Tag Archives: sermon on the mount

When Joseph Met Pliny

While studying the book of Acts, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of historical context surrounding the Candace of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts 8:26.  According to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Natural History book VI, chapter 35:

“They stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

This struck me as rather similar to a pivotal passage in the Book of Mormon:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.  The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.  Jacob 1:9-11

This passage is crucial because it is the visible point where Joseph Smith grafts the 116 lost pages into the finished Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith had creatively avoided having to retell the stories that had been lost by simply re-writing the prophet Isaiah for most of 2 Nephi, but at some point he would have to resume his fabricated history.  No doubt, the lost pages included detailed genealogies which would be impossible for him to duplicate from memory–the retelling of the lost pages is noticeably sparse in names compared to the rest of Mormon’s book.  Calling each successive king “Nephi” was certainly a brilliant idea to avoid that embarrassment, but could Joseph Smith have received this inspiration from Pliny?

I can already hear the Mormon apologists combating with the usual defense that Joseph Smith was an uneducated man and this theory requires an academic level beyond the reach of a poor farmer.  First of all, this theory is not essential to proving the Book of Mormon a fraud, the lost pages alone are sufficiently incriminating for that.  This theory is merely further ammunition against a fraud, but even if this theory were proved false it wouldn’t make the Book of Mormon true.

Mormons will typically say that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known Pliny’s Natural History, but that’s rather impossible to prove.  It could logically be argued that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known the Great Gatsby or 50 Shades of Grey, but the works of Pliny chronologically precede Joseph Smith and had been available in English for over 200 years at that time.  If an idea existed in print anywhere in the world at a certain time, then we can conclude that anyone could have known it at that time; to argue that somebody could not have is futile.  I don’t have to prove that a copy was available at his local library.  Of course, Mormonism is handicapped in this sort of logic considering how they explain away anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, like quoting the Sermon on the Mount verbatim, through divine inspiration.

Was Pliny unknown in Joseph Smith’s immediate community?  Unlike today, even unlearned, nominal Christians were more Biblically literate, and educated Christians were more familiar with other ancient works.  Josephus was the most frequently owned book by Christians after the Bible.  Given that the name Candace appears in the Bible, this historical background from Pliny could have easily been communicated by a knowledgable preacher to a congregation, and from there absorbed by an avid churchgoer like Joseph Smith.

Curiously, Joseph Smith had practically given up his golden plates project after the loss of the 116 pages, but he resumed after meeting his second scribe: Oliver H. P. Cowdery, the “P” standing for “Pliny”.  Even curiouser, Oliver Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials right after the Book of Mormon was published.  While I’m usually not given to conspiracy theories, this seems to suggest Cowdery could have provided Joseph Smith the catalyst to complete his book and then covered their tracks after it was published.


Mormon scribe Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery


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Why Islam Offends the West

It’s no secret that Islam is incompatible with Western values.  Even overlooking the character deficiencies of Islam’s prophet–a mass-murderer, thief, slave-trader, rapist, pedophile, and terrorist–the religion’s values are in conflict with Western sensibilities on a fundamental level.  Interestingly, the non-religious are often offended by Islam for the very same reasons as Christians, even if they don’t acknowledge that this difference in culture is due to Christianity.


Follow any internet discussion about the burqa or Muslim headscarves, and somebody will eventually always suggest the Muslim men should cover themselves rather than the women.  This suggestion may not even come from a Christian, but the idea behind it is certainly derived from Western society’s Judeo-Christian background:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.   Matthew 5:28-29

The burqa and other compulsory head coverings offend Western sensibilities because we’ve taught that men are personally responsibility for their behavior, regardless of the temptation, whether inadvertent or intentional.  In Islam, however, the woman ultimately bears responsibility for causing temptation whether she means to or not.  The only defense of the burqa that has ever gained popularity in the West is if the woman claims to feel empowered by wearing it out of her own free will, but this ultimately misses the whole point about a garment designed more to protect men with little willpower from facing temptation.  These women may explain how being completely covered protects them from  being sexually harassed by passing men on the street, but this is again a problem caused by the Muslim male, not the female.  Western Civilization expects its men to be disciplined, self-controlled, and respectful, to the point of hyperbolic blindness.  There is no reason why the Muslim man should seem helpless to restrain himself from jeering, groping, or raping just because he sees a woman’s face, arms, or legs, when men in the West are perfectly able to behave respectfully and decently.  If Islam is the only reason why self-control is in such short supply among Muslim men, then Islam is conclusively an inferior ideology.

Public Displays of Worship

From public Christmas decorations to prayer in public schools, the West is often offended by religion in public, but this isn’t necessarily exclusive to the anti-religious.  The post-Christian heresies of the modern atheist are still very much rooted in Christian principles, and the disdain for public displays of worship can be traced back to Christ’s teachings on hypocrisy:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  Matthew 6:6

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”  Matthew 6:16

Whatever the religious persuasion, Westerners tend to view displays of piety with suspicion and mistrust.  We see religion as a personal issue partly because when we see it in public we see it as an ingenuous cry for attention.  Islamic  culture, on the contrary, has no concept of private worship, rather believers are expected to be seen in the community performing salat and not seen eating during Ramadan.  Muslims who develop a “prayer bump” on their foreheads are respected as devout members of the community.  Islam demands public visibility of one’s faith, yet sadly has no safeguards to prevent hypocrisy.


Dutch psychologist Nicolai Sennels identifies that Muslims, particularly men, start out with more relaxed freedom in childhood, which is then curtailed as they grow older.  Girls, for instance, do not need to wear burqas, but they do when they reach puberty.  Eventually, even the decision of their marriage is outside of their control when they enter into adulthood.  This is the complete opposite of Western parenting, where children gradually acquire freedoms as they mature.  What Sennels may not have noticed, though, is how these are both related to each culture’s theological beliefs on sin.  Western culture has been shaped by the doctrine of Original Sin, or in simplest terms, the reality-based idea that children are born imperfect with the tendency to do wrong.  Islam, on the other hand, teaches that children are born sinless and acquire sin as they grow older.  This difference in parenting style results in an individual completely at odds with the Western mindset.  When Muslims act infantile, it is the result of an upbringing that raises boys into babies instead of men.

Turning the Other Cheek

Without fail, whenever a harmless cartoon is published or even if a Qur’an is unintentionally burned, it will result in worldwide Islamic protests, riots, and the deaths of non-Muslims.  Even non-Chrstiains can be heard telling Muslims to turn the other cheek when they react with such disproportionate violence, but this is futile because Islam has no such concept.

O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.  Surah 2:178

[Fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month, and for [all] violations is legal retribution. So whoever has assaulted you, then assault him in the same way that he has assaulted you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.  Surah 2:194

And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.  Surah 5:45

And the retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it, but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation – his reward is [due] from Allah . Indeed, He does not like wrongdoers.  Surah 42:40

Retaliation is a legal obligation in Islam, the exception being when the victim opts for monetary compensation instead, the “expiation” and “reconciliation” mentioned above, which is not actually forgiveness.  Even if one accepted the incorrect explanations of an apologist, and disregarded the vast majority of Muslim scholars, that these exceptions are comparable to turning the other cheek, Western values are still in conflict with Muhammad commanding followers to repay evil with evil in the first place.  It’s laughable to imagine Jesus Christ saying “repay evil for evil except when you turn the other cheek”, and this predictably explains just why, if given the choice, Muslims always retaliate with evil instead of forgiving.  Anybody raised to believe that these were both morally equivalent choices would elect the most despicable of the two every time.

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The Case for the Sermon on the Mount

A few posts ago, I explained how the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew could not have appeared in the Book of Mormon without using Matthew as its source material.  My statement that it’s implausible that Jesus delivered the same sermon twice because he never delivered the sermon in that order to begin with, however, creates theological discomfort not just for Mormons, but also for fundamentalist Christians who hold a quasi-Mormon view of divine inspiration.

While the view that the sermon in Matthew is a verbatim record of the actual sermon preached by Christ on the Mount of Olives is as equally flawed as the Mormon’s, it does raise some valid questions: If we can prove from parallel passages in Mark and Luke that the content in Matthew is a composite from various sources, then how do know there ever really was a Sermon on the Mount?  And if the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are just random compilations, then how credible is that account of the life of Christ?

The above fundamentalist position (which for simplicity is associated with fundamentalism here, even though it is not necessarily shared by all fundamentalists) is a lazy defense against the slippery slope of questioning the historical Jesus, but it’s not just unliterary and illogical, it’s also unnecessary.  The answer to satisfy textual criticism doesn’t need to be sought historically or archeologically, there is suitable intertextual proof to point to a historical sermon close to the form found in Matthew.

A little known fact about the Epistle of James is that it’s essentially a transcribed sermon, but what makes it unique in Christian history is that it’s really a sermon on a sermon.  James not only has many parallels to Christ in Matthew, it is in fact an expository sermon about the Sermon on the Mount.  Starting in James 1:2,

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds”

compared to Matthew 5:11,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Parallels abound (James 2:10, Matt. 5:19; James 2:13, Matt. 5:7; James 5:2, Matt. 6:19-20, to list a few) and continue throughout the book up to a direct quote of Matthew’s “simple ‘yes’ or ‘no'” (Matt. 5:37, James 5:12).  But while it encompasses much of the same content that we find in Matthew, we can clearly see it does not follow the same order.  Admittedly, that in itself doesn’t necessarily refute the Book of Mormon version since it only works on the assumption that the sermon in James was preached in order, which preachers are not always prone to do.  However, we now have four parallel contemporary sources in the Bible, none of which share the exact same order.  The only logical conclusion about the perfect clone of Matthew found in 3 Nephi is that its source material was in fact Matthew, and that can only be if Joseph Smith was its actual author in the 19th century.

Furthermore, while the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew has parallels in Mark and Luke 6 and 11-12, the only overlap common to James is the Luke 6 content.  Finally, the Luke 6 “woes” are evident in James, but not found in Matthew (woe to the rich, Luke 6:24, James 5:1, laughter turning to morning: James 4:9, Luke 6:25).  This suggests that there was a collected sermon comprised of content now found in Matthew and Luke that was in circulation before the gospels were written and used by James.

From this we can conclude that the sermon in Matthew 5-7 is not just a compilation of random fragments of teachings, but an approximation from a source that was known to both Matthew and James.  So what about the Mark parallels?  Or the content unique only to Matthew?  Or the Luke material in James?  How much is the “original” Sermon on the Mount?  Such is the dilemma of speech re-creation in the first century; there was no way to effectively record or transcribe a spoken lecture 2,000 years ago.  Speeches were usually re-created by authors trying to summarize the speaker’s message, but Matthew goes above and beyond such liberties, instead showing evidence of scholarly integrity to preserve the message from the available sources.   The sermon spoken on the mount was for the audience that received it, what remains in writing may have some additional content than what was given then and some less.  It should not be mistaken for a word-for-word account of the speech delivered on the Mount of Olives, but as a faithful literary version of that speech.  It’s pointless to discuss trying to find an “original” Sermon on the Mount even if I thought that could be approximated through textual analysis.  The “real” Sermon on the Mount is the version recorded for us in Matthew.

This conclusion is earth-shattering to the hyper-literalist, who erroneously believes scripture to be something it is not: literal, exact wording of spoken events.  But for those who read scripture as it is–as literature–there is no inconsistency in this reading.

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Do You Unknowingly Share the Mormon View of Divine Inspiration?

When I say that all scripture is literature, I mean scripture in the broadest sense of the writings of every world religion, but I mean literature in a very narrow sense.  I don’t mean it as everything that is written, but rather specifically as literary works, narrative and prose that can be read and analyzed for literary value.

Scriptures can certainly be approached from perspectives other than literary, such as meditative or inspirational, but skipping the crucial step of literary analysis can be hazardous.  As I’ve shown already, books like the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon require believers to accept them as divine revelation before even evaluating their claims or content, and a result of this is that their followers almost never approach their books as literature; doing so would not only suggest human origins, but completely unravel all claims of divine origin.  If we skip the literary analysis just because a text is considered sacred, however, we’d ultimately have to accept the word of a parking ticket if it was claimed to be divinely inspired.

A big difference between the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and other sacred texts is just how human of a book the Bible actually is.  Its books are genuinely ancient and relevant works of literature, so that they function the same whether read as the writings of man or the inspired words of God.  The Bible is not dictated directly by God as is the claim of many other religions for their holy books; every book of the Bible is unashamedly authored by a human writer, in their own language, vocabulary, idioms, and frame of reference.  Really, no supernatural belief is required to accept the Bible for what it is.  Biblical literature essentially follows the rules of literature and can be appreciated as such without diminishing its claims of divine revelation.  On the other hand, the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an can only function as one or the other, and if they are human, they cannot be divine.

Source material often betrays the claims of authenticity for most holy books, but especially the Book of Mormon.  A self-evident quality of literature is that references to other writings cannot precede or exist without an original source.  If I quote another work of literature, then that indicates I had access to that work of literature.  All scholarship depends on this axiom, which is otherwise plagiarism, yet Mormons expect people to make an exception to the rule for their concept of divine revelation.  The Book of Mormon, which claims to be authored on the American continent by Jewish inhabitants called Nephites starting before the first century, quotes extensively from New Testament literature that would have been unknown to its writers.  The only Mormon solution is that these identical passages were divinely inspired independently to both the Nephites and the early church.  Thus, the Book of Mormon contradicts the literary logic of source material, and can only function as “the word of god” to the faithful, which renders its claims of human authorship completely irrelevant.  Why does it even need a Nephite author if it wasn’t a unique Nephite composition?  In fact, the only way the Book of Mormon can function on any practical level as literature is from the position that Joseph Smith and/or his contemporaries with access to the New Testament were the true author(s) of the text.

Ironically, Joseph Smith was aware of the logic of source material in his writing process, as he borrowed from sources that were available to him.  Yet he apparently failed to understand that this was also how his bonded-leather King James Bible was written originally, not through his method of fabricated divine revelation.  As he quoted the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7, he demonstrated ignorance of the shared source material between the synoptic Gospels.  Regardless of whether Matthew borrowed from Mark or from the hypothetical Q, the passage in Matthew is a compilation, a speech recreated into a specific context from a variety of common sources, and unique to that particular book.  The sermon in Matthew is also unique in that it alternates material common to the other synoptic gospels with passages which have parallels in the Talmud.  It’s highly unlikely that Jesus delivered the exact same sermon twice, because he never actually spoke this sermon in that order to begin with.  For two authors on two different continents to have arranged the same quotes into the same order is one of the most under-stated literary miracles in the history of the world (indeed, Matthew, Mark, and Luke were in the same time and proximity and even they couldn’t accomplish this feat).  Of course, Mormons don’t emphasize this “miracle” unless it’s brought up, showing that they really don’t believe it themselves.  No supernatural apologetics can override man’s a priori understanding of source logic.

Yet Christian fundamentalists and Biblical literalists who (presumably) ought to know better have the highest conversion rate into Mormonism.  From my experience, they’re also the most likely to challenge my claim about the speech recreation of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, believing instead that this content was delivered verbatim and recorded intact, as the similar content in Mark and Luke were also perfectly preserved speeches through the miracle of divine inspiration.  This position actually shares the same flawed beliefs about divine inspiration as the Mormons (and yet somehow they call me the apostate for viewing scripture as literature, even though this really isn’t even a threat to literalism).  The reality is that all quotations, parallels, and allusions in the Bible can be traced to source material.  Quotes of one work in another are evidence of that author’s access to the work cited, and no Biblical authors ever cited materials that wouldn’t have been available to them.  It’s unreasonable for the Book of Mormon to require divine inspiration as a source for unavailable materials when such a requirement is unprecedented in all of Christian scripture.

The rules of literature are absolutely and all-inclusive; they work no matter how you approach the Bible, whether as a Christian, a Mormon, or even an atheist.  No belief about the nature of the text is required for literary analysis, believers and unbelievers alike can use this methodology to ascertain the true meaning of the text, and from there draw conclusions.  Unlike the Book of Mormon, whose literary analysis betrays itself as a fraud that could not be inspired, the Bible’s literary analysis works from either approach, writing of man or Word of God.  If more Christians only had a literate understanding of scripture, there would not be so many converts to Mormonism.  Sadly, these converts are unaware that they never had an accurate view of scripture, and were essentially embryonic Mormons until their conversion.  It’s the duty of all Christians to have orthodox views on both scripture and divine inspiration, and to promote this among our peers.


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