Tag Archives: Pseudo-scholarship

Jacobovici on the Ipuwer Papyrus

Simcha Jacobovici recently published a blog post insisting in no uncertain terms that the Ipuwer Papyrus is “proof” of the Exodus. For Jacobivici,

the Ipuwer Papyrus is basically the story of the Biblical Exodus, from an Egyptian point of view.

Now, on what is this conclusion based? Simcha provides only a few pieces of evidentiary support, among them the text’s putative uniqueness and a handful of narrative parallels:

1) The text states “the tribes of the desert have risen above the Egyptians,” which, in Simcha’s mind, can only refer to Israel.

2) The text states “the servant takes what he finds”;  “poor men have become wealthy”; a man who could not afford to have “sandals for himself is now a possessor of riches.” These comments about the poor breaching class boundaries are taken as a “direct parallel” to Exod 12:35, which states that the Israelites borrowed gold, silver, and clothing from the Egyptians. According to Simcha, the Israelites “bankrupted” the Egyptians.

3) The text mentions earthquakes and the Nile turning to blood.

4) The text describes the exodus event itself, stating that “those who were Egyptians [have become] foreigners.” Simcha takes this to refer to the Israelites’ departure from Egypt.

The problems with this conclusion and the methods undergirding it are legion, but I start with a betrayal on Simcha’s part of his complete and utter ignorance of any methodological standards of literary evaluation:

Scholars have dismissed the Papyrus as a work of fiction and describe it as part of a “genre”. A “genre” is a French word for a series, class or category of stories that share common themes. If you’re unique, you’re not a “genre”. The fact is that there is no papyrus like the Ipuwer Papyrus.

Evidently Simcha thinks the Ipuwer Papyrus is not “part of a ‘genre.'” He obviously does not know what a “genre” is, or how the term is used in scholarship. His definition is also lacking, as it seems to indicate that texts of a similar genre have to share the same or similar subject matter, which they do not. What they must share are sets of stylistic features, which are never entirely unique. Every text is a part of some genre or another. If a text were not part of a genre, it would not be adequately understood. As an example, imagine I handed you a small piece of paper with the following written on it:

1 lb. monkey brains
a dozen eggs
1 gallon breast milk
cyanide (2 capsules)
football helmet full of cottage cheese (low fat)

Now, obviously, you’ve never seen a text exactly like this before. It’s a unique text.  And yet, you can probably tell pretty quickly what I might want you to do with it. It’s a shopping list. The underlying implication is that this is a list of things I want you to go buy, for whatever bizarre reason. How do you know? Because “shopping list” is a genre, and  you know the genre and its associated stylistic features. It is not the content of the list that screams “shopping list,” it is those conventional features (small piece of paper, items listed in specific quantities, etc.). Because you know the genre, you can interpret the meaning of the list. All texts belong to some genre or another. This is axiomatic. To insist that a text is not part of a genre is to betray complete and utter ignorance of the concept.

So is the Ipuwer Papyrus “part of a ‘genre'”? Obviously. It not only contains similar stylistic features to other texts, but also subject matter. First, it is a poem. It makes frequent use of conventional poetic elements, like parallelism and metonymy. That’s a genre, albeit a broad one. Next, it is a lament, which is a known genre of Egyptian literature (despite Simcha’s assumption that the pessimism is “remarkable” and uncommon). Laments for the dead, for instance, are full of pessimism and tragedy. Sumerian city laments are also strikingly similar in style as well as content. The Lament for Sumer and Urim, for instance, contains pleonastic lists of devastating circumstances following a deity’s actions against a region, just like the Ipuwer Papyrus. Most importantly for Simcha’s claims, the notion of the river turning to blood is actually not that unique. It occurs in Egyptian and other texts spread across a pretty broad period of time, and it is a metaphorical description of the reddening of the Nile when particularly heavy inundation washes a great deal of red sediment down from Upper Egypt. This process also kills off a lot of fish, making the river stink and the water bad.

So the Ipuwer Papyrus is certainly part of a “genre” and is not as remarkable or unique as Simcha seems to think. This lack of uniqueness also extends to the items he lists as direct parallels to the Exodus tradition. To begin, the notion of “tribes of the desert” coming against Egypt does not necessarily refer to Israel. The Egyptians frequently interacted with various nomadic peoples, both hostile and benign. The Hyksos (“rulers of foreign lands”) were a large tribal group ubiquitous in the historical record from the third to the second millennia BCE. They were thought by Middle Kingdom writers (2000 – 1700 BCE) to originate from Syria and Canaan, and they actually took over Egypt (during the Second Intermediate period). There’s no indication they were Israelites, though, and the dates of their accession don’t fit the biblical text at all. Obviously this makes for a far better context than the Exodus for “desert tribes” having “become Egyptians everywhere,” particularly in light of the statement by the author of the Ipuwer Papyrus that foreigners are attacking Egypt (this does not fit with the exodus tradition).

Next, the notion of the poor violating class boundaries is not unique. The intermediate periods in the history of Egypt were periods of political and social upheaval, not uncommonly attended by uprisings among non-royals and poorer classes. This was viewed as particularly horrifying to traditionalists among the Egyptian intelligentsia, and fits quite well with the lament of Ipuwer. The notion of Egyptians becoming foreigners also fits with the First or Second Intermediate period, when the country was taken over by outsiders, leaving the traditional Egyptians on the political fringes, making them “foreigners.” Jacobovici’s interpretation of these Egyptians cum foreigners as the departing Israelites is nonsensical, as the author of this text would never have considered Asiatic slaves Egyptians to begin with, and the designation “foreigner” does not refer to someone who departs Egypt. It refers to native Egyptians who have been displaced by incoming rulers.

To conclude, the Ipuwer Papyrus only provides support for the exodus tradition if one is woefully ignorant of broader Egyptian literature and history, and is only looking for points of contact (while ignoring points of conflict). The document most likely originates centuries before the traditional dating of the exodus (which itself doesn’t fit at all with the actual history of Egypt), and it conflicts with the exodus tradition as contained in the Bible more than it overlaps. Those areas of overlap are also not unique or striking. They are rather conventional literary elements that coincide with different periods and events from Egypt’s ideological past.

Mr. Jacobovici wants a debate, but there’s really nothing to debate. There is no evidence that the Ipuwer Papyrus has anything at all to do with a historical exodus. Jacobovici’s analysis is staggeringly uninformed and myopic, and there is nothing left for him to marshal in support of his reading. All he could possibly offer is restatement and argument by assertion, apart from the inevitable ad hominem and hypocritical decrying of my academic condescension. I would be happy to have him prove me wrong.


Again on Ralph Ellis

Ralph has responded to my most recent blog post at great length after I invited him here to engage concerns with his scholarship directly. I told him I would not delete his posts, but I would not allow him to post if he showed himself unwilling or unable to address concerns with his arguments. I’ve consolidated my responses to his comments in the following:

Thank you for taking the time to post here, Ralph, but I invited you here to discuss Steve’s concerns with your claims, not your concerns with Tom or with his claims. Nevertheless, let it never be said that I am not accommodating. I’m not interested in engaging your personal attacks against Tom or anyone else, but I will respond to the claims you highlight from your book. However, I expect you to do me the same courtesy and fully address my concerns. If you refuse to do so, I will disallow future posting. I’m not going to delete anything unless it is vulgar or spamming, but I will ban you from commenting if you depart any further from the discussion I delineate, or attempt to sidestep my criticisms. I hope you understand that my time is important to me, as I’m sure your time is to you. I will not go diving down rabbit holes just to help you muddy the water.

Now, regarding your conflation of King Abgarus and King Monobazus, you don’t really provide any evidence, you simply assert their conflation at a sublevel. Instead of saying you conflated them because they were the same person (flagrant begging the question), you simply say you conflated them because their wives were the same person, as a result of Adiabene and Edessa being the same place. You’re still begging the question, you’re just moving the fallacy a couple steps away from your main claim to obscure it a bit. You do not provide a word of evidence for these identifications except for a forced inference you impose upon Josephus’ text in order to harmonize an artificial conflict. In other words, you see Josephus’ lack of reference to Edessa and assume—based on no evidence—that he would have had to have mentioned it.

Assumptions about what an historian would have had to have done do not form legitimate methodological bases for conflating toponyms and personal names, though. Historical authors frequently leave out quite important information for reasons that are not clear to us. For instance, some people claim that the absence of the mention of Belshazzar from Herodotus’ histories means Herodotus didn’t know about him, but they overlook the fact that Herodotus also never mentions Nebuchadnezzar, of whom Herodotus could not possibly have been ignorant. Josephus is actually quite infamous for glaring omissions from his retelling of Jewish history that he obviously felt did not reflect on Judaism the way he wanted. His Antiquities and his War are also inconsistent, crafting the narratives with different details to satisfy the rhetorical concerns of each composition. In short, I don’t see any reason whatsoever we are required to find Edessa or its rulers in Josephus’ text. If you wish to insist that we cannot leave the text without identiying Edessa within it, you will have to provide something well beyond the naked assertion that he just cannot have left it out.

Next, the existence of the kingdom of Adiabene is not in doubt, nor is there any historical need whatsoever to find some candidate from the archaeological record to identity with it. Its history, quite independent and distinct from that of Edessa, is narrated in a variety of ancient documents. For example, Strabo, Ptolemy, and Pliny all describe the geographic location of Adiabene, as well as the location of Edessa. There is some geographic overlap, but that is easily explained by the fact that Adiabene controlled the region for a time. See this text for discussion of the geographic descriptions of Adiabene. There is simpy no reason on earth to think that they are the same city. Josephus’ omission of Edessa is absolutely irrelevant. It certainly does not serve as evidentiary leverage for ignoring what other writers have to say about the two regions. The evidence unilaterally and unequivocally precludes your thesis, and there is simply no evidence whatsoever to support it. No responsible historian would ever subscribe to such a stunningly problematic thesis, and that is not rhetoric at all; the claim violates every single principle of historiography I can think of.

Next, you claim that you were constrained in your use of Greek and Hebrew fonts, and that you had to provide JPEG images of all occurrences of those scripts. You don’t make clear whether you produced the JPEGs or they were produced by Innodata using a text you submitted. If you did it, it would mean that whatever came through in the book was what was in the JPEG you submitted. They can’t edit the fonts in a JPEG image. If you mean to say you submitted the text and they turned it into a JPEG image, then there’s an interesting problem. The mistake was the confusion of a final sigma with a non-final one, which requires at least knowing the Greek alphabet and what the final sigma represents. I find it hard to believe that an Innodata inputer saw the final sigma, knew it was just the form of the sigma when it appears at the end of a word, but still managed to accidentally input a non-final sigma. No, the error found in your book is quite common to beginners who are typing out Greek from a transliteration. I am compelled to conclude that this was your error, but I am not going to pursue the argument any further; it does not seem to me that would admit it even if it were your error. The point of highlighting this error was to expose an obvious lack of familiarity with the relevant languages, which I believe is a valid and accurate conclusion, irrespective of the source of the error in your book.

As an example of some other concerns that are not based on inputter error, I would point to pp. 37–38, where you argue that the “Aramaic-Hebrew”  is a gentilic noun with the definite article, thus “The Adyab,” or “The Adia-bene.” You interpret it as a people because you understand the –bene suffix to represent the Hebrew word for “son” (thus “sons of Addai”). You also happen to fumble—or Innodata fumbled—the form of the final nun in the Hebrew בן (not בנ). You then accuse the Talmudic scribes of misunderstanding the word, resulting in the initial ḥet in two spellings and the final pe in one of those. Your analysis is staggeringly uninformed on several levels. The shorter form found in the Talmud and in the Syriac Chronicle of Arbela are original. The Greek Adiabene is secondary. We know this because the –ene suffix was one of a small number of Greek components attached to toponyms during the Parthian period when the Seleucid empire split up many Achaemenid satrapies into more manageable sizes. Compare “Adiabene” to the other names Osrhoene, Inigene, Tinigene, Akabene, Zabdicene, Dolomene, Sittacene, Mesene, Calachene, and Characene. The other widespread suffices that were added include –ena, -ia, and –itis. The –ene on the end of the toponym Adiabene has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Hebrew word בן. It comes from a Greek suffix added to the names of the cities after their annexation and division by the Seleucids. The Aramaic form without the suffix is original.

Anyone with a grasp of the Hebrew would not have understood it as “Sons of Addai” anyway, since the word you have read as “son” comes at the end of the word, rather than the beginning (Aramaic and Hebrew don’t do that), and also because gentilic nouns (“people of . . . , or “-ites”) end in yod (the long /i/ vowel). Finally, the Greek is based on the Aramaic word, which is represented in the Aramaic and the Syriac primarily with the ḥet. It is the Talmudic rendering with the he that is mistaken, the very spelling you naively think is original. Your etymology is stunningly uninformed and is flatly wrong.

It doesn’t seem to me you have much facility at all with the languages, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. Can you translate the following Greek sentence and parse the verbal elements:

εἰσέλθετε εἰς ἀγορὰν δῶρα παρά γε τῶν ἀδικούντων ληφόμενοι

And then translate this sentence from the Aramaic and parse the verbal elements:

שלם מראן אלה שמיא ישאל שגיא בכל עדן

Both of these sentences were taken from beginning grammars. I would appreciate a direct response to these two requests, whether that means providing the answers or acknowledging that you are unable.

Moving on (I’m skipping over much of your concerns with Tom’s treatment of your claims), you claim Josephus saw three “acquaintances” (ἐγνώρισα) being crucified and arranged to have them released and treated. You nakedly assert that these “acquaintances” are “three leaders of the Jewish Revolt.” There is no basis whatsoever for this identification, it’s just something you’ve conjured out of thin air. The text says nothing about the prisoners being leaders of the revolt, and the fact that Josephus mentions them as acquaintances in no way suggests they were leaders. Josephus uses even more intimate language for all kinds of men, women, and children. As Steve Mason points out, Josephus finds 190 “friends” and “close friends” among people locked up in the temple in §419, as well as others on crosses near a village in §420. Authors in this period inflated their importance by multiplying their intimate associations. These are unquestionably not leaders of the Jewish revolt. Finally, even if we assume that these three people were leaders of the Jewish revolt, the notion that because “King Izas” was a leader of the revolt, he had to be one of these three is flagrantly fallacious. To call that notion “axiomatic” is utter nonsense.

You say one may not agree with the speculation, but “the comparison is legitimate.” This is simply false. The comparison is not legitimate in any sense of the word, nor do the rest of the stories match. You are forced in your effort to make these things align to fudge meaning, ignore details, and subjugate the contexts to your conclusion. It’s flagrant begging the question. Your concluding remarks about Tom’s neglect of the context and of the relevant primary texts is laughable, as you repeatedly ignore the context and the historical data in the interest of your naked assertions. You’re attempting to talk down to him and his methodologies, but you’ve yet to show a single instance of respect for professionalism or the standard methodologies of biblical studies, historiography, or anything related. Youre primary concern is quite clearly whatever methodology you naively believe will support your presuppositions.

Now, getting on to what I actually asked you to come here to address. You claim Caruso is ignorant of the “true” history that Josephus was hiding. You go on to state the following:

 you cannot apply the rules of grammar and syntax on sentences that were written as ‘in jokes’ for a privileged few.

This is the most ridiculous claim you’ve provided to date. Basically, you’re saying the standard exegetical and historical methodologies cannot hold in instances where you believe someone is masking the details in pseudonyms in a way that only the initiated will understand. In this way you attempt to insulate your argument from actual informed scholarship. No matter what anyone says, you just have to point out that they’re not initiated, and so no matter what they don’t know what’s going on. You are the sole arbiter of the truth, and the sole proprietor of the exegetical keys to the text. This is amateur nonsense. Obviously, the claim that an author is cryptically hiding details underneath the text requires quite clear and definitive evidence, yet you can provide none. The lynchpin for your entire claim is the notion that Josephus could not possibly have omitted Abgarus from his texts. You can provide nothing to support this claim except the strength of your own assertion. I’ve already addressed the fallacy of asserting an ancient historian had to have included this or that figure. The additional fallacy here is the argument by assertion. Your entire claim quite literally comes down to “because I say so.” You obviously can provide nothing beyond your own word. Josephus’ comment about Adiabene being “beyond the Euphrates” doesn’t support your argument in the least. It’s not a clue of anything. Adiabene was located beyond the Euphrates.

Your claim that Queen Helena of Adiabene was living in Edessa and married to Abgar, the king of Edessa, is equally without merit of any kind whatsoever. Numerous historians have addressed the separate identities of the rulers of Adiabene and Edessa, particularly because the two locales were so important to early Christian proselytizing. The confusion of historical figures in later histories is quite widespread in antiquity, including within Syriac sources like Moses of Chorene, whose testimony you so naively prioritize. You are now the one cherry-picking sources by ignoring what the chonologically much closer texts have to say in order to assert the accuracy of some writing 400 years later. Several other authors from that period conflated Helena of Adiabene with Helena, the mother of Constantine. Are you going to write another book claiming they’re all the same Helena?

You’ve also obviously not considered the contemporary concerns with the text of Moses’ history. The oldest extant manuscript comes from the 14th century, and it appears to be based on heavily edited editions from the 7th and 8th centuries. For instance, Moses refers to four different Armenias that were not established until Justinian I organized the provinces in the 6th century. Moses claims the Iranians advanced into Bithynia, but that didn’t happen until a war from the early 7th century CE. Moses has also been criticized precisely for conflating figures and altering historical texts in the interest of his rhetorical aims. Some scholars defend him, however, pointing out that that was how history was written back then. In short, your dependence upon a much later and very tendentious historian is misguided. The propping up of your entire thesis on the legitimacy of that historian’s claim is pseudo-history.

The worst methodological mistake you make throughout all of your texts, however, is your insistance on synthesizing select data from various different disparate sources, while dismissing data that conflict with your preconceptions. You refuse to acknowledge errors where errors are beyond doubt, while asserting errors where the texts are clearly accurate, all in an effort to manipulate the sources in the aid of your presuppositions. Then you bark about people not being in the know, and not understanding because they’re trying to do history instead of acknowledging that the truth is cryptically hidden underneath the surface of the text. This is pseudo-scholarship, pure and simple. You don’t really defend any of your claims, as far as I can tell, you just hide behind rhetorical contrarianism that amounts to little more than “Nu-uh!” I’ve yet to see you respond legitimately to a call for references or for argument. Most commonly, you just reassert your original thesis without further argument. And this despite the fact that you accuse others of not providing direct evidence, or not providing scholarly support. You ignore all the standards of historiography only to prop up asinine claims on your naked assertions. Your research contributes nothing to history or religious studies.


On Ralph Ellis

I recently had a comment posted to my blog’s About Me page that I think merits a bit of attention. The comment was posted by a Mr. Ralph Ellis, and it reads as follows:

I note you extensively quote from Tom Verenna.
I would not believe a word Verenna says. Verenna makes reviews without reading the book, and writes with an agenda rather than with balance. And then when he is caught out with errors and lies, he hides behind censorship like a little child, and will not debate his mistakes.

Tom Verenna biography:
http://thomasverenna.blogspot.nl

I very rarely delete comments, and I don’t plan to delete this one, but I’d like to briefly respond to Mr. Ellis’ concerns. First, this is a direct personal attack on Tom that I don’t find particularly informed or accurate. In my dealings with Tom I’ve found him to be a quite balanced and self-aware student of the ancient world. I’m broadly aware of his academic and non-academic background, and I see no reason to judge his contemporary contributions to the academy by a past zealous tendentiousness that he has directly addressed and moved beyond (here).

Second, I am generally well enough informed about the issues on which I comment on this blog to know when someone’s contribution is valid. I don’t need to be told that my endorsements are misguided.

Next, the link in the comment takes one to a website entitled “Thomas Verenna Is A Lying Idiot.” Obviously such an insulting and unprofessional attempt to undermine Tom’s credibility does more to expose Mr. Ellis’ own lack of scruples, but it gets worse. Ellis’ accusations of dishonesty are incredibly ironic in light of his rather transparent habit of posting multiple anonymous and/or sock-puppet comments on his and others’ blogs in an attempt to make it seem like his claims have broad support. This kind of childish and petulant behavior flatly undermines any and all claims on his part to objectivity or scholarly erudition. Mr. Ellis is apparently submitting comments like these all over the internet, and as the link above shows, he’s starting blogs to personally attack Tom.

Finally, in trying to find some kind of academic expression on the part Ellis I came across a series of self-published texts that assert simply impossible connections between Jesus and other historical figures (see a Google Books preview of his most recent one here). Ellis’ flagrant lack academic training and discipline is put on display in his tendentious syntheses of astrology, folk etymology, reductive symbology, and parallelomania. I began to put together a brief response to some of his linguistic claims about Izates and his family, but it appears that’s already been taken care of for me, so I will just defer to other analyses here and here. In sum, the etymological connections he makes are utter nonsense, and he stumbles naively over every inch of the linguistic and historical contexts he tries to navigate. He’s basically squinting at transliterated names until they are similar enough in English for him to just nakedly assert that one is just a poor pronunciation of the other. He has absolutely no evidence whatsoever for these connections beyond his mere assumptions. These wildly speculative links are then used as a foundation for manipulating and altering other historical data until they fit his theoretical presuppositions. Everything is then couched in academic-sounding vernacular, giving it a stale air of erudition and sincerity that would only fool those uncritical enough to ignore the atrocious cover artwork, the shameless self aggrandizing, and the conspiracy-theorist framework (“this book really does overturn all our preconceived ideas about the New Testament and the history it was trying to tell [or sell]“). This qualifies as scholarship only when that word carries the prefix “pseudo.”

As a result, I must condemn Mr. Ellis’ personal attack against Tom Verenna. Not only are such attacks unwarranted by anyone presuming to assert academic respectability, but his criticisms ignore the significant personal paradigm shift to which Tom has attested, and fail to even acknowledge (much less engage) real concerns with the academic value of Ellis’ work.


Responding to James White (Part 6)

James White is apparently finished responding to my initial post. I have waited a bit and don’t see any indication he intends to address any of my responses, so I will let them stand in response to his first five posts. You can find both our posts here:

James’ Video, My Response

1st Rebuttal, My Response

2nd Rebuttal, My Response

3rd Rebuttal, My Response

4th Rebuttal, My Response

5th Rebuttal, My Response

6th Rebuttal

7th Rebuttal

8th Rebuttal

9th Rebuttal

10th Rebuttal

I will unfortunately have to divide my concluding remarks into two posts, since I want to address two lengthy issues White brings up in addition to the smaller details of his last five responses. I will start in this first post with White’s final remarks, since the concerns I have with it are fundamental issues that will illuminate the remainder of my responses (and my previous ones, too). In this final response White summarizes his fundamental concerns with the broad apologetic trend he sees represented in my comments. I’ve already discussed the problems with his assumptions about change within churches and theology in general, and Mormonism in particular (here), but in this final post White attempts to critique critical biblical scholarship as a whole. It is that critique that I intend to primarily address in this first post. I will first gather and summarize a number of points White makes concerning critical biblical scholarship in general. The intention is first to show that White’s approach to the entire endeavor of critical biblical scholarship is fallacious, uninformed, and is based on outdated and equally uninformed scholarship. I will then go on to show specifically where his arguments go wrong, and where his rhetoric misses the mark. Finally, I will try to touch on some smaller points made in this final post.

White begins by explaining that this last post of his is the reason he wanted to respond to my post in the first place, and it’s the reason he’s given his posts the title they have, “Guessing About God: Mormonism’s Inability to Resist the Onslaught of Modernistic Skepticism.” He explains that the shift he sees in Mormon apologetics is clearly seen in comparing Joseph Smith’s hermeneutic to those of modern critical biblical scholarship. His point of comparison is a 1966 book on Deuteronomy by Gerhard Von Rad. He then goes on to summarize the view of the Hebrew Bible that one must have in order for my argument to make sense. This rather lengthy summary characterizes “modern principles of skeptical criticism” in the following way:

“you do not look at the Old Testament as a whole; you do not even look at the individual books as singular units.”

“the foundation of this viewpoint is that of philosophical naturalism: that is, the basic assumption is of the disunity of the text”

“contradiction and error is the starting point, the first ‘given.’ That way we can produce theories that allow us to get ‘behind’ the ‘original’ and, well, to be perfectly blunt, get published and hope for tenure.

“While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?). In the main, once those theories find a “major” proponent they become widely accepted, whether they are sound or not.”

White thus characterizes critical scholarship basically as an old boys club filled with cynical people who can’t think for themselves and are really only concerned about publishing and tenure. White then rather unsubtly accuses me of some kind of academic elitism because of the way I presented my argument. “Many conservative Christians,” he states, “unfamiliar with the perspective of modern critical redaction theory, will not understand Mr. McClellan’s claims.” He continues parenthetically, “I find the willingness of redaction critics to throw out their conclusions without giving a thought to the fact that their readers will generally not have the means of understanding them rather educational.” White summarizes the approach of redaction critics in the following way:

You begin by refusing to allow any interpretation of these passages or terms used therein that is based upon looking at all that the Old Testament says. The many texts that say Yahweh is the only true God, and that all other gods are idols, such as Isaiah 43:10 or Psalm 96:5, must be seen as irrelevant, and kept separate from any texts that are under consideration. So, in the specific text cited at the end of the above citation, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, you cannot even consider testimonies to monotheism elsewhere even in the same book (since, on this theory, the book can be cut into small parts and isolated from any context at all, depending on the particular theory you are applying to the text). So, even though Deuteronomy 4:35 plainly states, “To you it was shown that you might know that Yahweh, He is God; there is no other besides Him,” that does not matter. That’s “over there,” and since Deuteronomy is a patchwork quilt of, well, whatever someone with a Ph.D. decides it is made up of, you can ignore that kind of thing. Remember, the basic assumptions include 1) internal contradiction, and 2) redaction of sources, often pagan in origin, must be looked to rather than any kind of divine revelation.

For White, redaction critics compartmentalize and then ignore inconvenient texts while overemphasizing other texts. The context is ignored so that atomistic considerations can apparently be thrown over the whole text. The inconvenient portions are ignored because of whatever reason someone with a PhD came up with, and divine revelation is precluded. To insist on consistency within the biblical text, according to White, is to guarantee you will never be published. The rest of his post addresses particulars of my argument, and I will get to that later, but for now I will respond to each of the points I’ve described above. (And for his specific claims about Deuteronomy and monotheism, see my posts here, here, and here. Obviously I am not simply ignoring those texts. White shows a marked naivety regarding what exactly critical scholarship argues.) I start with the way White characterizes critical scholarship.

Critical scholarship, according to White, is rationalistic, modernistic, and German. He quotes Von Rad. He calls critical scholars “liberal theologians.” He lumps their approach under modernism. White is here appealing to an early to mid-twentieth century characterization of liberal Protestant scholarship, particularly as found in the German school. This is an entirely obsolete view of critical scholarship that wasn’t even very accurate in its own day. What White is presenting is a broad and uninformed perspective he inherited from early and mid-twentieth century Fundamentalism. This is the kind of position that dominates in conservative seminaries and leads to students moving on to more academic programs thinking that no one has believed JEDP since it was debunked way back when The Fundamentals was published. That approach misunderstood scholarship in the early to mid-twentieth century and has continued to do so since.

A good example of how things are misunderstood and misrepresented is a 2002 article by one Colin Smith called “A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis.” The article comes from White’s own website and argues against JEDP, which it exclusively identifies with the Documentary Hypothesis (which is incorrect). From the beginning the article shows it cannot and will not address JEDP as it currently is understood. It’s clear the author does not understand the theory or its foundation very well, either. He does not directly engage a single textual argument. Everything takes place at the methodological level. He seems to think that tearing down Wellhausen will tear down everything that has followed. The author confronts (although not directly) critical scholarship almost exclusively from the nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century. He cites a number of Evangelicals from the late twentieth century who criticize the early DH, but I count only one critical scholar from after 1950 that is cited (Lester Grabbe), and even then he is only referenced and dismissed on two minor points. The most oft-cited publication in the footnotes (35 references) is a 1969 book by R. K. Harrison, followed by a publication by James Orr, who died in 1913. Wellhausen himself is only cited six times in the footnotes (via a Project Gutenberg version of the book that has no page numbers). This is the only discussion of JEDP I’ve been able to find on White’s site. I see no indication he’s aware of the work of Carr, Baden, Van Seters, Levin, Friedman, Haran, or numerous others from the last fifty years. There’s no need within his worldview, though, since everything’s been debunked for decades.

Not only is White’s position outdated, it is incredibly uninformed. White is not familiar with early or modern critical scholarship regarding the Pentateuch, he’s only familiar with the caricature of early critical scholarship that has been filtered to him through Evangelical Fundamentalism. That caricature is demonstrably false. White accuses biblical scholars of blindly sticking to mainstream ideas and of promoting those ideas only in the hopes of getting tenure. Basically, White is accusing the academy of standing in complete opposition to its own fundamental values, namely objectivity, originality, and scholarship for its own sake. White must simply assume that these academics secretly oppose the values they repeatedly affirm in conferences, publications, and university departments. This is, of course, ludicrous. Universities don’t pay professors to say the same stuff everyone else is saying. Grants, fellowships, and scholarships aren’t handed out so that people can just promote the status quo. Dissertation committees don’t sign off on dissertations for not adding anything to the academic discussion, or for refusing to be objective. White’s caricature is grotesque and naive.

Moving on, White insists that disunity is the presupposition with any critical literary analysis of the biblical texts. I will set aside for the moment the fact that he does not and cannot empirically support any case for the complete unity of the biblical text. Of course, he doesn’t have to; he’s not approaching this from a logical or evidence-based position, he’s approaching this from pure dogmatism. The people who presuppose disunity are simply wrong because he presupposes unity and he’s right (at least, as far as his intended readers are concerned). White cannot possibly defend his presumption of unity on intellectual grounds, so he has to simply insist that a presumption of disunity is problematic in and of itself. Let’s examine that, though.

While it is true that early source criticism sometimes got rather carried away with itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it didn’t begin this way. In fact, the first person to propose specific sources for the Pentateuch was actually writing an apologetic text directly affirming the unity of the text, and he was French, not German. Jean Astruc’s eighteenth century Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse, employed methods used by Greek and Latin scholars for identifying manuscripts and evaluating Homer. It argues that Moses produced separate narrative traditions that were later conflated by editors to produce Genesis. Astruc proposed separate narratives because he felt the evidence simply pointed to separate narratives (which it absolutely does). He maintained their compositional unity, though, insisting on Mosaic authorship. While Astruc’s methodologies were later taken up by Eichhorn and other German scholars among whom the approach flourished, the vast, vast majority of scholars who have approached the question have been believing Jews and Christians who are first concerned with a factual and logical approach to understanding the Bible, and who have decided that the evidence simply points to separate traditions. Even Wellhausen describes his study of the Pentateuch as beginning from an assumption of unity.

When one arrives at the conclusion that the text is fractured and then proceeds forward from there, it’s hardly accurate to say they are beginning with a presumption of disunity. Additionally, subsequent scholarship is not responsible for laying out the entire case for disunity with each and every publication. At some point scholarship has to be able to agree that the conclusion no longer needs to be made from the ground up. White prefers to ignore these facts and insists that any scholar who arrives at the conclusion of disunity must have presupposed it.

White’s position is perplexing for other reasons, too. It insists that critical scholars presuppose disunity and will not engage the evidence that has arisen out of the presumption of unity. In other words, he’s asserting that scholars who argue for disunity have never had to engage an argument against it. Why does he say this? It’s because he presupposes unity and will not even allow for the possibility that his presupposition is incorrect. As a result, anyone who disagrees with him must be doing something wrong, and must not be aware of how weak their argument really is. This is another rather grotesque caricature of critical scholarship. Anyone familiar with source criticism knows that it is constantly in dialogue with the notion of unity and synchronic analysis. They let the evidence guide the evaluation whereas White predetermines what the evidence is and is not allowed to say and then pretends to interact with it.

His treatment of Deut 32:8 is a good example of this. He provides the notes from the apparatus of the Göttingen edition and then states simply that the reading is unsure and that’s that. He states this “without fear of contradiction.” I’m curious on what this fearless conclusion is based. Is it the fact that a couple scholars have actually argued for the priority of “sons of Israel”? Does this mean any time a scholar publishes a challenge to a scholarly consensus that the consensus is automatically undermined? The fact that an argument has been made in print for “sons of Israel” no more indicates academic uncertainty than the fact that millions of people believe Elvis is still alive indicates uncertainty about his death. To insist otherwise is simply naïve. Scholars who argue that “sons of Israel” is original are simply wrong, and I will be happy to fully and directly address any publications White can cite to the contrary. Certainly it can’t be that. Is it because the argument for “sons of Israel” is the strongest? He doesn’t say a word about how strong it is, so it can’t be that. Is it because there are several different variants attested in the critical apparatus? Certainly he’s aware of the priority of the different Greek manuscripts in this case, as well as the Qumran witness—the earliest of them all—that is not found in the apparatus. It can’t be that. Is it because there are a couple different suggestions for reconstruction? I don’t believe this is the case. There is absolutely no question whatsoever that the text did not originally read “sons of Israel” or “angels of God.” The uncertainty is whether the text originally read “sons of El,” “sons of Elohim,” or, as Joosten has argued, “sons of Bull El.” I am at a loss to explain why he feels his assertion is valid, much less why he feels fearless in asserting it, unless he does so simply because he presupposes it. Whether or not this is the case, in the end, all he does is sidestep an argument he knows he cannot win.

Let’s examine another problem with his caricature of the critical method. White states,

While certain theories become predominant over time, it is not because those theories have been thoroughly tested (how do you test such things in the real world today?).

I would first ask what evidence White can produce that these theories have not been thoroughly tested, but it’s clear he can produce nothing beyond his own assumptions. On the other hand, there is a mountain of evidence that flatly contradicts his assumption. Even as early as the 19th century scholars found ways to empirically test the methodologies of source criticism. Tatian’s Diatessaron was the first text to be pointed to as analogous to the processes suggested by source critics. Tatian took four separate gospels and conflated them into a kind of gospel harmony. Scholars have noted the sources for each word of the text and then examined the phenomena that occur at the major seams, pointing out that those phenomena are the same things source critics have used to identify separate sources. Objections were quickly raised on the grounds that the Diatessaron is too late to bear on the question of Pentateuchal composition. Later discoveries silenced those objections. Primary among these discoveries were a number of versions of the Gilgamesh epic, which actually preserved multiple stages of its literary development from millennia before Tatian. Again, when the major seams were examined, they attested to the same literary phenomena. The Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even the Samaritan Pentateuch, because they sometimes preserve earlier stages of a text’s development (or later stages), produced a number of similar examples, although on a smaller scale.

What this shows is that (1) the methodologies used by source critics are testable, (2) they have been thoroughly tested, and (3) they have been shown to be reliable. Additionally, it shows that source critics constantly have the question of unity vs. disunity before them, and that they consider both traits fully and honestly. Here is a short list of some publications that directly address source critical methodologies and their empirical testing, as well as the value of diachronic and synchronic approaches to literary criticism (in no particular order):

David Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches (1996).

John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism (2006).

Ernest Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen (1998).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (1985).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (2002).

Jeffrey H. Tigay, “An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis.” Journal of Biblical Literature 94.3 (1975): 329–42.

Z. Talshir, “The Contribution of Diverging Traditions Preserved in the Septuagint to Literary Criticism of the Bible.” Pages 21 to 41 in VIII Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Paris 1992 (1995).

Michael V. Fox, The Redaction of the Books of Esther (1991)

George F. Moore, “Tatian’s Diatessaron and the Analysis of the Pentateuch.” Journal of Biblical Literature 9.2 (1890): 201–15.

Paul R. Noble, “Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of Literature and Theology 7.2 (1993): 130–48.

The remainder of the comments in White’s tenth installment covers the same rhetorical grounds as his earlier comments, so I’ll save myself the time. I will point to a couple final points, though. White argues in his final post that my accusation that his argument is nothing but petty sectarianism and dogmatism is ironic. He states,

I still find this kind of language coming from a follower of Joseph Smith to be ironic, given that Smith’s claims to prophethood are far more liable to such an assertion. Be that as it may, we have seen that in fact my arguments are logical, biblical, and compelling, and it is Mr. McClellan’s position that lacks a rigorous and, most importantly, self-consistent, foundation.

First, Joseph’s Smith’s claim to prophethood is quite a distinct claim that, as with revelation and the supernatural, is not open to empirical verification. It’s a religious claim, so it’s not really an analogy that serves to undermine the consistency of my argument (which has explicitly avoided all religious truth claims). I am perfectly happy to recognize that my belief in his prophetic calling is an exclusively faith-based claim. White cannot say the same about his beliefs. Next, I disagree entirely that White’s arguments are logical, biblical, or compelling, and I have provided numerous blog posts in defense of my position. He is free to engage my arguments if he wishes. But he will not. He cannot. He has yet to really engage my position directly. He’s only hurled fallacious and vague argumentation at a general methodological trend within LDS apologetics of which he believes me to be a part. He accuses me of not being “self-consistent,” but what he is really arguing is that that broad movement of which I am a part is inconsistent with Mormonism’s wider historical approach. That historical approach has nothing to do with me, of course, so the inconsistency he thinks he sees is not at all confined within my approach. I am being perfectly “self-consistent.”

White later argues that my appeal to the authority of self-definition is indicative of my unbiblical and corrupt worldview. As I already pointed out, in his responses to me White himself appeals to the authority of his self-definition as a Christian, so his argument is already thoroughly undermined. He now claims that respect for “self-definition” robs words of meaning. In another personal insult, White states,

rational, logical soul realizes that words have meaning

This is, of course, a rather ridiculous straw man. I never said words didn’t have meaning. My appeal to self-definition was intended to show, in part, that words mean different things to different people, and we can’t simply demand—based on nothing but our own dogmatism—that others adhere to our definitions of specific words. White’s definition of a Christian is not based on an objective or thorough look at the term’s usage (he stated that all of Christianity rejects Mormonism’s participation in Christianity, but this was obviously just an a priori assumption. I later showed that actual research shows the majority of Christians actually accept Mormonism as Christian). As I’ve shown, any objective definitions of “Christian” includes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

White cites Gal 2:4–5 to show that Paul rebuked people who had pretended to be Christians in order to bring true followers of Christ “into bondage.” White insists that, by my criteria, they should be recognized as Christians. I did not say that self-definition was the only criterion, however. I said there were others, but that self-definition was the first and the most important. That is still true even in light of White’s text. If the people to whom Paul refers indeed joined his congregation under false pretenses in order to subjugate it to some kind of outside or harmful authority then obviously that has to be taken into consideration. White doesn’t recognize this either because he has not thought it through or because he has not read my comments carefully enough. Either way, his criticism is invalid.

Next, I didn’t think I would see White appeal to this canard, but he actually insists on the notion that Mormons promote a “different Jesus.” It is an odd situation when two people insist they believe in the Jesus of the New Testament, but one then insists that the other’s Jesus of the New Testament is a distinct Jesus from his Jesus of the New Testament. The only way this can make any sense at all is if each conceptualization of Jesus relies on identifiers absent from the biblical text, and the differences lie between those extra-biblical identifiers. If both believe only in the person described throughout the text, neither has a belief that differs from the other. The difference in belief must come from qualities not found in the text. In other words, White is comparing an extra-biblical view of Jesus to an extra-biblical view of Jesus. As long as he is comfortable recognizing that fact, I’m perfectly happy to recognize that the aspects of Jesus I recognize that are not found in the Bible differ from the aspects of Jesus that White recognizes that are not found in the Bible. The notion that this excludes me from Christianity, however, can only rely on a non-biblical definition of Christianity (and a definition that would also exclude most first century Christians). In other words, we’re back to dogmatism and sectarianism. White’s argument can never escape that gravitational pull.

Finally, White argues that I mischaracterize his argument when I state that he’s really only arguing that Mormonism isn’t Evangelicalism, and thus isn’t Christian. He states,

Ironically Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, historical Anglican (still seen in the African branches, and down in Sydney, Australia), etc., all confirm monotheistic Trinitarianism as well. This is not merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals,” it is simply, “Mormons worship a god utterly unknown to Christians.”

Of course, as I explained in my original post and in my fourth response, his personal maintenance of the boundaries of Christianity is not limited to the doctrine of God. It only has to do with the doctrine of God when it comes to a religion with which White disagrees regarding the doctrine of God. The definition of a Christian he accidentally gave when he was not intentionally trying to exclude Mormonism was very clear to draw the lines just around Evangelicalism (it came from this response):

 I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

As I pointed out, this highlights sola scriptura and excludes Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Contrary to White’s rather selective argument, it is indeed merely a matter of “Mormons are not Evangelicals”; White just has different tools in his belt that he utilizes for dealing with each of the different non-Evangelicals he wants to exclude from Christian fellowship.


Responding to James White (Part 5)

James White has now published a fifth response to my post, found here. I apologize for how drawn out this has become, and I hope readers will understand that I feel a responsibility to fully address White’s argument.

After explaining that, because of time issues, he’s not going to spend much time with my responses to his post, White begins again to claim that my comments are problematic for a Mormon apologist. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t call myself an apologist, and that this isn’t actually engaging my argument, White’s position isn’t constructed on a firm base. He states,

The vast majority of polygamists living in Southern Utah “self-identify” as Mormons, but, that doesn’t keep the Salt Lake leadership from excommunicating them, does it?

I would like to see whatever data White has that indicates the “vast majority” self-identify as Mormons. I’m not saying it’s not true, but this seems more like an assumption than a statement of fact. He’s already been shown to be completely wrong regarding his assumption that the entire spectrum of Christianity rejects Mormonism as Christian. I would be disappointed if this represents just another a priori assumption on his part.

Irrespective, excommunication from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has nothing to do with broad identification as a Mormon. The designation “Mormon” is not the exclusive property of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church doesn’t believe polygamist and members of fundamentalist offshoots should be considered Mormons, but that’s because of the need to avoid misunderstanding. “Mormonism” is largely thought of as synonymous with “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and that identification creates confusion when it comes to other denominations. People still commonly think polygamy is practiced in the LDS church. One approach to this problem is to try to fully appropriate the designation “Mormon.” Another is to try to educate the public about the difference. I have no problem calling them Mormons, and I’m not alone in that. Yes, I depart from the church’s official stance on that, but that’s not relevant to the applicability of self-identity to this discussion in the least. It’s just a red herring.

Next White returns to appealing to dogmatism and sectarianism:

When Mr. McClellan says “self-identity is widely recognized as the most important criterion” does he tell us “by whom” this is recognized? Find out the answer to that, and you have his ultimate authority.

Well, for one White himself recognizes it. He proves as much when he uses his self-identification as a Christian as the foundation of his defense of his approach to the issue (which will be discussed below):

I am speaking as a Christian, basing my comments . . .

Obviously White considers his self-identification as a Christian to be fundamental. Once again I submit that White is neither giving this question nor my concerns the consideration they require. His responses are ad hoc and he’s several times now contradicted himself because he’s not paying enough attention to his own argument.

To get back to the question he proposes, though, I would say my ultimate authority in this instance is objectivity and rationality. I am also curious with what White wants to contrast my “ultimate authority.” What is his “ultimate authority” that must be so obvious to everyone else that he doesn’t even need to say it? It would have to be something that not only rejects the priority of self-identity, but that ultimately reject that Mormons are Christians. We’ve already seen that White’s own approach doesn’t align with whatever he’s setting up opposite mine: he appeals to the authority of his self-identification right off the bat. He can’t appeal to the Bible or to God directly without building his argument upon subjective and dogmatic assertions concerning the two (that he apparently will not defend logically). As I pointed out earlier, the majority of Christians identify Mormons as Christians (contra White’s earlier assumption to the contrary), so the Bible and his perception of God don’t seem to alone make the case for most Christians. There has to be an intermediary that colors his understanding of both to the point that he departs from the majority of Christianity in his interpretation. His ultimate authority can only be sectarianism.

Next White appeals to tradition:

Of course, once again, this assumes the parameters of the Christian faith are determined by current social norms or standards, or by studies done by “experts.” Such has never been the means of identifying the faith, and of course, never will be.

Self-identification has long been a means of identifying the faith, as White has shown.

In the following paragraph White continues to argue from a sectarian point of view, but he also appears to not have paid much attention to my comments. He states concerning self-identification,

If that is all we have as a criterion for what is, and what is not, “Christian,” we are left with the specter seen in Bart Ehrman’s conglomeration of groups making up the “early Christian movement,” so that the resultant mass of self-contradiction and irrationality is taken as the best argument against the divine nature of the faith ever offered.

Of course, it was never my claim that self-identification is “all we have as a criterion.” In fact, I explicitly stated that it was not the only criterion. From my original post:

Unfortunately for James’ position, self-identity is widely recognized as the most important criterion in religious identification, and virtually all Mormons self-identify as Christians (those that don’t do so only in reaction to arguments like James’). It’s not the only criterion, but it is the one that carries the most weight.

I don’t appreciate the mischaracterizations that White is promulgating, but I especially don’t appreciate having critical parts of my argument simply ignored. To go back to White’s paragraph above, I’ve addressed his problem with self-contradiction and irrationality already. His next statement is simply mistaken:

If this is the direction Mr. McClellan wishes to go, is he willing to embrace the necessary results of such a view, results that would assuredly denigrate the very claims to ultimate and final authority vested in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Here White is once again confusing religious authority and a simple social relationship. “Christian” is not synonymous with “saved” for Latter-day Saint (I’ve discussed this already), and so we’re not bound to reserve the title only for those who satisfy all of our fundamental soteriological requirements. We’re happy to refer to other Christians outside our faith as Christian. That doesn’t at all compromise our view of the authority of the priesthood. As I have stated repeatedly, White cannot argue his point from an objective or rational point of view. He can only argue it from his dogmas and his sectarianism.

His argument from here becomes, to be honest, self-contradictory and irrational:

If Mr. McClellan wishes to argue his case based upon sociological studies of the history and experience of religion, I will leave him to his arguments. My video was not predicated upon a sociological, or historiographical, definition of the Christian faith. I am speaking as a Christian, basing my comments upon divine revelation contained in Scripture, drawing from the foundational beliefs of Christians down through the ages.

Here White appeals to the authority of his self-identification as a Christian (evidently it’s only an important criterion when he does it), then to the authority of his sectarian reading of the Bible (never mind that the Bible simply does not support White’s doctrine of God and that he refuses to directly engage my argument to that effect), and finally to an historical definition of the Christian faith (which he said was not a part of his argument). I don’t think his rhetorical questions at the end of that paragraph require a response.

White continues:

Let us remember the previously cited statements by the LDS leadership concerning the apostasy of Christianity, its own unique status as the One True Church, and then consider the wisdom of a Mormon apologist making arguments based upon “sectarianism.” In either case, we once again note how unlike the founders of Mormonism Mr. McClellan sounds.

As I’ve stated before, Latter-day Saints don’t try to excise other groups from the Christian family. We disagree on a number of soteriological and theological concerns, which is only to be expected, but we don’t presume to tell people they’re not allowed to consider themselves Christians because we own the designation.

White continues:

Remember, my point was clear: Christianity is monotheistic, believing in one true God who has eternally been God, the Creator of all things, and Mormonism has said, from Joseph Smith onward, the exact opposite. The Mormon God became a god by obedience to law. Yes, that’s the teaching. This is the fundamental divide, the real issue we should be debating.

Yes, that is a teaching, but no, it’s not a doctrine. No Mormon is any more bound to that belief than they are to attending BYU or listening to Donny Osmond (who was fabulous in Mulan, by the way). If that is the fundamental divide then White has to figure out which side of it each Mormon is on. Obviously he’s not going to do that. He wants to dismiss them all together, so he will respond (if he responds) by insisting that Mormons believe Smith was a prophet, and that other presidents have taught it to, and so it must be a doctrine and any real Mormon will believe it. In other words, he will tell us what we believe, for us and over and against us. This is a necessary tool in the countercult repertoire. When it comes to self-identification, he takes care of it for himself and everyone else.

White continues:

One might ask, “Why would a historically consistent Mormon want to be identified with the very religion God told Joseph Smith was corrupt and an abomination?” I will have to leave that to Mr. McClellan to answer.

I will happily answer it. “Christianity” does not exclusively mean “Traditional Christianity.” Additionally, White is clearly growing desperate by retorting that it doesn’t make sense for Mormons to want to be called Christians. That evades rather than engages the discussion.

White gives us the following in conclusion (?):

At this point McClellan noted that I have likewise addressed Roman Catholics on the issue of their errors. I would simply like to point out that there is a difference between my identification of Romanism as a false religion and Mormonism’s definitional distinction from Christianity. Rome teaches heresy, not on the nature of God, or the deity of Christ, but on the gospel. This is the result of a long period of evolution. So Rome represents a departure from, apostasy from, the truth. Mormonism has never possessed the truth. It began, in its foundational documents and from the words of its founding leaders, as a direct attack upon the Christian faith. Rome’s heresy differs in nature, for while it maintains the truth in major areas (specifically, the doctrine of God), it has lost the life-giving element of the faith, that being the Gospel. Mormonism has never possessed the truth about God, Christ, the Spirit, creation, the Scriptures, or the gospel. These are important distinctions to be drawn and understood.

No, these are not important distinctions to make, at least not in light of the argument I’ve provided. Both judgments are constructed upon dogmatism and sectarianism.

I will wait to see if any more responses are forthcoming before attempting to summarize or conclude.

UPDATE:  A friend has directed me to a recent podcast by James White in which he mentions our current discussion. He explains that he’s not sure how long he wants to draw out this debate in light of the exponential growth of the debate with each volley, but he thinks it may be at least a ten-part series he posts. This is an understandable concern, and I agree that it complicates his continued participation (as it does mine, obviously). In light of this, I will refrain from responding to any more of his posts until he states that his series is complete. If he wishes to respond to anything I’ve already published I would ask him to include it before tying off his series. Whether or not he responds to anything subsequent to my first post, when he’s finished I will post a single response that will focus on main concerns. I will try to keep it relatively brief and will consider that the jumping-off point for any further discussion, unless of course he wants to comment on anything I’ve said in the responses I’ve already posted. Hopefully he finds that reasonable enough.


Responding to James White (Part 4)

I had assumed that White was finished with his third post, but I was mistaken. He had posted a fourth response to my comments. After reading over it carefully a number of times, I don’t feel there is much that I could say about his argument that hasn’t already been said. White is appealing to the same fallacies to which he appealed in earlier posts. I do have a couple things to point out, though.

In this fourth post, White argues that I am wrong when I say that “Mormonism claims to be Christian just like James claims to be Christian.” He evidently interprets this to mean “Mormonism claims to be Christian in the exact same manner that, and based on the exact same perspective from which, James claims to be Christian.” From their he dives into Mormonism’s claim to be the only church with God’s authority, and thus the only true church of Jesus Christ. He distinguishes this from his own claim to be Christian and insists that Mormonism is too audacious in their claim to be then allowed to turn around and identify generally with the Christian faith. Of course, my comment had nothing to do with the nature of our separate claims to be Christian. It only had to do with the simple fact that we each claim to be Christian.

Another statement White makes, however, problematizes his earlier rhetoric. In showing that he does not have the unmitigated gall to claim to be the only church with God’s authority he states,

I recognize the reality of God’s Spirit working in men and women who disagree with me on the non-essentials, and see a world-wide body of believers, the elect of God, united by a common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.

Here the fundamental definition of Christianity appears to be the “common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and the Scriptures are sufficient for life and godliness.” Why was this not put forth as the fundamental definition of Christianity in earlier posts? He repeatedly stated that Christianity is fundamentally defined by its doctrine of God. Others have even commented to me that it is odd that White fundamentally defines Christianity without ever talking about Christ. I have argued that his definitions are begging the question and are trying to construct an artificial definition of Christianity that can help him to draw Mormonism outside the circle. I have argued he isn’t really addressing true defining issues. I think White’s slip-up above shows that my assessment has been perfectly accurate. When the rhetoric is over and it comes time for White to define Christianity for those we don’t want to a priori exclude from Christianity, White’s definition actually overlaps quite a bit with Mormonism. I don’t know any Mormon who would disagree with the first two confessions. Of course, White’s definition, asserting sola scriptura as it does in its third confession, is more an Evangelical set of confessions than a simple universally Christian set of confessions. He’s intentionally excluding Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, but since that last confession is so ingrained in his own tradition’s fundamental identity, it’s to be expected.

I would conclude that White here has come full circle and finally proven that the fundamental criticism I provided in my original critique of his video was exactly on target. I would reiterate it:

What James is arguing throughout his video is that Mormonism is not Evangelicalism. This hardly needs a 14 minute video to point out, though. The implication, however, is that because it is not Evangelicalism, it is not Christian.


Responding to James White (Part 3)

White’s third post in his series can be found here. I start off by noting the following comment (I’ve already responded to his comments about the First Vision):

the consistent rejection of Mormonism as a Christian religion by the entire spectrum of Christian churches has been based, first and foremost, upon the doctrine of God.

Unless White can document the rejection of Mormonism as Christian by “the entire spectrum of Christian churches” I would ask him to avoid hyperbole. But as has been pointed out in the comments section of this post, White’s hyperbole is demonstrably false. A 2007 Pew Research Center Survey (found here) found that 40% of white Evangelicals, 62% of white mainline Protestants, 43% of black Protestants, and 52% of Catholics identify Mormons as Christians. Historically, I have seen a few different kinds of responses to these data. They usually come down either to the notion that these people must not be real Christians; that it’s the church’s official judgment that counts, and that’s determined by whether or not they consider Mormon baptisms legitimate (or something along those lines); or the data will simply be ignored. Perhaps White will have a different approach. For the issues with his prioritization of the “doctrine of God” in analyzing Mormonism, see my comments in Part 2.

White continues:

Fundamental to all of these discussions was the overwhelming testimony of the divinely inspired Scriptures, that is, Yahweh is the eternal creator of all things, and there is no God other than Him. Monotheism is not a negotiable for the Christian faith, and it never has been.

This is simply false. As I already pointed out, Paul asserts there are many gods and many lords. Identifying them as demons not only reads into the text something that isn’t there, but it also doesn’t change the fact that demons are divine beings, or gods. Christians accept the Hebrew Bible as God’s Word, and the Hebrew Bible affirms the existence of numerous divine beings from beginning to end, even calling many of them gods. The modern concept of monotheism is not that there exists only one divine being. It’s that there only exists one divine being monotheists consider worthy of worship. In the first century that wasn’t even true, though. Revelation 3:9, 21 show that humans were expected to be worshipped in the end times. 4Q246 shows the same expectation within the Qumran community. 1 Enoch and other pseudepigraphical texts expressed the same, as did a number of rabbinic texts. It wasn’t until the assimilation of the Greek notion that God, understood as a universal superlative, could not number more than one, that these ideas were manipulated to fit into the new rubric. Many of the ideas didn’t go down without a fight. This is why Christianity fought for centuries to make it sound logical to have three distinct deities considered one deity.

White goes on:

It is only when the divine inspiration and consistency of the Bible is denied (as Mormonism does), and the consistency of belief of the Christian people on the fact that there is only one true God is made to be only as relevant as the views of a religious sect from the Intermountain West that arose 1800 years after the founding of the Christian faith, that the question can be made difficult or complex.

This is absolutely true, but James would have to provide an argument for why my denial of a univocal Bible (I don’t deny it is in some sense inspired, I just don’t commit to any particular idea about exactly what that means) is unfounded before this comment could become relevant to this discussion. As it stands it is a simple statement of dogmatism and only serves to reinforce my original conclusion, namely that White’s rejection of Mormonism as Christian is not based on an objective or logical analysis, but on nothing more than sectarianism and dogmatism.

White continues on for some time apparently defending the fact that his argument was begging the question. He ends with a series of questions that I’d like to answer:

But let us note something here that is very important: if Mormonism can be included as a Christian faith, then…what is the Christian faith?

A variegated collection of religious groups claiming to be trying to follow Christ.

We know Mormonism actually does not claim to be merely a Christian faith, it claims to be the Christian faith, the one true Church, the sole repository of God’s true authority in the priesthood, etc. So keep this in mind as you listen to Mr. McClellan’s rhetoric.

In other words, try to be offended as you read my comments. It makes disagreeing with them so much easier. We do claim to be the only church with the proper authority. We don’t claim to be the only Christians, though. We don’t equate “Christian” with “saved,” too. Christian is not a soteriological judgment in our book. Salvation is a process that we believe finds culmination only after this lifetime, and we don’t believe anyone who tries their best to live up to the worldview to which they hold will simply be flippantly denied salvation.

But even more important, if Mormonism is Christian, I have to ask…what isn’t?

All groups that do not self-identify as Christian and claim to be trying to follow Christ.

I mean, as we will see, Mr. McClellan will appeal to the “self-identification” of Mormons as Christians as evidence.

I said it was the most important criterion, but I also said it wasn’t the only one. The word began as a descriptor for people who follow Christ. That must also be taken into consideration. The person’s sincerity, as we will see, is also important.

OK, then Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too, right?

Do they self-identify as Christians, and do they claim to follow Christ? If so I see no reason to deny them the designation.

And, if a Muslim wants to be called a Christian, they do believe in Jesus, right?

This is a rather silly question. Can anyone point to any Muslims who honestly self-identify as Christians?

And how about Robert Price, the atheist scholar, who is a member of an Episcopalian Church? Can we have an atheist Christian, too?

Does he actually claim to be a Christian and does he claim to follow Christ?

 Why not?

I didn’t say he couldn’t.

Is there any objective element to Christianity that can differentiate it from what is “not” Christianity?

Yes. I already explained what those elements were. These questions aren’t addressing my claims, they’re just trying to find silly loopholes in the logic. Anyone can do that, even for James’ definition of a Christian. Observe: If a Muslim said they accepted the Nicene Creed and believed the Bible was the only word of God, would they be a Christian? Will White respond that they would no longer be a Muslim, or will he respond that he’s still a Muslim and so he can’t believe those things? Either way, the integrity of his premise falls apart.

Let’s ask the question this way: am I a Mormon? If I “self-identify” as one, am I one?

Does White self-identify as a Mormon? Obviously not. The hypothetical situations are really pointless since their rhetorical strength rests exclusively on the conflict created by the juxtaposition with a current reality that precludes the hypothetical one.

I believe Joseph Smith was a false prophet, the Book of Mormon a 19th century fraud, the temple ceremonies bad copies of Masonic rituals, etc. But as long as I “self-identify” as a Mormon, who is to say I am not?

The people who know that White being completely dishonest in his self-identification are those who would say he is not a Mormon. Mormonism is a different animal altogether, though, since it holds to a much more limited and unique set of ideologies. Additionally, this line of argumentation is becoming increasingly silly.

If Mormonism has the right to define its borders and boundaries, why can’t Christianity?

First, “Mormonism” can technically mean more than just the mainstream LDS church, and those that self-identify as Mormon contribute to that general boundary. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can define its borders and boundaries because it has, since the beginning of its existence, maintained a very clear and very formal process to gain and maintain membership. It also has a central authority structure that is recognized by the entire membership. That structure is reaffirmed by the membership twice a year. The apodosis here doesn’t follow. Christianity does get to define its borders and boundaries, but White alone does not speak for all of Christianity, and not only do Mormons self-identify as Christians, but there are plenty of Christians in other denominations and churches that have no trouble identifying Mormons as Christians.

White concludes his final (?) response with the following:

The reality is, Christians for over a century and a half have been putting Mormonism “outside the circle,” and until just recently, Mormonism seemed to be fine and dandy with that, and returned the favor. Can Mormonism retain its identity while seeking to mainstream? I am unconvinced that it can.

No, Mormonism has not been fine being considered non-Christian. They have been fine not being considered mainstream Christian, or Protestant, or any one of a number of other sub-designations, but it’s equivocation on White’s part to insist that not identifying with specific other Christians means not identifying as Christian. White has shown throughout these responses of his that he hardly speaks for all of Christianity, much less for Mormonism, and that he doesn’t give the facts a fair shake when he’s got a rhetorical point to make; his predictions about Mormonism’s internal integrity thus don’t really amount to much more than dogmatism and petty sectarianism.

UPDATE: I have added a reference to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey after a commenter reminded me of it. I have also made a couple minor edits.


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