Did the Exodus Happen? A Case Where Evidence of “Plagiarism” May Be Evidence of Authenticity in the Biblical Record

Here’s a case in which evidence of “plagiarism” in the Bible may actually be evidence for the authenticity of the record of the Exodus. Fascinating story. See Joshua Berman, “Was There an Exodus?,Mosaic, March 2, 2015, at Mosaicmagazine.com.

Given the “sustained absence of evidence” for the biblical Exodus (no Egyptian records confirming it, no obvious evidence from the Sinai, etc.), many scholars now question whether it ever really happened. But as Berman points out, once we recognize that the translation of numbers in the Old Testament pose many opportunities for inflation, the absence of evidence is less problematic. Why would the Egyptians advertize the fact that they failed to control a batch of slaves who escaped?

Berman also notes that there are some lines of evidence that support the plausibility of several parts of the account, but still, we have been without clear, direct evidence for the Exodus itself. However, Berman offers new evidence for the authenticity of the Exodus account, based on what one might call evidence of plagiarism from an Egyptian account, the Kadesh poem about Ramses II. The Hebrew text appears to incorporate numerous unique elements from the Egyptian source, but using it to tell the story of God’s victory rather than Pharaoh’s. Incorporating these details required knowledge of Egyptian lore and culture that would not likely have been accessible to a later Hebrew author. With these newly recognized details before us, the origins of the Exodus account are consistent with Hebrews in captivity in Egypt who came to Israel. Berman sums it up this way:

[T]he evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that
the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion,
which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much
attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my
view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of
a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which
to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the
terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In
appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the
claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of
the greatest earthly potentate.

When Jews around the world gather on the night of Passover to
celebrate the exodus and liberation from Egyptian oppression, they can
speak the words of the Haggadah, “We were slaves to a pharaoh in Egypt,”
with confidence and integrity, without recourse to an enormous leap of
faith and with no need to construe those words as mere metaphor. A
plausible reading of the evidence is on their side.

Berman properly recognizes that parallels can occur in many unrelated works, something we see frequently among critics trying to find evidence of Book of Mormon plagiarism from a list of sources that grows longer every few months. However, Berman points to a totality of many unique details that make a strong case for a relationship between the Exodus account and Egyptian sources. This is a case where apparent “plagiarism” in a scriptural text actually provides evidence supporting its authenticity. With Passover nearing, this is food for thought as we contemplate the Exodus and its intricate role in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It’s a story that I believe goes beyond metaphor, but is reflected in ancient reality.

Special thanks to Jared A. (twitter.com/JaredAllebest) for calling this article to my attention.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

53 thoughts on “Did the Exodus Happen? A Case Where Evidence of “Plagiarism” May Be Evidence of Authenticity in the Biblical Record

  1. Great post Jeff. I make a similar point about numbers in the BoM. If they are "wrong" for whatever reason, that puts it in similar company with other ancient records that were also wrong. I have a preliminary discussion of it here: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2013/05/military-participation-ratio-and-wrong.html

    And here: http://mormonwar.blogspot.com/2009/12/millions-in-book-of-mormon.html

    I have a more formal discussion of it in my next book so stay tuned. 🙂 Thanks again for the post.

  2. On close inspection of the Bible it clearly fails to live up to the miraculous oracular status that some people claim for it. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, with ample evidence of all the confusion that implies. If the Bible is also the word of God, it's because God chose to communicate through a collection of ancient writings.

    The Bible really is a collection of ancient writings, however. That's actually quite something all by itself. However big an event the Exodus really was, even whether or not it happened at all, its story is a foundational religious text from a long time ago, when human civilization was primitive and life was hard. That may not be enough for everyone, but it's quite a big deal for anyone. For good or ill, the Bible is a significant part of human culture.

    Atheists and liberal believers and adherents of non-Biblical religions all acknowledge that the Bible is ancient. Passages from it have shown up in ancient archaeological sites and been quoted in many other ancient texts. In this sense the Bible is definitely one of those things that, once you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. In contrast, the Book of Mormon would also be a collection of ancient writings — but only if you believe in a particular 19th century miracle. Does anyone ever disbelieve in Joseph Smith's revelation and yet still consider the Book of Mormon an important record of ancient times?

  3. Well put, James. The ancientness of the Bible "is definitely one of those things that, once you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

    One reason the Bible is, as you say, a "significant part of human culture" is its greatness as literature. One doesn't have to be a believer, merely a human being, to appreciate the incredible beauty and power of the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the David story, the Book of Isaiah, the Song of Songs, some of Paul's letters, etc., etc.

    These words from the Book of Ruth are recited at weddings (religious and secular alike) to this day:

    Intreat me not to leave thee,
    or to return from following after thee:
    for whither thou goest, I will go;
    and where thou lodgest, I will lodge:
    thy people shall be my people,
    and thy God my God:
    Where thou diest, will I die,
    and there will I be buried:
    the Lord do so to me, and more also,
    if ought but death part thee and me.

    One could cite a hundred or more similar passages to drive home the point that, when it comes to literary artistry, there is nothing that is original to the Book of Mormon that is even remotely comparable to the Bible.

    One explanation for this remarkable literary quality is that the Bible is a collection of the "best of the best," of a wide variety of works written and preserved across more than a thousand years and winnowed down over time to include only the the most powerful before being assembled and redacted into the book we have today.

    The Book of Mormon claims to be a similar collection, written and collected and abridged over many centuries, but its monotonous literary mediocrity argues otherwise.

  4. OrKo, that is a beautiful passage from Ruth. To love it is no reason to ignore the beauty in the Book of Mormon. This passage in Ether 12, for example, tells me in simple language how to treat others (even on the internet), and how to work with God to make weak things strong. To me it is also great language.

    26Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;

    27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

    Mark Steele

  5. Well, Mark, I believe you when you say you find that passage beautiful and profound. But I don't find it so; to me it's just vapid theology, and not particularly well expressed.

    Unlike the Ruth passage, it doesn't spring from universal human experience. It's scope and appeal are Mormon, not human.

    The Bible resonates with you and me both, because it speaks to the human condition we both share. The Book of Mormon resonates only with the Mormon.

  6. A lot of perceived beauty in the Bible is a matter of translation. I've never studied Hebrew, but I took a little bit of Greek once, and I remember being told that much of the New Testament is pretty crudely written, though a few books are exceptions.

    The Christian Bible seems to me to stand out among sacred texts, in fact, as being all about translation. The New Testament quotes the Old Testament in its ancient Greek translation, and although one or two gospel episodes imply that Jesus could read Hebrew, he seems to have spoken Aramaic normally. The Christian view was that this guy was God incarnate, and the earliest Christian texts seem to have been just collections of Jesus's sayings; but nobody since very early times seems to have thought it important to record his exact words. From the beginning, all that mattered was their meaning.

    Maybe it goes back to the fact that Jesus taught in parables. The medium was just a vehicle. If you have ears to hear, hear.

    The New Testament was never on golden plates, and it had no single authoritative version. Rival versions of the gospels exist, and some seem to be just as old as the canonical ones. In fact it took centuries to settle on which texts were part of the canon, and even today the whole eastern half of Christendom has reservations about the book of Revelation. If God really spoke through the New Testament, I'd say that shows God isn't really fussy about provenance, but trusts us to recognize the message however it comes.

    So I guess I'm kind of getting some focus on something that has always vaguely bothered me about the Book of Mormon. On the one hand it's this collection of ancient texts. It's not just a long sermon dictated by God in explicitly 19th century terms for a 19th century audience. Yet on the other hand it didn't come naturally and organically and continuously out of ancient culture, with faithfully preserved manuscripts among aboriginal tribes and ample archaeological evidence. It was translated, but miraculously.

    Apart from its actual content, the Book of Mormon would seem to be a radically different style of revelation from the Bible. Yet it extensively quotes the Bible, and it asks me to believe that it is another revelation from the same God.

    Obviously this isn't exactly evidence or argument against the Book of Mormon. Maybe God just did things differently that time. But an important part of deciding what to believe is a sort of subconscious resonance; you hear a voice you feel you can trust. To connect back to Jeff's post, the fact that the Hebrew Bible may have copied Egyptian propaganda is to me an example of how God works within the real world, since the real world is after all God's world. The whole way that the Book of Mormon supposedly came about is in contrast a jarring mixture of worldly and otherworldly that just does not sound to me like the God I think I know.

  7. Orbiting Kolob,

    You don't like the Book of Mormon and that we all understand. And to call it vapid theology is to further drive home the point that the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to bring people to Christ, not to provide theological depth. The verse quoted from Ruth is very beautiful but also not very deep theologically. Could we also say that this verse is vapid?


  8. Orbiting Kolob,

    Those verses from Ether 12 that you find vapid are really just a re-write of 2Corinthians 12:7-10.

  9. [T]o call it vapid theology is to further drive home the point that the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to bring people to Christ, not to provide theological depth.

    Steve, the BoM seems to have purposes beyond simply bringing people to Christ. Many others in the religion-mad 1820s were bringing people to Christ by the tens of thousands, without going to all the trouble of writing an entirely new scripture.

    My own sense is that Joseph Smith had many other purposes in mind, among them the fusion of his Christianity with his patriotism — hence a putatively ancient book that gave America something it had previously lacked: a role in the Christian sacred story, and a scripture to back up that role.

    Smith did not simply want to bring people to Christ; he wanted to center Zion in America. In this he was simply making literal what the Puritans had long felt as metaphor. The result is a blend of nationalism and religion that I find tremendously interesting. Anyway, it's not that I dislike the BoM; what I dislike are the claims so often made on its behalf. I rather like the historically fascinating document that it really is, but I hardly think it's the greatest thing since peanut butter.

    The verse quoted from Ruth is very beautiful but also not very deep theologically. Could we also say that this verse is vapid?

    No, it's not vapid at all, because it's so deeply rooted in the human condition. Ruth's story is universally accessible because she finds herself in a position all humans tend to find themselves in, namely, torn between her personal feelings and the expectations of her society. The Book of Ruth draws on emotions that we all share, etc.

    I don't have time to run through the whole schtick on what makes great literature great — I'll assume you've been to college and heard it already. The point is not simply that Ruth is great literature, but that one of the preconditions of its greatness is its depiction of real people whose lives are rooted in a real world. One of the signs of the BoM's inauthenticity is that we don't see such real people and such real worlds in it.

    By way of example, think about the absence of women in the world of the BoM. Real cultures have women in them! Real women, women with names, women who play important roles in their societies. There are more than a hundred such women in the Bible, but where are they in the BoM? This is not a feminist question, but a question about historicity (and also, I suppose, about one of the worst limitations of Joseph Smith's imagination).

    In real societies, people do more than simply spout theology, apostatize, sail in fantastic watercraft across the seas, fight wars, and talk Bible talk. But these are about all that is ever done by the characters in the BoM. Those characters do not live in the real world at all. They do not fall in love. They do not in any humanly believable way experience lust. They do not find themselves caught between personal need and the dictates of their society (like Ruth, and David, and Bathsheba) or between the platitudes of their theology and the realities of their experience (like Job). They do not grow from innocence to experience (like Adam and Eve, or like David) or negotiate the complex social politics of a real culture (like Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz; like Jesus, the Pharisees, Herod, and Pilate; like Uriah, Joab, and David).

    To any modestly discriminating reader it is obvious that the world of the BoM is not a real, historical world at all. There are no real people in it, nor any real life being lived in it. There's nothing behind it but the mind of Joseph Smith, and nothing in front of it but a dogged will to believe. There's simply no "there" there.

  10. Those verses from Ether 12 that you find vapid are really just a re-write of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

    Yes, Androcles — the "thorn in the flesh" passage. Where Paul took lemons and made lemonade, Smith took Paul and made a hash.

  11. Orbiting Kolob,

    I do enjoy your analysis. I did not say that the verse from Ruth was not deep, I merely said that it was not theologically deep, after all, that was the contention. As far as the purpose of the Book of Mormon, I will have to take at face value from the title page "And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ,…"

    I don't mind if God wanted to establish Zion in North America. And it can be a shame that some of God's prophets cannot write scintillating prose and poetry but I don't hold that against them either.


  12. Thank you for the civility of your responses, Steve. I guess all I've really been trying to do here is build on James Anglin's observations above and explain why it is that, even though I'm not a believer, the Bible speaks to me as an ancient witness and the Book of Mormon, while I find it very interesting, does not.

  13. Orbiting, your analysis of the humanity in the Book of Mormon is interesting. I have several things to say, so this may take a few posts.

    Women: I will grant you that in terms of women mentioned by name, the Bible wins. According to
    Quora, there are 3,237 unique characters named in the Bible. Of those, 188 are women, so just under 6% of the people named are female. In contrast, the Book of Mormon has, by my count, 206 names that are not characters from the bible (see here). Of those, 3 are female (Sariah, Abish, and Isabel). So that's not quite 1.5%. Thus, the Bible mentions ~4X as many women by name as the Book of Mormon does. I will point out, though, that in both cases women are very much under represented compared to men.

    Also, there are several women in the Book of Mormon who, while not mentioned by name, play very important roles in different stories, both positive and negative. Sariah goes through murmuring and repentance, she displays great love for her sons (see 1 Nephi 5), and her afflictions on the ship have a profound affect on others, particularly Jacob and Joseph. Nephi's wife (and other women in the company) work alongside him on their journey, and some of the daughters of Ishmael end up causing the company quite a bit of grief. Abish is indispensable in the conversion of thousands. She goes through both sorrow and joy on that journey. King Lamoni's wife and his father's wife are both similarly instrumental, and also go through both trials and joy. Isabel helps lead Corianton into sin, causing him and others pain. The maid servant of Morianton brought word to Captain Moroni of what was going on with Morianton, helping to head off what otherwise would have been a huge problem (Lamanites to the south, Moriantonites to the north. See Alma 50). The daughter of Jared 2 in Ether ended up bringing about huge problems for the Jaredites as a result of her seducing Akish (see Ether 8). And let us not forget the mothers of the Stripling Warriors and their incredible examples to their sons.

  14. You bring up some instances of the human condition as found in the Bible, and claim they are absent in the Book of Mormon.

    Falling in Love: It seems clear enough to me that Nephi was in love with his wife. He was certainly aware of his wife's tears in times of trouble. Lehi was very concerned for Sariah's well-being, and they both dearly loved their children (See 1 Nephi 5, 8). The lamanites loved their wives. The Nephite armies held their wives and children as motivation for all they did, as is referenced many times in the war chapters of Alma. A similar sentiment is expressed by Mormon in Mormon 2:23. Perhaps you were saying that we don't see the actual love stories. That I will agree with, but it seems quite evident that these people did fall in love.

    Lust: You claim there is no believable instance of lust in the Book of Mormon. Corianton went after a harlot while on his mission. I find that believable enough, since similar things happened on my mission. Jared's daughter seduced Akish. That story is actually very similar to the story of John the Baptist's death in the Bible. You may claim this as an instance of plagiarism, though that is for another debate. But certainly this sort of lust happens among humanity. The Nephites of King Jacob's time lusted after women, as did King Noah. Throughout history there have been instances of such lust.

  15. Personal vs Societal needs: You say there are no Book of Mormon instances of this. Yet King Mosiah II had to figure out what to do when his son Aaron would not accept the kingdom, and the people needed a king. "Do I give the Kingdom to someone else? That could destroy my son, but we need a government." Ultimately he found a solution in the reign of the judges. The reign of the judges, of course, had its own set of problems, such as when Pahoran died and when the Gadianton robbers rose. No one would take the judgement seat for fear of death, except Helaman, who was apparently willing to put the needs of the people above his own. A similar situation to King Mosiah's happened with the Brother of Jared. The people of Ammon had to decide whether to break their covenant not to fight, or to help the Nephites defend themselves. Ultimately the Strippling Warriors rose up to help. Mormon faced a similar issue in his day: "Do I lead my wicked people into battle?"

    Religious platitudes vs real life: Did anyone in the Book of Mormon struggle here? Amulek did when the people of Ammonihah were being burned. "God protects His people, so why not them? Shouldn't we save them, Alma?" The people of Alma the Elder were doing their best to follow God, and yet were brought into bondage. Nephi and Lehi loved Laman and Lemuel and wanted them to come to Christ, but had to deal with the reality of their rebellion, even in the form of attempts on their lives. Talk about a dysfunctional family.

    Innocence to Experience: Nephi went from "Let's ask Laban nicely" to "Let's offer to buy the plates" to "I'm gonna have to take the plates by force." He also had to learn to deal with increasingly difficult problems with his brothers as well as various trials in the wilderness. Jacob grew from a state of dependance upon his mother (see first Nephi 18) to a bold defender of the faith. Enos grew from a guy who didn't think seriously about God to a guy who had a very personal relationship with Him. He grew from a sort of self interest to an interest in his people to an interest in the welfare of his enemies. And this extended not only to his prayers but to his actions.

    Complex social politics: Alma the Elder had to figure out what to do with dissenters in the church. "Do I judge them? Does King Mosiah judge them? What in the world do I do with them?" A similar experience happened with Korihor. Alma the younger had to work out how to handle the people at Amonihah- "I'm not the chief judge anymore. How do I help these people?" He also had to weigh dealing with the rich and the poor among the Zoramites. Nephi II had to deal with the judges and the people generally when they came to his garden. Perhaps most notably, Captain Moroni had to deal with lots of things. "How do I pay sufficient attention to the attacks from without and the attacks from within? Do I need to go knock some sense into Pahoran? How do I get the people to rally to our cause? What do I do with those who will not?"

    I find the Book of Mormon to be not only beautiful, but quite relevant to the human condition.

  16. Ryan, you've said quite a bit more here than I can respond to just now. Let me just use one of your examples to illustrate my own point.

    Here's the way Sariah, who dies indeed love her sons, reacts to their safe return:

    And when we had returned to the tent of my father, behold their joy was full, and my mother was comforted. And she spake, saying: Now I know of a surety that the Lord hath commanded my husband to flee into the wilderness; yea, and I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban, and given them power whereby they could accomplish the thing which the Lord hath commanded them. And after this manner of language did she speak.

    This is not the expression of genuine human emotion; it is human character sacrificed in the name of theological pronouncement. There's merely the briefest, most abstract mention of her emotion, using what writing instructors call "telling" rather than "showing." Note how many words are devoted to her renewed religious fealty (58 by my count) compared to her actual human emotion (9).

    Sariah's words do not advance a plot; they buttress a theology. Those who happen to embrace that theology will be moved by this sort of dialogue; those who do not will find it wooden. The literary power here is specifically Mormon, not universally human.

    Compare the BoM's depiction of Sariah to 2 Samuel 18, where David learns of the death of his rebellious son:

    And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

    Note how universally and movingly human the emotion is here, and how it overwhelms any particular theology. This is the sort of thing I mean. This is why I say that the BoM speaks only to Mormons, whereas the Bible speaks to everyone.

    More later if I have time.

  17. Ok, I think I see what you are saying now. Before, it seemed to me that you were saying certain aspects of the human condition were completely absent from the Book of Mormon, and that is what bothered me. It sounds like what you are really saying is that the bible does a better job of conveying those things where they are present. On that point you may be correct. Just a couple of thoughts on that point, though.

    1) Whatever the merits and flaws in the Book of Mormon, it does speak to people of other faiths or of no faith. Every year thousands of people outside the church are moved enough by the Book of Mormon to act in such a way as to drastically change their lives. Whether one should make such changes based on feelings is, again, a topic for another discussion, but certainly the Book of Mormon leads people both in and out of the church to feel something real.

    2) Though Sariah's case there may not be the best example, I maintain that there are instances in the Book of Mormon where true human emotion and struggles are conveyed, though I admit they tend to be entwined with theological ideas. The psalm of Nephi, for example:
    "My heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me."
    Or, again, Amulek at Amonihah:
    "And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames."
    Or Mormon's lamentation for his people:
    "And my soul was rent with anguish, because of the slain of my people, and I cried: O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord!…Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows can not bring your return."

    There are other examples too. Perhaps they don't speak to you, but they do to me, and to thousands of members and investigators every year.

  18. I can believe that many people are profoundly moved by the Book of Mormon, even though for me it really just seems like a long aria of false notes. People bring their own experiences and expectations to a text, and read different things into it. That's bias and projection, but bias and projection are unavoidable: all reading is like that. "Reading into" is what reading is.

    Humans live by seeing patterns, but even though the experience of recognizing a pattern often feels as though the pattern has simply leapt up and revealed itself, actually pattern perception is a complicated interaction between perceiver and perceived.

    One sees a bit of what is going on with all images by looking at bistable images, like the famous one with two faces and a vase, or like the turning ballerina GIF that can spin in either direction. You can look at the same data, and if your mind starts by trying to fit it into one form, it succeeds. Certain aspects of the data get highlighted and others fade out. Start from a different assumption, however, and the pieces all fall into place for it, too; the accents and suppressions that make the different pattern stand out will be different, but the impression of a coherent pattern is just as clear.

    I think religious belief is usually about that kind of pattern recognition, rather than about deduction or inference. I'm interested in how people may change their religious beliefs; I think that the change must often be catastrophic — in the mathematical sense. Perceptual accenting and suppression can stretch and stretch to maintain a sense of coherent pattern, but at some point they sort of snap, and the pattern is suddenly gone.

    The transition from theism to atheism often seems to be like that, but so does the opposite transition, at least sometimes. I myself am a theist who considers it blasphemous to accuse God of punishing people for mistaken beliefs. In fact I have an idea that God is probably much more interested in belief transitions, in either direction, than in stable beliefs. But maybe I'm just projecting my own interests on God. Belief is always like that, I believe.

  19. I don't mean to threadjack, but I've been an adult for decades and still don't understand why people like James and OrKo think it's even remotely acceptable to attempt to trash others' deeply held beliefs and holy writings.

    There's no honor, no sense of personal ethics in doing so. If I had to guess a motive, I would assume it was the thrill of the chase, that it was something like fox hunting, but it honestly boggles the mind.

  20. A lot of interesting points have been brought up in this discussion.

    I wouldn't get too worked up by the (admittedly eloquent) musings of James and Orbiting. Their posts are like everyone's – saying more about themselves than the object of their (at times) contempt.

    Saying that the language used in the BoM appeals only to Mormons is obviously erroneous, but it does bring up an interesting reminder. Of all the things Mormon could have chosen to include in his abridgement, he obviously chose the things that appealed to him, "Mormon," as guided by the spirit.

    Jeffery R. Holland wrote about this back in 1978, referenced here.

    Seeing as what was included in the BoM came from what he said was not even a "hundredth part" of other records he had at his disposal, maybe he tried to leave out some of the "fluff" and stick mostly to spiritual principles.

    It is also interesting that some would look at certain aspects of the BoM as evidence of a lack of imagination on the part of Joseph (the treatment of women, the less than poetic language), and yet opine that he must have been extremely imaginative, bordering on genius, to have produced such a volume as he did on his own. If either of these scenarios are to be believed, which is it?

    As to the recognition of patterns, I agree that the ability to perceive any given one depends on many factors. I like how the Lord's parables employ this very principle. Only those who had "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" those patterns – and their implications – did so. I've noticed also that as we live our lives, certain patterns and applicable teachings seem to jump out at us more at some times than others.

  21. I … don't understand why people … think it's even remotely acceptable to attempt to trash others' deeply held beliefs and holy writings.

    Good grief, Anonymous. Not only is arguing over "deeply held beliefs" acceptable, it's one of the most important ways that citizens participate in a liberal democracy.

    Think about it. You will, I hope, agree with me that our "deeply held beliefs" are important — among other reasons because they shape the way we act in the world. People's religious beliefs are not important solely for the individual who holds them. They're not a purely private matter.

    To the extent (sometimes very considerable) that they help shape the world that all of us live in, personal religious beliefs are a public matter as well.

    Consider the fact that the LDS Church (1) has very strong views on certain political issues, and (2) proselytizes very vigorously. The Church's growth has an obvious effect on the political culture. To put it way too crudely: the more Mormons, the more votes against gay marriage. The more secular humanists, the more votes for gay marriage.

    Now, every engaged citizen has a vision of what our public life should be, what freedom and justice mean, etc., and in a liberal democracy every citizen has the right, perhaps even the duty, to work peacefully to realize that vision.

    If the citizens don't do this, who will?

    Mormons have the right to work against gay marriage, and to do so not only on the "surface" level, by working for or against the passage of certain laws, but also on the "deep" level of values — by working to persuade people that their own deeply held values are better than secular-humanist values or liberal-Christian values or whatever.

    James Anglin also has that right. So do I. We all do.

    This is very basic stuff: Citizenship 101. Why in the world would anyone (well, anyone who understands the workings of democracy) say that there is "no honor, no sense of personal ethics" in arguing over basic beliefs?

    I suppose we could limit ourselves to arguing over things like sports, but to me it makes more sense to argue over things that really matter.

    You can call it "trashing people's beliefs" if you want to, but I call it citizenship.

    P.S. Let's keep in mind that not too long ago, high-ranking Mormons routinely referred to the Catholic Church as "the Church of the Devil," "the Anti-Christ," "the whore of all the earth," and so on. Now that's trashing religion! Things here on Mormanity get a bit heated at times, but as far as I know no one here spews out anything like that sort of vitriol.

  22. It is also interesting that some would look at certain aspects of the BoM as evidence of a lack of imagination on the part of Joseph … and yet opine that he must have been extremely imaginative…. If either of these scenarios are to be believed, which is it?

    This is an easy one, bearyb. To ask "Which is it?" in this case is to engage in false dichotomy.

    Things like genius and imagination can, and typically do, run on various tracks. Just as a composer can be a musical genius in classical but not hip hop, so one can be a writer who is tremendously imaginative in spinning yarns about religious disputation, relations between brothers, and Native American history, but not about women.

    A good example here is Herman Melville. He could write brilliantly and at great length about sailing and whaling, about relations between men, etc., but he couldn't write a believable woman character to save his soul. Yet Melville was highly imaginative, even a genius, in his own way, and so was Joseph Smith.

  23. I'm not coming into any LDS Sunday schools and badmouthing the Book of Mormon. I don't want anyone else disrupting my own church's services on Sunday morning, either. Believers have a right to get together among fellow believers without anyone trashing their deeply held beliefs.

    Here, however, the blog title says "not just for Mormons", and many of its posts discuss arguments and evidence about the authenticity of the Mormon scriptures. Jeff clearly states he wants only civil and intelligent comments, and no anti-Mormon links (or political spam). Since he is forthright about those restrictions, but does not say anything about expressing disbelief in Mormonism, I assume that critical viewpoints are welcome here, as long as they are civil and reasonably intelligent.

    Since Jeff Lindsay is writing a blog like this, I figure I probably agree with him on at least one basic thing, which is that truth matters more than comfort. We might well also agree that a certain amount of discomfort is to be expected, even welcomed, if one is looking for truth about God.

    I've met Mormon missionaries who went out of their way — traveled into another country even — in order tell me about their beliefs, which went against deeply held beliefs of my own. The polite young men in white shirts with black name tags were indeed civil and intelligent, and I was happy to listen to them. Jeff seems to be willing to let that work both ways, and I think it's a credit to him and to his faith.

  24. I do enjoy comments made by those not of our faith. It helps me better understand their points of view and reminds me of some things I should get to know more about.

    Points on "imagination" well taken though, obviously, I don't agree with what that might imply concerning the origins of the BoM.

    For some reason, this statement by Orbiting –

    "…working to persuade people that their own deeply held values are better than secular-humanist values or liberal-Christian values or whatever"

    – doesn't sit well with me. It takes a bit of assumption to conclude that any particular value is better than another for a given person. While the BoM makes crystal clear that we are presented with basically two choices (as in 2 Nephi 2:27), it doesn't presume to say which of them is better. Sure, we could guess at which is likely the more favorable outcome, but it is totally up to us to choose.

    My point is that, when the time comes, and depending on what we have become by our choices, our meeting the Savior will be either "great" or "dreadful." Eventually we will end up where we should be, meaning that for some, a "higher plane" of existence will decidedly NOT be "better."

  25. Well this has been an interesting discussion. I love literature, and I have found the comparisons between the Bible and the Book of Mormon as literature to be intriguing.

    And James, I understand you are not a Mormon, but your description of the perception of patterns being stretched until it snaps is most relevant to any discussion of Mormonism. Here's why:

    Within Mormon dialogue, particularly the kind of dialogue you'll hear if you sit in a Ward Council or PEC meeting, one may occasionally hear discussion about those who are no longer "active" in the church, or those who have apostatized. These unfortunate souls have "lost the Spirit," and therefore are unable to discern truth. They have turned against the church and its leaders, and now fight against God, having been deceived by the adversary.

    I've sat in my fair share of meetings to know the jargon. And yes, I've used it myself.

    But this "loss of the Spirit" which makes one unable to "discern truth" is nothing more than James's snapping of the stretched "accenting and suppression."

    There are two patterns by which one can view Mormonism. In the believing pattern, the church is everything it says it is. In the pattern of disbelief, the church is a multi-billion dollar corporation playing the high stakes game of business and finance. Faithful members must suppress viewpoints that discourage disbelief. They really do "choose" to believe.

    However, the "loss of the Spirit" of those who no longer believe is not really a loss of the Spirit of God at all. It is simply a reversal of that which is accented and that which is suppressed.

    I would contend that this Spirit that helps faithful members see the appropriate patterns is not really the Spirit of God at all, but the spirit of illusion. Those who have been lulled into the sleep of belief by this powerful illusion enjoy a high degree of comfort. It is hard to break this comfort. It is not a pleasant feeling. It is the feeling that faithful Mormons describe as the "Spirit leaving." It is described as the dark confusing feeling of the adversary. They are conditioned to flee from it and retrench more firmly in their faith. But it is not that at all. It is just the snapping of the stretched pattern perceptions. Having traversed this terrain myself and having found myself completely on the other side, I can guarantee that I haven't lost the Spirit of God. I actually found it over here. I have only lost an illusion.

  26. It takes a bit of assumption to conclude that any particular value is better than another for a given person….

    Well, yes, bearyb — it does take a bit of an assumption. The assumption is simply this: Not only do I believe that X is right for me, but that, if only you will attend to my reasoning, you will see that X is also right for you.

    It seems to me this an assumption that you make, and that I make, and that the Church itself makes. If we don't make this assumption, what's the point of putting our reasoning out there in the first place?

    I would say that if one is going to argue for one value over another — which, again, is something most of us do here on Mormanity — this assumption is simply the price of admission.

  27. Since the original post was about the Exodus, and since Passover is approaching, and since one of the reasons the Exodus matters is the role it played in the formation of the Jewish religion and people, I thought I would give everyone here a bit of a treat — namely, the following remarks by the great philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

    As you read, think "Joseph Smith" and Mormons" whenever Rousseau says "Moses" and "Jews":

    I look at modern nations: I see many lawmakers among them but not a single lawgiver. Among the ancients I see three principal ones who deserve particular attention: Moses, Lycurgus, and Numa. All three devoted their principal cares to objects which our learned men would consider laughable. All three achieved successes which would be thought impossible if they were not so well attested.

    The first formed and executed the astonishing enterprise of instituting as a national body a swarm of wretched fugitives who had no arts, no weapons, no talents, no virtues, no courage, and who, since they had not an inch of territory of their own, were a troop of strangers upon the face of the earth. Moses dared to make out of this wandering and servile troop a body politic, a free people, and while it wandered in the wilderness without so much as a stone on which to rest its head, he gave it the lasting institution, proof against time, fortune and conquerors which five thousand years have not been able to destroy or even to weaken, and which still subsists today in all its force even though the body of the nation no longer does.

    To keep his people from being absorbed by foreign peoples, he gave it morals and practices which could not be blended with those of the other nations; he weighed it down with distinctive rites and ceremonies; he constrained it in a thousand ways in order to keep it constantly alert and to make it forever a stranger among other men, and all the bonds of fraternity he introduced among members of his republic were as many barriers which kept it separated from its neighbors and prevented it from mingling with them. This is how this singular nation, so often subjugated, so often scattered and apparently destroyed, yet ever idolizing its rule, has nevertheless maintained itself down to our days, scattered among the other nations without ever merging with them, and how its morals, its laws, its rites subsist and will endure as long as the world itself does, in spite of the hatred and persecution by the rest of mankind.

    Whatever else one may say about Joseph Smith, he was very much a "lawgiver" in the sense Rousseau uses above. Smith has done something like what Moses is said to have done: he has created not just a new religion but also a distinct people, more or less out of thin air, that so far has proved durable in the face of adversity.

    Whether Mormonism will still be around in 5,000 years is of course an open question, but still, the parallels between Joseph Smith and Rousseau's Moses are pretty striking.

    (h/t Corey Robin)

  28. Orbiting.

    Interesting thought about Moses and Joseph Smith. And I think Joseph Smith would agree. I think he even declared as much when he uses the Book of Mormon 2 Nephi 3 to prophecy of himself as a prophet "like unto Moses."

    From the Christian perspective, this is absolutely blasphemous. Moses, in Deuteronomy prophecies that such a prophet will be raised up, but he is referring not to Joseph Smith, but to Christ, as can be discerned from Acts 3:22-26.

    Paul says that the law came through Moses, but grace and truth through Christ. So, even in the New Testament we have a comparison between Moses and Christ. Not Moses and Joseph Smith.

    In James, there is a distinction made between the Royal Law (Law of Moses) and the Law of Liberty (Grace of God through Christ).

    Smith was indeed a lawgiver like unto Moses because Smith and the Church instituted a new law like unto the Royal Law.

    What does James say about the Royal Law? If you stumble in one point of it, you break the entirety of it.

    And what does Satan tell you about the new law you covenant to live in the temple? If you fail to live up to ALL you covenant, you will be in his power.

    The Law of the Gospel found in Mormonism functions the same way as the Royal Law described by James. Both of them are a curse, just as Paul declares in Romans.

    These laws both give sin its strength. And the wages of sin is death. Those who are justified by these laws are fallen from grace.

    But James says we should live as if we'll be judged by the Law of Liberty, rather than the Royal Law: "Show mercy, you'll receive mercy" Essentially echoing the words of John, "All the law if fulfilled in this: love one another."

  29. Interesting as this thread is, before we get too far off topic (and it's probably already too late), what do people think of Berman's argument? I haven't read the original article, but as I understand it from Mormanity's summary:

    1. We shouldn't expect evidence for a historical exodus because there were probably fewer Israelites than suggested by the text.

    2. The Exodus account shows familiarity with Egyptian culture that wouldn't be expected in a later Hebrew author, suggesting that the account is more likely historical.

    If these arguments sound familiar, that's because they're favorites of LDS apologists for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Many of their arguments can be summarized as 1) the Nephite civilization was small enough that we shouldn't expect to find much evidence for it, and 2) the Book of Mormon contains elements of ancient Hebrew language and culture with which Joseph Smith couldn't be familiar.

    No doubt Mormanity is a fan of Berman's article.

  30. I think the Exodus argument has another point to it: later Hebrew writers who were making up Exodus as propaganda would not have wanted to copy an old Egyptian panegyric to a long dead pharaoh, even if they could.

    They should not have been driven to plagiarize because they lacked words of their own, for If they were already up to inventing an entire national epic from whole cloth, they should have been able to whip off an original psalm of praise without breaking a sweat. And if they were ideologically driven to make up a story that paints their ancestors in a poor light, while exalting their God, it seems strange to think they'd be bold enough to praise that God in words borrowed from pharaoh.

    A lot of evidence for Biblical authenticity is like this, actually. When details that can only have been awkward or embarrassing for later editors are nonetheless included, the most plausible explanation is that the later editors could not revise or omit them because they were already too widely accepted as fact — perhaps because they did really occur. A plagiarized psalm of praise would probably have been embarrassing for later Hebrew compilers, so the most plausible explanation for its presence in Exodus is that it was already established in an older tradition which they could not ignore.

    So goes the Biblical argument, at any rate, as I understand it. With the Book of Mormon, however, it seems to me that this aspect to the Biblical argument is missing. The other line of reasoning, about how Smith could not have put in Hebraisms, might still work; but if Smith's knowledge of ancient Hebrew should somehow have been greater than expected — or if writing stuff that happens to look ancient Hebrew-ish should turn out to be easier than it seems — then the wouldn't-want-to-do-it argument is not there for the Book of Mormon. A deceiving Smith would indeed have had every motivation to pack his text as full of ancient Hebraisms as he could.

  31. Yes, the criterion of embarrassment. One major problem with this criterion, however, is that scripture is usually generated in an environment of competing religious factions. What's embarrassing to one faction isn't embarrassing to another. Rival priestly groups would have no problem with portraying Aaron in an embarrassing light, for example, just as followers of Paul would have no problem with portraying Peter or James in an unflattering way. It goes too far to conclude that the embarrassment implies historicity.

  32. Huh. Yes, that seems like a good point as far as some arguments from embarrassment are concerned. I don't think it counts against all embarrassment arguments, though.

    The tradition that Jesus was from Nazareth, for example, would seem to be embarrassing to anyone who wanted to make Jesus out to be the Messiah, because Nazareth was a one-donkey village out in the sticks. (I understand that no prophecy 'He shall be called a Nazarene' has ever been found outside the gospel verses that point to Jesus as fulfilling it.)

    I can't think of a faction that would be making up Exodus and also want to plagiarize a pharaonic paean. But the point that different people can be embarrassed about different things is well taken in general.

  33. Oh, maybe I can think of a faction like that. Maybe somebody who contributed to Exodus was making it up as a story about the Hebrew God triumphing over the Egyptians, and maybe this writer didn't have a very lofty monotheism, but more of a nationalistic polytheism, so that they didn't find it incongruous or blasphemous to make God and pharaoh out to be rough peers. So then maybe this writer deliberately transferred the praises of pharaoh to God, as a sort of victory dance.

  34. Hi Everythingbeforeus,

    It must have been a while since you have been to the temple. It is not the "new covenant" that Satan references but the covenants specifically made in the temple. Also (and now I am being a lay ecclesiastical lawyer here) it does not mention what constitutes failure to live up to the covenants that we make in the temple. Since we believe in the redemptive power of the atonement, I would have to guess that failure to live up to the covenants would be something on the order of outright rejection of the covenants where we would have no interest in living up to them. Make sense? Because we, as Mormons, believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came down and died for our sins and that through Jesus, we can be forgiven of our sins and draw upon the mercy and the law of liberty spoken of by James to obtain forgiveness of our sins.


  35. James,

    I doubt whether anyone would make up Exodus. The more likely scenario is embellishment of tradition over time, with details added in successive iterations to make ideologic points for different factions. There could have been an Egyptian cult that made its way to Canaan, and the traditions of this cult could have been altered by later generations to fit their beliefs. We could dream up any number of scenarios, but the least likely is one where the Bible was written as the work of a single author with an internally consistent ideology. It simply doesn't read that way.

  36. When details that can only have been awkward or embarrassing for later editors are nonetheless included, the most plausible explanation is that the later editors could not revise or omit them because they were already too widely accepted as fact — perhaps because they did really occur.

    Yes — and also, perhaps, because those details had become widely revered as traditional or venerable. Tradition itself was a powerful constraint on biblical redaction. That's one reason we have so many stories (e.g., the flood story) that weave together two "embarrassingly" conflictual sources.

    Anyway, I think that Berman is saying the Hebrews did want to use the Egyptian panegyric, but in a way that "transvalued" it:

    [T]he Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate.

    This seems plausible enough. If someone today wanted to "extol the mighty virtues" of the late President Reagan, they might do so by appropriating the language of, say, Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," in a way that suggested that Reagan was an even greater president than Lincoln. Maybe something like this:

    When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
    And the Gipper was lost in the western sky in the night,
    I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring….

    OK, that's pretty crude, and it doesn't appeal much to the modern sensibility, but one can conceive of this sort of thing being done in ancient times.

    FWIW, I thought this was a good observation by WVZS in a comment on Berman's article:

    While the author concludes that his analysis of Qadesh materials lends plausibility to the dating of the Exodus account in the late 2nd mil BCE, it seems instead to point to the invention of a *story of the Exodus* around that time rather than the actual events of the Exodus to have occurred then. The analogy to Noah/Gilgamesh is apt here: the similarities and differences in the accounts suggest that the former story was written after, and as a polemic against, the latter; but they do not give credence to the account itself.

    At the very least this is a reminder that the writing of the Exodus story was itself a historical event — an event that, unlike the Exodus itself, we know to have actually happened. I agree with VWZS that Berman's theory doesn't do a very good job of distinguishing between these two events.

    Finally, of course, we should all remember that evidence for the historicity of the Exodus is not at all evidence for the supernatural elements of the Exodus story. After all, we know for a fact that the Mormons had a historical exodus of their own, from Nauvoo to Utah — but no one would cite that fact in support of Mormon religious beliefs.

  37. Steve,

    In Mormonism, the new covenant of the New Testament is the "new and everlasting covenant," which according to LDS.org, is the "fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ." It states that it has been enjoyed in every dispensation where people were willing to receive it. It states that it includes all priesthood ordinances from baptism to endowment to sealing.
    And it cites Hebrews 12:24 as evidence that this is actually the new covenant spoken of in the New Testament. So I think a little review of the doctrine is in order.

  38. Hi Everythingbeforeus,

    I thought that the subject at hand was what Satan was talking about in the temple ceremony and not LDS doctrine in general?


  39. The little bit I know about Biblical criticism seems to agree with what Orbiting Kolob and Androcles have said. Simply reading the text carefully turns up lots of things that don't fit with the idea that Moses just wrote out the first five books, or that a single prophet Isaiah wrote the whole book that bears his name. But even the latest plausible writing dates are still pretty ancient, and there seems to be good reason to think that the earliest sources of the text are quite ancient indeed.

    I find it interesting to think about hypothetical scenarios for how the Biblical text came about, but I can't see taking any of them too seriously. We simply don't really know. Conceivably, most of the Bible was closely based on real historical events, and even the relatively few miracles had some basis in fact. Conceivably, most of it began as fiction. Since we can't really tell, I feel I have to ask: does it matter?

    And I don't know how to answer. As it is, the Bible has been the Bible for centuries, and I can believe that God has used it to tweak human culture, even if it is nothing but a collation of legends. But what if the Bible had never existed until it was written, just as it is, by a guy in the 1950s? Would I still be so impressed by the text itself that I would accept it as divinely inspired? Well, parts of it, maybe; lots of it, I'd have to say, Nope.

    That scenario is quite paradoxical, of course, since if the Bible had never existed, it seems likely that history up to the 1950s would have been very different. But the point still seems to be that much if not all of what makes Scripture count as Scripture is just the length of time that it has spent being Scripture. So maybe in a few hundred years Mormons with my style of thinking will just shrug about whether Joseph Smith translated golden plates or simply made the Book of Mormon up.

    Some Mormons seem to do that already. But somehow that doesn't seem right to me. Is it just a couple of centuries too soon for that attitude to be legitimate? Or is the Book of Mormon somehow different from the Bible, in ways that make it ineligible for this sort of treatment?

    I'm not arguing, here. Just thinking out loud, to try to decide what I myself really think.

  40. I've tried looking at the Book of Mormon the way you look at the Bible for about ten years. I still do a little. It's very, very difficult. For all its talk about a big tent and being inclusive, I think most church leaders and faithful members would rather people like me would just go away. Certainly they don't want us to speak publicly about our beliefs.

  41. As everyone knows, there are lots of reasonably mainstream Christian denominations who insist on the Bible as virtually a channeled text. This can even be taken to the point where use of the Bible as a sort of paper oracle becomes the main point of Christianity, with Jesus really only there as a kind of hood ornament on the Bible. It would also be very hard for someone like me to hold out in one of those denominations.

    I've been thinking more about how someone might revere the Book of Mormon in the way people like me regard the Bible, as inspired without necessarily being historically accurate. The obvious complication for the Book of Mormon is that there is an extra layer involved, namely Joseph Smith. Does this extra layer make a big difference? I think maybe it does.

    In principle one could believe that Joseph Smith was and did everything that Mormon teaching says, and yet suspect that maybe the ancient writers who carved the gold plates wildly exaggerated the scale of their ancestors' civilization, or mixed up folktale and fact. Thinking this way would seem to require a somewhat strange mixture of attitudes, however. One would have to be skeptical and naturalistic about Nephi and Alma, yet strictly believing about Joseph Smith. Conversely one would have to be conservative about Smith but liberal about Nephi. Yet if God would go to miraculous lengths to transmit ancient writings to a 19th century prophet, why wouldn't God also make sure that those ancient writings themselves were exactly correct?

    On the other hand, in principle one might doubt the gold plates ever existed, but believe that Joseph Smith was inspired by God to write the book he wrote. If the Biblical account of Exodus could still count as divinely inspired Scripture even if it were based on sheer legend, then why couldn't the Book of Mormon be inspired Scripture, despite being composed in the 19th century?

    Maybe it could; but to me this view seems quite hard to square with the stories of the Book of Mormon being set many centuries before Smith's own time. If the Book of Mormon is not ancient at all, then it's hard to see why God would inspire a prophet to reveal eternal truths through stories whose whole setting not only never existed, but was never even previously known as myth. It would be an awfully elaborate kind of parable.

    So, maybe I'm just missing something, but it seems to me that the middle-man role of Joseph Smith my really make a liberal attitude to the Book of Mormon as Scripture less defensible than a liberal attitude to the Bible as Scripture.