Ensign Apologetics After All
by Christian Y. Cardall
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!]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.
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…
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.