What Historical Claims Does God Insist We Believe?

I mean that question in terms of scriptural claims, especially related to the Old Testament. Readers may be aware of scholarly skepticism of the existence of major biblical figures and events and I’ve often gotten the sense from my fellow members and other Christians of seeing scholars with such views as problematic, secular people not properly holding biblical claims as they ought.

I’m well aware of the limits of historical study, but also think that historical methods and lots of work by scholars as a whole do tell us something. I don’t think scholars in any field go about what they do as some kind of malicious pact with the devil. Scholars are happy to debate with each other so though I’m not arguing that scholarly consensus is anything like infallible (consensus can certainly be overturned), but for, me, scholarly consensus suggest a whole lot of work and evidence. Thus if there is consensus on something, I believe scholars have come to that position in good faith. I do not feel the need to hold doggedly to all scriptural historical claims, nor do I believe that God insists that I do so.

For instance, my understanding is that there is pretty close to consensus that Moses did not exist, that nothing described about the exodus or conquest of Canaan actually happened. I understand many feeling like Moses is a big deal with all kinds of theological and historical tie ins to things Mormons believe. But I don’t believe that God insists that I believe in Moses, or a whole host of other biblical figures predating him of dubious historicity.

I’m happy to be proven wrong about all these events and people, but I also believe that historical inquiry does give some indication of what happened in the past. And such a study is a worthwhile thing.

So just as a playful thought experiment, I don’t anticipate afterlife judgment being God holding open the OT and asking whether the judged believed all its characters were historical and confining people to lower kingdoms if they did not. Instead I think the questions will be more like Matthew 25:31-46.*

The bottom line for me is that I do think we can embrace “scholarship” (I put in quotes since I certainly know there is a lot of debates, but again, I think consensus may point to useful ideas) on these topics, make a few adjustments to beliefs, and still be practicing Christians and Latter-Day Saints. Are we really “required” to reject such scholarship in the face of overwhelming evidence? Again, making theological adjustments seems very doable (something I’ve done a lot of).


* And as a side note, I also think that the reference to “my brethren” in v. 40 suggests community building since Jesus said, “whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother,” in Matthew 12:50 and Jesus made it pretty clear that those who followed him were those who did God’s will (a Jehovah’s Witness pointed this out to me many years ago. What do you think?) I’ll post more on that later.

63 comments for “What Historical Claims Does God Insist We Believe?

  1. So refreshing, again thank you for this series! I would love to see less of what I see as fundamentalism in our church.

  2. Even after Moses, no battle of Jericho, no massive killing of the Canaanites, who already inhabited the area. Not until you get to King David is anything historically accurate. And there does appear to have been a king named David. But the people were not monotheistic. They actively worshiped several gods and only later were these other gods declared to be false gods and thrown out of Solomon’s temple. God’s wife was Ashera, she of the groves. The actual history can be backed up by archeology.

    Now, when it comes to the Book of Mormon, more LDS are going to have problems with how there is no evidence that any of it is historically accurate. And the Book of Abraham, well, there is no evidence of any guy named Abraham in Egyptian history, and the papyrus Joseph Smith claimed to translate is really a common Book of the Dead, not anything written by Abraham, is it is most likely something Joseph made up out of his head. Well, according to scholars.

    The only scripture we have that we can really place in history is the D & C.

    So, do we dare widen this discussion to our Mormon scriptures as well as out Bible.

    Personally, to me it doesn’t matter. If I can learn something about God from reading it, then I consider it scripture. I can accept that most events in the early Bible were legends and myth. And not having ever even liked the BoM, I am content to throw it out of my personal scripture.

  3. Thanks, E.

    Indeed, Anna, historicity questions certainly extend beyond the OT. That said, I’d kind of like to hold off larger debates over distinctly Mormon scripture for a bit as I’d like to put up more context first and those can be really hot topics. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to try to control the discussion in that way, but I’ll just say this same thing if it comes up: I want to wait on that.

    But good point about learning from our important cultural stories even if they are not historical. That IS a point I’d like to discuss here. Deriving meaning from our significant stories is quite vital to our human meaning-making, and meaning-making is quite vital to that very important human sense of purpose. No doubt we will continually reinterpret these important stories.

    And I differ from you in that I quite like a lot about the Book of Mormon.

  4. To answer your main question….one…Jesus is real therefore God is real. Once the seeker/reader finds God/Jesus the rest is fluff or “helps” for readers to be like Them. If you have a strong relationship with God and revelation, there is less reason to go back to the “manual/instructions” that help find God/Jesus. Like the OP mentions, there is not going to be a test in the next life regarding our pass/fail knowledge/belief in the scriptures. Did you love? Did you repent? Did you forgive? Did you give mercy? Did you try all your days? Did you believe in Us? Let them enter. IMO.

    Once the treasure is found, do we study the map?

  5. Stephen, I don’t think any belief in historicity is required, either now or at some point in the future, including the afterlife.

    That being said…

    While scholars generally don’t make pacts with the devil, one persistent scholarly instinct is to tweak the rubes and stick it to the fundamentalists (see Stephen’s post yesterday for an example).

    I don’t think your Wikipedia link actually states that scholarly consensus is that Moses didn’t exist. Instead, it says that there’s no historical evidence for his existence, and a range of interpretations of that, including the view that he did exist. Unfathomably more happened in Egypt in ~1500 BC plus or minus a few centuries than made its way into preserved records. So maybe an exodus of millions of Hebrews from Egypt seems unlikely, but there’s plenty of room for a group of hundreds or thousands to do something that would take on the significance of the Exodus when it was recorded centuries later.

    What we ARE (and will be) asked about, I think, is belief in various texts as scripture – we don’t canonize the actual historical events of Egypt in 1500 BC, but some modern forms of a text with a specifically LDS interpretation within a longer interpretive tradition.

    The difficulty is that in practical terms, I’m not seeing a lot of examples of accepting ahistorical texts as scripture compared to many examples of ahistoricity being one step on the path to apostasy. The focus of our curriculum is primarily on what the scriptures teach, not when and where particular events happened, which would seem to require minimal commitment to historicity. But the move to regarding a scriptural text as ahistorical nearly always seems to be associated with relativizing scripture vis-a-vis other texts, emphasizing some books of scripture at the expense of those taken as ahistorical, or just rejecting accepted teachings altogether.

    So I think some work is required to show that foregoing belief in historicity is a tenable position in the long term for faithful members. It’s important work, but it’s not easy work.

  6. In studying Job, once I decided that the events described were probably not historical, I found that its power and meaning could be made more relevant to me. Like releasing it from a tether that would otherwise restrict its reach. Similar thing with Adam and Eve, a story which we intentionally pull out of history and mythologize so that we can live in the story ourselves. Myth and fiction are often more true than life. I don’t think this is necessarily the path to apostasy, but it does necessitate a different view of what scripture is and can be. In a good way, in my opinion.

  7. I don’t think we can prove that Moses did not exist. What we can prove is that one million Hebrews did not wander in the desert for 40 years. That would have left evidence of huge nomadic tribes living in that desert. Even assuming that God miraculously provided water and food, they would have left evidence. In a desert landscape, where one million people walked, would leave traces even several thousand years later. And they would have broken dishes, worn out clothing, buried their dead. Nope, no millions of people wandering the desert for 40 years. Now, a small group is possible.

    What the latest theory from scholars that I read said, was that the Hebrews took stories from small groups and blew them into huge miracles, in order to give the new Nation of Israel a common identity. To give all the people the same cultural identity, it has to be the ancestors of the whole nation, not a small band of a few hundred. So, they took a real story and exaggerated it into an epic story, by multiplying 100 escaped slaves into millions. They gave one common ancestor to the whole nation as a reason for the divergent tribes to become one nation instead of tribes. Maybe there were 12 tribes, not descended from 12 brothers, but totally unrelated tribes that a king wanted to unite under his rule. So, start telling them a handy myth about their common origin.

    There are real advantages to knowing that some Biblical stories are nothing but myth. The most obvious to me is that knowing the point of Genesis and God creating the earth and the animals is that God did it. It shouldn’t be taken as literally as to be a detailed description of how God created the earth and animals. It only tells us what, not how. But then people get all bent out of shape over the Big Bang because they assume that the theory says “God didn’t do it.” No, Genesis just says that God created the earth. So, what if I believe that God did it by causing a big bang and then selecting the best resulting planet. And maybe God sort of engineered evolution. After all, Genesis does not say how God created animals. So, maybe it was by selective breeding. Humans can do it, why couldn’t God. So, I am not worried by fossils because I am not staking my belief on thinking Genesis explains God’s method when it doesn’t. It never says “out of nothing”. That was a Catholic idea, not Joseph’s. I think Joseph Smith would be just fine with Big Bang and evolution. Because he took truth where ever he found it.

    There are other advantages to not taking things literally and accepting there is a real history that may not back up Biblical stories. We can just toss stories that are too illogical, like that all billions of species on earth fit into one big boat, called Noah’s ark. Believing i the mythological history changes things in that we don’t waste time looking for the remains of Noah’s ark on Mt Ararat. But it doesn’t change the message of obeying God we can learn. And it actually protects us from some of the spiritual dangers of taking it literally. If we believe in a God that would kill innocent children because their parents are evil, in both the ark story and the Sodom story then we may dislike the cruel God portrayed and miss the message in the story of Sodom to treat travelers nicely. Many people miss the point of the story anyway because they get lost in the horror of men raping men (never mind that Lot offered his own daughters up to be raped) and think it is about homosexuality, and not even the rape part of it. And knowing that it was a myth, may help us not go about blaming the victims of natural disasters every time there is an earthquake or hurricane and assuming it HAS to be a punishment for homosexual behavior like some modern Christians do.

    So, I think the advantages of not believing it is all historical outweigh the disadvantages. My testimony won’t get destroyed by science.

  8. REC, I agree that it’s the principles we live that will really matter.

    Jonathan, “So I think some work is required to show that foregoing belief in historicity is a tenable position in the long term for faithful members. It’s important work, but it’s not easy work.” I agree and I’m certainly not claiming to be THE guy to do this, but this blog post is such an attempt to contribute to such work.

    allergy, yes, I think there is meaning to be found in old stories.

    Anna, yes, all that. My sense is that not only did none of that Moses stuff happened, but I’m thinking that scholars who argued that it was written down (essentially invented) WAY later will be proven to be correct. And I also agree with you that there’s a TON of rather immoral stuff in the OT that I think relinquishing historicity helps us to take a little less seriously. And I think God would approve of that.

  9. “historical tie ins”

    This is the phrase that makes the LDS situation so unique and somewhat problematic. The characters and events of the Old Testament constantly show up in modern-day LDS scripture, be they purported ancient-based scripture such as the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham and Book of Moses; or the more modern Doctrine and Covenants. Other Christians don’t have to deal with this particular obstacle in attempting to reconcile ancient writings with modern findings.

  10. When we ask which historical claims God requires us to believe, we are struggling with the question of what our faith and our church will look like next.

    The Mormon tradition comes to questions about historicity differently than other Christian traditions do. Our church was founded on Joseph Smith’s teachings about fantastical things that happened to him personally. The first questions for our Mormon forebears were about whether miraculous events were happening as they watched. Their response to those questions created a worldview in which miracles were literal, immediate, and personal. This way of experiencing the world shaped early Mormons’ interpretation of everything, including ancient scripture.

    Two hundred years later, the worldview of early Mormonism is quickly passing away. The immediacy of the founding Mormon miracles will no longer be accessible to us. For a lot of young people today, it makes perfect sense to ask whether Joseph Smith was a real person. They ask this question not because they are stupid, but because they don’t experience Joseph’s presence in the way our ancestors did. Our founding events are passing into the status of myth.

    This evolution moves Latter-day Saints closer to other Christians in the way we approach questions about historicity. Now we start analyzing historicity using the same categories that various kinds of mainstream Christians use, but we also bring some of our own religious sensibility. This might be one of the reasons why many of our people have gravitated toward Christian fundamentalism, which emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century as a literalistic reaction to modern Christian theology. Perhaps fundamentalism gives people the sense that they can hold on to something like the form, if not the substance, of the early Mormon worldview.

    But the substance of our faith is what really matters, and there are not easy answers about how to maintain the substance of faith as the world changes.

  11. There are a lot of threads that tie our canon together. And so to say that Moses never existed gets a bit tricky–IMO. Even so, I think we can believe that there were historical figures and events without having to believe everything that was written about them in the OT.

    I think, also, that there are some elements in the OT that are so foundational to the doctrines of the restoration that they cannot be easily dismissed. The creation is one of those elements, IMO. In saying that I’m not suggesting that we should accept the narrative verbatim. But there are certain truth claims in the account–the which if we *don’t* accept will put us on shaky ground, e.g., God is the Creator, we are created in his image, and so forth.

    And then there are historical characters that figure rather prominently in the restoration, Moses, Elijah, Elias/Abraham, Isaiah, Malachi, and so forth. If these folks didn’t exist then the claims of the restoration become rather nonsensical–especially when we consider our belief in a God who manifests himself and establishes his Kingdom by covenant. If the restoration is a fulfillment of covenants that God made with the ancients then the fabric (of the restoration) unravels–that is, if the folks with whom those covenants were made never actually existed.

  12. God doesn’t insist on any level of belief about historicity. But the institutional church does if you count the questions in the temple interview about Joseph Smith and the restoration. The questions have changed and evolved but essentially are asking if you believe the historical accuracy of those events. Many of the leaders of the LDS church including Oaks, Bednar, Nelson, Packer, McConkie for example have insisted that the Book of Mormon and biblical accounts are all historical things that happened in a literal way.

    You can ignore those leaders and the institutional church and believe what you want of course. Just don’t say that out loud in church.

  13. The last part was a bit snarky.

    I know your argument is that you don’t believe and it is fine to express those things. I never felt like that was the case but think it is interesting to see how you make that work.

  14. Brian G,

    I think we have to draw the line somewhere–don’t you? If there’s no historical Jesus then we’re in big trouble.

  15. I think what happens is that some people take just the Bible (or other scriptures) and no other sources. Then to prove their faithfulness they insist that their head cannon of whatever translation they read is historically accurate. Whereas they find the people who take the scriptures seriously enough to study different translations, the evolution of language, textual criticism, archeological evidence, as being less faithful. Saying things like “Job is a poem” make it more complex, not less true.
    Once you get out of Primary and learn more complicated aspects to scriptures you are confronted with the question of “What does it mean to be the Word of God?” We want it to mean “A historically accurate record of events”, but that’s just not true.

  16. Jack. I don’t think that the church has to draw any of those lines. It chooses to. And since it feels like it needs to those lines are sketched out in temple recommend interviews for example.

  17. The scholarly consensus doesn’t say Moses didn’t exist, it just says that isn’t any contemporaneous or close-to-contemporaneous evidence of his existence. There are scholars that propose theories of the construction of Moses as a literary figure, but the relationship of literary Moses to any hypothetical historical core really can’t be expounded on beyond that. Since Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery got keys from Moses in the Kirtland Temple I think Moses the prophet existed. The accuracy of what has been passed down to us about him is another question.

    Speculative reconstructions of the development of scriptures are often fun reading, but I don’t know how to tell the wheat from the dross. Many of these text-critical developmental hypotheses can sound quite plausible and compelling. The problem is that “plausible and compelling” isn’t that high of a bar to cross. You can say “X historical speculation can explain Y feature of the text”, and sure, it could, but that’s about as far as you get. I saw the same sort of inference-from-explanation at work in the “lives of Jesus” genre around the turn of the millenium. All of them plausible and compelling retellings, but their demonstrable contradictions became something of a scandal.

  18. Brian G,

    “I don’t think that the church has to draw any of those lines. It chooses to. And since it feels like it needs to those lines are sketched out in temple recommend interviews for example.”

    Maybe we’re talking past each other with respect to what the lines represent. Because surely the church must stand by certain of its claims in order to be what it claims to be. I suppose that, in theory, it could change its identity and become a completely different animal. But then it would be something, well, different.

    Even so, the real question (IMO) has to do with whether or not there is a Living God; and if it is he who has led the prophets to delineate the boundaries of the Kingdom’s identity. Because if it is (he) then drawing those lines has a deeper purpose than helping the members understand what the church’s purpose and identity is. They set forth the basic claims that every member should come to know are true by virtue of personal revelation.

  19. This history of the Old Testament text (and, most likely, the oral tradition that preceded it) is far more obscure than that of any other book of scripture. But from an LDS perspective, what stands out to me is that most of the time it was in the hands of people who were in a state of apostasy. The authors of the historical books don’t even try to claim prophetic authority. So it feels entirely orthodox to me to suppose that it has been badly corrupted, especially the histories. Joseph Smith said we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, but he used the word “translate” to mean a lot of things and gave examples of corruption in the original Hebrew.

    I think it’s more likely than not that the Book of Joshua is a work of wish-fulfillment fiction by someone who believed strongly in the superiority of the Israelite people and religion (some version of it), somewhat analogous to the novels about race war that are popular among white supremacists today. On the other hand, the history of D&C 110 is not murky at all, I believe Joseph Smith generally told the truth about his experiences, and that more importantly the Church really does have the keys described and especially the sealing power. So I tentatively conclude there was a real person named Moses, whose life probably contained some elements of the Moses story we have in the Old Testament, but less dramatic and on a far smaller scale such that archeologists wouldn’t expect to be able to find any evidence of it.

    I don’t think God cares greatly if someone says “I don’t think Moses existed.” But I believe he cares a great deal if someone says “Moses didn’t exist, so he couldn’t have appeared to Joseph Smith, so the Church doesn’t have any keys or the sealing power and Joseph Smith was a fraud and I’m out.” But even there, it’s the “I’m out” he cares about. And let me emphasize that I’m not saying that if you don’t believe Moses existed you have to accept the rest of that chain of logic. I really hate it when people make arguments of the form “X implies Y and Y is false, so you mustn’t believe X” when they know perfectly well that many people who believe X don’t actually believe Y. Still, it’s a concern.

  20. I am out – so I am cross both RLD and Jack’s line where I guess God cares what I think is historical or not. I am out because I don’t see that the leaders or institution of the church do allow for variance in belief and a pile of other issues that are unrelated to the question posed by the author.

    I agree with Jack that for the LDS church claims to be true there are a list of events and people that need to be real historical figures and not mythological or literary characters. Part of that is because we come from a church that claims a restoration of lost authority, rites, doctrines, and covenants and that Joseph Smith actually met Jesus, Moses, Elias/Elijah – same person, different name translation but Joseph didn’t know that, Abraham, Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, John the Baptist, Matthew, Mark, John, and probably more. Plus that book of Abraham, Moses, and Mormon were divinely inspired actual literal historical documents and translations.

    Now I don’t believe most of that to be true. I think there probably was a real person that the story of Moses is originally based on but I don’t need all of the story to be facts for it to be interesting and instructive. I dont believe many of the things I once taught as a missionary about the scriptures and restoration. But I think the church and its leadership do and expect members to. I don’t think God cares if you or I believe that Nephi was made up
    Or a real guy that built a boat and sailed from the Middle East to somewhere in the Americas. But the church cares and thinks god does too. I think the church and its leaders are wrong to believe that but lots of evidence that is their position of the question posed by the author of the post.

    That is why I struggled to stay in the church and I am along for the ride to see how Stephen pulls off this balancing act that I was unable to.

  21. It seems hasty to me to say that Moses does not exist and that is the consensus among academics.
    What could be stated is that there is no evidence yet of its historicity (aside from the testimony of Joseph Smith, the Bible writers, and the experience of Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration).
    But there are complementary perspectives that should be considered and not just the consensus among academics. Joseph Smith claims to have seen Moses and that he was introduced to him, in particular I believe him more than the consensus of scholars, especially when he is a personal witness of having been with him. If you don’t believe that, then we’re in another kind of conversation. It is natural to realize that in the scriptures there is a lot between myth and reality, numbers, certain stories, places, etc. Even from the universal flood that is not universal.
    The same thing happens with the Book of Mormon, as Nibley said it is a singularity and should not exist, but it is real.
    Here there is a sneaky secularization that tries to undermine the concept of the confirmatory spiritual experience, the testimony. It’s like covering your ears and saying, I don’t believe because I don’t hear. I only understand what I see, what I touch and what I smell and what I taste.

  22. Jonathan Green said: The difficulty is that in practical terms, I’m not seeing a lot of examples of accepting ahistorical texts as scripture compared to many examples of ahistoricity being one step on the path to apostasy.

    I talk quietly with lots of people who have nuanced views of the historicity of the scriptures, who take the scriptures very seriously and learn about them from every discipline that offers insight and information, who believe the point of scripture is the question of what God wants me to learn from this. I do understand that this is an easier approach for me than for some others because I’m an English major type who is very comfortable with metaphors, with parables.

    We talk quietly because of views like Jonathan’s. We know our views are not acceptable in many wards. I do not live in a ward where I believe I am welcome.

    So…you probably don’t know about the many nuanced active members with whom you associate because they don’t trust their fellow members enough to be honest. And your stated position might be part of the reason many with nuanced views do leave the church. Being constantly told you’re on the road to apostasy might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  23. Jonathon wrote: “So I think some work is required to show that foregoing belief in historicity is a tenable position in the long term for faithful members. It’s important work, but it’s not easy work.”

    I think one easy first step is recognizing that there are various literary genres within the Old Testament. Just because an account may be fictional, historical fiction, etc., does not mean that the piece of literature lacks spiritual significance. Another would be to realize that we moderns are guilty of reading historicity into religious texts and have strained to prove that historicity exists to a point that would have bewildered the original authors.

    I also have noted that those who spend much time in attempting to prove the historicity of the Book of Mormon account, either professionally or as a hobby, frequently miss the literary and spiritual elements of that work. Is that a work of faith?

  24. Thanks for all the comments, and I’m sorry I’ve been away for a bit. It’ll be hard to respond to everyone individually, so instead I want to address some of the major themes that people have brought up.

    First, I want to go back to what Jonathan said about rejecting historicity of scripture leading to “just rejecting accepted teachings all together” or “apostasy.” I’m sure that is a major concern on all levels of the church: calling any of these things into question will erode peoples faith etc. No doubt that can happen.

    But for me, the problem is that our historical data does indeed call a ton of these things into question and Anna gives a fairly good summary. It’s quite easy for people to get ahold of summaries scholarship (Wikipedia! Youtube! Tiktok! books even!) Again, I really believe that those scholars are not lying but sharing their good-faith efforts, and that other scholars are happy to call out bad scholarship shared simply for ideological purposes.

    This is to say, that I think it is very much misplaced to blame the scholarship for people’s faith crises. Scholars are doing what they should: investigating and sharing what they’ve found. Like I said in this post at the JI [https://juvenileinstructor.org/study-and-faith-3-objectives/] that is what scholars SHOULD do rather than acting like “defense attorneys” for ones preconceived ideological notions.

    If we take the approach that the answer to the problems of scriptural historicity is to do whatever we can to keep people away from information, I’d say it’s pretty clear that is a losing battle because it’s a clear admission of the weakness of one’s stance.

    And like I said in that same JI post, arguing that one has historical validity for one’s point by simply saying that the arguments one doesn’t like have cleared a huge hurdle of what the ideologue would call “proof,” isn’t a good way to do history. The right question, as I said in that post, is the one of “what does the evidence suggest?” And the evidence is pretty clear that the events that can be tested that the Bible connects to Moses and the conquest of Canaan did not happen. Yes, there could have been another guy who didn’t do any of those testable things, but that undercuts a whole lot of that narrative (no exodus or conquest. A very small exodus with no conquest would undercut the narrative too).

    So I would argue a better approach is to engage the scholarship, and what has worked for me is a willingness to be flexible and make adjustments along the way [https://juvenileinstructor.org/study-and-faith-4-adjusting-beliefs/] I’ve not believed in a historical Moses for some time, including the whole time I was bishop. Again, I don’t think that made me illegitimate, and like many have said here, there are good ways we can help people with these concerns apart from trying to keep them away from information. But no doubt, this can be a tricky topic.

  25. “For instance, my understanding is that there is pretty close to consensus that Moses did not exist, that nothing described about the exodus or conquest of Canaan actually happened.”

    My goodness.

    I love this quote from Mark Goodacre on consensus in biblical scholarship:

    “Michael brings up the question of polling and the like. Michael’s second and third questions are “Who gets to be part of the polling sample?…” and “How does one actually go about doing the polling to assess consensus?…” But I am not sure that consensus can be easily and necessarily equated with “the majority view”. A given consensus emerges over time and is something that is the result of the combined force of monographs by experts, the introductory level textbooks, websites, the passing comments in conference papers, conversations over a beer etc. I am not being facetious about the importance of the latter — it is in the casual discussions that one begins to feel the existence of a consensus, or the lack of one.”

    And this, my friends, is the framework for concluding Moses didn’t exist…lol.

    I recommend a basic study of scriptural historiography. Start with NT Wright’s Christian Origins volume 1, and read the first 4 chapters. Learn what epistemology is. Learn what plausibility structures are. Read Craig Keener’s book Miracles, with all of its introductory material about the non-rational philosophical commitments of biblical scholars.

    The problem with a historically-minimalist paradigm is that it really is just an offramp out of the church. Possibly not for you, but definitely for your posterity. That is one of the major lessons of progressive religion’s slaughter of mainline Christianity.

    And it doesn’t need to be that way.


  26. Thank you for the thoughtful OP. I think it is safe to say everyone lands somewhere differently on the spectrum of thinking here.

    As an extension of your thought exercise here is a list of things ordered by whether I think God cares about me historically believing the correct thing about.

    God cares about my understanding of whether His sanctioning the Priesthood Ban is real
    God cares about my understanding of whether the great flood is real
    God cares about my understanding of whether He told Joseph Smith to practice polygamy is real
    God cares about my understanding of whether Moses is real
    God cares about my understanding of whether The Book of Mormon is real
    God cares about my understanding of whether Priesthood Authority is real
    God cares about my understanding of whether Jesus is real

    I could add fifty other things and I think the reality is we’d find we’re all living in “the cafeteria” and pick and choose where we think the line is.

  27. Faith is a critical part of discipleship. But faith isn’t believing a given set of truth propositions, it’s a relationship of trust. If I say “I have faith in my surgeon” I’m not saying I believe my surgeon exists. I’m saying I have confidence in both her good intentions and her ability to do what she says she’s going to do. And I’d better have faith in her if I’m going to let her cut me open!

    We need to have faith (trust) in God before we’ll really allow him to do surgery on our souls. We need to have faith (trust) in Jesus Christ. And we need to have a certain level of faith (trust) in the institutional Church if it’s going to play the role in our discipleship that God meant it to play, imperfect as it is.

    Deciding not to believe a historical claim becomes a problem if and only if it reduces our faith in the sense of trust–but it frequently does. So what can be done about this? As Church members we need to be cautious about what claims we imply that Church members “have” to believe. We lost way too many people from my generation, for example, because they were told that they had to choose between the gospel and evolution. It was tragic and completely unecessary.

    But some claims are essential to having faith even in the sense of trust. Can you trust a God that doesn’t exist? Can you trust that the atonement of Christ will change your nature if you don’t believe Christ died for you and then overcame death? Can you trust President Nelson’s promise that serving in the temple will make you a better disciple of Jesus Christ if you don’t believe Joseph Smith received keys that allow the Church to do work for the dead that actually makes a difference to them?

    That last is a serious question and not intended to be a “gotcha.” I’m sure some people in this thread don’t see any value in the work we do in the temple, and that’s fine. But Stephen, I am curious what your “lack of theology” means when it comes to temple work.

  28. Stephen, I don’t see a necessary or causal relationship between rejecting historicity of various types and apostasy, only a high degree of correlation. It’s tragic precisely because it isn’t necessary. The Church treats the reality or validity of some things as essential, but historicity is another matter (and so I think Brian’s making a mistake by lumping everything under ‘historicity’).

    It seems like you should clarify what you mean by “Moses.” At least for the Church, it seems like there are only a few things about him as a theological entity that are at all important to us, and leading an exodus of millions and sacking Canaanite cities just aren’t included. I don’t see how the things we do care about are impacted by the historical record.

    In any case, setting aside historical claims more widely has several knotty problems that need to be worked through.

    – The temptation of pride. People who are familiar with scholarship have a way of being disturbed that the Church continues to be resolutely committed to theism. It’s easy to slip into a sense of superiority: All these people don’t realize that I can place today’s readings in their ancient Near Eastern context. Are we prepared to accept communion with people who read scripture literally, and treat their work to understand scripture as equally valid?

    – As Dan alluded to, accepting the scriptural validity of ahistorical texts requires some sophisticated thought processes, but a lot of time is spent on teaching children and teenagers. How do you get children to understand the importance of an ahistorical text, and teenagers not to feel deceived? It’s not an insurmountable problem, but conveying belief to the next generation is a real issue.

    – The temptation to diminish the value of scripture that isn’t accepted as historical. You see this most dramatically in the way that people write “ex-Mormons for Jesus lite”-type posts that dismiss the Book of Mormon and its emphasis on obedience by trumping Alma with Mark.

    – It seems to me that Joseph Smith’s approach wasn’t to subtract from sacred history, but to multiply it so that you could stumble over it at any time and wherever you are in the world. Instead of Moses never and nowhere, it’s Moses forever and everywhere. So I’d prefer a resolution that leaves us with an overflowing abundance of sacred history rather than reducing it to a minimum.

  29. Does one have to believe in, say, Moses or Job’s actual physical existence in order to believe in God and His promises? No. One has only to believe in the God they point to. And indeed, their feats and miracles may have been exaggerated, numbers inflated, historical records altered by passage of time or to fit a certain narrative, or they may just be metaphorical beings that exist only in the realm of thought.
    However. 150 years ago, archeologists had a ‘scholarly consensus’ that Babylon and Troy were myths. They hadn’t found any evidence that they existed, except for widely circulated texts.
    And then someone dug deeper.
    Is my faith based on whether Job was real? No, but I believe God is real, and that Jesus spoke to a dispensational head about him. The book of Job may have been a conflation of someone’s stupidly bad year, a bit of dialogue between God and Satan, and some friends sitting about expounding on their views of God, or it may have just come from someone’s desire to ask deep questions in a new literary format. Either way it’s a masterpiece, and whether Job existed as a real person or not, or the historical context of Joseph’s desperate prayer is accurate, the scriptural comfort that comes to me when I read D&C 121 is definitely something to build my faith on, because I hear God’s voice through it.
    Also, if you don’t believe in miracles because your eyes can’t see evidence of them, that sounds like a faith problem, not an indication of whether miracles exist or not. God and His prophets have made it pretty clear through the ages that He doesn’t work using the same laws as us – His ways aren’t ours. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth . . ./Than are dreamt of in our philosophy’.
    So I agree with Jonathan Green above – I prefer an overflowing abundance of sacred history rather than a minimum; more wonder in the world rather than a dogged adherence to only what my imperfect senses can perceive!

  30. Dan, just to repeat, I’m not finding the “believe the historicity of the OT or apostatize” arguments convincing.

    Matt, that is a useful list and commenters have pointed out that historicity questions certainly extend beyond the OT. The existence of Jesus has pretty near scholarly consensus, but no doubt there is debate over what exactly he said and did.

    RLD, I do believe that I have quite a bit of faith. Like I said in those previous posts, for me I found my spiritually ground in my spiritual experiences. I felt the need to rely on others less. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but as I hope this post shows, I feel my relationship with God need not center so much on holding to the historicity of these traditions.

    In terms of how I feel about work for the dead, I would put that in the same category of theology about the afterlife I mentioned in my previous post. Additional chances in the afterlife and the ability to aid the dead are appealing theological ideas. Getting into the exact mechanics of how it actually works leaves me with some questions.

  31. Jonathan and E. C., I do certainly believe in God and miracles but don’t feel that such a belief requires a historical Moses.

    Jonathan, those are all valid points and they all point to the struggle that not only such scholarship but the wide awareness of it can cause. As I have a bit of a hobby of listening to ex-Mos describe their faith crises, doubts about biblical historicity isn’t an uncommon concern. Again, telling such strugglers to ignore all that I don’t think is a very good long-term solution.

    Now this gets a little complicated and perhaps I’ll post more on this kind of thing, but I look to key historical components of my faith–like Jesus and Joseph Smith–and am happy to accept what influenced their thought and action as divine. That is, I do believe that God works in the world to bring about what such people were trying to achieve and I’m happy to embrace the idea of Jesus and Joseph Smith being influenced by good, divine ideas that they had access to.

    To me Jesus’s gospel looks quite different than Moses’s (Jesus seemed to be pretty clear on that) and I see a whole lot of problematic moral concepts in the OT. I don’t feel required to believe that all those problems were really dictated by God.

    I don’t see the OT as the only possible way that God acted in the world during that time period. Simply put, I see a whole lot of the good stuff coming from the Greek philosophers and Socrates made it very clear that he believed he was inspired. I really prefer Socrates to Moses and there’s so much better evidence that Socrates existed.

    Yes, we can come up with some sort of “minimal Moses,” who could have lived but left no trace (like most people), but I don’t feel that need personally. I’m good to embrace the good-faith scholarship and embrace Jesus’s and Joseph Smith’s teachings.

  32. I like the idea that God does not require belief in any historical event. The concern I have is that you can say this. But the people I go to church with do not like that. Over the years, members have told me that I need to believe in the following to be a good member of the Church: Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Job, Jonah. Interestingly, I was informed that I could not accept the story of Hosea and be faithful. Whatever. That was an outlier.

    When statements like these are made, I can keep quiet. I wonder if there are others feeling uncomfortable, though. I can say that anyone can accept or reject the existence of any OT historical person. But the ones who insist that acceptance is required are always more vocal.

    I’d like to be able to discuss the stories and how they developed and why they developed. I know church is not really for that. But if it is not, why is it for the people who insist on historicity to demand agreement?

  33. Jonathon posed some absolutely excellent questions, and I’d like to propose several PARTIAL answers:

    Jonathon: “Are we prepared to accept communion with people who read scripture literally, and treat their work to understand scripture as equally valid?”

    We already accept communion with a wide variety of perspectives. The one that tends to get passed over or dismissed the most is the one that holds that some OT texts are of a different genre than history. I suppose the real question is “Can literalists refrain from calling non-literalists apostates?”

    Jonathon: “How do you get children to understand the importance of an ahistorical text, and teenagers not to feel deceived?”

    I taught World Religions in a Utah High School. In that course we addressed the Bible as literature, explaining that the Old Testament is really a library of works of different genres. In all of that time, I never had an LDS teen balk at that description. NOT ONCE. So this is issue is less problematic than many believe. The teens are not the problem. Their parents and grandparents are.

    Jonathon: What about the “temptation to diminish the value of scripture that isn’t accepted as historical?”

    Most all acknowledge that Psalms, Proverbs and the parables of Jesus are fictional works. Why should we favor historical writing over other genres? Cannot non-historical writings be just as inspired and inspiring? As noted above, teens have no problem grasping that.

    I would argue that teaching the concept that the authors of the scriptural narrative used a variety of genres to express their faith could SAVE teens and adults about to throw in the towel on scripture and could reinvigorate and examination of scripture even among the most faithful. We could even make it through the Old Testament without arguing about evolution and whether Jonah actually got swallowed by a whale.

    Also, Ben Spackman has done a considerable amount of thinking and writing about how to approach ancient scripture. I recommend the articles on his website.

  34. I second Old Man’s excellent response to Jonathan’s questions.

    I would add that the Jewish community allows space for all sorts of belief. It’s a thing. Our community could do the same, but only if it wants to. Calling people apostates seems to signal we aren’t there yet, and as Old Man mentions, such binary positions will only push people out. Perhaps that’s Jonathan’s goal; perhaps he prefers a smaller church. YMMV.

    If your major concern is that the non-literalists in your midst are going to influence the literalists, the problem is the data and your arguments, not the non-literalists.

  35. Stephen, you keep mentioning hiding scholarship from people, as if it’s something that I’ve mentioned or suggested. It isn’t.

    I think you’re too quick to dismiss the value of a minimal Moses (which, given the state of records from 2500 years ago, isn’t all that minimal). If there was no Moses, who appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland temple? Giving up a historical Moses altogether (in whatever form) forces you towards a perspective on modern revelation that you may not ultimately want. (It’s always the heavenly beings causing problems. We could almost get to a fully naturalistic Book of Mormon, if it weren’t for Moroni’s visit to Joseph Smith.) A minimized Moses seems like the more parsimonious solution.

    Chadwick, attributing some imaginary goal or concern to me is just a fundamentally crappy thing to do. Please stop doing it. If you want to know what my thoughts or concerns are, just ask. I’m right here.

  36. AM, yeah, this probably isn’t the best conversation for Gospel Doctrine. I know that can be frustrating, but I think that makes venues like this one important.

    Old Man, yes, I do think that it will be important to start working on this issue and those are some good thoughts.

    Yes, let’s not start a fight, Chadwick. But yes, these issues can cause contention.

    My apologies for repeating the claim of “hiding research,” Jonathan. I see your point about minimal Moses.

  37. Calling out someone for calling non-literalists apostate makes me the instigator of a fight?

    Fine. It’s your blog.

  38. There are two ways to attack these kinds of historical or truth claims of a story or text. One you can assume the text is reliable and authoritative and then look for supportive evidence that backs up or agrees with the text. Or you don’t assume that about the text or story and you try to judge that based on accumulative evidence and see if it agrees with the body of evidence.

    Apologists almost always do the first. Take something like the Book of Mormon – assume it is true, then look for evidence that supports that assumption. The alternative and more critical approach is to not assume it is a true or
    Historical document and ask does it fit with the rest of the knowledge of the world. And if it doesn’t you can reject it as a true history.

    It seems like this difference is core to the argument in this discussion. Some commenters are assuming Moses was a real person because Joseph Smith said he saw him and Joseph was a Prophet so thus Moses must have been a real live person. Instead of the historical criticism approach that looks at the text of the Bible critically in light of of other historical or archaeological evidence and concludes that there isn’t strong evidence of the story of Moses as it appears in the Bible and most likely has mythological elements to build a narrative of Moses and the origins of Israel. And you can conclude if that is true that Joseph Smith did not meet this likely fictional character. Which is the beginnings of a faith crisis.

    Is there a place among Mormons for people that may not believe. And going back to the question posed by the OP what are the limits of that disbelief that the community will abide.

    I have Jewish and Muslim colleagues that are professed atheists. They don’t believe the historical and spiritual aspects of many parts of their religion but are still full members of the community. Their presence and membership are not questioned by their unbelief. Can Mormons do this?

  39. I am apostate and so don’t believe that there is a space within the LDS church for divergent or disbelief as long as temple recommend questions for example require declarations of belief.

    I love Chaim Potok’s books and there is a clear parallel drawn in The Chosen between the two main characters and their fathers. One family is ultra-orthodox Hasidic and the other is a critical scholar and much more liberal reform or less fundamentalist orthodox. A key moment in the book is when the main character does a deep explanation of a tricky and complex Talmud text and comes to the conclusion that the original text is wrong and reconstructs what he thinks it could have been based on commentary and historical evidence. This approach is not accepted by his conservative school and teachers and certainly would be rejected by his Hasidic best friends father. Where would Mormon church be on this spectrum? Right now both the fundamentalist and the reform groups probably would be apostates.

    The question here is similar to that posed by Chaim Potok on how one can balance belief, doubt, modernism, science and religion.

  40. Chadwick: It is true that there are things that people can say or do that constitute apostasy. Those things do not include seeing books of scripture as ahistorical texts. At no point have I suggested that it does. One of the things that I keep repeating is that required belief in historicity is minimal.

    But what’s also true is that treating scripture as ahsitorical is often a step in people’s exit trajectory, and it’s counterproductive to pretend it doesn’t happen. Old Man says that teenagers don’t have a problem learning about these kinds of ideas and I’d like to think so, but the reality is that a lot of people have giant problems dealing with it, so they keep citing Book of Mormon archeology or Book of Abraham translation as the reasons for their loss of faith. If you think belief in ahistorical scripture is compatible with membership in the Church, you’ll have a much easier time convincing me than you will convincing Brian.

    What’s striking and weird about a lot of the comments so far is how eager they are to find an external locus of control, some imaginary inquisitorial board who will force them away for not seeing the Old Testament or some other book as literal history. PWS thinks that’s what I’d doing here, which is weird, because I’ve gone on and on about weird ways to approach the Book of Mormon, or how to read the Book of Abraham as revelation and scripture without seeing it as the rendering of an Egyptian text into English. Why are these arguments about historicity directed at an imaginary fundamentalist control mechanism, rather than at critics who can’t conceive of anything beyond literal history or fraud? Stephen, the question of locus of control is implied by your title question, so it’s something I hope you’ll think about.

    Stephen, another question that I hope you’ll address, if not here then in some later post, is: What if the stakes of debating historicity are just really low? Thinking of our curriculum, I can’t think of much that would have to change, because historical context just isn’t a big part of the lesson material to begin with. Let’s say you don’t believe in a historical Moses – does that change anything about how you’d teach Exodus at all? I don’t see that it does. I mean, “How do you feel / how do you see X in your life / how does Y affect how you treat others / etc.” just doesn’t require much commitment to historicity.

  41. Brian G., what is the point of being a mormon and an atheist?

    If there was an atheist in my ward, and there probably is, they’d be welcome to come to church, come to all the ward activities, have ministering brothers/sisters, etc. But, no I don’t think they could be fully integrated into a faith based community. and why would they want to? I think if atheist views were just as common and voiced in Sunday school as faith based views then whatever the strength of church community is, it would die a quick and painful death.

  42. Okay, some big questions again. So in trying to think about how to respond to both Brian and Jonathan, let me see if I can nuance this a bit. First, my own viewpoint for some context. I’ve probably not believed in the historicity of biblical persons like Moses for over a decade including the whole time I was bishop and before that when I taught OT in Gospel Doctrine.

    With that in mind, let me say that I agree with aspects of things you’ve both said. Yes, people in faith crises can often be inflexible on things like scriptural historicity. And yet, they also have quite a good point that they feel like they were taught that point of view in church. I would say they certainly were. Perhaps one could read the manuals as allowing for such openness, but that certainly isn’t the assumption of the vast majority of the members and I’ve never heard anything like allowing for non-literalness in any conference talk (sorry if I missed it!) Having a different point of view, I’d say it’s been very clear that historicity is assumed in the church and that calling it into question will bother a lot of people in your gospel doctrine class (not something I do, but have certainly observed it).

    So, Jonathan, the stakes CAN be low for members (they certainly are for me!) but I don’t see any direction from our leaders in that direction. If they are doing it subtly, I’ve certainly missed it. I’ve certainly heard statement like “It’s the spiritual messages of the Book of Mormon that really matter” but certainly not “feel free to set it’s historicity aside. Not a bid deal.” Nor about the OT either (BOM gets most of the attention in those discussions, that’s why I brought it up).

    And the feeling I got from your previous comments on Moses certainly suggested that you found there to be some important stakes regarding some aspect of his historicity. Lots of people do indeed feel that way (not me!)

    The bottom line, I’d argue, is that our culture and leaders seem to strongly assume historicity of these scriptures and people can and do have faith crises when encountering contrary information. While I think that more flexible thinking is a good thing, I don’t see that taught much in church (a few times) and I certainly don’t see it taught in conference. So if one were to put all the blame on those in faith crises over historicity, I think that would be unfair.

  43. On Brian’s other point that Michael addressed about making more room for different beliefs, that’s a point I’ve talked a lot about in several posts I’ve done for TS. So I’ll just reiterate: this is a tricky thing, basic agreement on what people consider “core beliefs” can help with group cohesion (which is nice), but I think we’re going to see increased variance. I have a whole lot of different ideas and I foresee that increasing with our younger generation. I do think there is a lot of onus on those with very different beliefs who want to stay to work hard to get along: don’t attack other people’s beliefs, be nice, etc. If you do bring up your different stuff, it’s smart to be gentle about it. I also think it’s a good idea to demonstrate your commitment in other ways: show up and serve.

    (Need to run, more later).

  44. Stephen, I believe that you have faith (trust in God) despite abandoning many historical claims, which illustrates the difference between faith as a relationship vs. faith as believing a set of propositions. On the other hand, you’ve described how it was touch and go for a while, and if you no longer participate in temple ordinances or just don’t find much meaning in them (I don’t want to make assumptions here) then I think you’ve paid a heavy price. There’s a big difference between not believing the historical claims of the Old Testament and not believing the historical claims of the Doctrine & Covenants, but you’ve said you’ll get to restoration scripture later so I’ll leave it at that.

    I have to agree with those who suggest we don’t want people to stop believing historical claims, because it’s painful and creates a serious risk of them leaving the Church. But I think the solution is to insist on fewer historical claims. Many claims are well-supported and essentially non-controversial (the existence of Jesus, the basic story of Joseph Smith). Some claims have little or no evidence but are critical to our faith so we can properly ask God for a testimony of them (the resurrection of Jesus, the calling of Joseph Smith as a prophet). And then there are a lot that just don’t matter (how exactly the Flood played out, or the Exodus). But I don’t actually see “The Church” telling members they “have” to believe literalist interpretations of the Old Testament. Maybe CES. Sure, most Church members and Church leaders probably believe in a literalist interpretation, and talk accordingly. But it’s not a temple recommend interview question or anything of the sort.

    This raises Jonathan Green’s good point about the actual consequences of publicly doubting the historicity of the Old Testament. I’d have no problem saying what I’ve said in this thread in a Sunday School class (okay, I’d use more temperate language) and while I’m sure some people would disagree with me, I’m not worried that I’d be shunned. We had a fascinating discussion last time through the Book of Mormon about the possibility that the Tree of Life in Lehi’s dream was referring to Asherah and thus to our Heavenly Mother in defiance of Josiah’s reforms. Now, wards vary a lot and my ward is not “typical” (we’ve got a major university and lots of members who are associated with it). But for those who think they’ll be pushed out if they express doubts about the historicity of the Old Testament, you may be underestimating your fellow members. (And overestimating their ability to push you out even if they wanted to.)

    But as others have pointed out, usually our lessons focus on what we can learn from the stories in the Old Testament and not their historicity, as they should.

  45. Just a quick note that Stephen and I were posting at the same time and my comments about what the Church teaches were not a response to him–and definitely not an adequate response. Perhaps later.

  46. To finish my comment from above. Michael, I’d argue that with my whole “secular case for the church” in a previous post, that a religious community like ours has a lot to offer to atheists. It does require them to figure out how to navigate the whole thing. We have an atheist in our safe-space group.

    RLD, my relationship with the temple is a little different than you surmise, but kind of a long story.

  47. I for one believe that Moses existed because I believe that ancient Egyptians would in fact erase him from their history. After all, the BoM contains an example of the Lamanites erasing the Nephites and Christ and the Jews themselves with their own reforms. To wit, there were serious doubts among scholars about King David’s existence until archaeological evidence found in the 90s. The 1990s. So clearly more is going to be found if we are still finding stuff. See a similar story about Troy.

    Now as to specific details of miracles…that gets more complicated. The walls of Jericho? Maybe. I’m less concerned about that than I am about the Israelites claiming they were commanded in their genocidal conquests…something very relevant this very day. The Deuteronomic reforms clearly erased Christ with extreme thoroughness that we only barely understand without the BoM. So I think thorough erasures are possible especially through the long lense of history.

    Back to miracles. My only concern is that you can rationalize away everything. When it comes to this stuff I am willing to hold two minds on such matters. I believe in a literal Fall and thus a literal Adam. But I also know the fossil record. I cannot reconcile those. It’s ok. God knows this.
    Was there a worldwide flood? If there was, it does not appear in the geological record. God has chosen to hide it from the world. So either it didn’t happen or it’s hidden. I don’t know.
    It’s ok to believe and not know.

  48. Sorry, I know I’m late to all this, but just a comment: which aspects of historicity are “required” is kind of a continuum. On one hand you can deny that, say, Lamech was 649 years old (or whatever) all the way up to denying, say, the resurrection. One is obviously not like the other, but you can probably rank order just about every historical occurrence in the Bible along some kind of a continuum.

    Now, in terms of individual belief, I’m quite flexible. At some point I think it becomes logically difficult to support a belief in the Church’s truth-claims apparatus without some belief in historicity (even if not historical accuracy), but whatever floats your boat; on an individual level that doesn’t pick my spiritual pocket. However, where I see the potential damage is when the allegorists then move to insist that they be given a place in institutionally supported thought leadership (e.g. BYU and its adjacent institutions) and ecclesiastical leadership, and I’m convinced that is absolutely fatal for a faith to have its leaders too far along the allegorist continuum. The leadership has to actually believe that there were plates, a Moses, etc..even if we are tolerant of individual members holding an eclectic synthesis of views. We saw this with the CoC. Once the leaders don’t believe it it’s hard to maintain an autonomous faith distinct from the very institution that the claims revolve around.

  49. I pretty-much agree with you Stephen C. I think the Lord is more interested in our actual repentance than in whether or not we believe scriptural stories of repentance to be historically accurate. Even so, we can kick the can of historicity only so far down the road before we begin to run into theological problems that can warp our faith. Inasmuch as the basic claims of the restoration are based on sacred events, if we start second guessing the actuality of the events themselves then we soon find ourselves trying to understand–let alone interact with–a God who seems capricious or arbitrary or even mischievous. If everything that the Lord does for his children is in response to their faith then we can dig down only so far before we hit rock bottom where we find real people to whom God has made real promises because of their faith.

  50. I’m just old enough to remember when Bruce R. McConkie would boldly declare his opinion (not that he labeled it as his opinion) that the only valid approach to the Old Testament was literal/historical, and anyone who didn’t believe the events it describes actually happened as described didn’t have the faith required for exaltation. Of course he wasn’t alone. Compared to that, the Church’s current near silence on the historicity of the Old Testament feels like tolerant neutrality to me.

    Part of the problem is that the question of historicity is so rarely relevant. If I refer in a talk to Moses’s feelings of inadequacy when he first received his calling, you have no way of knowing if I think of that story as part of a completely accurate Old Testament history of Moses, as one of the few plausible incidents in an otherwise exaggerated history, or as an Israelite myth that speaks to the human condition. It doesn’t change the lessons to be learned in any way. If you assume everyone who talks about (and gains insight from) Old Testament stories believes those stories are accurate history, well, you’re wrong in my case, at least. Telling a story from the Old Testament does not count as teaching that the Old Testament is accurate history.

    But the Old Testament holds a unique position in restoration thinking. We’re told it’s corrupt, so we’re basically arguing about how much of it is corrupt. A huge number of Church converts have come from traditions that hold the Bible to be inerrant, and while the Restoration told them otherwise, many assumed the exceptions were rare. But since that mindset comes from outside the restored gospel, we should be suspicious.

    We’re also told the Old Testament passed through corrupt hands, and that may be the most important distinction of all. If I conclude that King Josiah lied about the origin of the book his entourage claimed to have discovered in the temple, that destroys my trust in King Josiah. But I was told to expect such things. That conclusion has no effect on my overall trust (faith) in God, Jesus Christ, or his Church. If anything, concluding that substantial parts of the history in the Old Testament have been corrupted has strengthened my faith, as it makes the message of the restored gospel more coherent.

    But if I conclude that Joseph Smith lied about the origin of the Book of Mormon and that destroys my trust in Joseph Smith, that’s a disaster. Some manage to preserve their faith despite reaching that conclusion, but they’re the exception. The historicity of the Old Testament and the historicity of the Book of Mormon are very different questions, with very different kinds of evidence–and I’ve come to very different conclusions about them.

    Some historical claims are essential to our faith, and some are not. The good news is that if a historical claim is essential to our faith, God will give us a testimony of it if we seek it. But there’s a whole lot we don’t know and the Lord hasn’t revealed, and we should be charitable with those who come to different conclusions about them than we do (even if they’re at BYU or in leadership).

  51. RLD said, “If you assume everyone who talks about (and gains insight from) Old Testament stories believes those stories are accurate history, well, you’re wrong in my case, at least.” I certainly didn’t say that as I very much believe people can derive all kinds of meaning from all different kinds of narratives. I do worry a bit about standard “straight-forward” readings of the OT leading to assumptions that things I see as highly problematic as being God’s doing, however.

    Ot, claiming that more current scholarship is putting OT historicity on a firmer grounds is quite inaccurate, according to my understanding. The rejection of Troy as real was based much more an assumption that Greek stories weren’t real at a time when there was very little questioning of biblical historicity and very little archaeological knowledge. The difference in our current archeological knowledge and that at the time that Troy was rejected is massive. Forthcoming evidence of Moses as he was portrayed in the Bible strikes me as highly unlikely.

    So in response to Stephen C. (and Jack), I’d say there’s a serious evidence problem we’re running into and will continue to face if we continue to assume to belief in OT historicity is essential. I certainly understand problems of that a seeming lack of belief can cause for an institution, but I’d argue that points to a need for a more robust engagement in the important beliefs we ought to be committed to and how to work through these issues. I think we are running into big problems with insisting on historical beliefs that the evidence doesn’t support.

  52. I agree with a lot of what you say in regards to the OT (universal flood, universal descent from one couple, etc.), as opposed to NT, but I do think that places where the OT leaks into restoration scriptures (P of GP, etc,) does move some of the OT items farther up that continuum, I do think the existence of Moses is one of those things. Now, when historians say there’s no evidence for Moses, what they’re saying is that there’s no evidence that millions of Israelites migrated from Northern Egypt, wandered in Sinai, then burned down the Levant and forcibly occupied it. Okay, but what is essential for a figure to be “Moses” as described in the P of GP? Certainly none of the paleodemographic evidences scholars talk about. Basically, if you pull a limited geography model and Moses was the leader of a much more limited band of Semites that escaped captivity, received the Law from God, and whose religious practices and customs synthesized with those of their Israelite relatives, then you have everything that is essential about Moses without flying in the face of archaeology or making him completely mythological, we shouldn’t be so fast to cut right to the “it’s all made up.”

    (Although sidebar: when virtually all historical sources give population estimates, whether it’s the children of Israel or the Persian armies invading Greece, that are much higher than those given by the paleamodemographers, maybe the ancients aren’t the ones that are off? But I digress.)

  53. This is an interesting discussion. A related question to the OP would be “how much historical evidence do we require before we believe God?” There have been enough instances where the “consensus” view about the reality of some historical person or place was negative, only to be later revised, that anchoring much of our faith in the available historical and archeological research would be setting ourselves up to be ‘blown about by every wind of doctrine’. In the end, our most important truth claim is that Jesus died, was resurrected, and is now in an immortal state. I believe this is true even though it goes contrary to any possible scientific reasoning. I think that, at some level, most of us hold beliefs that are contrary to what any respectable researcher would say is likely or even possible.

    Restoration experiences clearly (IMO) are asking us to believe that at least some parts scripture are historical fact (e.g. Moses was a real person, BoM is an actual record of actual people that lived, etc.) that are possible, even if there is not good support for them in the accepted historical data. But that seems like an easier ask than to believe that Christ died and was resurrected, and is now immortal, which is scientifically impossible. Once I’ve accept that, similar to what Ot concluded, I’m okay setting aside conflicts between our scriptures and archeological finds (or lack thereof).

  54. Stephen C., I get that this “minimal Moses” idea helps us preserve Moses as a historical figure, but we tend not to get a lot of models for what we can discount and what we need to hold onto from our leaders. I don’t feel the need to draw a line in the sand with a minimal Moses. I’d also add, that there’s pretty near consensus that even “minimal Moses” would not have have produced the Law.

    M: “how much historical evidence do we require before we believe God?” If you’re referring to a historical Moses, since the evidence suggests that he did not exist, I don’t believe either that God believes in Moses or that God insists that I believe in Moses. I DO believe we can center ourselves on the best and highest doctrines to live by without a historical Moses and that a whole lot of the doctrines attributed to Moses are often lacking.

  55. Question for Stephen Fleming:
    The premise of your initial question is that God wants us to believe certain things. This seems to assume that we can consciously choose to believe or not believe some things. Certainly there is precedent in the scriptures where we are told to choose to believe. Given all that you have read and understand about Moses, if you were convinced that God in fact does insist that you believe in a historical Moses, could you make yourself believe? Is it always in our power to choose to believe?

  56. I’d describe what you’re calling a “Minimal Moses” as “What we know about Moses from Joseph Smith.” That’s an interesting exercise, but not terribly complicated. It’s also not terribly relevant to our salvation and thus not a topic the Lord is likely to provide revelation on, even to Church leaders. I’m glad Church leaders are pretty much staying out of it.

    Moses is not the head of our dispensation, the founder of our Church, or the revelator of our key doctrines. What we think about Moses is not very important. Joseph Smith is all those things, so what we think about him is very important indeed. That we can say some interesting things about Moses if we believe in Joseph Smith is a happy side effect.

  57. Allergy: first let me state that I’m not a biblical scholar at all, only that I dabble a bit as a hobby. In such dabblings I’ve come across a few things. But to you question of “would I believe in Moses if I felt commanded by God to do so?” Absolutely! I feel no current such command, however, even if some may feel that I should. In fact, in studying church history, I have felt guidance a number of times, but such as often been in unorthodox ways, yet in ways that made sense for me to remain a practicing Mormon.

    This is to say, that if I felt God tell me, “Steve, thou shalt believe in a historical Moses,” that’s fine with me. I don’t have an ideological rejection of Moses, just that I view things as I described in the OP: the evidence suggests otherwise. Thus if I felt that command, I’d have some questions, such as, “I wonder why there’s no evidence.”

    RLD, I’m not sure that Smith described a “minimal Moses,” or a Moses with a very small exodus and no conquest by his successors. I think people are proposing minimal Moses as a way to make DC 110:11 fit with current scholarship, or the claim that a Moses could have appeared but one who left no historical evidence. I understand why that exercise may be appealing, but I okay with giving myself some flexibility around those claims.

  58. A useful marker (for me) vis-a-vis historicity is where the Lord would be making promises to fictitious people–that’s one place where I a draw a line. Now certainly there are people like Job–who seems to be more of a construct than a real person. indeed some scholars believe the whole book of Job to be a script for a play of sorts–and in such a work of fiction we would see Deity acting out in the way he does with real people. Even so, when we’re talking about the promises that touch us today (collectively and personally) we run into serious theological problems if they (the promises) are not a product of real contractual agreements made with real people. And so, for that reason (and other reasons, of course) I believe in a real Adam and Enoch and Abraham and even Moses. The entire saga of the restoration is premised upon promises that God made with ancient people of faith.

    That said, I’m not suggesting that the writings we have in the canon vis-a-vis Moses and others has not been embellished or redacted or even fabricated. My guess is that when the curtain of history is finally raised we’re gonna see a lot of surprising differences between reality and the historical record. And I won’t be surprised to see the Old Testament winning the blue ribbon for the most discrepancies. But by the same token we might surprised–and even shocked–by how factual some of the recorded elements in the OT really are.

  59. Scriptural historicity will always be the subject of debate, whether in the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the Book of Mormon. The fundamental problems are sources and authors (both historical and contemporary). Take, for example, Mormon. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that the Book of Mormon covers approximately 1000 years of history and that Mormon worked from records covering that entire period, then he had to condense 1000 years of historical events and religious teachings into the brief account that we had. That could comprise tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of scrolls, plates, etc. That is a lot of archival material to synthesize into a single narrative. Moreover, not only does one need to consider the record keepers (e.g. Nephi) and their biases/limited perspectives/inaccurate memories, we have to take into account Mormon’s comparable limitations–i.e. he is telling a story with a specific thematic focus. What does Mormon decide to leave out? What spin does he put on the stories he tells? What biases, based on his own experience and perspective, find their way into his narrative? These are questions that every historian has to face, whether reconstructing an afternoon twenty years ago or a civilization two thousand years ago. Questions of historical accuracy will always be asked given the realities of writing about the past. There are other issues as well (e.g. translation of documents, contemporary descriptions and language that may change over time), but these methodological questions are significant in assessing historicity questions.

    But at the end of the day, believing in the gospel does not require a belief in scriptural historicity. There does not have to be a historical Moses (or even Nephi) or remnants of Middle Eastern DNA in the western hemisphere for the principles taught in those scriptures to be faith-promoting. And the Church needs to be a big enough tent to accept those who believe in the literal historicity of the OT like Bruce R. McConkie and those who do not accept the literal narrative of the Book of Mormon.

  60. Stephen C.: “I’m convinced that is absolutely fatal for a faith to have its leaders too far along the allegorist continuum. The leadership has to actually believe that there were plates, a Moses, etc..even if we are tolerant of individual members holding an eclectic synthesis of views.”

    Can there really be a place for allegorists if the leadership not only doesn’t model that style of belief, but cannot model that style of belief to the members? Sure, non-literalists can be welcome, and participate, but only up to a point; they couldn’t become those leaders, and those we look up to and learn from would always be of a different style of belief, and teach that different style of belief.

  61. Jack, A, Buraianto, and all the other commentators, I think nicely laid out that issues of scholarship and historicity will indeed be a challenge for the church and its membership going forward.

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