerned. It took the Restoration to return a faithful, unpaid priesthood.

  • BartBurk

    Brigham Young got rich as the LDS “prophet.” I don’t know how an ex church educator like Boyd K. packer became so rich if he is unpaid clergy. The Mormons at the top are pretty well off — Monson has spent his lifetime in church service and is rich. I never claimed the men in the Catholic Church have been perfect, but the Catholic Church is still standing. When you are ready to discuss J. Smith being married to teenagers and the wives of his apostles …

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Whenever you’re ready to discuss widespread unmarried sexual relationships of priests including children of the same sex. Resulting in multimillion dollar judgments and settlements in sex abuse cases. Joseph Smith entered into plural marriage like ancient prophets with divine sanction, not dirty hidden homosexual liaisons with boys. Are you ready to discuss that?

  • BartBurk

    You do realize the Mormon Church has had the same types of lawsuits, right? The Catholic Church’s priests were going against church doctrine. Joe Smith’s sanctioned them. He did all of it in secret while at the same time lying about his activities in public.

  • DougH

    “Nephite” is used both for the direct descendents of Nephi, and those under the leadership of his descendents or part of the same culture. “Lamanite” variously means the direct descendents of Laman, and everyone that wasn’t a Nephite. It depends on the context.

    Also, understanding that there were inhabitants already there when those fifty-odd Lehites arrived helps explain a number of things, such as how they were able to fight wars within a generation or so of breaking up into two camps, how Nephi’s followers were able to build a temple, why Jacob castigated his people for growing wealth distinctions and practicing polygamy (in that area and time the Maya occupied small, isolated villages, but the population was growing and trade connections were being made).

    So yes, the presence of previous inhabitants makes the Book of Mormon more clear and plausible, not less.

  • BartBurk

    And yet the Book of Mormon editor ignores them completely. It is 19th century fiction.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    No I absolutely do not know that there has been anything like the pattern of abuse, cover up, transfer of priests to different parishes and (to use the phrase used by the current pope) a “gay lobby” in the highest echelons.

  • DougH

    Sure, in the same way that the New Testament is 1st century fiction. That’s Bart Ehrman’s opinion, after all – he’s a scholar and everything so he should know, right?

    As I said in my last post, “Lamanite” can cover “not a Nephite,” which would include any of the original inhabitants that didn’t join the Nephites, of which there have to have been many. So yes, Mormon would have mentioned some – he just didn’t bother to distinguish them from the blood descendents of Laman, at least not in the part of the original manuscript that wasn’t lost. If they weren’t Nephites, they were Lamanites. The Nephites seem to have been a rather parochial bunch.

  • laverl09

    I can see by your referencing the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross that you didn’t read the references I gave you in I Peter 3&4 where he tells us that Jesus went to the spirit world where the thief was that very same day to organize a proselyting mission to those who were not baptized while alive. I’m sure the thief was one of the first ones Jesus talked to.