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Outsider's View of Mormon Archaeology
August 12, 2011 6:51 PM   Subscribe

Prof. Michael Coe, an expert on the Maya, discusses the challenges facing Mormon archaeologists investigating the historical truth of the Book of Mormon.

The Maya lived in parts of Mexico and Central American where Mormon scholars say the events in the Book of Mormon took place. Coe is the Charles J. MacCurdy professor emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University and curator emeritus of the Division of Anthropology at the school’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The pod-casts are 3 hours long. PBS also did a series on the Mormons.
posted by Ideefixe (192 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why would you send a Mormon to investigate the historical truth of the Book of Mormon? Quite a conflict of interest isn't there?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:00 PM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


> Search for the Gold Plates

Indy 5!
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:01 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Your assignment: find physical evidence for things that didn't happen.

An Israeli friend of mine claims that Jewish archaeologists were sent in to the Sinai desert to find evidence of Moses. Apparently all they found were bushes with berries that made you hallucinate burning bushes.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:03 PM on August 12, 2011 [29 favorites]


Let me guess... He doesn't mention the impossibility of trying to prove a complete and utter crock of shit.

On preview - Chekhovian beat me to it, in spirit.
posted by pla at 7:05 PM on August 12, 2011


> Search for the Gold Plates

Indy 5!


... and in keeping with the predictable sequence, worse than the previous one.
posted by philip-random at 7:08 PM on August 12, 2011


Let's ask a medieval scholar about the challenges of finding evidence of dragons, while we're at it. Or an oceanographer about the challenges of finding atlantis. This is strictly discovery channel crap, albeit in much more detail.
posted by Huck500 at 7:09 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did I explain this badly? Did anyone here actually listen to the podcasts or are you all just shooting from the hip? From the comments on the site

I'm only through the first podcast and he seems to do a good job of proving that BoM wasn't in Mesoamerica.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:12 PM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


... and in keeping with the predictable sequence, worse than the previous one.
posted by philip-random at 9:08 PM on August 12


The odd-numbered ones are the good ones.
posted by joannemerriam at 7:14 PM on August 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


My complaint isn't about your post, it's about the need for a scientist to argue against a preposterous religious theory for 9 hours. The information is interesting, but I'd rather listen to him talk about the maya without the mormon context.
posted by Huck500 at 7:17 PM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


truth ... religion

I have discovered the problem.

posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:18 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]



Liberation! Equality! No more slavery for oopstate Mormon people!

I got de golden plates! (gold plates)
I gunna lead the people! (we head west)
We gotta stick together! (for months)
We gotta hel’ eachother! (we will for months)
And so we climb the mountain! (we head west)
And we cross the river (we head west)
And we fight the oppression! (for months)
By being nice to everyone (we are Mormons)

posted by mikelieman at 7:19 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seconding--please listen to the podcasts before you draw conclusions. See also from Wikipedia:

Citing the lack of specific New World geographic locations to search, Michael D. Coe, a prominent Mesoamerican archaeologist and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, wrote, "As far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing the historicity of The Book of Mormon, and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group".

Mormon Stories and Mormon Expression podcasts are great stuff and have helped me (a non-LDS religious scholar) to better understand Latter-day Saint culture, especially by those in the community who are wrestling with the faith versus culture issue.
posted by apartment dweller at 7:20 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Did anyone here actually listen to the podcasts? Has it been 3 hours since you posted this link? You can read the transcript much faster than you can listen to 90 bazillion hours of talk. I can read so so much faster than I can listen.
posted by Chekhovian at 7:21 PM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


In a way it's kind of wonderful that Professors at BYU can receive tenure for their crackpot bullshit theories. Now if it only wasn't in service of a dogmatic and often hate-filled religion.
posted by Locobot at 7:32 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dr. Coe is not a Latter-day Saint, nor did he teach at BYU (he taught at Yale), nor is he a Mormon apologist.
posted by apartment dweller at 7:37 PM on August 12, 2011 [12 favorites]


I've often thought that a very fruitful analysis could be done comparing Mormonism and Scientology. Both were the "SciFi" religions of their day. Mormonism had angels with golden plates, Scientology has aliens with space 767s. Both exemplified the the zeitgeist of their times. Mormonism was a metaphor for America's manifest destiny, Scientology about fear of the bomb.

Someone should do it!
posted by Chekhovian at 7:38 PM on August 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


I wasn't talking about Dr. Coe, just the subject at hand.
posted by Locobot at 7:38 PM on August 12, 2011


I lived for a couple of months with an American LDS (the politically-correct way to say Mormon) family when I first moved to Japan (long story), and I remembering remarking that "Mormonism seems just science fiction!"

I still feel bad about that.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:44 PM on August 12, 2011


I think it's interesting in the same way that archeologists try to correlate biblical stories, or Greek and Roman stories (i.e. Troy). Mythology is how *a* history gets passed down from generation to generation. (A history, mind you...perhaps not *the* history, or *real* history...but *a* history.) The stories, whether we like it or not, have shaped the very basis of western civilization, and curious people would like to find out what, if anything, about them is true.

The Book of Mormon doesn't have that same sort of veritas, what with it being only a generation or few away from the progenitor of the proto-myth; but if a group of people claims something is true; and claims that it existed in Location X, then it is not terribly surprising that scholars and historians familiar with Location X and the history of Location X would then feel compelled to say that the story cannot be true; if in fact, the story cannot, as in this case, be proven to be accurate even a little bit.
posted by dejah420 at 7:47 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mythology is how *a* history gets passed down from generation to generation. (A history, mind you...perhaps not *the* history, or *real* history...but *a* history.)

I've often thought this about Asian mythology, too. Like, was Rama a real ruler at one point who achieved legendary status? What about all the really old gods of Vajarayna Buddhism? Were they all based on real people who lived at some point and had tales of their lives and deeds passed down and distorted and amplified across the centuries before they became deities?

What about the Greek myths? Are they also possibly stories of pre-historical real life people which have been retold so many times they became stories of gods?

Overall, that seems to be the most plausible (in my mind) explanation for how such stories came to exist and have such influence.

None of this has anything to do with Smith and his golden plates. But it is something I think about more than once in a while, because I find the concept of verbal history and distortion and historical figures becoming legendary and deified fascinating.
posted by hippybear at 7:56 PM on August 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think it's a cool podcast, I listened to the first one, he goes into a lot of great detail about what actually was happening in that area, like the Mayans diet and such, basically going point by point on everything the interviewer is asking about saying no, that's not possible, no, we have mountains of evidence, of course coins and iron and wheat would have survived . . by about an hour in they're both laughing, the interviewer's basically like "you're not giving us a lot to go on here . . . "

I don't really get the whole scene of being religious despite knowing your religion is, you know, a little hard to defend. Interesting that some people can hold those opposites in their minds. Anyway the anthropology stories in here are cool.
posted by chaff at 7:57 PM on August 12, 2011


(A history, mind you...perhaps not *the* history, or *real* history...but *a* history.)

Good luck ever finding *THE* history. What's it they say? "History is written by the winners." Even in this day and age people still say the americas were "discovered" when europeans "found" it, never mind that there people here for a good while before, doing great things. Never mind even more recent history, just look at how people are wanting to rewrite the United States history to be this great christian never do wrong thing. Ignoring that the french basically won the revolutionary war for us, but hey, freedom fries! :P

By the way, it's funny when people make fun of religion for being made up when culture is the same thing. Rules of behavior passed down generation by generation.
posted by usagizero at 8:17 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't care at all about the Mormons; but a chance to listen to Michael Coe talk for three hours!?!? Thanks so much for posting this.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:19 PM on August 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


What about the Greek myths? Are they also possibly stories of pre-historical real life people which have been retold so many times they became stories of gods?

It seems equally plausible to me that some Proto-Indo-European *Joseph *Smith just made them up, but it's definitely possible. There are plenty of better-attested examples of historical figures being transformed into culture heroes and demigods in exactly that way - for instance there's a lot of evidence that Gilgamesh was a perfectly real king of Uruk in the 26th century BCE before he became an epic demigod, no doubt accreting to his myth stories about other real and mythical figures in the process.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:24 PM on August 12, 2011


I'd rather listen to him talk about the maya without the mormon context.

Sure, but there's never been any shortage of Michael Coe content on video, audio, books or journals. It's just that unless you add the delicious special sauce of putting him up against a widely despised religion, you are left with only the story of the historical detail gradually revealed by Mayan archaeology, which for some reason has failed to grab the imaginations of the masses in the way taking a slam on Mormons does.
posted by Miko at 8:41 PM on August 12, 2011


Cool post. I'm studying one of the modern Mayan languages — and sure enough, just about all of the early linguists who worked on it were Mormons. I owe an awful lot to those guys and their kooky sense of history. They may be bad amateur historians, but some of them are very good at doing field linguistics.

The Mormon connection has also had a huge impact on Guatemalan history and culture. The country gets way more LDS missionaries per capita than anyplace else outside the US. Guatemala is now the least Catholic country in Latin America, and all because Joseph Smith woke up one morning and said "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to write some pyramids into the story?" (As far as I know, the Book of Mormon doesn't explicitly say anything about Central America. It talks about people living on a peninsula and building pyramids — and hey, whaddaya know, the Mayan ruins fit the description.)

I dunno. I hate evangelism as much as the next hippie-ass Quaker. But if they weren't doing it here, they'd be doing it somewhere else. The sequence of weird-ass coincidences and irrational enthusiasm that's led them here of all places... it's hard to get upset about that part of the story. It's just fascinating. History is full of these totally improbable unintended consequences, and getting to spend some time up close with one is interesting as all hell.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:41 PM on August 12, 2011 [13 favorites]


The Book of Mormon doesn't have that same sort of veritas

It does within that particular faith community. What is fascinating to me are those who appreciate the good in Mormon culture, want to stay on good terms with family and friends, yet are no longer able to just "believe in it all," whether the issue is the historical veracity of the Book of Mormon or gay Mormons or Prop 8 in California. So you now have the terms 'cultural Mormons" or "New Order Mormons" or "post-Mormons" to describe these folks. After all, the podcasts are found on a site called Mormon Stories.

Some 'biblical' (in the sense here of non-Mormon) archeologists in the past sought to find specific evidence to confirm the existence of places, events, and persons in the Bible. That was one of the goals of the Albright school but that approach has lost much of its appeal over time (Albright died in 1971).

Still, when you are working in the interdisciplinary field of biblical studies, issues of historicity vis a vis the biblical narrative come up all the time, with more historically-oriented scholars tagged with the label of 'minimalists' (and that is usually not a complement). Working with the limited materials from antiquity means there is a lot that can't be stated with historical certainty. Which is why there are so many questionable 'documentaries' on Discovery, The History Channel, etc. (e.g., supposed nails from Jesus' crucifixion found in Caiphas' tomb). Which is why NPR just had a piece on the problems that a non-literal Adam and Eve pose to some (note: not all) in evangelical/traditional religious communities.

Point being, it's not just Mormons who are trying to figure out how to figure out the relationship between received or revealed wisdom, and history, when "wisdom" and "history" have traditionally been packaged together.

[It's okay to use both 'Mormon' and 'LDS' as official monikers--the Utah church uses both in its literature.]
posted by apartment dweller at 8:52 PM on August 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


This is like the archaeological version of cryptozoology!
posted by Apocryphon at 9:02 PM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Fascinating, thanks. I'm looking forward to the rest of the podcasts at the link to discover more. The podcaster sounds like an interesting guy, someone who has left the church despite his own efforts to believe (and to accommodate the strangeness and help other doubting Mormons do the same...).
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:04 PM on August 12, 2011


and all because Joseph Smith woke up one morning and said "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to write some pyramids into the story?" (As far as I know, the Book of Mormon doesn't explicitly say anything about Central America. It talks about people living on a peninsula and building pyramids — and hey, whaddaya know, the Mayan ruins fit the description.

Peninsula/isthmus, yes, but I don't think there's any explicitly pyramid structures in the Book of Mormon (I've read it pretty closely and can neither recall any or turn up the word in a search here).

But it's true to say there's little in the text of the BoM that argues for a specific location, and that the idea that it's centered on the Americas and a specific part of the Americas is largely imposed from outside the text.
posted by weston at 10:50 PM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


SCIENTIST GOES TO UNNECESSARY LENGTHS TO EXPLAIN THAT THE BOOK OF MORMON IS NOT BASED ON REAL HISTORY. FILM AT 11

This is probably how most people read a topic like this, which is entirely understandable. For me this is extremely interesting and welcoming information. I'm one of those "cultural" Mormons that apartment dweller mentioned.

It's pretty hard to describe to someone else, in or out of the church, how difficult it is to arrive at the conclusions most cultural Mormons have arrived at. When you're raised in the church, you're taught to recognize a very specific, narrowly defined kind of truth. What makes this even more insidious is the fact that the Mormon concept of truth means that any and all evidence can be made to serve Mormon conclusions.

Put another way: Most Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon really is about actual historical events. They believe this so strongly that it never even enters their mind that it could be myth or metaphor. This concept is so strong that many Mormons joined the field of archaeology fully believing that science would support and prove their beliefs. When the evidence begins to pile up on the wrong side of that idea, those young scientists usually end up doing one of three things:

1. Leave the church, or become a cultural/new order Mormon
2. Compartmentalize..."this evidence contradicts my belief but it'll all make sense someday..."
3. Become a full-blown apologist...in other words hold fast to your conclusion and bend the facts to make it work.

Now the majority of Mormons aren't scientists. Evidence and rigor don't necessarily have real meaning to your average Mormon. In fact, if and when a true believing Mormon is confronted with this kind of information, he will likely dismiss it as anti-Mormon propaganda. If the information persists, he may resort to ad hominem attacks, or simply forgo all logical argument and bear testimony.

I know this because I did this. I was pretty adept at the mental gymnastics required to be both a well-informed person and a true believing Mormon. Eventually the cognitive dissonance became overbearing.

For the first time in my life I said out loud the words "I don't believe."

I said them into the air, to nobody, and yet I was still trembling as I said them. Being raised in the church in a very faithful family, mostly in Utah, has a powerful effect on one's mind. Everything in the world is viewed through the lens of Mormonism. I was even able to get through most of Frazer's The Golden Bough viewing it as a supporting text of Mormon theology. I could make any data point convincing (at least to me and my friends) because it was impossible to consider the alternative.

Even now, only my wife and a few close friends know of my disaffection. It's been extremely difficult. When you're in the middle of it, when you're a third or fourth or fifth generation Mormon and everyone in your family is fully active in the church (well except for your sister but *everybody* knows that she's a slut and that's why she doesn't believe and besides she isn't really happy because of her choices) it gets pretty messy to declare that you no longer believe. I generally keep it to myself.

Podcasts like Mormon Stories and Mormon Expression are extremely helpful for those in the faith who are going through the transition to reality. It really is like –to borrow a biblical metaphor– scales falling from your eyes. You wake up one day and everyone you know suddenly doesn't see the way you see, and you do your damnedest to explain but is just doesn't seem to work. For example, I've told my wife how I feel, but she simply doesn't agree with me. She refuses to even look at the evidence. In fact, I'm pretty sure she believes I've been deceived. She still loves me, but she thinks I'm lost. And I'm lucky. Some folks tell their spouses about their dissolution and end up getting divorced over it. Yikes.

Not to be entirely negative, the church has a number of great things going for it. The emphasis on families is generally wonderful (well, as long as it's the "right" kind of family, but that's another problem) and has in fact been a saving grace for many couples. Mormon communities are tightly-knit, service oriented, and most people agree that the majority of Mormons they've met are just "darn nice folks." So it's not all bad, which is a small comfort for those of us who struggle with the church's truth claims and prejudiced policies.

I'm glad that podcasts like this exist. The more exposure we give to these kinds of topics the more opportunity we give for Mormons to examine and question their beliefs. Mormonism may be a small religion compared to Islam or Catholicism, but it's already proven to wield powerful political weight in the US, much to the detriment of many men and women's civil rights. If the church is ever going to have a chance of reform it's only going to come about by promoting accurate, non-confrontational information about the church, information that will continue to be read by more and more Mormons and someday, hopefully sooner than late, the collective weight of all these stubborn facts will bear down on the church and they will have no choice but to open the doors and let in the light.

I stay in the church to support my wife and my family, but I also stay in because I hope I can be a small influence for good to help others see the truth and make a change.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:58 PM on August 12, 2011 [89 favorites]


Fascinating.

I am very interested in Mormons, possibly creepily interested. Just today I was wondering... you know, if you're considering conversion, at what point do the missionaries move on from "the good news of Jesus Christ" to "btw you get your own planet"? Mormon theology gets pretty psychedelic a layer in, and as others have noted, it's not a take-what-you-like religion. You believe in the literal truth of the Book of Mormon, or it's tough to be LDS. (Or I suppose you hide your doubts, which must be painful and difficult.)

As part of my (possibly creepy) fascination with Mormons, I've read a lot of LDS blogs. One that struck me particularly was by women who were attempting to reconcile their feminist beliefs with their LDS faith. Some women were able to bend their minds around it, others just couldn't get there and seemed heartbroken over it, because you can't just say "Well, I don't believe this thing about how a man can be sealed to multiple wives, but a woman can only be sealed to one husband.... but I guess the rest of the stuff about eternal family is still okay." and get on with life. There is one mainstream LDS church, accept its teachings or don't.

It's hard for me to imagine how difficult this must be if you're in the middle of it, particularly if you've grown up in the church and your whole family is LDS.

Or, on preview, what Doleful Creature said. What a complicated time this must be for you.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:15 PM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ancient Mayans are still shaping their environment thousands of years later
posted by homunculus at 11:35 PM on August 12, 2011


... and in keeping with the predictable sequence, worse than the previous one.

Are you kidding me? Temple of Doom sucked hard and Last Crusade was awesome.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 11:43 PM on August 12, 2011


Then it must be a rule of odds are better than evens, than.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:47 PM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just finished, what an excellent podcast. And quite amazing to me to realize that this was a Mormon show, with the host asking the debunker for advice to his Mormon listeners who will come to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is bunk. Wow, good on him.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:24 AM on August 13, 2011


> I think it's interesting in the same way that archeologists try to correlate biblical stories, or Greek and Roman stories (i.e. Troy).

Actually, lots of secular archaeologists find stuff corroborating biblical stories. Not all, sure. But it's really not fair to compare it to Greek/Roman/Mormon stories.
posted by brenton at 12:38 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


While I try to keep up with a lot of Mormon and ex-Mormon blogs, I have generally not had the patience to stick through Mormon Stories podcasts, because they are just so dense (especially when contrasted to the revived Mormon Matters podcast, which is more "pop issues" kind of things) and long (3 hours! And there have been longer episode collections, IIRC).

But I made it worth my while to try to listen to this particular set of episodes. I'm still listening to the third (which is probably a sign I shouldn't be writing this comment, since I'm really bad at multitasking when it comes to listening. [P.S., I won't publish this comment until the pocast is done.])

In any case, my comment is probably going to be inside baseball kind of stuff to 95% of the people here, but I'm kinda worried about how this episode series will reflect on John Dehlin (podcast host) with more orthodox believers. The guy is pretty controversial in both believing and non-believing circles (but also has some fans across borders too), but one of the criticisms John has had is in being this supposed "wolf in sheep's clothing" -- bringing on these subjects who are critical of the church's position (however that may play out, especially if it's in the interest of a seemingly disinterested party who also has good things to say about Mormons and Mormonism) and then providing a really weak defense for the church's position (asking softball questions, not asking the questions that an apologist would ask, etc.,) All the while, he presents himself as a neutral or supporting interviewer and the podcast as a faith-friendly podcast. As Meatbomb mentioned that it's "quite amazing...to realize that this was a Mormon show," one thing to realize is that a lot of Mormons would take exception to the idea that Dehlin can be representative for Mormons for precisely that reason ("asking the debunker for advice to his Mormon listeners who will come to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is bunk.")

(Meanwhile, a lot of ex/post/former Mormons dislike John because he won't leave the church formally and they find that disingenuous.)

Now, since I don't believe in the church's claims, I'm not the best person to consult on much of this, and I honestly don't care how one manages to stay within the church or to leave it, but sometimes, I can't help but agree with the general idea of such criticisms. It appears the comments I was seeing earlier here have been quietly scrubbed away in the hours I've been listening, but there were a few comments saying something like, "Oh, another MeFi post laughing at some group." And while there were some responses to that, (e.g., "Look, another MeFi who doesn't get it"), I want to try to expound upon this idea (and hopefully avoid getting my comment expunged from the record...

This podcast seems to be a way for non-believing cultural Mormons (variously called different things as John D makes new "groups" for them) to validate their conclusions that Mormonism is really false and isn't it obvious and here's a smart guy who will validate us as well (additionally, maybe unsuspecting Mormons either on the precipice of faith crisis or who are quite stable in their faith will stumble onto this podcast and discover that Mormonism is not what they thought). And it's even better when, as Coe does in the third episode, the interviewee can praise Joseph Smith (or something about Mormonism...like its capability as a system of morals or metaphors) while making clear that he nevertheless believes Mormonism is highly doubtful from a matter of truth. That makes it plausibly deniable that John or his guests are anti-Mormon. So, it's like The Book of Mormon musical: "Mormonism is clearly ridiculous...but those guys are so cute and mean well!"

Now, maybe this really doesn't matter to y'all. I mean, you guys aren't believers. Heck, even *I'm* not. So for you, it *is* obvious that Mormonism is bunk. And I'm not trying to defend it. But one thing that I think others have really gotten across with their comments here is that there is a different level of meta-analysis of things like this within the Mormon community.

Does it surprise any of you to hear that some people propose alternative geographies for the Book of Mormon (and I'm sure that John has other Mormon Stories episodes with apologists who have developed these alternative theories, but I'm too lazy to search)? Some which *aren't even in the Americas*? Does it surprise you that some people turn to incredibly postmodern ideas about truth vs. practicality *not* to leave the church or to diminish its importance, but to cling further to it and to wave away these issues?

I have no doubt that Mormon Stories, etc., really help people. They help people in ways that rankle other people (either rankling ex-mos by keeping some people in the church, albeit under very different terms or rankling faithful Mormons by leading people away from the church by degrees.) But some episodes leave a bad aftertaste in my mouth.
posted by subversiveasset at 1:04 AM on August 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Eventually the cognitive dissonance became overbearing.

Very well put, Doleful Creature. Sounds like we had very similar upbringings. My family goes back generations in the Church (and I've got the bloody genealogy to prove it!). My cognitive dissonance hit the breaking point a few years ago. I've stopped going to Church and have been deprogramming myself ever since. Listening to podcasts like this helps. In a lot of ways I find the Mormon Culture is much more deeply ingrained than the Church Teachings.

Great post, Ideefixe.
posted by bstreep at 3:45 AM on August 13, 2011


What about the Greek myths? Are they also possibly stories of pre-historical real life people which have been retold so many times they became stories of gods?

Well we certainly have evidence that something that looked a lot like the sacking of Troy happened more-or-less where Homer said it happened.

The Book of Mormon doesn't have that same sort of veritas

Meh. Tha's, frankly, a cultural construct. As someone who was raised without any kind of explicit religious exposure in one of the most secular Western countries there's not much in the Book of Mormon that looks a great deal more absurd than any number of other religions, never mind the dogma and doctrine that grow up around them (parting the Red Sea? Transubstaniation? Really?). It's just that some are privelidged at particular points in time.

Hell, this thread is indicative of that privelidge. If this was about a more mainstream variant of Christianity we'd be knee-deep in complaints about LOLXTIANS as a result of the tone of a lot of the comments. Because Mormons are a fringe group generally considered risible, the "respect for religion" folks are absent.
posted by rodgerd at 4:34 AM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


there's not much in the Book of Mormon that looks a great deal more absurd than any number of other religions ... It's just that some are privelidged at particular points in time.

A matter of degrees.

The New Testament has a story about a man of the Jewish faith named Jesus who, in around 30~32 AD, was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilatus, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea, for sedition against the Roman Empire. There's nothing particularly absurd about the context: evidence points to a Roman Empire and a place called Jerusalem, evidence suggests a prefect named Pontius Pilatus, and a moderately strong argument can be made for the existence of a historical character named Jesus.

The Book of Mormon is about groups of Israelites who migrated to the Americas and established millions-strong empires with metallurgy, animal husbandry, and Jewish temple rites. These empires where driven in to collapse via internecine warfare, with the remnant populations becoming the people today known as American Indians. Almost everything about that context is absurd to anyone with even a passing familiarity of pre-Colombus American history.

The New Testament might have plenty of absurd stories about absurd events, but they exist in a known and verified setting. The Book of Mormon might as well be about giant dinosaurs set in the jungles of Venus.
posted by kithrater at 5:33 AM on August 13, 2011 [18 favorites]


I apologize for my comment - it was ill considered and obviously I didn't have the perspective to understand the complexity of where the podcast is coming from. Thanks for the other great comments.
posted by Miko at 5:49 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm studying one of the modern Mayan languages — and sure enough, just about all of the early linguists who worked on it were Mormons.

What language are you referring to? Most of the modern Mayan languages were described well before any Mormon missionaries entered the picture, although often by missionaries for various Protestant sects.
posted by spitbull at 6:10 AM on August 13, 2011


Nebulawindphone--Guatemala is not majority practicing Catholic because of evangelical Christianity, not Mormonism. There are a lot of Mormons there, but nearly as many as the evangelicos, whose missionaries flooded the place after the 1977 earthquake devastated rural areas (adobe houses), and whose aid and messages of no drinking were very appealing.
posted by oneironaut at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Coe gets (at least) one thing wrong. When comparing the Bible to the Book of Mormon he says "And of course the Romans did know about Christ; there's no doubt about that." Well, on the contrary there is quite a lot of doubt about that. Certainly the Romans knew what the Christians among them believed, but there really is no credible evidence outside the Bible that Jesus ever existed, or that the events described in the four Gospels of the New Testament ever took place.
posted by Pararrayos at 7:32 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't have to spend a lot of time in the jungle looking for things that aren't there. A little DNA sampling will show (has shown) that the Indians have an Asiatic lineage, as you'd expect, rather than having a middle eastern lineage as the Book of Mormon claims.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:44 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, on the contrary there is quite a lot of doubt about that. Certainly the Romans knew what the Christians among them believed, but there really is no credible evidence outside the Bible that Jesus ever existed, or that the events described in the four Gospels of the New Testament ever took place.

"Christus, the found of the name was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also."
Cornelis Tacitus (Annals XV, 44)

"The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day-the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account"
Lucian of Samosata (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13)

"As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."
Suetonius (Lives of the Caesar, 26.2)

"It has been taught: On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu. And an announcer went out, in front of him, for forty days" 'He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray'...they hanged him on the eve of Passover"
The Babylonian Talmud

"No there was about that time Jesus, a wise man...He drew over to him both many of the Jew and many of the Gentiles..and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him"
Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, 33)

And I could go on like this. Doubting the historicity of Jesus isn't really a credible position.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:37 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


IIRC, the Josephus quote has been debunked as fake.
posted by Dark Messiah at 9:00 AM on August 13, 2011


Wait, what? I thought Christ meant "the anointed one". Talking about a "Christus" could be talking about anyone, really.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:10 AM on August 13, 2011


IIRC, the Josephus quote has been debunked as fake.

Actually, there is a lot of scholarly debate about the Josephus quote, and it's all well summarized here on Wikipedia.
posted by hippybear at 9:11 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]



IIRC, the Josephus quote has been debunked as fake.


I left out the parts that are widely agreed to be interpolations. I think the portions of the passage I left in are credible. The larger point doesn't rest on the Josephus passage alone, however.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:12 AM on August 13, 2011


As I said, there's no doubt the Romans knew what the Christians among them believed. These quotes prove nothing more than that.
posted by Pararrayos at 9:13 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tactitus and Lucian were writing decades after Jesus died.
posted by empath at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2011


And I could go on like this. Doubting the historicity of Jesus isn't really a credible position.

All of those lines you quote came about after Jesus was supposed to have lived. There is no record (none, zero) from his purported lifetime that he actually existed.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:16 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The New Testament has a story about a man of the Jewish faith named Jesus who, in around 30~32 AD, was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilatus, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea, for sedition against the Roman Empire.

And that he was the result of a virgin birth, was the son of god, performed miracles, raised the dead, cured leprocy, turned water into wine, died, came back to life, etc...
posted by empath at 9:20 AM on August 13, 2011


As I said, there's no doubt the Romans knew what the Christians among them believed. These quotes prove nothing more than that.

All of those lines you quote came about after Jesus was supposed to have lived. There is no record (none, zero) from his purported lifetime that he actually existed.

What would you consider credible evidence outside the Bible the Jesus existed? Would any historical personage meet that evidential threshold? For example, do you believe in Alexander the Great despite the fact that we have only 5 documentary sources that discuss the details of his life, all written hundreds of years after the events they describe?
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:23 AM on August 13, 2011


(Sorry to totally derail the thread BTW.)
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:24 AM on August 13, 2011


For example, do you believe in Alexander the Great despite the fact that we have only 5 documentary sources that discuss the details of his life, all written hundreds of years after the events they describe?

There is no practical reason not to believe in Alexander the Great. His existence or nonexistence is, at this point in time, irrelevant.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:30 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


What language are you referring to? Most of the modern Mayan languages were described well before any Mormon missionaries entered the picture, although often by missionaries for various Protestant sects.

It depends on what you mean by "described."

The first modern grammar of K'iche' was by David Fox in ninteen-sixty-something, who was, yeah, working with a Protestant missionary linguist organization. But we weren't done describing the language after Fox. His grammar's got an awful lot of holes in it — and to be fair, he never meant it to be the last word on the language. Fieldwork is always collaborative and cumulative, and there's no shame in taking Step 1 and leaving others to fill in the gaps.

Anyway, of the linguists who came right after Fox — who filled in many of the gaps that he left — an awful lot were Mormons. I'm thinking for instance of Robert Carmack, Allen Christenson and James Mondloch. All three of those guys are professional academics and not full-time missionaries, but their interest in the Maya is more than just professional.

I dunno. I guess if you're trying to argue priority, the SIL — the organization Fox was with — showed up first. (Though if priority is really all you care about, the Catholics win. They were working on K'iche' back in the 1500s.) But the generation of Mormons who were working on the language in the 70s and 80s made a big contribution too, and so I'm grateful to them as well. That's all I'm saying.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:32 AM on August 13, 2011


What would you consider credible evidence outside the Bible the Jesus existed? Would any historical personage meet that evidential threshold?

Fortunately, that all happened a long time ago, so it must be true right?

Give Mormonism and Scientology a few hundred years and it'll be just as plausible as the antics of some dude from the middle east to just as many people. Or maybe things will get all muddled up during the various alien invasions and terrible disasters that will happen. Then the new bible will focus on Jesus defeating Xenu in some sort of arm wrestling contest, but hey if inspires good behavior in some people or strengthens communities, then it'll be okay that it's full of lies.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:33 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Would any historical personage meet that evidential threshold? For example, do you believe in Alexander the Great despite the fact that we have only 5 documentary sources that discuss the details of his life, all written hundreds of years after the events they describe?

I'm skeptical of the details of all 5 of those stories, as one should be skeptical of the details of almost all ancient historical accounts of pretty much everyone. However, the proof of Alexander's existence is borne out by archeological evidence, as well -- for example, the fact that Tyre is no longer an island.
posted by empath at 9:41 AM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


FWIW, Pythagoras also might have never existed. It's not unheard of for schools of philosophy in the hellenistic world to invent founders.
posted by empath at 9:44 AM on August 13, 2011


Fundamentally, I think that no amount of evidence of the life of Christ could ever convince most who have decided to be skeptical of it. I can't imagine any document or archeological artifact that wouldn't be immediately dismissed. I don't think the position is based on reason.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:47 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


What would you consider credible evidence outside the Bible the Jesus existed?

What would you consider credible evidence for the existence of Santa Claus?
posted by Pararrayos at 9:48 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Neither is the position that he did exist. It's an undecidable question, based on the evidence and historically speaking, not particularly relevant. What's important about Christ is what Christians believe about Christ. Whether he actually existed or did the things they claim is rather secondary.

Even if he did exist, then that doesn't prove a word of what was in the gospels.
posted by empath at 9:49 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's important to note, I think, that there's nothing concrete that happens in the Gospel story that would have been particularly notable to the Romans at the time -- miracle workers were a dime a dozen, and mystery religions were popping up all over the place. Roman historians like Tacitus would have had no reason at all to doubt what the Christians were saying happened, though they would have doubted the reality of the miracles, and would have dismissed the theological claims.

So you have a situation where Christians are extremely motivated to get people to believe what they are claiming is true, and a bunch of contemporary Romans who weren't particularly motivated doubt the entirety of the story, but only the mythology aspects of it. I think that in general, people don't expect to be lied to, and historians generally wrote down what they were told without digging too much into attempting to prove or falsify it. Roman history is full of all kinds of fanciful tales told by travelers.
posted by empath at 9:57 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the point is that it is not unreasonable for non-Christians to believe that Jesus was a real person. We don't have any contemporary accounts, but we do have a very large number of accounts within a few hundred years. Of course it is also perfectly reasonable to argue that he didn't exist, and certainly to a non-believer it doesn't matter all that much one way or the other. I mean, I think he probably did exist but that doesn't make me any more likely to believe that he had any supernatural powers or was the son of God.

And that he was the result of a virgin birth, was the son of god, performed miracles, raised the dead, cured leprocy, turned water into wine, died, came back to life, etc...

Right. All obviously risible nonsense to me and purely a matter of faith to believers, but none of those things would have left proof even if they had really happened.

I think that the right parallel to draw with conventional Christian beliefs is of believing in Noah's flood as a literal event that left the world covered in water for 40 days. This is something that had it happened, would have left evidence - but there is no such evidence.
posted by atrazine at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2011


Neither is the position that he did exist. It's an undecidable question, based on the evidence and historically speaking, not particularly relevant.

I think this could be said a virtual all sufficiently old historical persons. I don't think it is reasonable to believe that none of them existed, however. Some skepticism is understandable, but one rapidly descends into irrationality if the level of skepticism often applied to Jesus is applied to all other aspects of life.

Even if he did exist, then that doesn't prove a word of what was in the gospels.

In many places where the gospels can be corroborated by external archeological evidence, they have been.
Time and time again the gospel of Luke's accounts of the details of who was ruler at what time and the geographical details of the region have been validated by inscriptions and other archeological evidence.

Other examples include the discovery of the Pool of Bethesda described in John 5:1-15, the Pool of Siloam from John 9:7, the name and title of Pilate etc., etc. etc.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:07 AM on August 13, 2011


But there is the legacy of advanced mathematical proofs and deep insights into the laws of physics that Jesus left behind right? You know, the things that were put into the bible that no one understood for thousands of years afterward? Truths that humanity has struggled to understand even with centuries of highly funded cutting edge research? I thought that legacy guaranteed that no one would doubt the stories told in the bible, afterall, how could some carpenter from the ancient middle east have lectured about quantum mechanics or recited Pi to 500 decimals places unless he was somehow divine.

Wait he didn't do any of that? His fame is just derived from some actions that a few loyal supporters saw and then told people about with no actual evidence? Oops, never mind.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:08 AM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


In many places where the gospels can be corroborated by external archeological evidence, they have been.

No, they have not been. Not at all. Again, no one doubts that the story was set in a particular time and place.

The existence of Roman chariot races doesn't prove the historicity of Ben Hur.
posted by Pararrayos at 10:18 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think this could be said a virtual all sufficiently old historical persons.

If Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar didn't exist, there is a whole lot of history that needs to be re-explained.

Other examples include the discovery of the Pool of Bethesda described in John 5:1-15, the Pool of Siloam from John 9:7, the name and title of Pilate etc., etc. etc.

I don't think anybody doubts that Jerusalem existed. It would be weird if they invented a bunch of places and people when the authors actually lived there.
posted by empath at 10:21 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The existence of Roman chariot races doesn't prove the historicity of Ben Hur.

If copies of the text of Ben Hur dating to within several decades of the events described were found, and numerous places, people, and titles were corroborated by documentary and archeological finds that would indeed be very good evidence of the historicity of Ben Hur. Given that the earliest text we have is a screenplay from 1959, however, I don't think the analogy is very apt.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:23 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]



If Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar didn't exist, there is a whole lot of history that needs to be re-explained.


Exactly. My contention is that the same is true of Jesus.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:24 AM on August 13, 2011


>If Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar didn't exist, there is a whole lot of history that needs to be re-explained.

Exactly. My contention is that the same is true of Jesus.


It's true of Christianity, sure, but the actual hand of Jesus himself had no impact on history.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:29 AM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Well no, because all that needs to be said is that a group of reform Jews invented a founder myth. Jesus never actually did anything that impacted the course of history. He gave a few talks, then he was executed. You could just as easily say that Jesus was a pseudonym used by a group of reform Jews.

What matters is that Christians believed he existed. Whether he existed or not is entirely superfluous.

I mean, you can say that Socrates didn't exist and that Pythagoras didn't exist, and nothing changes.

The question is somewhat analogous to the question: "Who was Shakespeare?"

Was Shakespeare the person who lived at the time who took the name Shakespeare and was given credit for the plays at the time? Or was "Shakespeare" the person who wrote the plays, regardless of what his name was in real life? It doesn't matter if they're the same person, but it does matter if they're not. If Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet, does that make him Shakespeare?

The same can be said about Jesus. What "Jesus" said was important, but it ultimately doesn't matter whether it was said by a historical person who was known as Jesus at the time, or whether the words were written by a collective of people who merely attributed the words to Jesus.

Keep in mind, that the earliest writings by Christians were by Paul who had never met Jesus or any of the apostles and didn't include many biographical details of Jesus's life. The Gospels were written much later, and only after Paul created the demand for them by founding churches.
posted by empath at 10:31 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm still listening to the first episode, but I just wanted to add that this is a fascinating interview. Thanks for posting it.
posted by maurice at 10:43 AM on August 13, 2011


Given that the earliest text we have is a screenplay from 1959, however ...

Wait, I have discovered a text that goes back 80 years further than that -- a book by General Lew Wallace! And all copies of it are said to be remarkably consistent.
posted by Pararrayos at 10:45 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Paul is really the important historical figure in Christianity, because he's the one that actually physically travelled around founding churches and writing letters, and so on. The historical existence of Paul is not in doubt, and would require a lot of re-explaining of history if he turned out not to exist, which isn't the case for Christ at all.
posted by empath at 10:46 AM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]



The same can be said about Jesus. What "Jesus" said was important, but it ultimately doesn't matter whether it was said by a historical person who was known as Jesus at the time, or whether the words were written by a collective of people who merely attributed the words to Jesus.


It matters very much whether he existed. If he didn't what he is supposed to have said is philosophically, but not spiritually, interesting.

Keep in mind, that the earliest writings by Christians were by Paul who had never met Jesus or any of the apostles and didn't include many biographical details of Jesus's life. The Gospels were written much later, and only after Paul created the demand for them by founding churches.

Paul definitely met at least some of the apostles. For example, in Galatians he mentions meeting James the brother of Jesus and Peter. (Of course I assume no one really believes that Galatians was written by Paul - right?) It is also interesting to note that, what many people consider to be the mythological aspects of Christianity - and therefore must be later interpolations - are found in Paul's letter, precisely those documents that are supposed to be the earliest written.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:47 AM on August 13, 2011


It matters very much whether he existed. If he didn't what he is supposed to have said is philosophically, but not spiritually, interesting.

Well, if you're not a Christian, the spritual aspects matter not much at all.

It is also interesting to note that, what many people consider to be the mythological aspects of Christianity - and therefore must be later interpolations - are found in Paul's letter, precisely those documents that are supposed to be the earliest written.

The theory that Christ didn't exist kind of requires the belief that Paul himself invented or at least formalized the mythological aspects of the Christ story. To bring it back to the topic of the thread -- Paul was the Joseph Smith of Christianity.
posted by empath at 10:52 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


In our little derail about whether Jesus actually existed or not, I think we're missing an important point about the main topic.

Regardless of whether you believe that person named "Jesus" actually lived, the idea that he did actually live and is in some way the basis of the new testament stories about him as at least plausible or possible, even to non-Christians. You can believe that Jesus lived and was some kind of spiritual teacher even if you don't believe a word of the teachings of that movement. Some of the earliest writings about it (ie, Paul) come from people who knew people who lived and worked with Jesus. So the idea that, for instance, Paul was writing about a real person is at least possible on the face of it.

But the with the Book of Mormon it is quite different. Joseph Smith was writing about peoples and a civilizations hundreds and thousands of years before his time, and about which he had know ordinary way to know anything. Joseph Smith's claim was that he learned it all through supernatural means--from angels, a divine power of translation, and from God.

That difference puts questions about the historical reality of the Book of Mormon on a quite different plane than those of the historical reality of Jesus--for both believers and non-believers.
posted by flug at 10:52 AM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Joseph Smith's claim was that he learned it all through supernatural means--from angels, a divine power of translation, and from God.
And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven: and he fell upon the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: but rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but beholding no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing; and they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.
posted by empath at 10:55 AM on August 13, 2011



But the with the Book of Mormon it is quite different. Joseph Smith was writing about peoples and a civilizations hundreds and thousands of years before his time, and about which he had know ordinary way to know anything. Joseph Smith's claim was that he learned it all through supernatural means--from angels, a divine power of translation, and from God.

That difference puts questions about the historical reality of the Book of Mormon on a quite different plane than those of the historical reality of Jesus--for both believers and non-believers.


That is exactly right. For the analogy between Paul and Joseph Smith to work Joseph Smith would have to have been contemporaries with the Nephites and Lamanites of the Book of Mormon.
posted by vorpal bunny at 10:58 AM on August 13, 2011


You can believe that Jesus lived and was some kind of spiritual teacher even if you don't believe a word of the teachings of that movement.

Sure, and you can believe the same thing about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and hell you can make the whole Book of Mormon allegorical, just like you can ignore all the miracle stories in the Gospel.
posted by empath at 10:58 AM on August 13, 2011


What's the difference between Joseph Smith claiming to be visited by the Angel Moroni and Paul claiming to have been visited by the risen Christ?
posted by empath at 10:59 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


To put is another way, how would Paul have convinced people in Jerusalem that Jesus existed and worked miracles within their lifetimes if he made the story up from whole cloth?
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:00 AM on August 13, 2011


My understanding is that were many many faiths healers and false messiahs about during that period of Jewish history. It's not as if there was this one singular figure preaching revolution and change.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:02 AM on August 13, 2011


To put is another way, how would Paul have convinced people in Jerusalem that Jesus existed and worked miracles within their lifetimes if he made the story up from whole cloth?

Because it's not that absurd given many other fantastical claims at the time. It does not make them true, however.
posted by Dark Messiah at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]



My understanding is that were many many faiths healers and false messiahs about during that period of Jewish history. It's not as if there was this one singular figure preaching revolution and change.

But their movements fell apart when they died.
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2011


But their movements fell apart when they died.

Bad marketing.
posted by Dark Messiah at 11:04 AM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm now feeling compelled to watch Life Of Brian again.
posted by hippybear at 11:05 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Christians always make this argument that because their faith has been around a long time, it must be true. Other faiths around the world have been around a lot longer, does that make them more true?
posted by Chekhovian at 11:06 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Other faiths around the world have been around a lot longer, does that make them more true?

The couple of people I know who are serious about their Tibetan Buddhist practice would say "yes".
posted by hippybear at 11:08 AM on August 13, 2011


Christians always make this argument that because their faith has been around a long time, it must be true. Other faiths around the world have been around a lot longer, does that make them more true?

The claim isn't that the faith is old. The claim is that the faith should have ceased to exist once Christ was executed in front of his followers unless something happened to convince them that he wasn't just a charlatan whose lies got the better of him.
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:10 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seriously, really, no seriously?
posted by Chekhovian at 11:14 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mormons have been around 150 years, and show no signs of stopping. The book of mormon must be getting more and more true.

Bad marketing.

It's more that Paul was a genius and managed to reframe the crucifixion brilliantly. I think the existence of the crucifixion story is the one thing that leads me to believe the Jesus story might be true (might be, but isn't necessarily true). It's something that Paul needed to explain with extraordinary theological gymnastics, and not something that at all follows from the ethical teachings of Jesus. But again, virgin birth followed by death and rebirth thing was a common trope of mystery religions of the time, so I could go either way with it. It could be that Paul syncretized mystery religions and hellenistic philosophy as a way to explain the unfortunate death of a real ethical teacher, or that Paul syncretized mystery religions and hellenistic philosophy and put it in a contemporary context because mystery religions were trendy, but he wanted a figure that people could identify with rather than a god with a jackal's head.
posted by empath at 11:15 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The claim is that the faith should have ceased to exist once Christ was executed in front of his followers unless something happened to convince them that he wasn't just a charlatan whose lies got the better of him.

There's a long history of executed religious teachers that shows otherwise. Including Joseph Smith!
posted by empath at 11:17 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath: yes, my cryptic comment was largely intended to convey that. Thank you.
posted by Dark Messiah at 11:17 AM on August 13, 2011


There's a long history of executed religious teachers that shows otherwise.

In fact, is this not one of the reasons Osama Bin-Laden's corpse was entombed in concrete and dropped randomly into the ocean?
posted by Dark Messiah at 11:18 AM on August 13, 2011


I believe Jesus lived, Paul lived, and Joseph Smith lived. The Scientology guy lived too. But there is no way what they said can be true. It is nonsense.
posted by mumimor at 11:24 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


It could be that Paul syncretized mystery religions and hellenistic philosophy as a way to explain the unfortunate death of a real ethical teacher, or that Paul syncretized mystery religions and hellenistic philosophy and put it in a contemporary context because mystery religions were trendy, but he wanted a figure that people could identify with rather than a god with a jackal's head.

Doesn't this conjecture pretty much ignore Paul's background as a Pharisee? Surely that kind of reaching outside of conservative Judaism would be pretty much unthinkable in the kind of conscious way you depict him as an inventor of Jesus and Christianity. Or do you think that Paul's story of being Saul and a persecutor of Jesus' followers and such is all part of his branding?
posted by hippybear at 11:24 AM on August 13, 2011


Interesting post, thanks. I know almost nothing about Mormonism but am interested in how archaeologists deal with beliefs and ideologies.
posted by paduasoy at 11:25 AM on August 13, 2011


But again, virgin birth followed by death and rebirth thing was a common trope of mystery religions of the time, so I could go either way with it.


The documentary evidence for the mystery religions comes from the 2nd century. It is just as plausible that they sampled from Christianity as it is that Christianity sampled from them.

Also, what sort of documentary or archeological evidence do you have for your account of Paul's status as the founder of the Christian myth? Is it finally my turn demand unreasonable levels of evidence that couldn't possibly exist for any historical claim? ; )
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:26 AM on August 13, 2011


If you make unreasonable claims, you need to put forth unreasonable levels of evidence.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I do actually have a serious question.

According to the bible, Jesus pretty much said that he was the truth and light and the whatever right? He's unequivaobly claiming that his way is the true path, correct? When you confront people about the falsehoods contained in the bible or the falsehoods contained in Joseph Smith's work, their response is that one must have faith. Or that God is testing you or some such nonsense.

Does the bible ever claim that it must be taken entirely on faith? Does Jesus say that he will offer no proof of his divinity and that followers must make the leap of faith? And Smith clearly claimed that he had physical evidence for everything.

If these stories were true, wouldn't they have put forth something that was irrefutably true? They weren't exactly trying to hide salvation from people or only allow people to be saved if they themselves took the first step. Why would god send a son to earth and have him do a halfassed job of putting the truth forward? Or why send gold plates and special rocks to Smith to have him still do a half assed job?
posted by Chekhovian at 11:31 AM on August 13, 2011


There's a long history of executed religious teachers that shows otherwise. Including Joseph Smith!

I am not sure of all the religious leaders you have in mind, so please correct me if I am wrong, but the ones that I am familiar with were not supposed to be God incarnate. You sort have more than a branding problem if your God was executed in front of people and you are trying to convince them that he rose from the dead within their lives and appeared to people they know.
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:31 AM on August 13, 2011


Why would god send a son to earth and have him do a halfassed job of putting the truth forward?

I think you were actually looking for this FPP.
posted by hippybear at 11:34 AM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


the ones that I am familiar with were not supposed to be God incarnate

According to the people who wrote about him after he died.

And I don't know which mystery religions you are referring to, but Dionysus was earlier than Jesus.
posted by empath at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


According to the bible, Jesus pretty much said that he was the truth and light and the whatever right? He's unequivaobly claiming that his way is the true path, correct? When you confront people about the falsehoods contained in the bible or the falsehoods contained in Joseph Smith's work, their response is that one must have faith. Or that God is testing you or some such nonsense.

I think that many of things you think are falsehoods stand up under scrutiny more than you might think. Clever people have been thinking about and debating Christianity for two millennium now.

That being said, no set of beliefs is total without points of doubt. Speaking as a pop-science backbencher, it is my understanding that there is some sort of contradiction between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity (or something). This doesn't mean that modern science is false, it just means those theories need more work.

Similarly, there have been plenty of times in the past where archeological evidence didn't seem to line up with various accounts in the Bible. For example, I understand that at one point there was no evidence of the existence of Hittites, and that this fact was used as another sign that the Bible must be myth. Then in the late 19th century several discoveries were made showing that there was indeed a group of people that could be reasonably identified as the Hittites spoken of in the Bible.

Just because there are apparent problems now doesn't mean they won't eventually be resolved. I conjecture that Mormons hopefully await the discovery of a huge catch of Nephite inscriptions in the none too distant future.
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


it just means those theories need more work

So is religion a theory that needs more work? I thought it was complete revealed truth. Or is this like Catholicism which just a few years "discovered" that limbo doesn't in fact exist and that in fact children that died before they were baptized don't spend all eternity there? "Oops, our bad"
posted by Chekhovian at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2011


Both Catholicism and Mormonism have heads of the organization who claim to continue to receive revelation from God, and as such their belief system is somewhat fluid and can change with new revelation. Vatican II, Blacks aren't the descendants of Cain, etc.
posted by hippybear at 11:59 AM on August 13, 2011


Besides new revelation, there is also new understanding of what we already have. Some of the parables of Christ have profundities that aren't apparent unless you have an understanding of their cultural context. I've had plenty of experiences where I have understood the Bible in a certain way only to have my understanding totally turned on its head by a different exegesis of the passage. "Paul Among the People" is a perfect example of a book by a classicist whose insights into Greek culture add new dimensions of meaning to what Paul wrote.
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:09 PM on August 13, 2011


Similarly, there have been plenty of times in the past where archeological evidence didn't seem to line up with various accounts in the Bible. For example, I understand that at one point there was no evidence of the existence of Hittites, and that this fact was used as another sign that the Bible must be myth.

That cuts both ways. Until the Rosetta stone, we had no way of looking at the Egyptian records to verify the Exodus story, and as of yet, they've found no evidence that the Jews were ever in Egypt as slaves.

I have no doubt that the broad outlines of the bible (and other ancient historical sources) reflected the reality of the people at the time it was written. We're not talking about Lord of the Rings here. It's the specifics I have issue with, and when it comes to religious belief, it's the specifics that matter.

Taking the Gospels 100% literally, how many people would have heard Jesus claim he was the son of god? A few dozen at most, right? He specifically refused to claim it under interrogation by Pilate. How many people would have heard him preach? A few thousand? How many would have seen him executed? There was nothing particularly notable about his execution or his teaching. The near east was swarming with miracle workers, and Jesus's mode of teaching was essentially derived from Greek Cynicism. The romans were executing Jewish rebels left and right. There's nothing particularly notable about the Christ story where locals would have said -- no way, it couldn't have happened that way.

The only way you can verify the truth or falsehood of an account is by cross referencing it with other accounts, ideally with accounts that don't have an agenda or an obvious point of view to push. In a world where the vast majority of people couldn't read and depended on word of mouth, how were they to verify what they were told? All they had were the (still conflicting!) accounts of people who said they were there, people who were pushing an agenda. The vast majority of people who were alive to witness the events did not convert. So obviously, most people who were there didn't believe the story even immediately after it happened. Christianity grew much faster outside of Israel than within it. Why do you think that is?
posted by empath at 12:17 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's the difference between Joseph Smith claiming to be visited by the Angel Moroni and Paul claiming to have been visited by the risen Christ?

That's quite beside the point I'm trying to make, which could be stated this way:

If tomorrow some form of irrefutable proof came to light, showing beyond a doubt that Jesus actually lived, that wouldn't affect the underlying situation much for either believers or unbelievers. Believers would have one of their beliefs confirmed, while unbelievers could go along believing Jesus was a real person who started a religious movement, but nothing more.

If tomorrow, some form of irrefutable proof of the events of the Book of Mormon came to light, you'd pretty much have to accept that Joseph Smith had real supernatural powers of some sort.*

The point I'm making is not about reality or "truth" of one or the other, but simply that the two things (reality of Jesus as a living person vs. reality of the Book of Mormon) are in wildly different categories.

And not to derail the derail, but a long and detailed discussion about the one isn't really shedding a bit of light on the other.

*And this, by the way, explains much of the importance of the Book of Mormon to the LDS Church, and of the staying power of the church over the long term. Because converts do accept the literal truth of the Book of Mormon and once you do that, you really are in a different place than the rest of us--and one that is much more accepting of all the rest of the truth claims of the LDS Church. Whereas with Christianity, simply accepting that Jesus was a real man who really lived doesn't really get you much of anywhere.
posted by flug at 12:18 PM on August 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I stay in the church to support my wife and my family, but I also stay in because I hope I can be a small influence for good to help others see the truth and make a change.


You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Like (I think) most people who were young and single when they lost their faith, I was just outa there.

It has been easy for the church to isolate and delegitimize dissenters. Thanks to the internet, it will be harder to do that now. But, for real change to occur, it still requires individual people to speak up in their own wards and face the (probable) disapproval of their peers.

The belief that you have to believe all or nothing, and you are either with us or against us, has been the glue that has held the church together. Is it possible to keep a committed whole without that glue?
posted by Euphorbia at 12:19 PM on August 13, 2011


Because converts do accept the literal truth of the Book of Mormon

I think you know different Mormons than I do.
posted by empath at 12:20 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


The vast majority of people who were alive to witness the events did not convert. So obviously, most people who were there didn't believe the story even immediately after it happened. Christianity grew much faster outside of Israel than within it. Why do you think that is?

Jerusalem was immediately the center of Christianity and thousands converted. The reason it didn't continue to be the center of the Christian world was because of the destruction of the temple in 70 AD and everyone who was "on the scene" being spread throughout the Roman world in the aftermath.
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:28 PM on August 13, 2011


If tomorrow some form of irrefutable proof came to light, showing beyond a doubt that Jesus actually lived, that wouldn't affect the underlying situation much for either believers or unbelievers. Believers would have one of their beliefs confirmed, while unbelievers could go along believing Jesus was a real person who started a religious movement, but nothing more.

If the specific story isn't true, than the setting doesn't matter. If the events of the Gospel did not happen, it doesn't matter if the setting was in Jerusalem or Mars, and the same goes for the Book of Mormon.

The Mormons are as likely to find evidence for Jews in America as Christians are to find evidence that Jesus turned water into wine and rose from the dead. That is, not at all. It's like arguing that Santa Claus is more realistic than the easter bunny because bunnies can't carry baskets.
posted by empath at 12:28 PM on August 13, 2011


Jerusalem was immediately the center of Christianity and thousands converted.

About 2-3,000 in a city of 50-100,000 people, depending on whose numbers you look at.
posted by empath at 12:31 PM on August 13, 2011


The Mormons are as likely to find evidence for Jews in America as Christians are to find evidence that Jesus turned water into wine and rose from the dead. That is, not at all. It's like arguing that Santa Claus is more realistic than the easter bunny because bunnies can't carry baskets.

That's true. But of course Jesus doing his vintner thing isn't falsifiable the way the existence of an entire mythical civilisation is.
posted by atrazine at 12:32 PM on August 13, 2011


Obviously haven't looked in the right place yet and/or it's allegorical.
posted by empath at 12:34 PM on August 13, 2011


The Mormons are as likely to find evidence for Jews in America as Christians are to find evidence that Jesus turned water into wine and rose from the dead.

Well, that's simply not true. I mean, it's true, but the CLAIMS of the Book Of Mormon are such that there should be archeological evidence of the events it describes. It talks about developed civilizations and metallurgy and such. It's not describing the events in the life of a single person, it's describing entire tribal migrations. The chances of finding evidence of a single person's life is tiny in the archeological record. But The Book Of Mormon is about much bigger things, and its claims should leave exactly the same amount of evidence of its truth as in your earlier example of Tyre's causeway being evidence of Alexander The Great's life.

Don't conflate the story of a singular messiah figure and his deity with what is the subject of this FPP. I suspect you haven't listened to any of the 9 hours which are linked here, but maybe you should.
posted by hippybear at 12:36 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]



About 2-3,000 in a city of 50-100,000 people, depending on whose numbers you look at.


3,000 in the first few days/months following the crucifixion. Also, I was wrong about the community being scattered in 70 AD. It was first scattered shortly after thousands had converted in the first persecution, according to Acts. Pretty impressive growth in my book.
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:37 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I suspect you haven't listened to any of the 9 hours which are linked here, but maybe you should.

I listened to the whole thing, and as I said, it doesn't matter in terms of whether the religion is right or wrong. There's always ways around inconvenient historical facts, and the Mormons will figure it out. There's too much at stake for them not to. I'm not an apologist for Mormons, I just don't see Christianity in terms of their truth claims about what matters to their religion being any better.
posted by empath at 12:41 PM on August 13, 2011


3,000 in the first few days/months following the crucifixion.

Is that how many he was supposed to have while he was alive? That doesn't sound like growth at all.
posted by empath at 12:42 PM on August 13, 2011


Also, I don't even have a clue how to look this up, but how many Zorastrians were there in Jerusalem? How many that worshipped Osiris? There were a LOT of religions in the near east at the turn of the Millenium, and a lot of them were very faddish.
posted by empath at 12:44 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is that how many he was supposed to have while he was alive? That doesn't sound like growth at all.

I think he had exactly 0 after he died.
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:46 PM on August 13, 2011


The thing that always struck me about the Joseph Smith story was that the plates and the stones seem sort of like the way a person in the nineteenth century might describe twenty-first century technology like iPads and SD cards and whatnot.

Which is to say, time travellers!
posted by Sys Rq at 12:51 PM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


3,000 in the first few days/months following the crucifixion.

There is zero evidence for this outside the Acts of the Apostles. Zero.
posted by Pararrayos at 12:53 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


3,000 in the first few days/months following the crucifixion...Pretty impressive growth in my book

This is supposed to be strong evidence for the existence of magic? Please.

You know what a miracle would have been? Had Jesus said that there is a 50 digit sequence in Pi starting 100,000,000 million digits in and it is this: "...". Like in Contact. Smith could have done the same damn thing if there were any truth to his claim at all.

Do you understand how ridiculous your position sounds to a rational person? "I believe in magic because thousands of years some events happened that were very similar to other events going on the same time, but people liked this set of events slightly more than the other ones."
posted by Chekhovian at 12:54 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


"I believe in magic because thousands of years some events happened that were very similar to other events going on the same time, but people liked this set of events slightly more than the other ones."

And even though I can look at other purported books of magic and see that they are pure fantasy, and even though I can see that believers in those other books will hang on the flimsiest shreds of evidence to support their beliefs, the book of magic that I believe in is completely different.

It's to laugh.
posted by Pararrayos at 1:02 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Do you understand how ridiculous your position sounds to a rational person?

I kind of think the position that one's truth claims are contingent on one's ability to recite digits of pi might be less rationale. ; )
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:04 PM on August 13, 2011


The point isn't about the digits of Pi specifically. It is just a convenient example of TRUTH that Jesus could had uttered, had of course, he actually been divine. And that truth would have been totally unobtainable at the time. But quantitatively verifiable later. Instead you rely on accounts passed down for thousands of years by people whose own wordly interests would have been best served by the continued existence of those stories.

This was what I asked earlier, if you believe that JC or JS was in fact divine or divinely motivated or whatever, why didn't either one of them do anything that was completely verifiably true. JS's mistake was in making some claims that could possibly be verified, hence this thread.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:14 PM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is supposed to be strong evidence for the existence of magic? Please.

Also, to be clear, that one sentence in Acts is not what the argument hangs on. The argument is based on lots of pieces of evidence (like the corroboration of political and geographical details, documentary evidence etc in addition to the rapid growth of Christianity following the death of its founder) that point to the conclusion that the New Testament is reliable where it can be verified.

Repeatedly saying "that's just like magic" or "that is absurd on its face" is not argumentation. You have to provide evidence beyond your feeling that it doesn't sound true. Plenty of things that sound improbable turn out to be true.
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:18 PM on August 13, 2011


You're dancing around the point. Plenty of things that sound improbable turn out to be true. Sure and if any of these figures had any real divinity they could have chosen to sound perfectly probable even to our modern sensibilities. What I asked you was why any of them that you believe in did not choose to do that.

Instead they chose to make their story one that any rational person not indoctrinated into the faith as a child would disbelieve. Why does that make sense to you?
posted by Chekhovian at 1:22 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Instead you rely on accounts passed down for thousands of years by people whose own worldly interests lives would have been best served ended by the continued existence of those stories.

Fixed that for you. I don't think that Paul or any of the apostles who were murdered for their preaching were well served by the story of Christ
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:23 PM on August 13, 2011


But the with the Book of Mormon it is quite different. Joseph Smith was writing about peoples and a civilizations hundreds and thousands of years before his time, and about which he had know ordinary way to know anything. Joseph Smith's claim was that he learned it all through supernatural means--from angels, a divine power of translation, and from God.

What's different about that and, oh, say the claim that every terrestrial animal on earth is descended from one pair of such sequestered in a giant ship for 40 days while the Earth was completely covered in water?

For example, I understand that at one point there was no evidence of the existence of Hittites, and that this fact was used as another sign that the Bible must be myth. Then in the late 19th century several discoveries were made showing that there was indeed a group of people that could be reasonably identified as the Hittites spoken of in the Bible.

See: Troy. Does this mean I should start worshipping Homeric gods?
posted by rodgerd at 1:24 PM on August 13, 2011


Fixed that for you. I don't think that Paul or any of the apostles who were murdered for their preaching were well served by the story of Christ

I don't think any of the pagans murdered by Christians post-Constantine were well-served, either. Clearly I should worship Mithras.
posted by rodgerd at 1:25 PM on August 13, 2011


Instead they chose to make their story one that any rational person not indoctrinated into the faith as a child would disbelieve. Why does that make sense to you?

We simply disagree here. I think there is plenty of reason to believe without resorting to plot devices from the movie Contact.
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:25 PM on August 13, 2011


Does this mean I should start worshipping Homeric gods?

That would be awesome. Based on the animal sacrifice scenes in HBO's "Rome" series, I fully support you taking this up as a belief system.
posted by hippybear at 1:27 PM on August 13, 2011


The book was better
posted by Chekhovian at 1:27 PM on August 13, 2011


See: Troy. Does this mean I should start worshipping Homeric gods?

No, but you should believe that Troy existed, and give credence to the idea that not everything written in the Iliad was false.
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


So are you going to answer the question or just keep deflecting?
posted by Chekhovian at 1:31 PM on August 13, 2011


The argument is based on lots of pieces of evidence (like the corroboration of political and geographical details, documentary evidence etc in addition to the rapid growth of Christianity following the death of its founder) that point to the conclusion that the New Testament is reliable where it can be verified.

Fallacy upon fallacy. If you saw such garbage from an adherent of any other religion but your own, you would recognize how pitiful such arguments are.

"My Holy Book says A and B. Scientists have verified A. Therefore B must be true as well."

"Lots of people believe my Holy Book. Therefore it must be true."
posted by Pararrayos at 1:31 PM on August 13, 2011


So are you going to answer the question or just keep deflecting?

There has been enough evidence provided for a rational person to believe. That was the point I was trying to make.
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:32 PM on August 13, 2011


There has been enough evidence provided for a rational person to believe.

Well, there's been enough evidence provided for a rational person to think that Jesus may have been a real person in history. But "believe", beyond that? I'm not sure that evidential support exists.
posted by hippybear at 1:34 PM on August 13, 2011


My Holy Book says A and B. Scientists have verified A. Therefore B must be true as well.

No, the argument is that scientists have verified the many parts of the book that can be verified. Therefore, we have greater reason to think that the parts haven't been verified should be taken seriously.
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:35 PM on August 13, 2011


Meant to say "some of the parts of the book that can be verified"
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:36 PM on August 13, 2011


You're still not answering the question.

Let me rephrase. If any of them ever sought to make belief in their religion a rational thing that was easily derivable from rationally evaluated data, why didn't they do a better job?
posted by Chekhovian at 1:37 PM on August 13, 2011


No, the argument is that scientists have verified the many parts of the book that can be verified. Therefore, we have greater reason to think that the parts haven't been verified should be taken seriously.

I believe that the sky is blue. This is easily verified by going outside and looking. I also believe that the moon is made of green cheese. But you'll just have to take my word for it -- have I led you wrong before?
posted by empath at 1:47 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Let me rephrase. If any of them ever sought to make belief in their religion a rational thing that was easily derivable from rationally evaluated data, why didn't they do a better job?

Two things.
First, I think a fine job was done. You disagree. I will never convince you. You will never convince me. I think that is clear.

Second, no matter what was done, if you don't want to believe you will not believe. If Jesus did list the digits of Pi you would say "He is a fine mathematician, but not God." just like people say "He was a fine moral teacher, but not God." If Christ appeared to you in a vision and said, "Chekhovian, behold and believe. Feel the nail prints in my hands and the wound in my side." you could always just assume that you had eaten corn with ergot fungus and hallucinated the whole thing. I can't think of any turn of events that people couldn't write off as false if they wanted to.
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:47 PM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Therefore, we have greater reason to think that the parts haven't been verified should be taken seriously.

I don't. To take an example, if I read about a psychic in New York City who can read people's thoughts, the extraneous details of the story -- the existence of the city of New York, the particular street this person lives on -- do not influence me at all. I begin from the premise that in every case in the history of the world, people who claim to be able to read minds have been proven to be frauds. Thus if I am to believe something so strange, I require more than a plausible setting for the story.

I am sure this is the position you would take with every other religion in the world. Except your own.
posted by Pararrayos at 1:49 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]



I am sure this is the position you would take with every other religion in the world. Except your own.


You must be psychic! ; )
posted by vorpal bunny at 1:52 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


"He is a fine mathematician, but not God."

There's being a fine mathematician and then throwing out "50 digit sequence in Pi starting 100,000,000 million digits in and it is this: "..."

A reasonable analogy would 128 bit cryptography. In principle anyone could know the key that unlocks your code. Its just some random string of digits. In practice you have to know the digits ahead of time or else spend the full age of universe trying random combinations.

No human mathematician could have spat out that sequence. I think that a divine figure could have. Maybe god is bad at math.

First, I think a fine job was done. You disagree.

Bravo, that's exactly the point. Why didn't he simply put out proof that could have never been contradicted. What spiritual profit do you see in making the truth of this particular faith uncertain to me and many others? Why would god want that? I don't think JC ever mentioned how it was good thing that it was hard to believe in him.
posted by Chekhovian at 1:56 PM on August 13, 2011


A psychic can read someone's thoughts. Faith is distinct from thought, as you have so amply proven.
posted by Pararrayos at 2:01 PM on August 13, 2011


Why didn't he simply put out proof that could have never been contradicted.

Because that is not possible. That was the argument behind point 2.
posted by vorpal bunny at 2:02 PM on August 13, 2011


Because that is not possible.
I thought anything was possible with god/jesus/superman?

Clever people have been thinking about and debating Christianity for two millennium now. So you got some set of rules passed down from them about what god could do? If he created me, wouldn't he have some sense of the level of proof I would require to believe in something? Personally I believe the sky is blue because I see it.

It saddens me to imagine how many Clever people have wasted their energies debating about angels dancing on the heads of needles, or if god can make something heavy enough that he can't lift it.
posted by Chekhovian at 2:12 PM on August 13, 2011


I thought anything was possible with god/jesus/superman?


Impossible things are, well, impossible.
posted by vorpal bunny at 2:20 PM on August 13, 2011


As I asked earlier:
"What spiritual profit do you see in making the truth of this particular faith uncertain to me and many others? Why would god want that? I don't think JC ever mentioned how it was good thing that it was hard to believe in him"

So did god choose to make me who I am and the way I am or did it just happen, and its not possible for god to make things seem even remotely plausible for me?
posted by Chekhovian at 2:25 PM on August 13, 2011


Impossible things are, well, impossible.

So God can't make a rock so heavy He can't lift it.

Age old questions, answered by the sages of MeFi.

So if a tree falls in the forest, can someone with their fingers in their ears really hear it?
posted by Pararrayos at 2:27 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


So if a tree falls in the forest, can someone with their fingers in their ears really hear it?

As Jon Stewart would say: "Boooooooom!"
posted by Chekhovian at 2:29 PM on August 13, 2011


So God can't make a rock so heavy He can't lift it.

In a word, yes that is correct, God cannot make a thing that cannot logically exist.

its not possible for god to make things seem even remotely plausible for me

Apparently, not without reconfiguring the universe in some less desirable way. Though I still hold hope that the shining brilliance of my arguments will soon convince you! ; )
posted by vorpal bunny at 2:34 PM on August 13, 2011


If the specific story isn't true, than the setting doesn't matter. If the events of the Gospel did not happen, it doesn't matter if the setting was in Jerusalem or Mars, and the same goes for the Book of Mormon.

Aha, we're getting to the actual point here.

If you could actually DISprove some of the main facts of the New Testament--for instance, if you could prove once and for all that Jesus never lived--this would provoke something of a crisis and some kind of adaptation within Christianity.

With the gospel and the life of Jesus, because of the nature and type of those events, that's just not going to happen.

How are you going to PROVE that Jesus never lived? How are you going to PROVE that the water wasn't turned into wine?

The best you're going to be able to do is throw some degree of doubt on them (unless you've got some previously unreleased video of the wedding at Cana that you're willing to share with us?).

However, with the traditionalist Mormon view of the Book of Mormon, over the past 30-40 years, we have really gotten there.

Proof--and pretty well undeniable proof. Even to believing Mormons, if they carefully study the issues and the evidence, it has become clear that the traditional view of the Book of Mormon is quite impossible. It just didn't happen that way.

If you're fascinated at all with the history of cultures and religions (rather than just grinding your own axe about your own personal experiences with religion, or going for the quick LOLXTIAN laugh, or whatever), this is exactly where things get really interesting.

A religious group has been teaching something as a central doctrine for many decades, over a century, and suddenly it has become clear that it is untrue.

Not just maybe untrue. Not just doubtful. But actually, provably, untrue--even to believers.

How do they deal with it?

As others have pointed out, above, they don't just disband, of course--they adapt.

But how?

I found this MeFi comment I made back in 2004 that sums up the situation with the LDS Church and the "Book of Mormon Problem" rather well.

To summarize that previous post:
  1. Some people stick with the traditional view
  2. Some re-interpret the sacred text and previous authoritative statements about it and create a radically new but still faithful, believing viewpoint (as typical with Mormonism, this view still asserts the literal truth of the Book of Mormon text, but finds new and creative ways to fit the literal reading within the bounds of what is known by science and archaeology)
  3. Others adopt the view that the Book of Mormon is "spiritually true" or like an extended parable--ie, that it conveys eternal truths through its stories, even though those stories didn't actually occur
Right now my impression is that the majority of LDS believers still hold the traditional viewpoint (#1), but the radically-new-but-faithful-reinterpretation (#2) is gaining ground fast.

The "spiritual" viewpoint is very distinctly in the minority, and expressing it publicly is likely to get you reprimanded or thrown out by LDS Church leaders.

Compared with 2004, when I wrote about this before, I would say that the "radical reinterpretation" viewpoint is gaining ground even more--it seems to have acceptance among opinion leaders and, crucially for the LDS Church--many in the Church's overall leadership.

However, if I talk with my own friends and family who are LDS, most still believe in and talk in terms of the traditional viewpoint (#1).

Many--probably most--are not even aware of the issues that would drive them towards #2 or #3. And probably would not care much even if they did know the issues. They read the Book of Mormon much like people read the Bible--as part of their daily religious study and for spiritual insight. As long as it works for them for that purpose, there is little reason to think about it much further.
posted by flug at 2:49 PM on August 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


The "spiritual" viewpoint is very distinctly in the minority, and expressing it publicly is likely to get you reprimanded or thrown out by LDS Church leaders.

Sorry, the link there should have been to this--a news story about a Mormon who wrote a book promoting position #3 (the Book of Mormon has spiritual truths and insights but is not literally true) and was excommunicated.
posted by flug at 3:01 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


A religious group has been teaching something as a central doctrine for many decades, over a century, and suddenly it has become clear that it is untrue.

That's been the situation with the entire Christian church since the Enlightenment.
posted by Pararrayos at 3:10 PM on August 13, 2011


A religious group has been teaching something as a central doctrine for many decades, over a century, and suddenly it has become clear that it is untrue.

You mean like the Genesis story that was used as the basis for original sin, which is the entire justification for Christ's redemption of man? And the flood?
posted by empath at 3:56 PM on August 13, 2011


To me what matters is that there's no reason to believe the authors of the bible did not believe that they were writing about true events or telling meaningful stories about true events. We know for a stone cold fact the L. Ron was not deluded and imaging himself inspired because he first tried to Peddle his caca as a branch of psychiatric medicine.

I am unable to find a way the Mormon narrative is something Joseph Smith understood as anything other than a pile of self-serving hooey.

To relate, when someone who is happily coupled says, "the moment I met my partner, I knew we would spend our lives together," then I think that's sweet even though I still have email from the start of several other, failed relationships where the friend says "crime the moment I met, I knew we would spend the rest of our lives together!"

When someone is dumped and talks smack about how they were never really that into it and part of the reason is because the dumping ex has bad credit and kicks puppies and whatever bs the image will make them look like the innocent victim, that just low and nasty and bad for everyone involved
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:02 PM on August 13, 2011


To me what matters is that there's no reason to believe the authors of the bible did not believe that they were writing about true events or telling meaningful stories about true events.

There's no reason to believe that they thought they were telling the truth, either. And it's not really relevant, either way. Either what they wrote down was true or it wasn't.
posted by empath at 4:22 PM on August 13, 2011


The man lesson of this thread is that while people can see very clearly the gaping holes in other faiths, they are often blind to the limitations of their own.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, said it best:

"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
posted by Pararrayos at 4:46 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Though I still hold hope that the shining brilliance of my arguments will soon convince you! ; )

Dude...you're going to need bigger bullets for that,...way bigger bullets. One way to improve would be to actually start answering the questions I've asked, rather than dancing around them, even if they make you comfortable.

New Round:
Given your strong insistence that belief in your christian god is the obvious rational thing to do, do you feel that you would have wound with the same beliefs you are now if you had been raised as a Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist?

As a corollary:
Are those people that have never been exposed to your truth simply through circumstance of birth going to burn eternally in hell?

***Page break***
Tacking back to the actual topic, I will give Mormonism some credit for its relatively relaxed afterlife policy. My understanding of it is that only lapsed Mormons get sent to hell (sorry lapsed Mormons reading), the rest of us schumcks just spend eternity in a "world without god", which I always imagined as Tacoma, Washington.

On that issue they are somewhat progessive.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:47 PM on August 13, 2011


Hey, now. Tacoma has some pretty good restaurants, and an excellent concert/sports venue (the largest wooden dome in the US, or something), not to mention light rail that is somewhat useful.

Or did you mean to say that a world without god would actually be a halfway decent place to be?
posted by hippybear at 4:51 PM on August 13, 2011


There's no reason to believe that they thought they were telling the truth, either. And it's not really relevant, either way. Either what they wrote down was true or it wasn't.

I've rewritten this comment roughly a dozen times and I think I finally know how to articulate the distinction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon or Scientology: the former is meant to be at the very least a quasi-historical account of events and the latter two are revelations. We're not asked to believe that God showed up and told John to write a gospel containing this story no one else had heard.* Mark dates from within a generation of Jesus. It strikes me as totally possible Mark wrote down a story someone told him. But we're asked to believe Joseph Smith had a vision telling him where to dig up some gold plates in a language he couldn't read and then God told him how to translate them. Did L Ron Hubbard even have an explanation? Or was it, 'You buy into my dianetics self-help business, so you might as well buy into this stuff about aliens?'

*At worst, you'll get Christians arguing that god told them precisely what to write (and then told every translator how to translate, I guess). But that's not quite revelation.
posted by hoyland at 4:52 PM on August 13, 2011


Proving a negative is a fruitless, un-ending endeavor.

Prove he existed; if you cannot, then resign yourself to the fact that this isn't about proof, it's about reassuring one's self.
posted by Dark Messiah at 5:48 PM on August 13, 2011


Specifically, prove he existed as written about. Otherwise you're just talking about someone who may have shared a name.
posted by Dark Messiah at 5:49 PM on August 13, 2011


Chekhovian:

And to potentially expand your mind again re: Mormonism's afterlife, it's not just any "lapsed Mormon" that is "sent to hell." Rather, it's only those who rejected God after receiving a fulness of the Gospel...now, there isn't much clarity on what this might entail, but what I've always been led to believe is that someone practically has to have seen the face/finger/insert-body-part of God and then rejected him to be eligible.

Needless to say, Outer Darkness is presumably sparsely populated.

With respect to both Chekhovian and hippybear,

The "world without god" is generally viewed to be quite a decent place. At WORST it's rumored to be similar to our world (...possibly without genitals, though), but at BEST, it is rumored (more likely misquoted/misunderstood) to be so good that if you could see it, you would kill yourself to get there. So either way, it seems like a pretty good deal.

...but even though this picture seems rosy (at least, rosier compared to other views of the afterlife), I think sometimes the internal logic leads to some monstrous (folk?) doctrines. As you doubtlessly already know, being gay is unfortunate in Mormonism (to say the least)...but that's OK, because Mormonism's afterlife solves this! In the afterlife, righteous and abstinent gays and lesbians will be transformed straight to find their eternal opposite-sexed companions.

not comforted? Me neither.
posted by subversiveasset at 5:50 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


We're not asked to believe that God showed up and told John to write a gospel containing this story no one else had heard.*

I guess it depends on how you define inspiration, but according to catholic doctrine every word in the bible was inspired by god and impossible to err.
posted by empath at 5:57 PM on August 13, 2011


You mean like the Genesis story that was used as the basis for original sin, which is the entire justification for Christ's redemption of man? And the flood?

A better example of what is going on here is, say, Catholic acceptance of evolution. The history suggested by evolution utterly contradicts Genesis. Catholicism fought it for a time, but now, with a few exceptions here and there, more or less accept the history suggested by evolution - I'm hedging because it's a very nuanced position, but you could broadly classify them as the most lightweight of intelligent design theorists (evolution is God's tool and he intervened on special occasions).

The LDS Church is currently at the (equivalent for them) "no such thing as evolution stage" - direct denial of an overwhelming weight of historical and scientific evidence that their account of things is 100% wrong.

However, unlike Catholics and evolution, I think they will have a lot harder time changing their doctrine. Catholics could, albeit with some bloodshed and dissensions, write off Genesis as metaphor handed down from generation unto generation with the origins lost in the mists of time. How does Mormonism explain a drastic change to the very detailed, very comprehensive accounts that were supposedly translated 250 years ago with the direct assistance of God?
posted by kithrater at 5:58 PM on August 13, 2011


Don't know. They'll do it, though, because Mormonism works for people, on a purely practical level, and they won't let a silly thing like 'truth' get in the way.
posted by empath at 6:00 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


according to catholic doctrine every word in the bible was inspired by god and impossible to err

Yes, but it's more complicated than that. While every word may be inspired by God, the official Catholic position is that some of those words, and in fact probably the whole of the old Testament, is inspired allegory. There's a thousand years of ass-covering, dodges, hedges, and trying to hold some clearly absurd beliefs in most mainstream Christian churches.

I actually agree with what I interpret to be your main point: why does it really matter if there was a Jesus, or there was a Nephite? If the story of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon are meant to be morality tales from which we draw spiritual insight and ethical behaviour, then why does it matter whether it's about a real historical figure or the jungle dinosaurs of Venus?

Unfortunately, people seem to put such a great deal of importance on authenticity: just look at the reaction whenever some semi-popular blogger is exposed to be a "fraud". People seem to be convinced that the worth of someone's story or lesson or teaching is directly tied to the worth of the person, rather than evaluating the story on its own merits. Looking at it from that perspective, then certainly, the New Testament and the Book of Mormon are on equal footing.

But that's not the perspective that the LDS Church will accept from its members: you accept it all as the literal truth, or you get excommunicated. A while a reasonably inquisitive person could accept there being a man named Jesus who lived in 30 AD and was crucified, the merest glimpse of a non-LDS-Church history will disprove almost everything in the Book of Mormon.
posted by kithrater at 6:15 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know I kept saying this in different ways, but the idea that there was a man named Jesus who was crucified is kind of unimportant to the religion. There were lots of Jews that the Romans executed. There were probably a couple named Jesus. Even if they found an entry in Pilate's diary saying "Crucified Jesus today." It wouldn't mean an iota about the story that's actually told in the Gospel -- that Jesus was born of a virgin, fought with the devil in the desert, raised the dead, healed the sick, fed the multitudes, died, went into hell and was resurrected in three days. All of that outside of a Christian context is as absurd as the mythological stories told about Alexander, which most christians rightfully would reject out of hand, for example, that Alexander was the son of Zeus. Even if there was a teacher named Jesus who said some good things about how people should treat each other wouldn't be enough for most Christian. They need Christ to be the Son of God who died for our sins, because Christianity is not about a couple of parables that most Christians ignore anyway, it's about original sin, salvation and the afterlife.

Everything that happens in the story told in the Gospels that is actually important to Christians is quite impossible to anybody moderately versed in modern science, as impossible as the story told of the Book of Mormon, but for different reasons.
posted by empath at 6:28 PM on August 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I finally know how to articulate the distinction between the New Testament and the Book of Mormon or Scientology: the former is meant to be at the very least a quasi-historical account of events and the latter two are revelations.

The New Testament is made up of 4 types of literature: gospels, Acts (written in the style of an ancient history), letters, and an apocalypse (the book of Revelation).

What the genre of a gospel is remains a matter of debate. Many scholars see them as being in the form of bioi (ancient biographies). Others see them as resembling the Homeric epic or Greek tragedy. Still others maintain that 'gospel' is a kind of theological narrative, unique to the early Christian church. All these are possible perspectives of the biblical scholar who is trying to discover the genre in order to provide the best reading of the text.

From the perspective of the faithful believer, however, the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) are revelation about God.

So I would suggest that from the perspective of the believer, both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon constitute 'revelation.'

We're not asked to believe that God showed up and told John to write a gospel containing this story no one else had heard.

In fact, that is what the term 'verbal plenary inspiration' means to some (not all) Christian believers. And John's narrative is very different from the narrative in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Mark dates from within a generation of Jesus. It strikes me as totally possible Mark wrote down a story someone told him.

Mark is usually dated to 65 - 70. But dating any of the New Testament writings is a guess, and in Mark's case, is based on possible internal references to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70. The dates of Jesus' lifetime? Maybe 4 BCE to mid-thirties CE. The only sources we have to extrapolate possible dates are the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written *after* Mark. Do you begin to see the problem that biblical scholars have when trying to date the gospels? And all four of the canonical gospels are anonymous. "Mark" is a later attribution by the early Church fathers. There's nothing in the gospel texts themselves to indicate who wrote them.

But we're asked to believe Joseph Smith had a vision telling him where to dig up some gold plates in a language he couldn't read and then God told him how to translate them.

"Let's go back to biblical times--1823." (Elder Price line from The Book of Mormon musical). That the Book of Mormon would. . . come into being . . . at this particular time makes a lot of sense if you think about the kinds of questions that were important to people in upstate New York at the time. This was a time of periodic Christian religious revival, and questioning about competing theologies; a place in which there were mysterious Indian burial mounds; and, in the air, a popular theory that the Indians were the lost tribes of Israel (because where else could those people have come from?) Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews was published in 1823, in Poultney, VT, the same town that Oliver Cowdery was from. A number of LDS historians including Fawn Brodie, B.H. Roberts, and Grant Palmer have postulated a link between the content of the Book of Mormon and View of the Hebrews.

The historical, analytical tools used for analysis of either the New Testament or the Book of Mormon are pretty similar. But to return to one of the key points that Doleful Creature made much earlier in this thread: all this analysis, all this historical work means exactly nada to believers whose religious experience is separate and independent of it.
posted by apartment dweller at 6:58 PM on August 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


And John's narrative is very different from the narrative in Mark, Matthew, and Luke

Remarkably so. Here is how it begins:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
That's not exactly an eyewitness testimony. It's either pure invention or divine inspiration.
posted by empath at 7:03 PM on August 13, 2011


God cannot make a thing that cannot logically exist.

So he didn't create the universe, then?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:16 PM on August 13, 2011


There's been some cosmological work* lately that basically redefines how we account for the total energy balance of the universe. Done this way you can create a universe with net energy zero, which means that universe could have been created by a quantum fluctuation amid nothingness. This would be a larger version of the sort of particle antiparticle pair creation we see in the vacuum.

Wild huh? And so much more fruitful than thousands of years of clever thinkers BSing about religion

*I can dredge up the video if people like
posted by Chekhovian at 11:41 PM on August 13, 2011


I had been thinking of a talk given by larry krauss, but it turns out a show on Discovery with Stephen Hawking goes in the same area.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:04 PM on August 14, 2011


I'm glad someone is taking on a serious inquiry into the historical claims of the Book of Mormon, but if I wanted to find reasons for doubt I believe textual analysis disrobes the emperor most effectively. It has been a while since I read up on it, but Smith appears to copy whole cloth from the King James Bible in parts. The most telling are where unusual scribal/print errors in the edition he held make their way into the BoM.
posted by dgran at 6:47 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


MUST MAKE MORMONISM FIT WITH EVIDENCE SO INVENT MACHINE TO COMPRESS EVIDENCE INTO MORMON BOX. THERE, ALL DONE.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:38 AM on August 15, 2011


MUST MAKE MORMONISM FIT WITH EVIDENCE SO INVENT MACHINE TO COMPRESS EVIDENCE INTO MORMON BOX. THERE, ALL DONE.

You didn't even click on the link, did you? Talk about completely missing the entire point of the podcast, this post and all the comments.

Why bother?
posted by Ideefixe at 5:16 PM on August 15, 2011


I'm glad someone is taking on a serious inquiry into the historical claims of the Book of Mormon, but if I wanted to find reasons for doubt I believe textual analysis disrobes the emperor most effectively. It has been a while since I read up on it, but Smith appears to copy whole cloth from the King James Bible in parts. The most telling are where unusual scribal/print errors in the edition he held make their way into the BoM.

Yeah, I agree that's pretty damning stuff, but most folks in the church will just chalk it up to coincidence.* Besides, as David O. Mckay once said "all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole." In other words it doesn't really matter if it looks copied, that's a feature, not a bug!
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:52 PM on August 16, 2011


*When you believe in continuing revelation you can never be wrong as long as you don't add any specifics to what you're saying (like pesky calendar dates). But heck even when you're wrong just go throw an exception: oh yeah well that time he was just speaking his opinion and wasn't speaking as the prophet.
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:54 PM on August 16, 2011


*but NOT nearly as many as the evangelicos.
posted by oneironaut at 7:56 AM on August 22, 2011


Besides, as David O. Mckay once said "all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole." In other words it doesn't really matter if it looks copied, that's a feature, not a bug!

That's an incredibly bizarre interpretation of that statement and not at all the way I've ever heard it to be understood or interpreted in my life in the Mormon church.

Yeah, I agree that's pretty damning stuff, but most folks in the church will just chalk it up to coincidence.*

I don't know that I've ever heard anyone in the church chalk it up to coincidence. I've heard a lot of other speculative explanations, though.

*When you believe in continuing revelation you can never be wrong as long as you don't add any specifics to what you're saying (like pesky calendar dates). But heck even when you're wrong just go throw an exception: oh yeah well that time he was just speaking his opinion and wasn't speaking as the prophet.

I think there's a huge problem that arises in most discussions about Mormonism's claim to continuing revelation (including discussions among members of the church) where many (perhaps most) people seem to operate on the assumption that "revelation," "prophecy," and similar concepts carry with them the necessary condition and element of infallibility. As far as I've been able to tell in my lifetime, any theological (or any other, for that matter) belief system that relies on something or someone being infallible will eventually come crashing down around the believer.

But that's not the perspective that the LDS Church will accept from its members: you accept it all as the literal truth, or you get excommunicated.

That's just not true at all.
posted by The World Famous at 10:48 AM on August 22, 2011


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