Book of Mormon critics have been working hard to identify sources that Joseph Smith might have used to fabricate the Book of Mormon. They’ve made some good inroads by showing, for example, that there were rare maps of Arabia in Joseph’s day that could have been used to come up with the even more rare place name Nahom (well, OK, Nehhm or Nehem, but close enough) and a book or two that hinted at chiasmus and other Jewish poetical techniques. There’s still a lot of work to do, of course, such as finding one of those maps that was anywhere near Joseph during production of the Book of Mormon. Since they are already pretty busy with such tasks, maybe some of you can help with a new item on the list of items to explain through plagiarism. After all, some of my best friends are critics of the Book of Mormon, and it’s only fair that I help lift one of their burdens.
The annoying new problem comes from Stephen O. Smoot’s recent publication at The Interpreter. In “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon” in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 155-180. In my opinion, Smoot seems to be taking a well-known weakness in Mormonism and turning it into a strength in light of modern scholarship. That weakness is our departure from the flavor of strict monotheism found in the post-biblical creeds and the concept that there is a heavenly “council of the gods” with multiple divine beings (e.g., sons and daughters of God who can be called “gods”) presided over by the One God whom we worship, God the Eternal Father. This belief is commonly used to not only criticize our theology but to actually exclude us from being Christians in spite of our firm belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our Savior and Redeemer (and yes, we believe He is One with the Father, but differ from others in our understanding of how they are One).
After reading Smoot, I would say that in light of modern scholarship about what ancient Jews and Christians really believed, the slam-dunk argument for the absolute monotheism that dominates modern theology in mainstream Christian and Jewish belief has actually become rather feeble. Yes, of course there are verses in the Bible that decree God is one and there is no other god besides Yahweh. But considering what we know now of ancient practices and beliefs and the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts, even some Evangelical scholars now admit that modern assumptions may be overlooking a much more complicated and nuanced situation in the ancient scriptures. In fact, it is rather clear that ancient writers of scripture understood that there was a divine council of godlike beings. There is only one God whom we worship — a relational and covenantal oneness — but multiple non-demonic, non-fictional beings in the assembly of heaven and the council of the gods. Smooth documents this nicely from a wide array of respected modern scholars and also shows how well these ancient concepts fit into the Book of Mormon, providing another line of evidence pointing to its ancient origins. After a thorough but still preliminary review, he concludes that “the Book of Mormon very clearly portrays the divine council in such a
way that indicates its close familiarity with the Hebrew Bible and
ancient Israelite religion.”
Ancient origins, or just another case of servile plagiarism from sources Joseph was familiar with? Here’s where your help is needed. This line of alleged evidence is a little trickier than most since there were lots of preachers in Joseph’s day where he could have picked up ideas for his fabrication, but as far as I can tell they sounded a lot like preachers today when it comes to their teachings on the nature of God: strict monotheism. When an LDS-favorable prooftext is mentioned, like Psalm 82:6 or Christ’s citation of it in John 10:33-35 (“I said, ye are gods”), only the standard “strict monotheistic apologetics” view is given, namely, that “gods” only refers to mortal priests or rulers and definitely not anything else. Looking through sources that others have pointed to for Joseph’s plagiarism of the Book of Mormon, like the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I have not yet found clues for Joseph’s plagiarism on topic of the divine council or any guidance to motive his departure from what everyone already believed on that topic — a risky move if the goal is to win converts or sell books, I’d say.
Using Google Books, I can see some pre-1830 references to the term “divine council” such as a sermon from Elijah Waterman, but that reference refers to the Trinity, not to the Trinity collaborating with a real council of multiple divine beings. Pre-1830 uses of “council of the gods” seems limited to pagan lore. But surely there are some early sources out there that understood this concept since it can be found in the Bible, especially if one carefully considers the Hebrew which Joseph could not read at that time. Preferably they will be closer than some of the documents our critics have had to rely on so far, like a map on the order of 200 miles away. So can you help make life a little easy for the Book of Mormon plagiarism theorists and offer reasonable routes for Joseph’s plagiarism of this aspect of the Book of Mormon? If your source also employs obvious chiasmus, describes Mesoamerican cement, lists a few ancient Jewish non-biblical names like Alma, and has a map or two of Arabia attached, then bonus points for you! Ideally, the source is in a language Joseph can read (English or hick English, I am told, but I’ll accept Early Modern English). Bring out those big data tools or whatever else it takes and let us know what you find.