The Council of the Gods in the Book of Mormon: Can You Help Me Find the Best Sources for Joseph’s Plagiarism?

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.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

79 thoughts on “The Council of the Gods in the Book of Mormon: Can You Help Me Find the Best Sources for Joseph’s Plagiarism?

  1. I think this entire text ignores one huge facet of the fabrication claim: that Joseph Smith didn't work alone. Most non-Mormon scholars would agree that Joseph wasn't nearly as inept as the LDS church would like us to believe; the man wasn't incapable. Moreover, he *did* have a brilliant, articulate, fantastical man in his midst, a one Mr. Sidney Rigdon. By all accounts, Rigdon was a trained preacher, extremely intelligent, and well-versed in many topics, near and far, ESPECIALLY those pertaining to Biblical topics. So the fact that an eloquent wordsmith familiar with Hebrew writing styles (most of which were taught to him during his seminarial training), names, and geographic locations was in Joseph's midst makes any coincidence suspect to the fact.

    On the plurality of gods, "a risky move if he was trying to sell books". Really? Like the God-Adam doctrine, plural marriage, and the whole "you're all wrong" sentiment weren't risky moves? Did they have an effect on book sales? And again, Sidney Rigdon, being exceedingly familiar with print shops, knew full well the profits that could be made by selling books. Oh but after God told Joseph to tell his men to pitch an unsuccessful proposal to get their book printed, he said something to the effect of, "Sometimes I can't know if a message was from God or Satan." Come on. Come on. I don't mean to be snarky, but since your article was snarky I feel at liberty to do so.

    Do yourself a favor and renounce Joseph Smith's story. Break free of the endless, hopeless cycle of rituals that do nothing but drag you down. Breath the fresh air of Christ's trustworthy forgiveness. Live free my friends.

  2. It's been quite diverting, following the trolling. And it's John Bunyan, not the lumberjack. Oh, and the production of the Book of Mormon is quite well known, and even documented. There was no production by committee. You're dreaming, but I know you must pin your hopes on something.

  3. The Antiquities of Freemasonry by George Oliver is a possible source for the conception of the divine council as God and angels.

    The angelic host of the divine coucil around God’s thrown, mentioned in Nephi’s account of Lehi’s vision and in Alma 36, is portrayed in Antiquities at the return of God at the conclusion of creation. It reads, “the angelic host, in choral symphonies, welcomes Him to His throne in the Grand Lodge above” (36). The text similarly explains that Job’s “sons of God” who shouted when the foundations of the world were laid are the “angels of heaven” (29, It’s worth noting that this comes amidst a discussion of “pre-existent worlds,” angels who were expelled for disobedience, “angels, who kept their first estate,” or in other words, a general discussion on the “extent of God’s works before the creation of man.”)

    A type of divine council is more explicitly addressed by Antiquities in a footnote on the Basilideans a religious sect. The text explains that they believed the name of God to be Abraxas, and then gives a list of eight names: Abraxas, Michael, Gabriel, Ouriel, Raphael, Ananael, Prosoraiel, and Yabsoe. The text then explains that these are “their gods, and their seven angels, the presidents of their seven heavens” (118).

    A more ambiguous statement, but related to the divine council, comes as the text describes Adam being in “immediate communication with God and angels” prior to the fall (40). The text also say that Adam and Eve “were the companions of angels, and in full communion with God” (38).

    Angels being an extension of divinity and arguably, man’s ability to simlarly participate in divinity is also portrayed in the text during a discussion of Jacob’s ladder. The text reports, “On this ladder the angels of God appeared as the authorized ministers of his dispensations of justice and mercy” (188). It then goes on to explain that the ladder is a type of Christ by whom man ascends to heaven climbing the rungs of faith, hope, and charity (189).

    While Antiquities doesn’t sufficiently address divinization or the prophetic call, it does lay a foundation of the divine council consisting of God and angels, and could have served as inspiration to JS and the Book of Mormon. Keep in mind that this is the same book that describes “three worlds,”the terrestrial, telestial, and angelic,” their representation in the tabernacle, the pre-existence, all of the the extra-canonical events found in JS translations describing Adam, Enoch, and Abraham, and the unique Mormon conception of priesthood as God’s eternal power (only as Masonry).

  4. I believe this is what Jeff was looking for. This 1823 book on masonry explains these aspects of the Book of Mormon, and others as well. Joseph must have internalized this book and allusively woven it into the fabric of the text. Very good, Mr Seeker, you have come up with some plausible connections, in your ever learning quest.

  5. Anon 12:46 –

    I've asked this before, and I'll ask again.

    How could Sidney Rigdon have collaborated with Joseph Smith on the Book of Mormon when they didn't even meet until after the Book of Mormon was finished and published?

  6. Benjamin Seeker, well done and many thanks! An intriguing reference. It's available on Google Books and also at Hathritrust.org.

    This was published in 1823, so it could have been available to Joseph. It was published in London. Books published in Europe didn't always end up in the U.S. very quickly. Do you know of evidence of its existence near Joseph? I checked the listing of the Manchester, New York Library for 1812-1845 and it was not there. See Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library,” BYU Studies 22/3 (Summer 1982): 333–356, https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/joseph-smith-and-manchester-new-york-library. I also checked the Rochester City Library listing in Rochester, NY as of 1839 and it was not there, either (http://www.libraryweb.org/~digitized/books/Catalogue_of_the_Roch_City_Library_1839.pdf).

    The Library of Congress does not seem to have this book. That's not a good sign if we are looking for books that were influential in the U.S., but let's keep looking.

    At WorldCat.org, I can search for libraries that currently have this book and I can see a few in New York. The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library has a listing, but it appears to be for an 1843 printing of the book (and with fewer pages than the 1823 original). Allegheny College has a listing, but it appears to be online versions only. Cornell University has three editions, but the earliest is 1843. Columbia University Libraries have it, but it is also the 1843 edition. The New York City Library has an 1823 edition, but that's a bit far from Palmyra, even if Joseph had been a relentless bookworm, and we still don't know when that version made it onto the shelves there.

    But perhaps some of you might know of more relevant sources? Was this book used widely among masons in Joseph's area? Any evidence that he could have accessed it? Right now it's now quite the smoking gun that my friends demand. But I'm sure they'll be happy to use this anyway, so I must thank you again.

  7. In the George Oliver reference, I got all excited when I read that this text discusses angels who "kept not their first estate" (see p. 31) and thought for a moment we had a nice smoking gun for the Book of Abraham, where similar language is at play in Abraham 3:26-28. Then I recalled that Jude uses this very phrase. Mr. Oliver is quoting from Jude 1:6. Yes, angels are part of the heavenly host and their existence is consistent with a divine council but not enough to capture that profound concept.

    But Oliver's text is quite interesting on pages 28-29, where he teaches that God has created other worlds with intelligent beings long before this one, and also gave those beings the principles of Freemasonry. So this is an interesting resource not so much on our pre-mortal existence but on the (not so unique) idea that this earth can't be the only work of God with intelligent life in the cosmos, and that there are other intelligent beings He has created. Are they part of a divine council, or can they be considered godlilke? I don't see that yet, but am just poking around right now.

    Your reference to its "pre-existent worlds" (p. 31 of the text) also got me excited. While we LDS view Job's "morning stars" are pre-existent sons and daughters of God, this text from Mr. Oliver says that the stars are "pre-existent worlds" that are part of "God's works before the creation of man" (see top of p. 31), so it's not quite the same. Still very interesting though, but not sure it is very relevant to the text of the Book of Mormon. But certainly a worthwhile reference.

    Very much appreciation the contribution! If you can find anything about its availability in the frontier regions of the US or along the Erie Canal by, say 1828 or so, before Joseph retreated into the data vacuum of remote Harmony Township to do the translation apparently without books to aid him, that information would be most helpful. So far I'm striking out, but there are many more places to dig.

    While I believe the Book of Mormon to be ancient, there is the possibility of more modern sources influencing language, pointing to common ancient sources, or serving as inspiration or motivation to explore doctrinal issues in subsequent revelations. It is good to know about related sources. And for those seeking to buttress plagiarism theories, such resources can be a … uh, what's the right word? A mansend?

  8. Jeff, I found this lead:

    “While there's no solid proof that Joseph Smith owned a copy of this book, the New York Masonic lodges which Joseph Smith and his family attended had several copies of it before Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, so he was very likely familiar with it.”

    http://commonpaine.blogspot.com/2011/09/mormonism-and-masonry.html?m=1

    I think the author is party ill informed since JS jr was not a Mason in NY, but perhaps Mt. Moriah Lodge, which Hyrum attended had several copies.

  9. From a secular scholarly perspective, the question here is not so much one of plagiarism as one of influence and sources.

    Secular scholarship starts with the assumption that, like any other book, the Book of Mormon is a product of its time and then tries to understand it as such. In the same way that scholars see Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland as obviously a source for Shakespeare's plays, secular scholars will see books like View of the Hebrews, cultural phenomena such as masonry, etc. as sources for the Book of Mormon, even in the absence of explicit plagiarism. Plagiarism is not the only way, and certainly not the main way, that influence operates.

    Here's one way to see the difference between LDS apologetics and genuine scholarship: consider the fact that, when apologists accept Holinshed's influence on Shakespeare, they're also implicitly accepting certain methodological protocols and standards of evidence that they then reject in their scholarship on the Book of Mormon. Genuine scholarship would accede to those standards and protocols across the board.

    — OK

  10. I think the problem with OK's reasoning here is the premise of assuming that the Book of Mormon is just a product of its time. This disregards key statements made by its translators, scribes, followers, and even the text itself, saying that it is a translation (which nobody disputes WAS done in the nineteenth century) of an ancient document that was hidden from the world for centuries.

    This is why influences, protocols, standards of evidence, etc., are accepted on Shakespeare's works and rejected on the Book of Mormon – because doing otherwise would reject the statements of the book itself.

  11. Joseph seems to have had a love/hate relationship with freemasonry most of his life. Note the anti-masonic sentiment relating to secret societies as a pervading theme of the latter portion of the Book of Mormon. Do some research on William Morgan who was killed in upstate New York. He was about to publish an expose on Freemasonry and it was thought he was murdered to keep the publication from happening. This was the birth of the short-lived anti-freemasonry party and his death not only caused an uproar in New York, but throughout the region. You may not be able to place the book near Joseph, but you can bet there was plenty of public discussion of masonic rites and beliefs shortly before the creation of the Book of Mormon.

  12. In general, the term secret combination was historically used to refer to political combinations, which is also how the Book of Mormon uses the term. Claims that the Book of Mormon usage refers to Freemasonry are not actually supported by the text. The combinations in the Book of Mormon are always secret and deal with gaining and holding political power, especially by means of murder, including the assassination of political leaders. Participants typically use agreements and covenants, along with oaths and signs, to enforce the power of their combination.

    1. Telvido,

      You sound educated but you're not informed on this issue. Do some research on the party and its founding. From Wikipedia (I know–Wikipedia not the best source but it describes succinctly the state of things):

      The Anti-Masonic Party was formed in upstate New York in February 1828.[24] Anti-Masons were opponents of Freemasonry, believing that it was a corrupt and elitist secret society which was ruling much of the country in defiance of republican principles.[25] Many people regarded the Masonic organization and its adherents involved in government as corrupt.

      Sound familiar?

  13. Ramer, what's wrong with rejecting the statements that the Book of Mormon makes about itself? Scholars routinely reject the statements that narratives make about themselves. Literature is full of unreliable narrators, pseudonymous authors, claims of being based on found ancient manuscripts, etc. The Book of Mormon is no different (except of course to those who are already, as a matter of faith, committed to its antiquity). I see no reason to treat Nephi differently than Huckleberry Finn. There's no reason to treat either as a real person. No reason, that is, other than religious faith. (And doesn't the Church itself say that, ultimately, belief in the antiquity of the BoM is a matter of faith?)

    — OK

  14. Ah yes. These things nicely explain Book of Mormon usage. How could I have missed that? Thank you so much for the enlightenment, for letting me know that the Book of Mormon is in part an anti-Masonic tract.

    There are so many things that make this an unlikely view of things, but undoubtedly you will persist. Good to consider this article.

    Page 66 has the following:

    No one contests the fact that the term secret combinations could be and was applied to the Masons — but Vogel’s language parallel is compelling only if there is scant use of the term in a non-Masonic context in Joseph’s era. Peterson reported that Vogel and Brent Metcalfe later claimed “that the phrase ‘secret combination’ was never used at the time of the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, except to refer to Freemasonry.”

    Vogel replied:
    What I said was that after extensive reading in the primary pre-1830 sources, I had been unable to find another use for the term and doubted that one would be found. I remain skeptical, but wisdom dictates that the door be left open slightly in case someone on the margins of popular nineteenth-century culture happened to have used the term in a non-Masonic context.

    On page 71:

    the present results [from Google Books] are sufficient, I believe, to convince all but the most ideologically driven that secret combinations referred to a far broader range of groups than Masonry, both before, during, and after the Morgan panic of 1826. It is simply no longer tenable to claim that this phrase is a clear indicator of Masonic influence or intent on the part of an author in the late 1820s.

  15. I'm not sure how proving that the term "secret combinations" was used for other groups besides the freemasons in Joseph's time proves that it wasn't an influence on the BoM. What's the connection? The parallels are obviously similar–the terminology is only one, extremely strong, similarity. Proving that Vogel was an idiot for claiming the term was used exclusively for freemasonry is a layup. He should have known better. Proving that freemasonry isn't a type or source for the secret combinations in the BoM is a little more difficult. There are obvious similarities that are evident even to the casual observer.

  16. "While I believe the Book of Mormon to be ancient, there is the possibility of more modern sources influencing language, pointing to common ancient sources, or serving as inspiration or motivation to explore doctrinal issues in subsequent revelations." -Jeff
    .
    The possibility?? C'mon Jeff. You're a smart man. You obviously know what's going on.
    .
    I know you have a sincere desire to know God. I know it must seem terrifying but there's nothing wrong with simply accepting the Bible as the true source of the gospel, admitting Smith as a misdirected false prophet and walking away from this man made religion.

  17. "I'm not sure how proving that the term "secret combinations" was used for other groups besides the freemasons in Joseph's time proves that it wasn't an influence on the BoM."

    Here's a transparently inaccurate assertion. First, one SHOWS by example that the term "secret combinations was used for other groups. Second, this makes clear that "[i]t is simply no longer tenable to claim that this phrase is a clear indicator of Masonic influence or intent on the part of an author in the late 1820s." One cannot achieve proof in these matters, nor is it sought.

  18. Let my just recap our recent conversation. See if you can tell why I might be confused:

    Jeff: Is there evidence that The Antiquities of Freemasonry was available to Joseph pre 1828?

    Me: The book may not have been available, but the furor of anit-masonic sentiment in the region from the William Morgan affair makes it likely there was quite a bit of masonic knowledge floating about (evidence of the furor even made it into the BoM).

    Telvido: You know the term "Secret Combination" wasn't just used to refer to freemasons and that the concept of secret combinations and freemasonry isn't supported by the BoM text. The combinations in the BoM were actually secret organizations set up to get and maintain political power.

    Me: Quote about how the freemasons were seen as a political power for evil–thus the creation of the anti-masonic party.

    Telvido: Vogel was wrong to state that the term secret combinations applied only to freemasons. See these quotes. . .

    Me: Yes Vogel was wrong. There is still a strong tie between the view of freemasonry in Joseph's time and the portrayal of secret societies in the BoM.

    Telvido: See, you can't prove that Vogel was right–proof in this situation is impossible, therefore your point is invalid.

    Me: Huh?

  19. "Telvido: See, you can't prove that Vogel was right–proof in this situation is impossible, therefore your point is invalid."

    Sorry, I wasn't the one who misrepresented and overstated things to achieve a desired outcome. Because your claims are quite tenuous, they are ultimately uninteresting. Also, who among the many Anonymouses are you? Don't expect any further response since you haven't used any followable name. This particular lame chain is over.

    Jeff, see if you can eliminate Anonymous as an option. All commenters can and should use a name up-front to facilitate conversations.

    1. Telvido

      I'm not sure who you are referring to about misrepresenting and overstating things. Maybe one of the other anonymouses? (sounds like secretive rodents) :^)

      Anywho, I'm sorry that you felt my position was "quite tenuous" and "ultimately uninteresting" to the point that you responded to it on four separate occasions. I'm also sorry you feel like you can't have conversations with people whose names you don't know–must make it hard meeting new people. To each his or her own.

      Happy trails!

  20. Anon @6:34AM said, "The possibility?? C'mon Jeff. You're a smart man. You obviously know what's going on…. I know it must seem terrifying but there's nothing wrong with simply accepting the Bible as the true source of the gospel, admitting Smith as a misdirected false prophet and walking away from this man made religion."

    How come everytime sometime tells me I'm a smart guy, the next statement is an insult that challenges my intelligence, integrity, or courage? Being smart sounds like quite a liability around some folks.

    For the record, I do accept the Bible as scripture, an important document with much of the Gospel. But I view Jesus Christ as the true source of the Gospel, not a book written, copied, edited, translated, and printed by humans showing an awful lot of human influence including many artifacts that are obviously man made. So which Bible do you refer to? The Vulgate? The Septuagint? The New English Bible? The 1611 KJV? The 1769 KJV? The NIV? the NRSV? There are significant differences. Which is the one true source?

    There's nothing wrong with admitting that God wants to lead us and His church with continuing revelation today the way He did in the past. There's nothing wrong with admitting that we should not trust a human-edited/human-translated inanimate object over God Himself.

    There's more to the Latter-day Saint religion that you've allowed yourself to see. I hope you'll give it a second look. I'd even say it's the smart thing to do.

    1. So Joseph Smith is God? And anything about the Bible is bad cause man screwed it up? But everything JS touched is from God. You must be joking. And not to be insulting, but maybe if this is your logic, perhaps maybe, you're not so smart.