Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Top 5 Misconceptions that Atheists and Muslims Believe about Christianity

It’s no big secret that atheists on the left have taken Islam in under their wing.  The loudest voice of Islamic apologetics in the West comes not from Muslims themselves, but from secularists whose pro-feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay ideologies seem in conflict with the religion of Islam.  Yet although their conclusions may differ, many of their assumptions are surprisingly similar, particular when they pertain to Christianity.

Both Islam and secular atheism are post-Christian ideologies.  Today’s new atheists descend from predominately Christian societies, never arising in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. cultures.  They resent their parent Judeo-Christian ideology as much as Muslims resent Jews and Christians.  In coming to their post-Christian conclusions, they operate under several common assumptions.  Ironically, in trying so hard not to believe Christianity, what they end up believing about Christianity is demonstrably false.  While there are certainly many more commonalities, the Top 5 that I’ve identified are:

1.  Paul changed the Christian message from the teachings of Christ to the religion we know today.

This assumption appeals to Muslims because they want to believe Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God and definitely not God.  Muhammad never mentioned Paul either way, but using him as a scapegoat for the deification of the prophet Jesus has been a convenient way to reduce Jesus to just a man.  For this same reason, it appeals to atheists who don’t have the audacity to deny a historical Jesus altogether, but need a reason to explain how Jesus the moral teacher became Jesus the Lord and Savior.  At first glance, it does seem like a legitimate question.  Flipping through the New Testament from the Gospels into the Pauline Epistles, one will certainly notice the difference in Paul’s tone and writing.

But the reality is, the chronological narrative of our New Testament is not the same as the literary chronology.  The Gospels were written well after the conversion of Paul, when his epistles were already in circulation.  Luke was originally combined with Acts, so the accounts of Paul and Christ were always connected.  There never was a church with a scriptural tradition that did not accept them both.  Many people erroneously believe that Paul never quotes Christ, but that’s just not true (in fact, Paul references a lot of material in Matthew that I’ll cover at a later time).  If one was going to try to make this argument, they simply couldn’t do it with the present canon, which brings us up to the 2nd myth:

2.  Books that belonged in the Bible were removed in the Nicene Council.

The theological differences between the Qur’an and the New Testament are too big to be blamed solely on Paul.  The injil (gospel) referenced in the Qur’an cannot be the same as the Gospels in the Bible, since Muhammad never quotes the canonical Jesus and rejects both the crucifixion and the resurrection.  On the other hand, Muhammad does quote non-canonical sources like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Qur’an 3:49, 19:29) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Qur’an 19:22).  It’s a reasonable conclusion for Muslims to conclude that their “real” gospel isn’t in the Bible at all, and atheists like this assumption because it suggests the religion of Christianity as we know it today is actually just derived from a piecemeal collection of texts unrelated to the original message.

For reasons I can never figure out, these critics always seem to point to the Council of Nicaea as the point when the allegedly corrupted canon was settled.  This in itself is easily refuted because the Nicene Council had nothing to do with canonization, but what about these “other” gospels?  This argument really doesn’t help the Muslims because they agree with the Jesus in these non-canonical books even less than they do with the one in the Gospels.  Of all the heterodox sexts in the first Christian centuries–gnosticism, sabellianism, arianism, basilidianism, etc.–none of them concur with Islamic theology, let alone Islamic Christology.  Ironically, the book that does seem to be an agenda-driven mixed bag of various sources is actually the Qur’an.  The books of the New Testament were acknowledged by the Church Fathers (Clement, Eusebius, Ireneaus) well before the 4th century, and aside from some questionable works like the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, or the Epistle of Barnabus that fell into disuse, the canon as we know it today has persisted through history intact.  Contrary to what atheists seem to think, Christians don’t just believe everything that’s written.  Unable to diminish the integrity of the canon, the only recourse left is to question the accurateness of the existing canon.

3.  There are too many versions of the Bible to know what it really means anymore.

Muslims don’t really want to throw out the Gospels altogether.  They do like to claim that the Paraclete in the Gospel of John is a prophecy of the coming of Muhammad, but they don’t like the Christological content in the rest of John.  Their solution is to argue that the Bible has been copied and translated too many times too many times to be reliable anymore.  The ones who really know nothing about manuscript evidence or translation just say there are too many versions of the Bible and leave it at that.

This works very well for Muslims, because the majority of Muslims have never read any version of the Bible anyway; for that matter, half of all Muslims are illiterate and have never read the Qur’an either.  In some Muslim countries you can get a reduced prison sentence by memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic, even if you don’t understand Arabic.  For Muslims, the Qur’an is a book forever locked in Arabic; the entire Muslim world translate fewer books than small countries like Spain, so most Muslims have no exposure to translations of any literature at all, and don’t understand that in the English language, translations of the Qur’an are just as divergent as translations of the Bible.  On the other side, most atheists that I’ve talked to have never read either book, but of course, it’s easy to dismiss a book you’ve never actually read; it’s much more difficult to read it and base your conclusions off that.  Thanks to the internet, however, anybody could compare any Bible verse of any translation and see that for the most part (except for, say, the Joseph Smith “Inspired” Translation or the Jehovah’s Witness’s New World Translation), they all say the same thing.  Those that don’t really have no excuse.

4.  Christianity spread through Colonialism.

It’s astounding how many atheists I’ve encountered who don’t know that the Coptic Christian community in Egypt or the Roman Catholic community in Iraq pre-dated Islam.  Even if they’re aware, they’re prone to take the Muslim viewpoint that Christianity is the intruder in Muslim territory.  Rejecting all historical evidence to the contrary, both generally blame colonialism and European occupation for spreading Christianity.

Of course, they conveniently ignore Islamic conquest and occupation that can attribute to the presence of Islam in territories such as India-Pakistan.  But while empires and armies are a small contributing factor to the spread of a religion, the history and the facts just don’t support this claim about Christianity.  It’s funny that Muslims can accept 19th century conspiracy theories such as Jesus Christ dying a natural death in India (while at the same time they reject this theory’s proponent, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a heretic), yet they can’t accept the natural migration of Christianity.  Much of that is due to the Islamic complex that can’t understand anyone in their right mind converting from Islam.  Atheists like to believe this myth just because they find Christian proselytizing in the West annoying, but Muslims believe it for much more menacing reasons.  Muslims feel irrationally threatened by anyone practicing another religion in an Islamic country (don’t believe it?  just look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.), but as long as they can frame the other religion as the remnant of a perceived occupation, then adherents of this religion are valid targets (seen as “oppressors” despite being the minority).  Sadly, even though Christians are one of the most persecuted minorities in Muslim countries, you won’t find much sympathy for them from the modern atheist.

5.  Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Atheists usually don’t care about the major differences between religions since they view them all as superstitions.  Thus it’s no big deal for them to accept the Muslim position that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God.  When members of other religions criticize the god of the Qur’an, Muslims love this canned response because it gives the appearance of inclusion and tolerance.  But as always in Islam, tolerance is on the Muslim’s terms.

Their response isn’t actually inclusive because it doesn’t acknowledge any truth to Christianity.  Rather, Islam is a syncretism of beliefs, so in reality this is a claim of exclusivism, because it only enables Christians to share the god of Muhammad on Islamic terms.   One really has to ignore that Muslims don’t worship Jesus as God, or believe in his death or resurrection, which are the essence of the Christian faith.  Muslims also are never willing to accept that they worship the same god as Bahai’s, because the Baha’i Faith redefines Islam the same way Islam redefines Christianity.

What’s really unusual is that some will hold to all of these myths even though they can’t all be true at the same time; who “invented” Christianity, Paul or the Nicene Council?  That’s really no surprise to me, I’ve heard atheists reject religion because of the problem of evil in the world in one breath and then in the next breath claim religion is a crutch to deal with the problems of life.  For Muslims, promoting these myths is usually from ignorance; just as Muhammad was not a scholar, most Muslims will never study any of Christian history themselves.  For atheists, these Islamic myths are a simple way to dismiss Christianity.  Although they don’t believe Islam either, the way Islam redefines Christianity is appealing to them: Jesus Christ is just a good man, the Apostle Paul is wrong, the Bible is unreliable, and Christianity is a forceful invader oppressing poor and defenseless Muslims.  Of course, they’ll also tell you that Muslims are just as bad as Christians, so at the end of the day, they really only support Muslims when Muslims oppose Christianity.  Since neither side is engaged in any research to uncover the truth, it will be up to Christians to be knowledgeable about the facts.

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In the Beginning (Sort of)

I had the hardest time trying to decide where to start blogging through the Book of Mormon.  Logically, you should start a book at the beginning, but the big question with the Book of Mormon is: which beginning?

The real beginning to the Book of Mormon was written in the 116 pages that are now lost to the ages, Joseph Smith resumed writing somewhere around Words of Mormon and Mosiah, and what appears at the beginning of the published book is actually the last part that was written.

There’s really no way to do a literary analysis without being aware of this structure.  Starting on page 1 is the fatal mistake that prospective converts make, and leads to understanding the Book of Mormon only within its own set parameters, the way all its believers understand it.  Reading in continuity from the end of the book of Moroni to the beginning of 1 Nephi reveals clues to Joseph Smith’s creative process that just aren’t evident any other way.  For instance, an apparent original idiom in the beginning of the book, “my words shall his forth”  (2 Nephi 29:2) , seems less remarkable when one knows that Joseph Smith first developed it while completing the final chapter of the book (Moroni 10:28).  The last verse of Moroni equating Jesus with Jehovah marks the real starting point of Smith’s Modalist phase that would later have to be edited out of 1st & 2nd Nephi.  The Book of Mormon reads very much like a stream of conscience in which ideas and idioms flow visibly into one another, as long as one knows what order to look for these trends.

Unfortunately, barring the Mormon history discovery of the Millennium, there’s no way to reference the original beginning from the lost pages.  Beginners can’t as easily jump into the middle of the narrative, either, so Chapter 1 of 1 Nephi is really the only serviceable, albeit inadequate, starting place.

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

It’s no “In the beginning.”  It’s not even “Call me Ishamel”, or “It was a dark and stormy night.”  One would think since this is Joseph Smith’s second attempt at writing the beginning of his book that his writing might have improved by now.  On the contrary, he seems to be phoning it in at this point.  After all, he only re-wrote the beginning because he had to, not because he really wanted to.  Unlike before, having to recreate the content from the lost pages required plotting, focus, and concentration, and after completing the initial narrative to get his Hebrews to the New World, he’s just taking up space.  At the point that he’s just reading 20 chapters from Isaiah in 2 Nephi, you can see that he’s already mentally checked out of this project and moved onto the next one.  Immediately after completing the Book of Mormon he would start work on his “inspired” translation of the Bible, continuing pretty much the same process he had started with Isaiah.

His writing style and creative process remained the same, even though he had better source material as a basis.  In the first chapter of Nephi, it’s certainly unusual for an ancient writer to identify himself in the first sentence, and even stranger to specify the language it’s written in.  Context of authorship are certainly not to be found in Genesis, and Joseph Smith appeared to view that as a deficiency to be remedied.  He even changed its famous first line to his favorite, most repeated (and most annoying) phrase, “and it came to pass.”

And it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven and this earth; write the words which I speak. (Gen. 1:1, JST)

Notice how he re-wrote Genesis 1 in the first person,

Yea, in the beginning I created the heaven, and the earth upon which thou standest. (Gen. 1:3, JST)

His “I, Nephi” now became “I, God”:

And I, God, said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Gen. 1:6, JST)

These are notable since the earliest books (Mosiah through Ether, with the exception of Mormon) were written in the third person, yet from Moroni through 1 & 2 Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni, and into the JST Genesis, Joseph Smith persisted in the first person.  It makes me wonder if the original draft in the 116 lost pages was in the first or third person, but there’s really no way to know.  What we can see clearly, though, is that by the time he got around to re-writing the Holy Bible, he was corrupting it with his own bad writing sense.  One doesn’t even have to search for Hebrew manuscript evidence (there isn’t any to support his “translation” anyway) to be able to see that this is same author as 1 Nephi

1 Nephi

1 Nephi 1 in the 1830 edition

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Comparisons of the first line of the Book of Mormon to the Bible are inevitable, even among believers.  While they may seem like night and day to the non-Mormon, from an inside perspective one can see that Joseph Smith always intended them to be similar, even if he had to retroactively re-write the Bible to make them closer.  Unfortunately, he took a well-written passage of literature and butchered it to suit his non-literary concept of scripture.  It’s no wonder Mormons hardly even use his “inspired” translation of the Bible, just the occasional footnote, a few chapters in the Pearl of Great Price, and some excerpts in the back of their KJV Bible.  I can’t help but think that it’s not only because it would be a jarring red flag and an insurmountable obstacle to anyone remotely familiar with the Bible, but also because it’s obviously of inferior literary quality.

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Is the Bible Plagiarized?

It’s the predictable and inevitable reaction when you tell a Mormon that the Book of Mormon is plagiarized.  Their next argument is usually “if the Book of Mormon is plagiarized, then so is the Bible.”  It’s as if they’re all reading from the same script, but it’s really deeper than that: the Mormon thought-process is basically wired for self-destruction, so that any effort to discredit  the Book of Mormon prompts them to question the authenticity of the Bible.  If you won’t let them have their Book of Mormon, then they won’t let you have your Bible either.  Unfortunately, this many times results in ex-Mormons who are vehemently anti-religion altogether.

Of course, I can’t really blame them for asking this question.  It’s actually a very important one, which more Christians ought to know how to answer.  Every now and then I see an atheist copy+paste a spam essay on a Christian or religion message board insinuating this very thing.  It always consists of shameless ignorance on the definition of plagiarism mixed with outright deception, and yet it often goes unchallenged.

First of all, when Mormons attempt to argue plagiarism in the Bible, it’s because they don’t understand the difference between the Bible’s chronological sourcing and the Book of Mormon’s anachronistic sourcing.  Merely quoting a previously existing Scripture or sharing the same source as another isn’t in itself plagiarizing.  On the other hand, claiming your work was written 2,000 years ago while quoting texts that were unavailable at that time is definitely  plagiarism.  Quotes of earlier writings in the Bible don’t affect its credibility, but for the Book of Mormon to be true these similar passages cannot be mere quotations, they must be the author’s original idea or else the Book of Mormon is a 19th century fraud.

People often think plagiarism is just about failing to cite sources, when it’s more about taking credit for somebody else’s idea.  The Bible isn’t a term paper and shouldn’t be held to the today’s technical academic standards of citing sources.  Since footnotes were non-existent at the time, virtually every book in circulation at the time could be accused of plagiarism by those standards.  A term paper isn’t considered plagiarism just for failing to cite a reference, it becomes plagiarism when the author claims another work as their own, and this standard is all we need to use to evaluate the Bible.

pla·gia·rism/ˈplājəˌrizəm/ Noun: The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. 

Most of the quotes of the Jewish Scriptures in the New Testament already credit their source in the text anyway, so there’s no question there.  But what about the ones that don’t (for example, Mark 4:12)?  To suggest this is plagiarism, one would have to argue that Christ’s Jewish audience was either unfamiliar with their own Scriptures, or had no access to the book of Isaiah, and that the Gospel writer was trying to pass this off as Christ’s own, original composition.  Both premises are untenable and absurd.  Even if some members of the audience didn’t know where the material came from, that wouldn’t change the author’s intent.  On more than one occasion, I’ve actually had atheists tell me “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) or that Jesus should have told his followers to practice what they preach (Matt. 23:3), completely ignorant that they were quoting Jesus.  Even that author’s ignorance isn’t plagiarism, therefore, because although the author is unaware of the source, these are common expressions and it’s implicit in our culture that his audience would know it’s not his own original anecdote.

The next allegation of Biblical plagiarism is usually to insinuate that Christianity stole concepts from Egyptian or Greco-Roman mystery religions.  That would probably require a separate entry to cover in detail, but it falls outside the scope of this article, anyway, since it doesn’t really fit the definition of plagiarism.  Without any direct quotes, such similarities can be coincidental, or they can even be deliberate polemic.

But what about the non-Jewish sources quoted in the New Testament?  The biggest mistake uneducated Christians make to this charge is to deny it outright.  Their failure to read Scripture as literature rejects any notion of pagan influence if the Bible is to be believed as the divinely inspired Word of God.  But the truth is there are actually several quotes from pagan authors in the Bible, however, this isn’t really the damaging threat to the faith that skeptics allege.  The usual suspects that get copy+pasted all over the internet are:

‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  Acts 17:28

Here the Apostle Paul addresses a Greek audience in Athens and quotes Epiminedes’ Cretica (another line also quoted in Titus 1:12) and Aratus’ Phaenomena, correctly attributing the authorship to Greek poets.  The skeptic may have an issue with quoting pagans in Christian Scripture, but this definitely is not plagiarism.  Their real implication is that if Acts is inspired, then Cretica and Phaenomena must be too.  This presumption overlooks that many non-Christians are quoted in the New Testament, from the Pharisees to Pilate and even Gamaliel the Elder, with their words inadvertently expressing unintended theological truths.  No words in Scripture are considered inspired on the basis of the religious identity of the speaker; many times they are inspired despite this.

Another such quotes can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:33, with Paul quoting Menander’s comedy Thais:

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”

Here there’s no source cited, but the burden of proof would be on the critic to prove that Paul’s audience was unaware that this was not his own original idea, and that he was trying to pass it off as that.  The context suggests the quotation marks present in today’s translations, but non-existent at the time it was written.

The last item that gets copy+pasted is actually the most troubling, but also the most deceptive.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it addressed by anyone before.  The allegation is that Paul’s phrase below in bold:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,”  Philippians 2:12

is supposedly exactly the same as the Buddha’s last words.  If true, this could be potentially damaging to Christianity, since this context suggests no quotation, and would be presenting this as Paul’s own work.  There wasn’t much material available online to research, but my first hint that this was a manufactured controversy was the fact that not even Buddhist websites made this claim.  The second clue was that these skeptics never cited their source for the Buddha’s words.  I’ve learned the more unverifiable one makes their claims, the less likely they are to be true.

Trying to trace a particular quote within Buddhist scriptures can present a near-impossible challenge.  Fortunately, the Buddha’s last words was a useful lead, otherwise it may have been hopeless.  The entire Buddhist catalogue is colossally huge compared with the Christian canon, and no branch of Buddhism shares the exact same canon as another.  Transferred from oral Sanskrit to the abbreviated Pali language in the 1st century BC, the body of Theravada (one of the two principle denominations of Buddhism) scriptures became known as the Pali canon.  This can be confusing because this source is still considered the Pali canon even when translated into other languages.  To further complicate the matter, the Pali canon became the basis for other canons, as in Chinese and Tibetan, but while much of the suttas and contents are the same, the differences are substantial enough that these cannot be considered translations, but rather completely separate works.  For instance, the Tibetan omits the Buddha’s last words altogether in this passage.  With such a complex language diversity in the canon, translators must usually consult multiple different languages when rendering a passage in English, which produces a wide range of readings.

Eventually, I was able to home in on the exact passage, which I located in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (The Great Passing), the 16th and longest sutta in the Digha Nikaya, one of five collections in the Sutta Pitaka, the second of the three principle categories in the Pali canon (yes, finding one verse is just a little easier than finding a needle in a haystack).

Using Wisdom Publication’s translation and versification:

“Then the Lord said to the monks, ‘Now monks, I declare to you: all conditioned things are of a nature to decay–strive on untiringly.’  These were the Tathagata’s [Buddha’s] last words.”  Digha Nikaya 16.6.7

Here we see that “strive on untiringly”, or even the alternative “accomplish earnestly” have no similarity to Paul’s “work out your salvation”, neither idiomatically nor thematically.  Giving the skeptic the benefit of the doubt, I did find a turn-of-the century English translation (Rhys David, 1890-1910) with these words, but this would be influenced by the Pauline wording, and not visa versa.  This is clearly an attempt at deception, since the skeptic who presents this argument always omits their source, an irony considering that’s a mistep usually made by those committing plagiarism, not by those accusing others of it.  It always amuses me when skeptics ridicule Christians for their beliefs, yet their reasons for not believing Christianity are verifiably false.

Understanding what is and what is not plagiarism is a prerequisite to being able to accuse others of plagiarism.  These accusations should never be taken lightly.  Proven plagiarism like in the Book of Mormon is reason alone to reject it, just as claims proven false should bring into question the integrity of the accuser.  The literary litmus test is the undoing of false scripture, whereas the Bible passes the test.  The study of source material in the Bible is not a taboo subject that Christians should avoid, instead it should be understood in the way that it affirms the Bible’s authenticity, as both literature and the Word of God.

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Likely Sources and Influences for the Book of Mormon

When a teacher suspects a student of plagiarism, the question of whether the student had access to the source in question or not never really arises.  If it can be demonstrated that the student’s writing is reliant on an uncredited source, then it really doesn’t matter how they came across that material, it’s just clear that they did.  Yet it seems every apologetic defense of the Book of Mormon hinges on Joseph Smith not having access to a source or being unable to have known certain information, and dodges the issue of how similar his book is to pre-existing materials.  Mormons circumvent all logic by trying to eliminate any possibility that Joseph Smith could have composed the work, and therefore it must have been an authentic, inspired scripture.  But just like how a prosecutor doesn’t have to convince a jury how a murder was committed, just by whom it was (sorry Casey Anthony, there was enough evidence to find you guilty), so I need only rest my case on these similarities.  After all, until proven otherwise, the Book of Mormon is a work that originated in the 19th century by the mouth of Joseph Smith; it’s futile to argue that he couldn’t have written it, when the only sane and rational conclusion is that whatever the means, he clearly did write it.  The simplest explanation is most likely the correct one.

The LDS church tries to present Joseph Smith as an unlearned 25-year old with a 3rd grade education and no background in scholarship, but that simply isn’t true.  Ok, so he was about 25 when he published the Book of Mormon; so was Baha’i co-founder the Bab when he composed his first scripture.  Age is a non-issue.  Despite his youth, Joseph Smith had lots of spare time from his unconventional work as a “treasure finder”, and admitted in his own autobiography that he spent a great deal of this time exploring churches and religion.  There’s no denying he was advanced in Biblical knowledge–more than his contemporaries and definitely more than people today–his career as a prophet after publishing the Book of Mormon is a testimony to that.  Immediately the same year after completion of the Book of Mormon, Joseph set out on his “inspired” translation of the Bible, he started to learn Hebrew (even hiring a tutor, which is unusual since his seer stones needed no tutor to read “reformed Egyptian”), and published his own revelations in magazine form.  These were certainly not the study habits of a typical 20-something with a 3rd grade education.  The bulk of his own writings and scriptures in Doctrines & Covenants and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible are enough to debunk the church’s myth of a semi-illiterate prophet.  Anyone who could have written these works could have also written the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith’s writing process is more transparent than possibly any other novel, because it reads like a work in progress (which it was).  The plagiarism in the Book of Mormon is so obvious, it takes willful ignorance not to be able to see it.  The most obvious sources that we can identify are:

King James Bible

We know for a fact Joseph Smith owned a King James Bible with the Apocrypha.  He shamelessly copied entire chapters word-for-word from Isaiah, Matthew, and even 1 Corinthians.  Other phrases and verses from the New Testament are lifted throughout, and even 1611 King James-specific wording from the Old Testament, which wouldn’t  have been available in 1st century America.  Isn’t it ironic that Mormons love to point out things Joseph Smith couldn’t have known to prove the book’s authenticity, but they reject this same argument when made about its alleged Hebrew authors that disproves it?  But the Bible goes beyond just being his source material, its influence is felt in the very structure of the Book of Mormon.  A good case can be made that Joseph Smith intended his book to be a structural facsimile of the Bible: a flood narrative and a gospel story both occur at about the same locations in each; plates are passed from father to son at the approximate place where there would be a genealogy; the chronicles of his kingdoms falls at about the same place as Kings and Chronicles; Paul’s epistles are quoted at length at the end; even his obvious filler-material borrowing some 20 chapters from Isaiah lands at an interesting place, since under this theory he could be seen to be skipping over the boring parts of Leviticus (Joseph Smith seems to have had no interest in the Mosaic Law, since he doesn’t really reference any particulars).

Apocrypha

It’s important to know that Joseph Smith’s Bible had the Apocrypha.  His inspiration for writing his book seems to come more from the contents that weren’t included in the canon than what was.  3 Nephi’s “gospel” account seems inspired by the closing of the Gospel of John:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  John 20:30

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. John 21:25

Evidently, Smith felt that last verse gave him a huge void to fill in.  Similar statements are echoed frequently throughout the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 6:1, 14:28, Words of Mormon 1:5, Alma 9:34, Ether 15:33, just to list a few), but the most are found in 3 Nephi (3 Nephi 5:8, 7:17, 26:6).  Joseph Smith had an apparent obsession with scripture as archeology, that is, it being only a surviving, fragmented record of what was.  Seriously, he supposedly didn’t even need to have the plates in the same room to be able to read them, and yet it’s still absolutely important for his followers to believe it came from an artifact found buried in the ground.  This obsession undoubtedly led him to the discarded Apocrypha for inspiration, the idea of writing from brass plates comes from I Maccabees 14:48-49; the in-text explanation of abridgment from II Maccabees 2:26-31; he was further influenced by 2 Esdras in his re-write of Genesis.  Although a later revelation would discredit the Apocrypha from his own canon, from the beginning Joseph Smith appeared to be deliberately writing apocryphal, pseudepigraphic literature of his own.

Protestantism

Like I mentioned, Joseph Smith was a frequent church attendee, and while he doesn’t go into many specifics, he writes that he visited ever variety of known denomination.  It’s also a little known fact that he briefly joined the Methodist church during his sabbatical from translating, after he had supposedly been told every church on earth was corrupt.  This influence cannot be underestimated, but unfortunately, it cannot be quantified either.  Even the passages that Mormons point out as original content, like King Benjamin’s sermon on beggars (Mosiah 4), or his commentaries on the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi, could very well have been borrowed from a sermon he heard that’s now lost to the ages (it would have been helpful if more people in the 19th century had kept blogs or podcasts of sermons).  The Book of Mormon is notorious for endless sermons that interrupt its narrative flow, all too coincidental coming from someone who made a partial career out of listening to sermons.  The Book of Mormon does have a lot of theology, but it has nothing that Joseph Smith couldn’t have learned while sitting in the pews.  What we do know is the Book of Mormon promotes a Protestant bias, evidenced by all of the doctrinal disputes that it seeks to clarify, such as infant baptism or immersion baptism.  Smith seemed to have been providing irrefutable support for doctrines he wanted to believe in, but felt were not supported strongly enough in the Bible.  In the book’s first edition, he even seems to be trying to provide concrete prooftexts for the Trinity, although it’s clear Joseph Smith misunderstood this doctrine as Modalism, and these were revised out by the next edition.  Since I would wager that most nominal Christians who profess to be Trinitarians are in reality Modalists (I’ve even heard preachers on multiple occasions say something to the effect of  “if only there were a verse that clearly said Jesus is the Father”), on this I rest my case that Joseph Smith acquired the theology for his book while a churchgoer.

Catholicism

Even though he clearly had a Protestant bias, there are still trace influences from Catholicism.  He referred to Mary as the “Mother of God”, although he changed it to “Mother of the Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:18) in the next edition in 1837, and every one thereafter.  Other than that, the remainder of the book has a heavy anti-Catholic bias.  His “great and abominable” whore church of 1 Nephi 14 has historically been interpreted (and always intended) to refer to the Catholic Church.  His pet word “priestcraft” (Alma 1:12) is an unmistakable criticism of the Catholic clergy.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

In fact, the word “priestcraft” is most likely on loan from 18th century deists and, most notably, the infamous critic of Christianity, Thomas Paine, whose scathing book Common Sense had a profound impact on religion in America.   Passages of the Book of Mormon can be seen as attempted rebuttals to Paine, and even later, Smith’s revised beginning to the book of Genesis would be a clear response to Pain’s criticism:

“As to the account of the creation, with which the book of Genesis opens, it has all the appearance of being a tradition which the Israelites had among them before they came into Egypt; and after their departure from that country, they put it at the head of their history, without telling, as it is most probable that they did not know, how they came by it.”

Smith’s awareness of Paine’s assessment would also shape the structure and contents of the individual books of the book of Mormon, which has an obsessive intent to provide context like authorship and even its writing materials, such as when the alleged authors repeatedly comment on the size of the plates when they claim to be short of space (Jarom 1:2, 14, Jacob 7:27).  These contextual interjections are so persistent that they are entirely uncharacteristic of any known ancient literature, which normally doesn’t bear the convenience of an author or publication date.

Manuscript Story

Not much more needs to be said about the Spalding-Rigdon theory of authorship, in which in unpublished story by a dead author allegedly reads similarly to the Book of Mormon.  It seems more than coincidental that an employee of the printing house that had this manuscript in its possession was one of the early converts to the LDS church.  The Mormon defense that Joseph Smith didn’t have the sufficient knowledge to make up such an elaborate story is useless when there was evidently a convenient source he could have borrowed it all from.  Mormons really have no way of proving conclusively that Joseph Smith didn’t know something, but just the existence of such a source is all we need to argue that he could have known it.

View of the Hebrews

As if an unpublished book weren’t enough, there was also a book published in 1826 by Ethan Smith (no relation) called View of the Hebrews, which argued that Native Americans were descended from the Hebrews.  While actually a common belief in that period, this book served not as source material, but as reference.  Ethan Smith’s view was based on a passing reference to the Lost 10 Tribes of Israel in the apocryphal 2 Esdras, so it seems to have at least directed Joseph Smith to the materials he could use.

The Last of the Mohicans.

I’m surprised more hasn’t been written about this connection.  Joseph Smith didn’t just share James Fenimore Cooper’s meandering make-it-up-as-you-go writing style, the death of the last living member of a native American tribe is something that happens not once, but twice in the Book of Mormon.  And while other books theorizing Native Americans as the Lost Tribes of Israel were etiological, Joseph Smith really had no reason to kill off every last member of his tribes, which actually raised more questions than it answered.  The Last of the Mohicans was published four years before the Book of Mormon and was hugely popular.  The Leatherstocking Tales are pretty much the literary expression of American exceptionalism, and the Book of Mormon is the religious text of American exceptionalism.  While Cooper’s novel wasn’t plagiarized by any specific passages, there are some similar motifs: a character disguising himself as a medicine man to enter a village is analogous to Nephi disguising himself as his uncle Laban to get back his family’s brass plates (1 Nephi 4) or Abinadi entering King Noah’s court in disguise (Mosiah 12); these disguise narratives have nothing in common with any in the Bible.  Smith and Cooper both wrote fictitious histories about natives who inhabited the areas around where they lived in New York; I would dare say that their similarities place them in exactly the same genre.  Even if you could prove that Joseph Smith never actually read the Last of the Mohicans, denying it was influential to him would be  as silly as saying somebody today couldn’t have been influenced by Harry Potter.

Although there were enough available sources that Joseph Smith could have written the book himself, I’m actually open to the belief that he didn’t.  The first time I ever skimmed through it, I suspected that there were three different writing styles.  Spalding-Rigdon theorists might even argue he didn’t write any of it, but regardless of who the author was, whether Joseph Smith or pseudo-Joseph Smith, its author was undeniably from the 19th century.  The question of authorship is really irrelevant, since again, the Book of Mormon did not historically exist until Joseph Smith.  It’s not enough for Mormons to try to say that he couldn’t have written it, because we already know he did; Mormons would have to prove conclusively that it was written by someone before him, which they can’t.

It amuses me that the LDS church’s greatest defense of the Book of Mormon has been to malign the skills and intellect of their own revealed prophet.  This is not even a new strategy, religious apologists have been playing this card since the time of Muhammad.  The aforementioned contemporary Baha’i prophet, the Bab, also claimed his verses were evidence of divine inspiration, as did his successor.  All Mormons would have to acknowledge that Muhammad could have written the Qur’an, the Bab could have written the Bayan, Baha’u’llah the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and so on.  If their best and only defense of the Book of Mormon is the claim that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written it, then that leaves them with nothing.

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Sunday, Hare Sunday

It’s been interruption after interruption in trying to get through my blog entry on the first paragraph of the Book of Mormon.  That should (hopefully) be coming soon, although at this rate it looks like I’ll have my complete study on the book finished by 2050.

This Sunday I had a chance to interact with two distinctly American cults: Mormons and Hare Krishnas.  Neither is really so much a surprise, just walking the Venice boardwalk from my apartment to my car any day I could meet either of these missionaries.  The Mormons weren’t as expected this weekend, however, since Sunday was the annual Festival of the Chariots, a millennia-old Hindu celebration that brings all of Krishna’s devotees to Venice, particularly the Hare Krishna movement, ISKCON.  Once a year, the faithful push three gigantic, brighly colored carts (from which the English word “juggernaut” is derived) down the boardwalk and offer free food, literature, and music at the end of the parade.  Of course, tacky evangelical protesters with professionally printed protest signs precede the parade (accompanied by some hilarious counter-protesters with make-shift banners like “God hates signs”), and other sects like the Mormons try to take advantage of the opportunity as well, albeit a bit more subtly.

At first glance the LDS and ISKCON may seem worlds apart, but they’re closer than you’d think.  ISKCON is essentially Hinduism repackaged for the West.  Like Mormonism, it was founded in New York, but eventually moved Westward where it found a following.   Ironically, Mormonism is a polytheistic offshoot of monotheistic Christianity, whereas ISKCON jumps through hoops to make Hinduism appear monotheistic.  Both have unmistakeable missionaries who could never be confused for each other, each trying to get anyone off guard to take a free book.  While their messages are completely different, their methods are distinctly cultic.

The annoying thing about trying to learn about Mormonism is that eventually you may need to consult a Mormon if you have questions.  Mormons are seemingly programmed to treat all inquirers as outsiders, so no matter how much you know about their religion, to them you’re a beginner.  This is particularly frustrating when you’ve clearly outclassed the missionary in scholarly knowledge, and if you’re just trying to get information, all they want to talk about is their faith (not to be confused with their religion as a learnable theology) and converting to Mormonism.  You will never be more than a prospective convert (unless, of course, you convert).  In their minds, it’s unimaginable that anybody could really understand their religion unless they believe it.

My encounters with the Hare Krishnas was eerily similar.  Despite approaching the book table with an advanced level question, inquiring whether ISKCON had an English translation of the impossible-to-find Bhavishya Purana, I could never seem to get them to respond to me as anything other than a novice.  I told them politely that I already owned their edition of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Gandhi’s translation (to which they visibly recoiled), but that wasn’t enough.  I couldn’t truly understand their scriptures unless I engaged in their practice of bhakti yoga with a guru.  Like the Mormons, they seemed to be reading off of a script, and I walked away wondering if I had actually talked to a real, live person at all.  In the course of the conversation, the missionary even pointed me to the “prophecy” about the coming of Buddha in the first canto of the Srimad Bhavatam (aka the Bhagavata Purana) as proof that their scriptures were God’s truth.  To me, that’s an obvious interpolation attempting to bring Buddhists back to the Hindu fold; after all, it appears in a list of Krishna’s supposed incarnations that changes to the future tense the moment it reaches Lord Buddha.  The missionary wasn’t even open to this logical possibility;  remember, I couldn’t possibly understand their scriptures anyway since I didn’t even chant Hare Krishna like he did.

While a part of me would love to get the rest of their 30-volume set of the Srimad Bhavatam translated by ISKCON’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the interaction with his adherents is enough of a deterrent (not to mention there just isn’t time in the world to read every single holy book in print).  Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the cultic pressure of believing in a book or teaching before being able to understand it; a distinctive trademark of cults are its members who are unable to approach their book on the realistic, human level of literature.  It’s a shame too, because I actually do wish I knew more about Krishna folklore, but but I have no desire to be a Hare Krishna.

At least I didn’t come away empty handed.  Although Swami Prabhupada’s books can be tedious (Sanskrit, English translation, and then mostly his commentary), who am I to pass up free religious literature?  There will definitely be ammunition for a future blog entry, although it’s also yet another distraction from the blog’s main focus on the Book of Mormon.

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