Friday, June 26, 2009

Lehi and the Throne Theophany in 1 Nephi

Blake Ostler has authored an important work on Lehi's throne theophany in the beginning chapters of 1 Nephi.[1] In his work, Ostler identifies 8 characteristics of the throne theophany found in ancient Near Eastern literature (including both biblical and pseudepigraphal texts) and compares them to Lehi's throne theophany.[2] These elements or characteristics are:

1. Historical Introduction
2. Divine Confrontation
3. Reaction
4. Throne Theophany
5. Commission
6. Protest
7. Reassurance
8. Conclusion

Ostler then disects each of these elements within in the Book of Mormon and explains their historical/contextual meaning.

1. Historical Introduction

Ostler points out the obvious introduction of the current events going on in Jerusalem by Nephi in 1 Nephi 1:4, 6. In these verses, Nephi gives a quick chronology and then informs his reader of the political and religious upheaval going on in Jerusalem at the time, and of the fact that multiple prophets have been declaring different messages to the people.[3] 

2. Divine Confrontation

Ostler next points out how it is later recorded by Nephi that his father encountered a "pillar of fire" and that he later was "overcome with the spirit"(1 Nephi 1:6-7). Of course, Lehi then experiences a divine vision in which he is shown God "sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels" (1 Nephi 1:8), but not before Lehi's reaction to the vision.

3. Reaction 

The reader is informed that upon receiving this vision, Lehi "did quake and tremble exceedingly" and was "overcome with the Spirit" (1 Nephi 1:6-7). This reaction, interestingly enough, is similar to both Moses' as well as the Prophet Joseph Smith's own experiences with deity.[4] Thus it seems that Lehi's reaction to his vision was not unique.

4. Throne Theophany

Then we come to the climax of the vision. Lehi sees God on his throne surrounded by the hosts of heaven. This part of the vision clearly fits with other apocalyptical literature of the ancient Near East that discuss the Council of the Gods or the Divine Council.[5]

Interestingly enough, Ostler notes that there is another element in the Book of Mormon account, namely, the Descensus, which is also right at home in other ancient Near Eastern texts. In 1 Nephi 1:9-10, we read of how Lehi beheld the Savior, who is likened to the sun, and 12 other figures, who are clearly the Apostles of Christ, who are likened to the firmament of the stars. Ostler, quoting Frank Moore Cross notes that "kokebe boker 'the morning stars' in Job 38:7 may be considered in parallel with bene elohim 'sons of God' (compare Isa. 14:12; Ps. 148:2-3), and the terms saba' or sebot apply equally to the heavenly bodies and the angelic host."[6] Ostler, continuing with this idea and after providing some examples of this motif in the biblical texts, explains that it "is a logical extension of the throne-theophany and evidence of the Hebrew influence on Lehi's account."[7]

5. Commission 

1 Nephi 1:18-19, notes Ostler, is the "commission element of Lehi's call" and "the motif is evident from Lehi's actions following the vision, such as preaching to his people of the contents of the vision and the book[8], and from the subsequent revelation given to him."[9]

6. Protest

Ostler notes that this element seems to be missing from the Book of Mormon account, but that such is to be expected since "this element is usually absent when the reaction element in present, as in the call of Ezekiel."[10]

7. Reassurance

Ostler notes that this element of the throne theophany is usually accompanied with rejection of the Prophet by the people, as in the obvious case with Lehi. Notwithstanding, notes Ostler, God reassures his Prophet that said Prophet has indeed received his call from Deity and must press on in the work.

8. Conclusion

Ostler notes that in this element of the throne theophany, "the commission form usually concludes in a formal way, most often with a statement that the Prophet has begun to carry out his commission."[11] This we see in the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 1:20, 2:1.

After expanding upon these elements, Ostler then discusses 19th century visions and those in the Book of Mormon. Ostler correctly notes that in the wake of the "revival fever" of the 2nd Great Awakening visions were common claims by religious individuals in the early 19th century. And while Joseph Smith himself patterned his accounts of his visionary experiences following established 19th century norms, which we can only expect considering this was the Prophet's immediate cultural and environmental understanding, Ostler notes that the Book of Mormon does not. 

The Book of Mormon is unique in detailing Lehi's vision, and is alien to 19th century conventions. However, as was demonstrated, Lehi's vision in 1 Nephi is right at home in the literature of the ancient Near East. Ostler therefore concludes that "the possibility that the Book of Mormon derives from and ancient source... must be considered in light of some features better explained in terms of ancient Israel than nineteenth-century America."[12]

David Bokovoy, that indefatigable sleuth, has continued Ostler's studies in a series of Podcasts posted on Youtube.

Part 1

Part 2


[1]: Blake Ostler, "The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis", BYU Studies (26/4): 67-95

[2]: Ostler (p. 70) identifies Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6, the Merkaba texts, 1-2 Enoch, the Testament of Levi, 4 Ezra, 3 Baruch, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Abraham as texts that powerfully display the throne theophany motif.

[3]: Hugh Nibley has shed further light on the political, social and religious situation in Lehi's day. See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Deseret/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. 1988), 3-19.

[4]: See Moses 1:9-10 and Joseph Smith-History 1:20.

[5]: For an LDS perspective on the Council of the Gods or the Divine Council, see Daniel C. Peterson in "Ye Are Gods: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind". Available online here. Also see the numerous but enlightening videos produced by Kerry Shirts on his Youtube webpage. For a thoroughly scholarly and enjoyable back and forth on the topic of the Council of the Gods between a Latter-day Saint and an Evangelical, see David Bokovoy and Michael Heiser in the FARMS Review 19/1. Available online here.

[6]: Ostler, 79.

[7]: Ibid.

[8]: Ostler (p. 79-80) notes the importance of the receiving of a heavenly book by the Prophet in his commission, a phenomenon seen clearly with Lehi in 1 Nephi 1: 11-13. John Tvedtnes has written extensively on this subject. See John Tvedtnes in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness, Unto Light, (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. 2000). Likewise, consult Michael Ash in Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Springville, Utah: CFI Books. 2008), 75.

[9]: Ostler, 79.

[10]: Ostler, 70.

[11]: Ibid.

[12]: Ostler, 87.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Three Types of Book of Mormon Evidence: Circumstantial

I've been posting about Hugh Nibley's "The Prophetic Book of Mormon". In this analysis, we find three types of evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon: internal, external, and circumstantial. The previous posts were about internal and external evidences. This one is about circumstantial evidences.

Circumstantial Evidence. Entirely apart from the contents of the Book of Mormon and the external evidences that might support it, there are certain circumstances attending its production which cannot be explained on grounds other than those given by Joseph Smith.

These may be listed briefly:

1. There is the testimony of the witnesses.

2. The youth and inexperience of Joseph Smith at the time when he took full responsibility for the publication of the book—proof (a) that he could not have produced it himself and (b) that he was not acting for someone else, for his behavior at all times displayed astounding independence.

3. The absence of notes and sources.

4. The short time of production.

5. The fact that there was only one version of the book ever published (with minor changes in each printing). This is most significant. It is now known that the Koran, the only book claiming an equal amount of divine inspiration and accuracy, was completely re-edited at least three times during the lifetime of Mohammed. This brings up:

6. The unhesitating and unchanging position of Joseph Smith regarding his revelations, a position that amazed Eduard Meyer more than anything else. From the day the Book of Mormon came from the press, Joseph Smith never ceased to spread it abroad, and he never changed his attitude toward it. What creative writer would not blush for the production of such youth and inexperience twenty years after? What impostor would not lie awake nights worrying about the slips and errors of this massive and pretentious product of his youthful indiscretion and roguery? Yet, since the Prophet was having revelations all along, nothing would have been easier, had he the slightest shadow of a misgiving, than to issue a new, revised, and improved edition, or to recall the book altogether, limit its circulation, claim it consisted of mysteries to be grasped by the uninitiated alone, say it was to be interpreted only in a "religious" sense, or supersede it by something else. The Saints who believed the Prophet were the only ones who took the book seriously anyway.

7. There has never been any air of mystery about the Book of Mormon; there is no secrecy connected with it at the time of its publication or today; there is a complete lack of sophistry or policy in discussions of the Book of Mormon; it plays absolutely no role in the history of the Church as a pawn; there is never dispute about its nature or contents among the leaders of the Church; there is never any manipulating, explaining, or compromise. The book has enjoyed unlimited sale at all times.

8. Finally, though the success of the book is not proof of its divinity, the type of people it has appealed to—sincere, simple, direct, highly unhysterical, and nonmystical—is circumstantial evidence for its honesty. It has very solid supporters.

The reader using Franklin S. Harris, Jr.'s 34 excellent new collection of materials might add to these lists at his leisure. When one considers that any one of the above arguments makes it very hard to explain the Book of Mormon as a fraud, one wonders if a corresponding list of arguments against the book might not be produced. For such a list one waits with interest but in vain. At present the higher critics are scolding the Book of Mormon for not talking like the dean of a divinity school. We might as well admit it, the Victorian platitudes are simply not there.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Three Types of Book of Mormon Evidence: External

In Hugh Nibley's "The Prophetic Book of Mormon", we find three types of evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon: internal, external, and circumstantial. The previous post was about internal evidences. This one is about external evidences.

Again, quoting from "The Prophetic Book of Mormon" by Hugh Nibley:

External Evidence. Our islander has been rescued by a British tramp steamer. Burning with curiosity, he jumps ship in London, rushes to Great Russell Street, and bounds up the steps of the British Museum three at a time. He is now after external proofs for the Book of Mormon. He may spend the next forty years in the great library, but whatever external evidence he finds must fulfill three conditions:

1. The Book of Mormon must make clear and specific statements about certain concrete, objective things.

2. Other sources, ancient and modern, must make equally clear and objective statements about the same things, agreeing substantially with what the Book of Mormon says about them.

3. There must be clear proof that there has been no collusion between the two reports, i.e., that Joseph Smith could not possibly have knowledge of the source by which his account is being "controlled" or of any other source that could give him the information contained in the Book of Mormon.

The purpose of our studies on Lehi and the Jaredites was to supply information that fulfilled these three conditions, and the purpose of the present articles is to supply yet more evidence of the same type. In criticizing such information one might classify the various items as (a) positive, (b) possible, and (c) doubtful evidence of authenticity. As positive proof, we might accept the evidence of such authentically Egyptian names as Paanchi, Manti, and Hem, or such freakish Jaredite customs as keeping kings in comfortable imprisonment all their days, for these things are clearly described in the Book of Mormon, well established in the secular world, yet known to no one at the time the Book of Mormon came forth. As possible but not positive proof we have a good deal of evidence from the New World; the hesitation to accept this proof as final comes from the inability or reluctance of our secular experts to come to an agreement regarding just what they have found. Until they reach a consensus, our condition number two above remains unsatisfied and the issue unsettled. Finally there are doubtful bits of evidence put forth as proof, but which were better left alone. Thus while the Book of Mormon says that mountains rose and fell during the great earthquakes, the presence of the Rocky Mountains does not prove a thing, since the Book of Mormon does not pretend for a moment that mountains were never formed at any other time or in any other way. Such "evidence" only does harm.

Next Up: Circumstantial Evidences

Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Types of Book of Mormon Evidence: Internal

In Hugh Nibley's "The Prophetic Book of Mormon", we find three types of evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon: internal, external, and circumstantial. This and the next few posts will quote from Nibley's book and enumerate some of many evidences of these types.

Internal Evidence. Imagine that a Book of Mormon has been dropped from a helicopter to a man stranded on a desert island, with instructions to decide on its reliability. On the first page the man would find a clear statement of what the book claims to be, on the following pages a story of how it came into existence, and finally the testimonies of certain witnesses. Here are three astonishing claims—all supernatural. Has the man on the island enough evidence in the contents of the book alone—no other books or materials being available to him—to reach a satisfactory decision? By all means. Internal evidence is almost the only type ever used in testing questioned documents; it is rarely necessary to go any further than the document itself to find enough clues to condemn it, and if the text is a long one, and an historical document in the bargain, the absolute certainty of inner contradictions is enough to assure adequate testing. This makes the Book of Mormon preeminently testable, and we may list the following points on which certainty is obtainable.

1. The mere existence of the book, to follow Blass, is a powerful argument in favor of its authenticity. Without knowing a thing about LDS Church history, our stranded islander can immediately see that someone has gone to an enormous amount of trouble to make this book. Why? If the author wishes to deceive, he has chosen a strange and difficult way to do it. He has made the first move; he has magnanimously put into our hands a large and laborious text; in the introductory pages of that text, he gives us a clear and circumstantial account of what it is supposed to be and invites us to put it to any possible test. This is not the method of a man out to deceive. We must credit him with being honest until he is proved otherwise.

2. Before he has read a word, our islander notes that the book in his hand is a big one. This is another strong argument in its favor. A forger knows that he runs a risk with every word he writes; for him brevity is the soul of success and, as we have seen, the author of such a long book could not have failed to discover what he was up against before he proceeded very far. In giving us a long book, the author forces us to concede that he is not playing tricks.

3. Almost immediately the castaway discovers that the Book of Mormon is both a religious book and a history. This is another point in its favor, for the author could have produced a religious book claiming divine revelation without the slightest risk had he produced a Summa Theologica or a Key to the Scriptures. If one searches through the entire religious literature of the Christian ages from the time of the Apostles to the time of Joseph Smith, not one of these productions can be found to profess divine revelation aside from that derived through the reading of the scriptures. This is equally true whether one inspects the writings of the apostolic fathers, of the doctors of the Middle Ages—even the greatest of whom claim only to be making commentaries on the scriptures—or more modern religious leaders who, though they claimed enlightenment, spoke only as the Scribes and Pharisees of old, who, though they could quote and comment on scripture on every occasion, never dared to speak as one having authority. This writer never falls back on the accepted immunities of double meaning and religious interpretations in the manner of the Swedenborgians or the schoolmen. This refusal to claim any special privileges is an evidence of good faith.

4. Examining the book more closely, the islander is next struck by its great complexity. Doesn't the author know how risky this sort of thing is? If anyone should know, he certainly does, for he handles the intricate stuff with great understanding. Shysters may be diligent enough, in their way, but the object of their trickery is to avoid hard work, and this is not the sort of laborious task they give themselves.

5. In its complexity and length lies the key to the problem of the book, for our islander, having once read Blass, remembers that no man on earth can falsify a history of any length without contradicting himself continually. Upon close examination all the many apparent contradictions in the Book of Mormon disappear. It passes the sure test of authenticity with flying colors.

6. Since the author must in view of all this be something of a genius, the lonely critic begins to study his work as creative writing. Here it breaks down dismally. The style is not that of anyone trying to write well. There is skill of a sort, but even the unscholarly would know that the frequent use of "it came to pass" does not delight the reader, and it is not biblical. Never was writing less "creative" as judged by present standards: there is no central episode, no artistic development of a plot; one event follows another with equal emphasis in the even flow of a chronicle; the author does not "milk" dramatic situations, as every creative writer must; he takes no advantage of any of his artistic opportunities; he has no favorite characters; there is no gain in confidence or skill as the work progresses, nor on the other hand does he show any sign of getting tired or of becoming bored, as every creative writer does in a long composition: the first and last books of the Book of Mormon are among the best, and the author is going just as strong at the end as at the beginning. The claim of the "translator" is that this book is no literary creation, and the internal evidence bears out the claim. Our critic looks at the date of the book again—1830. Where are the rich sentimentality, the incurable romanticism, and the lush but mealy rhetoric of "fine writing" in the early 1800s? Where are the fantastic imagery, the romantic descriptions, and the unfailing exaggerations that everyone expected in the literature of the time? Here is a book with all the elements of an intensely romantic adventure tale of far away and long ago, and the author turns down innumerable chances to please his public!

7. For the professional religionist, what John Chrysostom called "the wise economy of a useful deception," i.e., religious double-talk, has been ever since his day a condition of survival and success. But there is little of this in the Book of Mormon. There are few plays on words, few rhetorical subtleties, no reveling in abstract terms, no excess of esoteric language or doctrine to require the trained interpreter. This is not a "mystic" text, though mysticism is the surest refuge for any religious quack who thinks he might be running a risk. The lone investigator feels the direct impact of the concrete terms; he is never in doubt as to what they mean. This is not the language of one trying to fool others or who has ever had any experiences in fooling others.

8. Our examiner is struck by the limited vocabulary of the Book of Mormon. Taken in connection with the size and nature of the book, this is very significant. Whoever wrote the book must have been a very intelligent and experienced person; yet such people in 1830 did not produce books with rudimentary vocabularies. This cannot be the work of any simple clown, but neither can it be that of an able and educated contemporary.

9. The extremely limited vocabulary suggests another piece of internal evidence to the reader. The Book of Mormon never makes any attempt to be clever. This, says Blass, is a test no forger can pass. The Achilles' heel of the smart impostor is vanity. The man who practices fraud to gain an ascendancy and assert his superiority over others cannot forego the pleasure of enjoying that superiority. The islander does not know it, but recent attempts to account for Joseph Smith claim to discover the key to his character in an overpowering ambition to outsmart people. Why then doesn't he ever try to show how clever he is? Where are the big words and the deep mysteries? There is no cleverness in the Book of Mormon. It was not written by a deceiver.

10. Since it claims to be translated by divine power, the Book of Mormon also claims all the authority—and responsibility—of the original text. The author leaves himself no philological loopholes, though the book, stemming from a number of nations and languages, offers opportunity for many of them. It is a humble document of intensely moral tone, but it does not flinch at reporting unsavory incidents not calculated to please people who think that any mention of horror or bloodshed should be deleted from religious writing.

Next up: External Evidences