Dialogues with My Former Self: The Breath of God (Part One)

Posted: June 7, 2020 in Ex-Mormons, Mormon Studies, Paul Nurnberg, Recovery from Mormonism, Theology

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
–2 Timothy 3:16

By Paul Nurnberg
Finding Hidden Books
Recently, I listened to an Episode of Mike Licona’s Risen Jesus Podcast. He was discussing three methods of approaching ancient texts that he defined as follows:

  • Methodological Credulity – One comes to the text assuming that it is reliable, that it is reporting truth until one is shown otherwise. The default position is: this text is true.
  • Methodological Neutrality – One approaches the text with an attitude of neutrality, not assuming it to be true or false. The default position is: openness to the text being true or false.
  • Methodological Skepticism – One approaches the text with the attitude that one has to be convinced that it is true. The default position is: this text is false.[1]

Having been born into a Mormon family, by default I inherited a certain view of what constitutes Scripture. More specifically, I inherited a set of books that the LDS Church holds as its “standard works” or canon. Chief among these was the Book of Mormon. That was the book that had been, according to the narrative, preserved by God, prophesied by Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 29:4; Ezekiel 37:16), and had been brought forth in the last days to convince Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, like those of old.

The story — that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and led to find a set of golden plates in a hill near his home in upstate New York — always seemed audacious to me. When I was growing up, I accepted this narrative as true — that actual metal plates had been buried in a hill which contained the history of an ancient American civilization, which had its origins in a family who left Jerusalem during the reign of King Zedekiah, and whose patriarch, Lehi, had been a contemporary of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah; and that these plates had been delivered to Joseph Smith after four years of testing his resilience, sincerity, and obedience, and that he translated the writings on the plates into English from a language called in the text “Reformed Egyptian.” I believed that the Book of Mormon published to the world in 1830 was, in fact, the Word of God — delivered by a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus’ return. Smith’s explanation for why the source text — the plates themselves — were no longer extant, seemed equally incredible to me.

I said that the story seemed farfetched to me. It did! Smith’s claims are recognizable as bold, even for one predisposed by upbringing to take an approach to them of methodological credulity. But I didn’t have any reasons when I was young to seriously doubt the narrative. Everywhere I turned there were adults I knew, loved, respected, and trusted who believed whole-heartedly in that story and the resultant text. I didn’t see compelling reasons to take a different approach than to believe what was presented. My mother believed it and her family had roots in the LDS Church that went back to the 1860s and included the leaving behind of home and family in Denmark to cross the American plains pulling a handcart — dedication to the cause. My father believed it, and he had left the Lutheran Church to join the LDS Church, subjecting himself to a lifetime of serious and sometimes heated discussions with his born-again-Christian brother. These played out over the phone and I recall often eavesdropping on my dad’s side of their conversations.

I’ve been a bibliophile from a young age. I come by it honestly. My parents built a large library of books in our home. My dad’s bookshelves had two shelves at the bottom that were behind closed doors that latched magnetically, and three shelves above that were open to view. One night while perusing his library, I found among the books that were behind closed doors, a book titled “The Book of Mormon on Trial” by J. Milton Rich. Curious, I flipped through this comic book style Mormon apologetic work. I don’t know how my dad came to have the book, but the titles of the other books that were stashed away with it in the bottom shelves taught me early the meaning of “putting something on the shelf.” I am not suggesting that the possession of books that present a defense of one’s beliefs automatically suggests that one’s faith is unreasonable or indefensible. Rather, I am describing what I learned from this experience — that faith entails reasoning through the arguments both for and against one’s beliefs.

Inside the Shrine of the Book in West Jerusalem. This museum houses the famous Isaiah scroll and other Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts dating back to 150BC.

Out of the Dust
Once when I was a teenager, during a particularly boring Sunday service, both I and my older sister ducked out to “go to the bathroom” and ended up sitting together on a sofa in the foyer. I was leafing through my quad (one thick volume that contained all of the LDS canon) and looking at the maps. The Bible had maps of the Mediterranean showing where the Apostle Paul had journeyed, but the Book of Mormon didn’t have maps. My sister told me about the conversation they’d had in Seminary about whether the Nephites inhabited all of North and South America or just a small portion. Her High School Seminary teacher always brought the goods!

My mom did family history research for others, spending long days at the Family History Library downtown Salt Lake City. During the dog days of summer, when boredom with suburban life would set in, and I’d pine for the regimen of school, and I’d often go with her. I’d walk the stacks, looking through books or drawers of microfilm, or I would find the picture books with coats of arms and practice drawing the one for Nürnberg, with its black eagle on a yellow background and red bands[2]. As a teenager, I geeked out on that historical connection to my family name. I was excited by history in general. Many of those summer days, I would go next door to the Church History Museum or walk up the hill by the Deseret Gym, past the spot where I later learned Mark Hofmann nearly blew himself into eternity, to the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum.

The museums enthralled me. In the exhibits, I could see artifacts from the lives of the founders of the LDS Church and of the Mormon pioneers. Among the tangible relics, I saw the pocket watch that saved John Taylor’s life in the firefight at the Carthage Jail in Illinois, where Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. The exhibits there connected me with my heritage in a way that both grounded me to my people and to my story.

In March of 1997, as I was preparing to leave on a mission for the LDS Church. BYU was hosting the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, and I went to Provo to see it. As I stood in front of a long display case that held the traveling reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, I listened to the self-guided tour cassette on a Walkman describe this ancient text. I learned of the import the Dead Sea Scrolls held for Biblical Scholarship because they pushed the dating for the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible back by nearly a millennium. The Biblical record was indeed ancient.

Standing there on the campus of BYU, I had what I would describe as a first brush with methodological skepticism towards the Book of Mormon. I thought of the missing plates contrasted with the Great Isaiah Scroll. It was a jarring juxtaposition because the Book of Mormon uses Isaiah 29 in 2 Nephi 27 to suggest that Isaiah was prophesying the coming forth of the Book of Mormon “out of the dust.” But there I was, standing before an ancient text that actually had come forth out of the dust. It wasn’t sealed. Scholars actually could read it and compare it to the other known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. Differences though there may be, the process of Textual Criticism could be applied. The Book of Mormon plates were nowhere to be found, and according to the narrative, shouldn’t be expected to be discovered. Scholars could not read them.

Despite that first encounter with methodological skepticism, with my mission approaching, I knew that a spiritual witness of the book is what my church leaders prescribed. So I settled into an attitude of methodological neutrality and studied the book extensively. I didn’t then concern myself with scholarly, critical approaches to the Book of Mormon. Rather, I approached it like I hoped those I met on my mission would, I read it and prayed to know if it was true.

On a hot summer day in 1998, as a Mormon missionary knocking doors in Szeged, a beautiful university city in southeastern Hungary. One man spoke with us from his front window, seemingly uninterested. When we told him about Joseph Smith and the golden plates, he suddenly became enthusiastic and asked, “Do you want to read a real book pulled from the dust of the earth?”

My companion and I exchanged puzzled glances and the man disappeared into his house and returned a few moments later with a stack of paper. He handed it to me and said, “I got this from a friend. You can borrow it if you promise to bring it back tomorrow.”

Never one to miss the opportunity to bargain, I told him I would read his stack of papers if he would take a copy of the Book of Mormon and read it. He agreed. That night I sat on our balcony reading. The packet of photocopied material he had lent me was a translation of the “The War Scroll,” found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Each page was bisected with Hebrew script on one side and the English translation on the other. I was mesmerized by the description of the eschatological war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. The packet lacked a contextual description of the work, and I was so steeped in Mormon cosmology, that I tried to make sense of what I was reading as a description of a primordial War in Heaven. The dots weren’t connecting, but I stayed up late trying to make it fit. Reading that non-canonical work from the Second Temple period was a formative experience. It helped me to see that even the evidence for a small Jewish sect could be unearthed and provide valuable historical and cultural insights into their beliefs and practices—evidence of their existence.

Throughout my two-years in Hungary, I studied the LDS Standard Works (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and the King James Bible). I used the LDS Institute manuals, designed as curriculum for Mormon college students, as study aids. While studying the Old and New Testaments, I was fascinated by the cultural insights the manuals provided that helped to illuminate the context of the Biblical narrative. Even the manual for the Doctrine and Covenants provided valuable 19th-century cultural context for each section in that book. As I studied through the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, however, I was troubled by the paltry size of those manuals. They contained only summaries of the narratives and teachings of each book supplemented by quotes from LDS General Authorities.

The Pearl of Great Price is only 61 pages long. It makes sense that the commentary for such a brief work would be less substantial than for the Bible. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, claims to be an epic covering roughly a millennium of history—more when you count the Jaredite narrative—and fills 531 pages. The cultural commentary for that book should have been weighty. But it wasn’t.

By the end of my mission, I would sit on my bed during morning personal study, and daydream about becoming an archaeologist and finding the evidence that would vindicate the Book of Mormon as ancient history. When I returned from my mission, I subscribed to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, then published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). With each issue, I was dismayed as the articles would walk back from premature claims made by previous generations of Mormon archaeologists about ancient Mesoamerican artifacts such as Izapa Stela 5. While I was glad for the forthright dedication to accuracy, I began to have serious doubts about the Book of Mormon as a historical narrative about real people who existed in the ancient past.

Photo Credit: British Library

The Codex Sinaiticus was handwritten well over 1600 years ago. This manuscript contains the entire Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.

Fast forward about a decade to 2007 and I was finishing up a business degree at a small Catholic college near my home in northern Kentucky. One of the requirements for graduation was to complete a religion class. I signed up for Intro to the New Testament. The class was taught by a priest who rekindled in me the fire I had felt years before when studying the New Testament. We used “Understanding the New Testament and Its Message: An Introduction” by Vincent P. Branick as our course text. Beyond providing a cultural framework for understanding the New Testament, Branick discusses the textual issues: oral tradition and two-source theory, the “Synoptic Problem,” as well as Text, Form, and Source Criticism. I was fascinated! Why? Because the New Testament can be studied as history and as a historical text. Unbelievers argue that Jesus’ miracles, resurrection, and other supernatural elements of the narrative are hagiography, but all but the most skeptical scholars agree that the New Testament is focused on the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

Taking that class was the nail in the coffin of my belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. One simply cannot study the Book of Mormon in historical and cultural context the way one can the Bible.[3] Although I have been charged with “trusting in the arm of flesh” because I have sought to understand the Word of God as history, and have rejected works that do not display the same traits as the Bible, the very point of the Gospel is that God acted in history to accomplish His plan of salvation.

I know in whom I have trusted to lead me in my studies. I thank God for my mind that has ever sought Him, and the Holy Spirit for teaching me in the way that He knew would be convincing to me and prepare me for the gift of a new heart. I praise Jesus, my Savior, forevermore. I can never go back. As Peter testified, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16 ESV). Historicity matters!

NOTES
[1] Risen Jesus Podcast S3E5 Methods of Approaching Ancient Text
[2] https://www.heraldry-wiki.com/heraldrywiki/index.php?title=N%C3%BCrnberg
[3] I am not convinced by Brandt Gardner’s arguments in Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History.

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