10 October 2017

Some ideas on deity and the Old Testament

This post isn't about the Book of Mormon specifically, but more about LDS theology concerning God. Our rejection of traditional trinitarian creeds is unusual among mainstream Christianity, regardless of what individual Christians may believe. The idea that members of the Godhead are three distinct individuals has led some to declare that Mormons cannot be Christians, as this concept seems too close to polytheism. But the belief in gods that are literally father and son may have some surprising and ancient origins.

Judaism has long been considered as containing the earliest form of monotheism. But some secular scholars see evidence of polytheistic beliefs in the original text of Jewish scripture that has since been edited out. One example is in Deuteronomy 32:8-9:

When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the LORD's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

The immediate assumption is that 'Most High' (El-Elyon in Hebrew), a common title for God in the Old Testament, refers to the the Lord or Jehovah (YHWH). However, some scholars see a connection between the Hebrew 'El' and the supreme Caananite deity, El. The oldest versions of Deuteronomy, including the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, don't have the phrase 'children of Israel,' but instead say 'sons of El.' The idea behind this passage is that El divided up the world's people into different ethnic groups to be ruled over by his divine sons. To Jehovah (the Lord), a Son of God, was given the nation or people of Jacob (Israel) as his people. So the Hebrew God wasn't the only God, but a son, and not the only one.

Latter-Day Saints have long identified the Jehovah of the Old Testament as a pre-mortal Jesus Christ, and refer to his Heavenly Father as Elohim, a Hebrew word meaning 'God' or 'Gods.' There is even a belief of a divine council of elohim meeting to create the world, an idea not found in traditional Christianity, but found in many ancient texts from the Middle East. Perhaps this possible evidence of earlier polytheism among the monotheistic Israelites seen by some non-religious scholars is fragments of this original understanding. This Mormon belief has been mocked by Christians and agnostics alike, but there may yet be some support for it, hiding under our noses in familiar scripture. Many of the Biblical 'contradictions' about the multiple gods El and Yahweh (Jehovah) that could be troubling to Christians are easily explained by LDS theology. Maybe there is something to this multiple gods idea after all.

Read more from Robert Wright, Professor of Science and Religion.
Click here for this Contradiction in the Bible.

10 July 2017

Gold artifacts among the Aztecs

In April of this year, a cache of what has been described as 'some of the finest Aztec gold ever found' was uncovered near the main square in Mexico City. The capital city of Mexico, long known as a center of three cultures: Aztec, Colonial Spanish, and modern, seems an unlikely place for a new discovery of this magnitude. But like the new excavations at Chichén Itzá, this find shows that no matter how much we think we know about these famous and commonly-visited sites, there still exists the opportunity to find something new which increases our understanding of these ancient cultures.

Buried in a stone box and situated behind a Catholic cathedral in the vicinity of the principal Aztec temple, the gold was part of a buried offering and adorned a sacrificed wolf. The ceremonial items were interred some 500 years ago. It's obvious that the Aztec culture is far removed from any direct Book of Mormon involvement, but we find discoveries such as this one interesting in that they show the technology and inclination to create such items did exist in ancient America, even if it hasn't been connected to the Book of Mormon yet. The fact that such discoveries continue to be made and were unknown in the 19th century are also encouraging. Our curiosity is always piqued when we hear about pre-Columbian gold buried in stone boxes.

Admittedly, ancient American metallurgy is a complex and difficult topic, one that does not currently support many of the claims made in the Book of Mormon. We have discussed these issues many times and have found that, along with the lack of evidence, there are also some encouraging but little-known finds that show that there was more metal working going on in the New World than has previously been thought. We will look forward to further developments in this area.

Click here to read more about the discovery of this discovery of Aztec gold.
Click here to read about the current understanding of metallurgy in pre-Columbian America.

12 June 2017

Recreating the Book of Mormon plates

A big part of the Book of Mormon story depends on the plates described by Joseph Smith. We have all seen paintings or representations of them, but they aren't all necessarily accurate. While we don't have the plates for scrutiny (even if we did, it's obvious that critics would still not be satisfied), we do have contemporary descriptions of them. There is a good bit we understand, but there is still space for individual interpretation on what they looked like, how many plates there were, and how deep the collection of records was.

The Church's Museum of Church History and Art has a representation of the plates on exhibit, made from historical descriptions by those who saw or handled them. Whatever our critics and detractors might say, it seems obvious that some physical object was possessed by Joseph. Even his enemies believed the stories enough to attack him and his household several times, attempting to steal them. We may never know exactly what they looked like, but the following facsimile gives a good idea and the accounts given by those who had personal experience with them should help to weed out false ideas that may have crept up over the years. However, any modern representation of them must of necessity be based partly on conjecture and educated guesses. There are some frustrating gaps in details that modern enthusiasts would like to have, but the goals of 19th-century observers of the plates in describing them would be different than ours today.
Of course, the Church's critics have all sorts of reasons the plates could not have existed as described, but most of their complaints can be resolved by relying closely on the words of those who supposedly interacted with them, rather than Mormon traditions and imaginings that have evolved over more than a century and a half. To read more about the exhibit, how this model was made, and accurate quotes by Joseph Smith and his associates, read this article on LDS.org.

30 April 2017

A good perspective on Book of Mormon Archaeology

We all know that Book of Mormon Archaeology can be a tricky subject. Notwithstanding all the interesting and enlightening items we have found that seem to correlate with the Book of Mormon account, there is no firm proof. In all likelihood, there never will be, either for or against. This debate will never be solved by the scientific disciplines of Archaeology, Anthropology, History, Linguistics, or anything else. As evidence for this, there is no general consensus; regardless of all the archaeological 'support,' many people reject the Book of Mormon as an ancient historical document. Conversely, despite all the 'proofs' of its 19th-century origins, many accept it as a true account and holy scripture.

At the FairMormon conference in 2005, Dr. John Clark, an archaeologist at BYU who has helped us out in the past, gave a presentation that provided a needed perspective on this issue. As a comparison, many events that are crucial to the narrative of the Old Testament have no archaeological support whatsoever. However, there is no doubt that the Bible is an ancient document. If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, then it must be the product of an American 19th-century environment. In his presentation, which can be read here, Dr. Clark provides a helpful chart showing 60 specific items mentioned in the Book of Mormon, compared to what what 'known' about the ancient world at the time, many of which have been called 'blunders' by critics from the very beginning. As can be seen, the weight of the evidence was strongly against its authenticity. And this chart may be a bit generous, since it shows stone monuments and large cities as Confirmed in 1842. This is correct, but likely is due to the publication of Stephens and Catherwood's accounts of travels in Mesoamerica a few years previous, but which were unknown when the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. The status of its claims at that date would have been a better benchmark.

But the case was far from closed. Archaeology in the New World was practically non-existant at the time, so the apparent anachronisms lose much of their significance. The problems with this kind of evidence are obvious because of the amount of change newer discoveries can bring to overturn old beliefs, sometimes in just a few years. The chart looks very different when compiled in a more recent setting.

An objective observer should see that the tide of evidence has turned. Keep in mind that even this chart is now at least twelve years old, so its application is limited as well. We are pleased to see the status of horses go from Unconfirmed to Indeterminate, given the amount of research Daniel has done on this subject. That may be as good as we get. But some other topics are a bit confusing. These items seem to be relative to the Ancient Americas specifically, so we are surprised to see steel swords and brass plates. We will certainly be asking Dr. Clark about that. But also surprising and a bit disappointing is to see golden plates still at Unconfirmed, given what we have seen from sites like the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá. Still, this chart is a good example of the perspective we should have on how supportive or damaging Archaeology should really be to our faith in the Book of Mormon.

28 February 2017

Columbus and America

The older ones among us may remember learning in school that Cristopher Columbus discovered America. Well, the Bahamas actually. Well, he just sort sailed into them accidentally. Now we all know that he didn't really 'discover' anything. It's debatable whether he even realized that he had discovered a new continent hitherto unknown to most Europeans. And it's no longer controversial to recognize that Viking explorers made it to this hemisphere much earlier.

But were there others to arrive here even earlier? Obviously, the Book of Mormon mentions three groups that arrived outside of the accepted historical record, but we are often alone in asserting its veracity. However, the idea that many groups from various lands may have sailed to the Americas throughout its ancient history is gaining greater acceptance outside of the Church. A video on the History channel's website entitled Did Columbus Really Discover America? gives a more realistic view of his accomplishments, while suggesting that many others may have arrived, in addition to the indigenous populations that were already here, including Israelites fleeing Babylonian destruction in 600 b.c. More of this 'complicated truth' about the discovery of America (as the video states) is coming to light and we believe the Book of Mormon's account will stand the test of time. We may just need to continue to have faith.

Click here to watch the video on history.com.