When Bullseyes Aren’t

August 26, 2013

Last week, I ran across an intriguing statement from a 1994 Ensign article about the Book of Abraham:

A number of ancient texts support Joseph Smith’s account, depicted in facsimile 3 from the book of Abraham, that the patriarch taught astronomy in Egypt.

Intrigued, I consulted my oracles (Google), which led me to an article from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies at BYU (hereafter “MI”):

And I Saw the Stars — The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy

The authors–Daniel C. Peterson, John Gee, and William J. Hamblin–make the following statement in support of Abraham as ancient astronomer:

Abraham’s traditional reputation as an ancient astronomer has been previously analyzed.[Here they refer to Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt.] One of the most interesting texts in this regard is by Pseudo-Eupolemus, as quoted by Eusebius in the fourth century A.D., which states that “While living with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis, Abraham taught them many things, including astronomy, and other related things. . . . Abraham, having been trained in the science of astronomy, first went to Phoenicia, to teach the Phoenicians astronomy, then went into Egypt.”

If accurate, this is remarkable evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham, as Joseph Smith could not possibly have had access to a fourth-century Roman historian citing an earlier Jewish historian. The implication is clear: this is a major “bullseye” for Joseph Smith, for how could he have guessed that Abraham had a reputation in the ancient world as a great astronomer? Surely, this ranks up there with the discover of NHM/Nihm in favor of the Book of Mormon.

I admit that I was duly impressed when I first read this assertion, so I looked up the primary source. One minor quibble is that Eusebius isn’t quoting pseudo-Eupolemus but Alexander Polyhistor, a Greek scholar from the first century BC. Alexander is summarizing pseudo-Eupolemus, not directing quoting him. Also, it appears that the authors are combining this summary with Alexander’s subsequent summary of Artabanus, a Persian historian from the fifth century BC. Either way, however, the passage does essentially say what the MI article says it does (single quotes denote a direct quote from Alexander Polyhistor):

CHAPTER XVII

AND with this agrees also Alexander Polyhistor, a man of great intellect and much learning, and very well known to those Greeks who have gathered the fruits of education in no perfunctory manner: for in his compilation, Concerning the Jews, he records the history of this man Abraham in the following manner word for word:

[ALEXANDER POLYHISTOR] 21 ‘Eupolemus in his book Concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history.

‘But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth. And in the tenth generation, he says, in Camarina a city of Babylonia, which some call the city Uria (and which is by interpretation the city of the Chaldees), + in the thirteenth generation + Abraham was born, who surpassed all men in nobility and wisdom, who was also the inventor of astronomy and the Chaldaic art, and pleased God well by his zeal towards religion.

‘By reason of God’s commands this man came and dwelt in Phoenicia, and pleased their king by teaching the Phoenicians the changes of the sun and moon and all things of that kind. And afterwards the Armenians invaded the Phoenicians; and when they had been victorious, and had taken his nephew prisoner, Abraham came to the rescue with his servants, and prevailed over the captors, and made prisoners of the wives and children of the enemy.

‘And when there came to him ambassadors asking that he would ransom them for money, he did not choose to trample upon the unfortunate, but on receiving food for his young men restored the booty; he was also admitted as a guest into the temple of the city called Argarizin, which being interpreted is “Mount of the Most High,” and received gifts from Melchizedek, who was the king, and the priest of God.

‘But when there came a famine Abraham removed into Egypt with all his household, and dwelt there, and the king of Egypt took his wife in marriage, Abraham having said that she was his sister.

‘He also related fully that the king was unable to consort with her, and that it came to pass that his people and his household were perishing. And when he had called for the soothsayers, they said that the woman was not a widow; and thus the king of Egypt learned that she was Abraham’s wife, and gave her back to her husband.

‘And Abraham dwelt with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis and taught them many things; and it was he who introduced astronomy and the other sciences to them, saying that the Babylonians and himself had found these things out, but tracing back the first discovery to Enoch, and saying that he, and not the Egyptians, had first invented astrology.

‘For the Babylonians say that the first man was Belus, who is Kronos; and that of him was born a son Belus, and Chanaan; and that this Chanaan begat the father of the Phoenicians, and that his son was Churn, who is called by the Greeks Asbolus, and is father of the Aethiopians, and a brother of Mestraim the father of the Egyptians. But the Greeks say that Atlas invented astrology, and that Atlas is the same as Enoch: and that Enoch had a son Methuselah, who learned all things through angels of God, and thus we gained our knowledge.’

CHAPTER XVIII

‘ARTABANUS in his Jewish History says that the Jews were called Ermiuth, which when interpreted after the Greek language means Judaeans, and that they were called Hebrews from Abraham. And he, they say, came with all his household into Egypt, to Pharethothes the king of the Egyptians, and taught him astrology; and after remaining there twenty years, removed back again into the regions of Syria: but that many of those who had come with him remained in Egypt because of the prosperity of the country.

‘In certain anonymous works, however, we found that Abraham traced Lack his origin to the giants, and that they dwelling in Babylonia were destroyed by the gods for their impiety; but that one of them, named Belus, escaped death and settled in Babylon, and lived in a tower which he had built, and which was called Belus from the Belus who built it: and that Abraham having been instructed in the science of astrology came first into Phoenicia, and taught astrology to the Phoenicians, and afterwards passed on into Egypt.’

I’ve quoted the entire passage, lest anyone think I’m playing fast and loose with the source material. I note that both pseudo-Eupolemus and Artabanus have Abraham using his knowledge of astronomy to invent astrology, which is, of course, soothsaying through gazing at the stars. So, although this passage doesn’t completely square with the Book of Abraham’s account of Abraham’s astronomy, it is a very close match. As I said, I was quite impressed, at first, as this passage seemed to indicate that Joseph Smith not only got something right in the text of the Book of Abraham but provided esoteric insights unknown in the nineteenth century. To borrow from Dr. Peterson, the implication is clear: “How could Joseph know all of this?”

But then I noticed the passage in Eusebius immediately preceding his quote from Alexander. Again, single quotes mark Eusebius’s direct quotations from earlier sources:

CHAPTER XVI

AGAIN, as Moses has set forth at large the history of Abraham the forefather of the Hebrews, Josephus says that the foreign historians also bear witness to him, writing as follows:

[JOSEPHUS] 19 ‘Berossus mentions our father Abraham, not by name, but in these terms: “In the tenth generation after the flood there was among the Chaldeans a righteous and great man, experienced also in heavenly things.”

‘But Hecataeus has done something more than mentioning him; for he left behind him a book which he had composed concerning him.

‘And Nicolaus Damascenus, in the fourth book of his Histories, speaks thus:20 “Abraham was king of Damascus, having come as a stranger with an army from the land which lies beyond Babylon, called Chaldaea. But after no long time he removed from this country also, and migrated with his own people into what was then called Canaan, but now Judaea, and so did afterwards the multitude of his descendants, concerning whom I shall relate in another discourse what is recorded in history. Even now the name of Abraham is glorified in the district of Damascus, and a village is pointed out which is called from him the Habitation of Abraham.”

‘When in later times a famine had fallen upon the land of Canaan, Abraham having been informed that the Egyptians were in prosperity was eager to cross over to them, both to partake of their abundance, and to be a hearer of their priests, to learn what they said about the gods; intending either to follow them, if they were found superior, or to bring them over to the better belief, if his own opinions were preferable.’

Then next he adds:

‘And he associated with the most learned of the Egyptians, and the result was that his virtue and his consequent reputation became more illustrious from this cause.

‘For whereas the Egyptians delight in different customs, and disparage one another’s usages, and are for this reason ill-disposed towards each other, he by conferring with them severally, and discussing the arguments which they used in defence of their own practices, proved them to be empty and devoid of all truth.

‘Being therefore admired by them in their conferences as a very wise man, and strong not only in intelligence but also in persuasive speech on whatever subjects he undertook to teach, he freely imparts to them the science of arithmetic, and also communicates to them the facts of astronomy. For before Abraham’s arrival the Egyptians were ignorant of these subjects; for they passed from the Chaldees into Egypt, and thence came also to the Greeks.’

So writes Josephus.

If I didn’t know any better, I would think that this passage from Josephus is further confirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. But it isn’t.

The difference between Eusebius and Josephus is simple: Josephus was widely read in Joseph Smith’s day, and Eusebius was unknown to all but a few Latin scholars. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews had first been translated into English in 1544, and in 1732 William Whiston’s retranslation became immensely popular in the English-speaking world. Many families had Josephus alongside their Bible as standard religious reading. Indeed, the Palmyra, New York, public library had a copy of Antiquities available before 1820, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1823) and Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (1825) quoted from the book. Early Mormon publications quoted Josephus often in support of Mormon beliefs. For example, in Benjamin Winchester’s 1843 tract, History of the Priesthood, we read:

The apostle holds out the idea, that this priesthood is a kingly one, which appears to be correct, from the fact, that it emanated from God, and He is a King of kings, and Lord of lords; and it is also the authority of his kingdom, and by it, as I have before mentioned, Melchisedec reigned as a king over the inhabitants of the city of Salem. This idea is corroborated by Josephus, who says: “Now the king of Salem met him [Abraham] at a certain place called the Kings’ dale, where Melchisedec king of the city of Salem received him.

Given the availability and knowledge of Josephus’ writings in Joseph Smith’s day, it’s wholly unremarkable that his ideas would have been reflected in a contemporary Book of Abraham. In fact, some have argued that Josephus was a source for many ideas and passages of Mormon scripture (see, for example, Joseph Smith and Josephus). I’m not arguing for plagiarism, but it is clear that this “bullseye” is not impressive in the least.

In the 1994 Ensign article and in a 2012 Deseret News article, “Defending the Faith: How could Joseph know all of this?” Daniel Peterson mentions Josephus as supporting the view of Abraham as astronomer, but the MI article does not mention Josephus at all. The authors tell us that the pseudo-Eupolemus passage is one of the most interesting in support of Joseph Smith, but it’s really  not any more illuminating than the Josephus passage. It’s only interesting in the sense of the rhetorical question, “How could Joseph know all of this?”

The answer, alas, is pretty simple: he was familiar with Josephus, as many other people in his day were.

Often I’ve heard that people who discover the problems with Mormon truth claims are “lazy and intransigent” people who can’t be bothered to put any effort into their study of the gospel. But this Eusebius “bullseye” seems to depend largely on the assumption that readers will accept the evidence at face value without engaging the source material. It almost worked on me.

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Perego and the Children of God

August 23, 2013

I was pointed to this presentation by Ugo Perego at something called the “Transhumanism and Spirituality” conference in 2012. It appears to me that this conference was intended, like Mormon Scholars Testify, to give a little academic cover for Mormon beliefs.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ilin4lt0nQ

The presentation is kind of surreal. Perego seems painfully aware that what he is saying is pretty fanciful and silly, as he looks rather sheepish and a little embarrassed.

Like so many others, he has tried to reconcile his Mormon beliefs with the scientific evidence in favor of organic evolution. His solution is similar to one I’ve heard on this board and elsewhere: Evolution took its course over millions of years until hominids had reached a state at which they were ready to receive a human spirit from God; this event occurred around 6,000 years ago when Adam and Eve were introduced into the garden.

Of course this doesn’t work logically with LDS doctrine, which is that humans are the literal offspring of God, created in His image, that they, as His children, are to progress in maturity to be like Him, as a puppy becomes like its parent, a dog. Here’s Boyd K. Packer:

No lesson is more manifest in nature than that all living things do as the Lord commanded in the Creation. They reproduce “after their own kind.” (See Moses 2:12, 24.) They follow the pattern of their parentage. Everyone knows that; every four-year-old knows that! A bird will not become an animal nor a fish. A mammal will not beget reptiles, nor “do men gather … figs of thistles.” (Matt. 7:16.)

In the countless billions of opportunities in the reproduction of living things, one kind does not beget another. If a species ever does cross, the offspring cannot reproduce. The pattern for all life is the pattern of the parentage.

This is demonstrated in so many obvious ways, even an ordinary mind should understand it. Surely no one with reverence for God could believe that His children evolved from slime or from reptiles. (Although one can easily imagine that those who accept the theory of evolution don’t show much enthusiasm for genealogical research!) The theory of evolution, and it is a theory, will have an entirely different dimension when the workings of God in creation are fully revealed.

Since every living thing follows the pattern of its parentage, are we to suppose that God had some other strange pattern in mind for His offspring? Surely we, His children, are not, in the language of science, a different species than He is? (“The Pattern of Our Parentage,” Ensign, Nov. 1984, pp. 66-69.)

LDS doctrine asserts that God is a married man and that through His marriage to his wife/wives, He spiritually procreates our spirits, which are then given mortal bodies in which to dwell. Brigham Young seems to have believed that Adam was created by sexual reproduction, making Adam both the spiritual and physical offspring of God. If we are the offspring of God, and our destiny is to be like Him, then it follows that we share His genetic makeup; He is, therefore, an exalted version of what we are now.

Perego and others would have us believe that billions of years ago, God put a process of evolution in place that would have many branches, countless numbers of which would become extinct, until finally the magic moment arrived when humans were genetically like Him to be His children. LDS scripture states that “the spirit of man [is] in the likeness of his person” (D&C 77:2), meaning that, before the physical creation, our spirits already looked human.

But for Perego, God created spirits that looked like Him, that had the potential to be exalted in the same way He is exalted, but that God gave over the spiritual creation to a random process that would eventually simmer long enough to result in a body just the way it needed to be: identical to God’s.

The problem (besides the absurdity of the argument) is that we are supposed to be children of God, not the result of some iterative process of random genetic mutation that has been going on for billions of years on countless worlds. Russell Nelson has said:

Spirit and body, when joined together, become a living soul of supernal worth. Indeed, we are children of God—physically and spiritually. (“We Are Children of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1998.)

Indeed, the church teaches that humans are different from all other living beings:

Many religions teach that human beings are children of God, but often their conception of Him precludes any kind of bond resembling a parent-child relationship. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught of a much simpler and more sensible relationship: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit … was to make himself visible … , you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another.”

We are of God’s family. We are His sons and daughters, created in the image of heavenly parents. “No greater ideal has been revealed,” taught President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “than the supernal truth that we are the children of God, and we differ, by virtue of our creation, from all other living things. (See Moses 6:8–10, 22, 59.) No idea has been more destructive of happiness, no philosophy has produced more sorrow, more heartbreak and mischief; no idea has done more to destroy the family than the idea that we are not the offspring of God, only advanced animals, compelled to yield to every carnal urge.” (“Strengthening the Family: Created in the Image of God, Male and Female,” Ensign, Jan. 2005.)

But Perego believes that we are advanced animals, evolved from primordial slime, and only children of God in a spiritual sense. The simple pattern of our parentage is replaced by the random mutations of nature.

Maybe we should revise the song:

I am the product of billions of years of random mutations until my spirit could be received into a body like God’s,
And He has sent me here …

This may make sense to Perego. To me it is a mass of confusion.


Expert Ex-Mormon

August 21, 2013

Yes, I am an expert in how to leave the church and do it the wrong way. A little background:

I have always been a history and knowledge junkie, and when I worked at the Church Office Building in the early 90s, I would go down to the historical library on my lunch hour and read whatever looked interesting. Around 1995, when I was no longer working for the church, I got invited to participate in an online listserv group, alt.religion.mormon. I moved on to other places, such as the ironically named FAIR board, where I was a defender of the church but tried to be fair and honest and kind with people who disagreed.

In 2005, I took an 8-month break from all Mormon online participation, and during that break, I realized that I’d known for quite some time that the church wasn’t true, but I just hadn’t let myself admit it. Literally, everything fell apart during a phone conversation with a friend who was distraught about Joseph Smith and polyandry.

When I got home, my wife could tell something was wrong, so I blurted out that I didn’t believe in the church anymore. For 2 years I tried to get her to listen to what I knew. I sent her articles, quoted books, asked questions about her beliefs, and generally challenged her as much as I could. Needless to say, we fought for 2 years. My sister, to whom I’ve always been close, began having long conversations with my wife about how to “fix” me. Our marriage nearly broke up, and I sank into a deep depression. In 2007 I attempted suicide and ended up spending 3 days as an unwilling guest of a psych ward in Houston.

That was a turning point for me. I realized that I’d been pushing my wife to hear things she didn’t want to hear, and she had been pushing back just as hard to get me to step back in line. We both changed because of my suicide attempt. We learned that it was OK to disagree, that it was OK for her not to want to know what I knew, and it was OK for me not to bow to her religious wishes.

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Why do Mormons take it so personally when you state the facts about their religion?

Mormonism was part of our identity, perhaps even the main part. The LDS church is designed to be the center of a member’s existence; without the church, there would be a huge, gaping hole (which we all experience when we leave). So, whether they realize it or not, most Mormons predictably react as though a criticism of the church is a personal attack on them. No, it’s not rational, and in a perfect world, you could get people to step back and separate the church from themselves. But in reality, they do not draw a distinct line between the self and Mormonism.

2. Why is relatively uncontroversial information so threatening to a lot of Mormons?

The church has done such a great job of packaging its history and doctrines that anything else, no matter how trivial it may seem, is jarring to believers. Take the “rock in the hat” episode. It’s well-established that Joseph Smith used a stone he found in a well to pretend to find buried treasure, long before the Book of Mormon project began. And there is plenty of eyewitness testimony that he used the same stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon. But it’s not part of the approved narrative, so people get horribly offended and assume you’re just telling lies.

3. Why do my family and friends treat me like I’m an enemy?

The church has long taught that people who leave are apostates, and such people are evil. They are the kind of people who killed Joseph Smith. They have evil in their hearts and are motivated by hatred of truth and goodness. Heck, they’ve even had priesthood and Relief Society lessons about us rotten apostates. So, when you challenge their beliefs with new information, they assume that you are attacking them personally, that you are making things up, and that you are doing so in a dishonest attempt to make the church look bad.

4. How do I get through to them?

Unfortunately, the answer generally is that you won’t and can’t. But being confrontational just plays into the church’s script: angry apostate can’t just leave it alone but must attack God’s true religion.

5. So, what should I do?

There’s no right answer, but I’ll tell you what works for me. If I am tempted to discuss my loss of belief with someone I care about, I ask myself two questions: 1) What do I hope to accomplish with this discussion? 2) What is the likely outcome of the discussion? If the answer to 1) is “I just want them to know the truth,” that’s not good enough. The second question comes into play: How likely is it that they are going to know and accept the truth because of your discussion? If it’s unlikely, why bother? In my view, it’s fine to share your feelings and knowledge with anyone you wish, but when it comes to loved ones, make sure you have a definite goal in mind and that your conversation is likely to achieve that goal.

6. How do I convince my family and friends that my unbelief is not a personal attack on them?

This one is simple. As I said in question 1 above, the church makes itself the center of your life, your relationships, your marriage. One day my wife said to me, “Our marriage has always been built on the church and the gospel, so now I wonder what’s left?” I realized that both of us needed to recognize what our marriage was without the church at the center. We discovered that our relationship was about love, commitment, friendship, intimacy, passion, and so on. None of that depended on the church. Once we started focusing on building those non-church aspects, we started to heal as a couple.

You are going to have friends and family who insist on making the church the center of your relationship. If that’s all there is to your relationship, you don’t have a relationship with such people, so there’s no big loss here.

Let them be the nasty ones; let them be the ones who value loyalty to the church over love and truth. Don’t let it be you.

7. Does this mean I have to just shut up and endure the crap from my Mormon friends and family?

No, not at all. But what it does mean is that we must choose our battles wisely. Have you ever known someone who can’t talk about anything other than a specific topic, usually their religion or politics? I had an Aunt Helen who was a Scientologist, and when she visited (thank God she lived in Ohio, and we were in California) all she could talk about was her stupid cult. Pretty much everyone ignored her and avoided contact with her. My father incessantly talks about Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, so I judiciously change the subject because I’ve learned that arguing back is pointless. He’s not changing his mind, and neither am I. I realize that I can’t be the ex-Mormon version of my nutcase aunt because it does no good and just makes people want to avoid me.

Of course, someone inevitably brings up the subject of why I left the church. Again, what I share depends on who I’m with, what I hope to accomplish, and what I expect the outcome to be. My wife doesn’t want to know anything, so if she asks a specific question, I answer succinctly and leave it at that. An old friend of mine was constantly harping on me about my apostasy, but he wouldn’t listen to anything I said but would just argue and call me to repentance. Eventually, I sent him a link to MormonThink.com and told him that I’d rather he educate himself on the issues before we got back into it. To my complete shock, reading that on his own without my interference led him to question everything he believed. If I had kept up the defensive arguments we’d been having, nothing would have changed for either of us.

8. My Mormon friends tell me I’m bitter for being angry. Is it wrong to feel so angry? How do I get past the anger and hurt?

I’ve been told by countless Mormons that it’s wrong to feel angry and hurt, that it just means I’m “bitter.” They say, “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone.” Screw that. Losing your belief is a loss, and that involves grief. Ex-Mormons go through all the stages of grief), and anger is one of those stages. It’s not healthy to suppress that anger. You’ll make yourself crazy. Get it out, but get it out where it won’t damage your important relationships. Message boards, such as the Recovery from Mormonism board, are great places for venting. One thing you’ll notice is that most people post for a few months until the anger passes, and then they move on. There’s no timetable, obviously, but the anger does subside. The time to talk to your family about your beliefs is not when you are angry and hurt.

So, what’s happened since 2007? Well, for one thing I’m not depressed anymore (a good therapist and medication did wonders). My wife and I don’t fight about religion anymore, and I find that I can appreciate the good she gets out of it without forgetting the bad. She understands that I’m sincere in my beliefs and not some evil apostate. My sister, who once thought I had lost my mind, respects my opinion about the church enough to ask me about things she feels she can’t ask other believers. My parents don’t agree with my reasons for leaving, but we have had good conversations about why I believe what I do.

Because I haven’t been in my family’s faces about my beliefs, my children have felt comfortable talking to me about their questions and doubts. Of my 6 kids, 3 were absolutely relieved to know that I don’t believe because they didn’t. One was married in the temple a year ago, though I would say she is very liberal in her understanding of church history and doctrine. The other two haven’t quite decided where they fit.

So, in short:

1. Find non-destructive ways to vent your emotions.
2. Recognize that what you see as truth will likely be seen as an attack by your Mormon friends and family.
3. Choose your battles wisely. Don’t be Aunt Helen.
4. Have a purpose for the information you share.
5. Focus on strengthening the non-church parts of your relationships. Don’t make the church the 800-lb. gorilla in the room.

One last thing:

I’ll bet you’re saying to yourself, “That’s not fair! Mormons get to treat me like crap, and I have to be all nice and forgiving.” No, it isn’t fair. Someone posted yesterday how sad it was that we are grateful for people being less nasty to us. If you need to be nasty to Mormons, join a message board and argue away with believers. But don’t return the nastiness from people who are important in your lives. I often have to remind myself that they are behaving that way because the church taught them to behave that way. That stuff has been pounded into their heads all their lives, and we can’t hold them entirely responsible. To steal a line from the church, “Hate the Mormonism, but love the Mormon.”

And by no means am I saying you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. When you are attacked and maligned, you have every right to defend yourself and your beliefs. But be smart about it.

I hope this helps. Like I said, I believe these things work because doing the opposite didn’t work for me and changing my approach has really helped. There are no guarantees, and there are no right answers. Do what you must do, but I hope what I have said helps in some small way.