Saturday, January 28, 2006

Ensign Apologetics After All

I recently said that “there may have been a trend towards leaving the sort of work FARMS does out of official Church discourse—magazines, lesson manuals, conference talks.” Unfortunately for my predictive credibility, the very next issue of the Ensign happens to contain an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls by Andrew C. Skinner that strikes some distinctly apologetic chords. More unfortunately, however, examples of bad argumentation and bad arguments in this article illustrate my larger point: including apologetics in the Ensign and other vehicles of official Church discourse may not be the best idea.

A discussion of ancient scriptural media wraps an accomodating archaeological fact in a mantle of overblown argumentation that saps this fact’s impact for the thoughtful reader. After explaining that in ancient times scriptures were usually recorded on scrolls rather than ‘books’ bound from individual pages, Skinner remarks that “Metal plates are an important exception.” Because he is discussing archaeology, the fact that he does not specify any examples of these metallic books leaves the mistaken impression that this is an archaeological conclusion, when in reality he can only be thinking of the stacks of plates mentioned in the Book of Mormon. He goes on to say that “The Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Book of Mormon from metal plates was given significant credibility” by the discovery of the Copper Scroll among the discoveries at Qumran. If out of the enormous numbers of scrolls from the ancient Near East we have only a single example of a metallic scroll (not book!), can we in good conscience declare that “the use of metal as an important scribal material in the Holy Land is now beyond question”?

Note that in two separate cases here he claims how “important” metallic records were—a conclusion that cannot be sustained on the basis of a single isolated example of a metallic scroll. Metallic records are “important” to believers in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but this is (or ought to be) of no moment in an archaeological argument. The conclusions of an archaeological argument ought to rest on the publicly verifiable physical evidence; but because in official Church discourse the historical reality of widespread ancient use of metallic media is a foregone revealed conclusion, a more evenhanded presentation of the physical evidence seems impossible. Such manifestly unbalanced presentations are an indication that evidentiary discussions of this kind simply do not belong in a dogmatic venue like the Ensign, which is understandably and rightfully overtly partisan.

The article goes on to mention many features of the Qumran community with resonance for Latter-day Saints: records buried to come forth in a future day, an expanded canon, apostasy and restoration, priesthood hierarchy, consecration, separation of a holy community from the world, interest in the temple and associated requirements of worthiness and purity, and so on.

But other features contrary to the faith of the Latter-day Saints make it clear they were not ancient Mormons. They had no Melchizedek Priesthood, or any temple ordinances like ours, and some of Jesus’ teachings seem like direct rebuttals to some of their ideas. Skinner describes them as having good intentions and doing the best they could. “They accomplished much, but without the Melchizedek Priesthood and authorized prophets they erred in many things.”

In the end, Skinner’s attempted apologetic summary based on these considerations backfires, potentially detracting from rather than supporting Joseph's claims. His conclusion is that
…we can certainly see how some of the theological ideas found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could have been perfectly at home in an authentic ancient setting. [Big surprise, since Mormonism is after all a Biblical religion!]

It is important to remember, though, that LDS doctrines and practices paralleling some of the ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were in fact brought forth by Joseph Smith long before the discovery of those ancient documents. … Joseph Smith was not a lucky forecaster. He was the Lord’s prophet of the Restoration…
Why is this an unwise argument to make? Note the implication of the fact that all these ideas resonant for Latter-day Saints could be generated from an Old Testament legacy by the well-meaning but uninspired and unauthorized Qumran community: a modern group in possession of the same rich Biblical legacy—led by Joseph Smith, in our particular case—also facing the problem of a fragmenting religious tradition showing symptoms of worldly corruption, could also have generated similar ideas without divine aid. If we view the Qumran community as being well-intentioned but mistaken about having a divine commission, we must ask if the same is true of us as well.

This is an interesting and informative article, unfortunately marred by the apologetic flourishes. Of course, it’s the apologetic conclusions that make it relevant for the Ensign. Maybe it confirms the convictions of the masses, but I think we have here an example in which for those able to step back from foregone conclusions and read between the lines, it potentially detracts from rather than confirms faith.


"If out of the enormous numbers of scrolls from the ancient Near East we have only a single example of a metallic scroll”?

Christian, there are multiple other examples of writing on metal plates in the ANE besides the copper scroll. See here  for a convenient list.

I skimmed the article before seeing your post and didn't see anything in it I considered apologetic. In fact, I see his purpose as deflating overzealous but ignorant Mormons who make fallacious claims, a corrective to the common member who assumes too much.

For examples of such, see the story of Robert Millet correcting overzealous missionaries here. FARMS also ran a copy of a letter that circulated in the 50's/60's about how the scrolls "proved" the Church to be true. As FARMS pointed out, it had many exaggerations and flagrantly false claims to it.

Frankly, given that you didn't know about other writing on mental plates, I'm not sure you've read enough LDS apologetics to judge whether something is apologetic in nature or not. I'm inclined to see your response to the article simply as knee-jerk anti-apologetic sniping.  

Comment by Ben S. | 1/29/2006 12:38:00 AM  

BTW, try googling Skinner. He's on the international translation committee of the Dead Sea Scrolls (just published his assigned volume), MA from a Divinity schoo, MTS from Harvard in Hebrew Bible, PhD in Jewish and European history...

He knows what he's talking about.  

Comment by Ben S. | 1/29/2006 12:40:00 AM  

I haven't read the article yet, but it sounds like the usual technique of claiming any similarities as confirmation for LDS doctrines, while conveniently ignoring or dismissing any differences. They baptize by immersion? A splendid confirmation of LDS practice. They live like cloistered monks, avoiding marriage? Well, desert hermits get a little carried away; without the Melchizedek Priesthood they can't be expected to get all the doctrines right, can they? And so forth. More technically, it's an exercise without a hypothesis on which evidence can be brought to bear. Buy hey, I'm not sure anyone expects an Ensign article to formulate questions in that manner. Now I guess I'll have to go read it. 

Comment by Dave | 1/29/2006 01:11:00 AM  

It's a difficult issue. I think that the Ensign in the late 80's and the very early 90's was vastly superior to what has happened since. There was simply more real content. While not everyone might agree with it, when it was taken out there was little reason to read the Ensign beyond the home teaching lesson. Say what you will, but I liked the discussion about history, scriptural exegesis and yes, even apologetics. (Which did seemed to be a tad more cautious and conservative than what many FARMS papers promoted)

So even if this one is bad, at least it's a change for the better (IMO).


Comment by clark | 1/29/2006 01:27:00 AM  

Dave, I'm not entirely sure that's fair since while I've not read the article, typically apologists don't call Essenes proto-Mormons. (Well, actually I think Nibley may have back in his younger years - but I mean more recently) Rather I think it provides a culture of anticipatory Christianity that does offer certain important parallels with the Book of Mormon. Yes there are important differences. But then there are important differences between Book of Mormon culture and our own, which doesn't affect the similarities and their importance.

To me the fact that Christianity wasn't as new as Christians liked to think is profoundly important. Even if it isn't nearly as original anymore given all those "Jesus the Jew" books in the 80's and 90's. | 1/29/2006 01:30:00 AM  

Okay Christian, I read the Skinner article this evening (showing what a positive influence Spinozist has on people) so I'll update my comments. I've got a pretty good nose for apologetics, and this ain't it. I actually liked the article. If I were in a bad mood, there might be a couple of things I could nitpick, but I guess I'm in a good mood. I share Clark's sense that the Ensign has declined over the past decade, but hey, the Skinner article is easily the best Ensign article I've come across in ... well, in some time. It was informative and it wasn't preachy -- what more can you ask of an Ensign article? Geez, the first two footnotes were to Frank Moore Cross and James C. VanderKam. I've read books by both of them: they're the real thing.

As long as you got me to crack open this month's Ensign, I'll throw in a comment on the revealing close-up on page 13 of the Golden Moroni sculpture. With long hair, a baggy tunic, and Anglo features, he looks like an actor right off the set of The Patriot. The back cover has a full shot of the sculpture (by Avard T. Fairbanks, per the credits).  

Comment by Dave | 1/29/2006 04:39:00 AM  

Ben S.  and Clark and Dave, I agree that overall the article is informative, well-written, and reasonable. I liked most of it---I should've emphasized that more. I appreciate that it avoids some of the more egregious traps that apologetic literature has sometimes fallen into in the past. I'm glad it's a reasonable corrective to past overzealous claims that the Qumran community was basically "Mormon."

But even if it does better than many past examples, I'm still bothered that it still feels the need to go through the motions of the pro-forma ‘this shows Joseph was a prophet because he couldn't have known that these were ancient ideas’ argument as its bottom line. That last paragraph left a bad taste in my mouth for the article as a whole (what I said about metals is a quibble by comparison), because I don't think it's justified by the data he's presented---in fact I think his presentation overall provides fodder for the hypothesis that the similar features in question did not  require revelation. He gets past thinking the Qumran inhabitants were "Mormons," but fails to see that in taking this step he can he can no longer reach the same pro-forma conclusion. This argument, which I make in the second-to-last paragraph, is to me the most important part of my post.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/29/2006 09:09:00 AM  

On my quibble on metals, Ben S.,  thanks for the pointer to other examples of writing on metal. From a very quick look the most relevant one seems to be a second isolated example of tiny silver scrolls (perhaps amulets/phylacteries?) from a relevant time and place. I wonder why Skinner didn't cite this or any other examples? I would need to look into it more carefully, but my initial sense from the page you pointed to is that there's still no basis for his claim of metal books  being important, or indeed texts the length of entire Biblical books inscribed on metal, which is what I think would warrant calling it an "important scribal material" in the relevant time and place. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/29/2006 09:13:00 AM  

"He gets past thinking the Qumran inhabitants were "Mormons,"

I highly doubt skinner *ever* thoght they were proto-mormons, and I think you're still misreading his intent.

Take a look at the paragraph on p. 48. "Some beliefs and practices described in teh scrolls could suggest either a pre-Christian era "gospel" community at Qumran or a long lost group of ancient Latter-day Saints...***But such was not the case.***

There are lengthier metal texts, such as the plates of Darius, which I believe were actually buried in a stone box. On eEgyptian text talks about a covenant being written on silver plates. Certainly, it's not as common as I'd like, bu it's also not a rarity. It's quite possible many other examples haven't survived. Unless they were buried or otherwise unaccessble, anyone who conquered would simply melt them down for the metal.

I recall one article (FARMS perhaps?) in which one of the PhD guys summarized a recent antimormon critique by saying that while the idea of writing on metal plates was once so ridiculous as to undermine the BoM, it's now such a common phenomenon that some critics charge Joseph with borrowing the idea.

BTW, I linked you to the wrong article on missionaries misusing the scrolls. It's Religious Educator, "Bearing Pure Testimony" 1:1 (2000). You can get to them all here 

"I was asked some years ago by a mission president to
speak to his missionaries at a zone conference... I was invited to stay for lunch and visit with the missionaries. I did a great deal of listening and learned much. One of the most interesting conversations revolved around a young couple
who were being taught by the missionaries but who were not progressing. “They’re golden people,” one elder said , “ripe and ready for membership in the Church. They just won’t commit to be baptized.” Several suggestions were made by the missionaries listening in—fasting with them, having the bishop meet with them, intensifying the friendshipping effort, etc., to all of which the first elder said, “We’ve tried that.”
After a long pause, one elder spoke up: “Have you given them the Scrolls Discussion?” The first elder responded: “No, do you think this would be a good time for the Scrolls Discussion?” “Sounds like a perfect time to me,” the first came back.
Now I had never heard of the Scrolls Discussion. I was
dying to know what it was so I blurted out: “What’s the Scrolls Discussion?” The second elder looked quizzically at me and said: “Surely, Brother Millet, you’ve heard of the Scrolls Discussion?” I indicated that I had not. “The Scrolls Discussion,” he said, “involves showing the people how the Dead Sea Scrolls proves the truthfulness of the Church!” I asked: “How do you do that?” “Well,” he replied, “as you
know, the Dead Sea Scrolls contains information about a group of Christians out in the deserts of Judea.” I said: “No, it doesn’t. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a group of hyperreligious Jews.” He said: “Oh. I didn’t know that.” Then the elder followed up: “Well, you do know that they had three presiding high priests at the head of their Church.” I indicated
that the leaders of their group were Aaronic priests, not Melchizedek. He went on: “Well, there’s much doctrine within the Scrolls which proves ours to be true.”
I commented that the Scrolls were interesting historical documents but did very little for us doctrinally. This exchange went on for about ten minutes, the elder providing what he thought to be airtight “proofs” and me trying to gently let him
know that most of what he understood about the Dead Sea Scrolls was simply untrue. I could see the frustration in his eyes. He breathed a sigh and then concluded the debate with,
“Well, I’ll just say this—the Scrolls Discussion has always worked perfectly for me!” I thought then (and have since) about all the people who may have come into the Church as a result of what they learned in the famous Scrolls Discussion.
I shuddered.

This is the Lord’s Church. It is built upon divine precepts and principles, founded on diamond truth and God-given authority. It needs no props. We need not stretch nor sensationalize nor intellectualize the message of the Restoration in order to make it more palatable. It will stand on its own. Joseph Smith taught that truth cuts its own way.7 Our witness of the truth—a sign of our spiritual maturity in the
faith—must be grounded in substance, in true doctrine, in that which will endure the test of time. We may have a testimony of many things—of the programs and procedures and policies of the Restored Church—and yet not be settled in truth."

BTW, the whole book "LDS perspectives on the DEad SEa scrolls" is available online
Skinner authored parts of it.  

Comment by Ben S. | 1/29/2006 09:58:00 AM  

So here's my take on the larger issue, my bottom line on Skinner's bottom line: If the rhetorical imperatives of the Ensign are such that an ancient studies article would not be appropriate without the magical 'this proves Joseph was a prophet' incantation, then I'm not sure ancient studies articles belong in the Ensign, because the secular evidence is never that clear-cut. Background that illuminates the text is worthwhile, but does this have a place in official Church discourse if the proof mantra cannot be invoked? 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/29/2006 09:59:00 AM  

Ben S. , my last comment was written without seeing your latest. I'm not saying Skinner personally ever believed the Qumran inhabitants were proto-Mormons, just that some did.

"This is the Lord’s Church. It is built upon divine precepts and principles, founded on diamond truth and God-given authority. It needs no props. We need not stretch nor sensationalize nor intellectualize the message of the Restoration in order to make it more palatable." 

This seems like the appropriate approach, which is why I am asking these questions about what's appropriate for official discourse. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/29/2006 10:06:00 AM  

what's appropriate for official discourse 

1. How "official" is the Ensign? If the church has an official message to give, does it wind up in the Ensign or somewhere else?

2. Why not a little apologetic in the Ensign on occasion? If one does not like an article (for me, roughly 90% of it), one is free to skip it.

3. Skinner's article is toned down well enough for mention in the Ensign, which although may contain some apologetic occasionally, is not a full blown ANE studies periodical or journal. He didn't mention the Ketef Hinnom findings, or the plates of Darius II. Skinner's article, because it's written by Skinner and not a file leader, might not be considered "official" anyway. The article also isn't featured front and center, but gets a slot near the middle of the mag (ie, the publisher isn't trying to emphasize it too much).

4. The Ensign might be the right place to hook someone whose interest is merely casual in ANE stuff and apologetics. They can go from there to other sources (JBMS, JMA, JBL, JAOS, BASOR, etc.). 

5. I didn't know this until now, but it appears that posting html script in a post title isn't allowed.

Comment by David J | 1/31/2006 02:01:00 PM  


Comment by David J | 1/31/2006 02:15:00 PM  

David J, I suppose I take "official discourse" to include anything published under the Church's name (i.e. that copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.), and that which occurs in formal Church meetings.

Why not a little apologetic on occasion? See my above comments here  and here. Also there's an issue with presenting the current scholarly consensus which I might post on soon. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 1/31/2006 03:35:00 PM  


Your points are cogent and well thought out, man. I like them. Personally, I'm not into FAIR or apologetics of any kind (but not against it either), but I do like having a bit of rational belief (vs. irrational belief) reality checks once in a while. I will admit, however, that the Ensign, for me, is the most unlikely place I'd go for it.

When I was into it, I found myself out of balance -- I like the balanced approach to just about everything, and I don't think a lot of Mormon apologetics left me mentally balanced. After taking introductory philosophy as an undergrad, I found that many of the argumentation employed by (nonprofessional) Mormon apologetics contain fallacious rebuttals anyway. For example:

Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon (silk, horses, cement, brass, etc.). Yes, I've read all the explanations, but what a lot of folks start out doing is saying something like "well, the Bible has its anachronisms too, like in Gen. 12:16, dromedary camels weren't yet domesticated in Abraham's time." How does that explain the Book of Mormon's problems? It doesn't.

I don't remember the name of the fallacy (red herring?), but you get the point. There are other fallacies employed in apologetics, and fortunately I think most  of the folks over at FAIR do a good job in avoiding the fallacies. Mormons aren't the only ones who sometimes do this though, as I've read some very lame Christian apologetics ("localized" vs. global deluge, how a person could live in a whale for three days, etc. Very lame). As a one who is theologically liberal, I guess I'm just not drawn to apologetics the way a conservative or fundamentalist would be (most Mormons are probably in the conservative to ultra-conservative camps). No disrespect in that statement was intended.

So Christian, my question is this: do you think there's a place for apologetics at all

Comment by David J | 2/01/2006 12:24:00 AM  

David, thanks for your thoughts. I answered your question in a new post.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/01/2006 09:37:00 PM  



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