Category Archives: Baha’i

Joseph Smith: Reformer?

Joseph Smith is a complicated personality to explain.  Despite numerous inconsistencies, the failure to identify definite ulterior motives for his claims and actions causes many Mormons to accept Joseph Smith’s account of his own life without question.  After all, why would somebody lie about being visited by an angel, or finding and translating a buried testament of Jesus Christ?  On the surface, these claims can seem too fantastic to be made up, and if critics are unable to convincingly present an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith, then the Mormon will never abandon the official church version (even when they know that to be not exactly historically accurate).

My own stance on explaining the complexity of Joseph Smith’s personality is the same as my view on the Book of Mormon itself.   I only need to present evidence of plagiarism or source material that would be unavailable to the book’s purported authors to disprove the Book of Mormon’s authorship claims, I do not have to be able to explain in every minute detail how Joseph Smith came across his source materials and authored his fiction.  Similarly, embarrassments like the Book of Abraham caught Joseph Smith red-handed in his lies, I don’t need to psychoanalyze him to know that this is deception.  Questions of “how” and “why” are irrelevant or secondary at most, all that really needs to be demonstrated is that the book and its author are frauds.

For instance, one likely source for the Book of Mormon that I recently stumbled upon is the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  This text is a pseudepigrapha of undetermined Judeo-Christian origin probably finalized in the 2nd century of the Christian Era.  Scholars are undecided on whether it was a Christian document or a Jewish document with later Christian interpolations, but all agree it is a forgery.  Possible influence on the Book of Mormon is loose, but its structure of the Patriarchs writing their testimony on their deathbeds is eerily similar to the last entries in the small plates of Nephi.  Some Mormon apologists have even attempted to cite similarities between the two as proof that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, apparently oblivious that this argument is essentially saying the Book of Mormon must be real because it resembles other known forgeries.  Of course, the standard Mormon response is to say that even though the Testaments were first translated into English in the 1820’s, Joseph Smith would have been unlikely to have had access to that information.  I counter that it’s impossible to conclude to any degree of certainty whether Joseph Smith could not have known something, but as long as it was a fact published within his lifetime, then it’s not impossible for him to have had some direct or indirect exposure to it.

I admit I can’t prove any solid ties to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Book of Mormon, but I bring it up to point out the flip side of the Mormon defense of Joseph Smith.  Why did this author and others in antiquity and throughout history write books and then attribute them to Biblical figures?  If an inability to explain why Smith would lie forces us to accept his word, then wouldn’t it force us to accept every other pseudepigrapha as well?  I doubt I can fully explain the motivations behind Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad either.  But if a Mormon is to give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt, then they must be willing to give these other false teachers the benefit as well, or prove without a doubt their falsity.

The Mormon resistance to admitting Joseph Smith as a fake is usually because they could only envision him in that role as a deliberate liar with evil intentions.  This is an unrealistic view that really isn’t typical of the false prophets that have walked the earth; the reality is that most of them have been psychologically complicated personalities known as pious frauds, not very different from Joseph Smith’s profile.  My theory is that self-proclaimed prophets–especially those closely tied to an existing religious tradition–emerge more out of a desire for reform than to deceive; the deception is merely an unavoidable side-effect of their reform methods.  Perhaps out of desperation when traditional reform methods have failed, such as the Bab’s frustration with the state of Islam in Iran.

While religions can often be reformed through conventional means, they also demonstrate a unique phenomenon of charismatic reform.  An example of conventional reform is the Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther.  His 95 Thesis were not intended as a new revelation or scripture, but rather as logical reasoning from within the framework of the accepted canon.  The resulting doctrine of sola scriptura is the apotheosis of rational reform, being a wholesale rejection of arbitrary authority like personal revelation.  On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation exemplified the opposite, weighing its claims, dogmas, and creeds on the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy, an office considered to be infallible by its followers.  While conventional reform is based on logic and reasoning accessible to any human being, charismatic reform is by fiat, and available to only a select body or individuals.  Conventional reform tactics are the prevailing trend in Western civilization, even permeating the secular arena, such as in the way Americans interpret and amend our own Constitution.

While Catholicism embraced charismatic reformists, other religions have built-in defenses against it.  Islam, for instance, strictly prohibits its adherents from claiming any divine revelation after the time of Muhammad.  Although they are often far from rational, juristic rulings or fatwas are really the only acceptable means of advancement available to Muslims.  Conventional reform in Islam, however, has been stunted due to the fact that Muslims consider these majority rulings to be infallible, and therefore irreversible.  Thus after a millennium, Islam was left behind by the modern world, and could advance no further.  But out of the school of one theological reformer Shayk Ahmad would come the Bab, who would break the boundaries his predecessors could not, simply by declaring himself a new prophet.  Overnight, theological innovation and social progress heretofore undreamed of in the Muslim world was effected.  The Bab’s movement would go through a succession crisis after his death, but would emerge as the Baha’i Faith and commence a new wave of women’s rights, racial equality, and religious tolerance.  Almost.  While charismatic reform can be a shortcut to progress, its fatal flaw is that it can usually go no further than the most advanced point of its prophet.  Although Baha’i views on gender equality surpassed those of Muhammad, yet Baha’i women are forever prevented from serving in the highest governing body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, just because Baha’u’llah failed to envision society becoming even more egalitarian than his own views.  Other rulings, like his ban on homosexuality, have been a legacy of frustration to dissenting Baha’is who could only hope for another charismatic reform after 1,000 years (the soonest that Bahai’s believe a new Manifestation of God would be revealed).

Returning to the subject of Joseph Smith, it must be pointed out that his theology developed in a Post-Revolutionary American Protestant climate that, while receptive to conventional reforms, frustrated many in its slow progress towards equality, especially in the recent failure to outlaw slavery in the Constitution.  Abolitionists were just one of many groups anticipating an overnight advancement.  While Mormonism has earned a reputation for its racist history, Joseph Smith is often unfairly castigated for views held by his successors, when in reality his own opinions were radically progressive for the pre-Civil War period.  I would go so far as to argue that Smith was assassinated not because he was a prophet, but because he was a pro-abolition prophet.  Following the LDS succession crisis, however, the church would be grounded in the racial doctrines of Brigham Young until cancelled out by another revelation in 1978.  Just as Baha’i gender equality remained locked in the revelations of the 19th century, so the LDS church was unable to reform itself through conventional means.  Of course, since Mormons didn’t have the impediment of having to wait another 1,000 years for a new prophet, there’s really no excuse for their lack of progress.

As for theological reforms, the Book of Mormon was not so much an innovation as it was an affirmation of folk-American Christian beliefs.  Smith sided with Protestants on infant baptism and, although he would later recant and try to edit it, provided proof-texts for a flawed Trinitarianism in his first edition. Ultimately, what we see is Joseph Smith attempting to circumvent the debate of conventional reform under the authority of a new divine revelation.  Since the Book of Mormon was the only LDS scripture in print at the time, we could reasonably speculate that Smith could have rationalized it as a necessary fraud if he thought he was merely resolving theological questions in favor of what he believed were in line with God’s views.  But as we’ve already seen, forging sacred texts to settle theological disputes is hardly a new development in history.

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Baucis, the Bible, and the Bab

There’s a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that should be familiar to readers of the Bible:

The gods Zeus and Hermes come to a town disguised as ordinary peasants, looking for a place to stay.  Everybody in the town rejects them except for an elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, who let them stay in their modest house for the night.  While dining there, the gods miraculously replenish the food supply, which reveals their divine identity to their mortal hosts.  Zeus determines to destroy the inhospitable town and warns the couple to follow the gods into the mountains without looking back.

You probably thought I was going to compare this to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but actually there’s a much closer, more direct Biblical reference in the Book of Acts:

In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothesand rushed out into the crowd, shouting:  “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”  Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.  But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.

Acts 14:8-20

While the account in Acts can be easily understood without any knowledge of Greek mythology, knowing the story of Baucis and Philemon illuminates the passage beyond just explaining why the crowd assumed Paul and Barnabas were those two specific gods.  Both are hospitality narratives (as is the story of Lot in Sodom, see also Ezekiel 16:49), but the New Testament narrative is the complete opposite of the Greek myth.  Paul and Barnabas, unlike the gods for which they are mistaken, receive a celebratory welcome in Lystra so long as they are believed to be divine.  Once the crowd concludes they’re not really gods, however, the hospitality ends.  The Greek story’s moral is to show hospitality to all, similar to the author of Hebrews saying, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (13:2).”  From Acts, however, we learn this practice is morally useless unless we show kindness regardless of who the other person is, or even who we think they are.  This demonstrates a common writing technique of the period, framing a new narrative around an old one to show the new one’s superiority.

Critics like to point out the story of Baucis and Philemon to discredit hospitality stories in the Bible like Sodom and Gomorrah as fiction.  This episode in Acts, however, brings up several points that the critics often overlook.  First, the narrative is deliberately framed around the known myth, yet is entirely plausible as an actual event, showing the latitude that a writer could take in balancing allusion with historical accuracy.  Furthermore, it demonstrates that Biblical authors were well aware of Greek mythology.

A barrier to most readers today is that we’re more familiar with Sodom and Gomorrah than with Baucis and Philemon.  People today tend to erroneously see this as newly discovered information which disrupts the traditionally held view of Christianity.  The author of Luke-Acts, however, refers to both Sodom and Zeus with no crisis of faith, because to his audience this was common knowledge.  People 2,000 years ago were generally more familiar with Greek mythology than people are today, so literary similarities in themselves were not seen as a barrier.  When presented with Greco-Roman or Near Eastern parallels as an attempt to disprove the Bible, Christians should keep in mind that all of this information has been in circiulation for thousands of years and was not unknown to the original Biblical audience.  Literary similarities in and of themselves do not detract from the historicity of a narrative.

Despite centuries of critical methods addressing such similarities, the modern skeptic tends to resort to a lazy dismissal of the Bible.  Ignoring analytical schools like mimesis, genre or form criticism, and other literary approaches, these skeptics instead tend to reach an intellectual stopping point as if it were the end of the discussion.  If Samson resembles Hercules or Moses is similar to Marduk in any way, then even the possibility  that this might have been intentional yet could still be true doesn’t seem remote to them.  Ironically, although they may claim the Bible is a work of fiction, they don’t really criticize it like a literary work.  This closed-minded approach is even sillier when we consider that people today still relate history to previous history and even legend.  Reporters who connect Kate Middleton with Cinderella are considered creative, not ahistorical.  Every dictator or political opponent will always be compared to Hitler.  When history repeats, as it often does, parallels are an inevitability.

The Baha’i Faith has a fascinating example of this in their definitive-but-not-authoritative account of the life of the Báb, the Dawn-Breakers.  The author, Nabíl, clearly tries to highlight parallels to the crucifixion in his account of the martyrdom of the founder of their religion in 1850.  Events from praying with his disciples and announcing his death the night before, appearing before multiple tribunals, even being bound with nails and ropes for the firing squad, is deliberately reminiscent of the passion of Christ.  He even imitates the darkness covering the land, claiming that “the smoke of the firing of the seven hundred and fifty rifles was such as to turn the light of the noonday sun into darkness.”  While he does take some liberties in telling this story, as it’s not a “pure” history, all of these events are nevertheless verified historical fact.  Nabíl’s agenda is obviously to highlight apparent parallels in the life of Christ, but no sane critic would conclude that the death of the Báb was a myth simply because its story was too similar to Christianity.

Philemon and Baucis by Rembrandt van Rijn

Philemon and Baucis by Rembrandt van Rijn

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June 12, 2012 · 6:38 am