It’s Christmas week, so this is going to be a mellow post. I ran across an old 10 Questions (by Kurt Manwaring) interview of Philip Jenkins, a scholar of religion at Baylor. I know Jenkins from reading his book Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne, 2010), a very enlightening study of how orthodox Christology emerged from the political and theological struggles of the fourth and fifth centuries. What most summary accounts describe as Christian theological development turns out to be mostly the result of political and power struggles between various Christian bishops and their political allies. A book worth reading.
Most of the interview is about a more recent book written by Jenkins, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World (Basic Books, 2017). That book looks at the large body of uncanonized religious literature written between 200 BC and 200 AD, variously called pseudepigrapha and apocrypha. Jenkins sees these texts as much more important than is generally understood: “Once you get into those texts, you find they exist in vast numbers, and they had an enormous influence on the gospels and the early church, and on the circle of Jesus and the apostles. The Book of Enoch in particular is a critical text, and immensely influential. You really can’t understand early Christianity without some sense of these Old Testament Pseudepigrapha ….”
But I’m going to look at just one of his ten answers, a response to a question about Mormonism. Jenkins has some familiarity with Mormonism and LDS doctrine, partly from his own research and publishing in American religious history and partly from his own discussions with LDS scholars. Here is the ninth of Manwaring’s ten questions:
I have read a few of your writings in which you are highly skeptical of the historicity of Mormon scripture while also being highly respectful of the Mormon tradition. Could you provide a brief comment on your views?
Jenkins gave what you might call a polite response to the question, certainly appropriate in the context of a friendly exchange with an LDS interviewer, but also a nice example of respectful dialogue. One we could all learn from. I’m going to quote his seven-paragraph reply in pieces below, with some commentary. He starts like this:
You phrase the question very accurately. I have immense regard for the Mormon tradition in so many ways, and in fact believe that it contains a great many lessons for mainstream non-Mormon Christians— about values of community, about the possibility of continuing revelation, and about practical commitment to aiding the poor and dispossessed.
That’s a nice Christmas message: focus on the LDS values of community and commitment to aiding the poor and dispossessed.
If one of my children decided to join the LDS church, I would wish her all good things.
At the same time, I do not believe in the literal historical truth of the Book of Mormon in reflecting any realities in the pre-Columbian Americas, for reasons I have described at length in various blog posts and online debates.
It’s worth considering how many LDS parents could say the same thing, as in “if one of my children decided to join the Lutheran church, I would wish her all good things.” But, finally getting around to the topic of this post, he raises the question of historicity. If one rejects “the literal historical truth of the Book of Mormon,” what is left? Could the average LDS parent say, “if one of my children decided to reject the literal historical truth of the Book of Mormon, I would wish her all good things”?
That does not mean that I consider the book a lie or a forgery, but that I do not think it should be read as literal history or archaeology—and there is a substantial middle ground between those two positions.
He says not just that there is a middle ground between the two extremes, but that there is a substantial middle ground. That’s easy for him to say. Within the Church, leaders seem to push the exact opposite, that there are two choices: it’s one hundred percent literal and historical and true, or one hundred percent not. Within the local church (your ward or branch, or any ward or branch), there really is no defined middle ground that can be expressed in a talk, lesson, or comment. Try dropping this into a talk or lesson and see what happens: “While not historical, the Book of Mormon offers valuable insight into the important doctrine of X …” So where exactly is this substantial middle ground?
I suspect that middle ground exists primarily outside the Church. Perhaps Jenkins’ discussion (in his book, which I haven’t read) of Jewish and Christian apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works helps him see the Book of Mormon as non-historical but also as religiously valuable. So I’ll read the book if I come across a copy.
In 2015, I engaged in what was for me an interesting and intellectually profitable online debate on these issues with LDS scholar Bill Hamblin, a knowledgeable and well-informed historian.
Obviously, people being people, neither of us converted the other to his own point of view!
There is a link in the original post to a list of links to the series of posts that constitute the “online debate” he refers to. It’s worth reading a post or two in that exchange. His reference here to that debate seems quite gracious.
But I learned much from that exchange about critical questions concerning definitions of proof and evidence, the nature of scholarly consensus, and how to establish where the burden of proof lies in any particular debate.
Within the Church, the burden of proof seems to lie with any critic or dissenting member who rejects historicity. For an outsider, that burden obviously lies with the person making LDS claims. Casual apologists accept a lot of “proof and evidence” that an objective reader might not accept. But the whole apologetic or scholarly discussion that revolves around “proof and evidence” is rather foreign to the average believer, Mormon or otherwise.
I don’t have any particular conclusion to add from the discussion. I guess the bottom line I might pull from the question and response is that it’s a lot easier to handle historicity if there is a defined “substantial middle ground” between forgery and literal history. Which is maybe why historicity is such a touchy question within the Church — because there really isn’t a defined middle ground.