2012-09-24 12:35 pm (UTC)
Interesting thought about Paul.
Maybe I'm forgetting something, but why did twelve apostles need to lie? There are only the 4 gospels purported to be written by "witnesses", and it is commonly surmised that several of those accounts share a common predecessor document or oral story. So, technically, at most those 4 would need to lie, probably fewer.
Personally, I think there are enough myths and legends with fuzzy origins which are or were believed by many, and they don't require big conspiracies to explain: they're just stories and traditions that are not strongly related to reality.
For the Bible, if those 4 gospels are not really personal accounts (which I don't see how they could be), then there's no big "conspiracy" needed, any more than a conspiracy is needed for the Egyptian, Greek, or any other stories.
You mean four people had to lie and then get the entire Church to accept their lies? Especially since the Gospels are not the oldest part of the Old Testament.
2012-09-24 01:50 pm (UTC)
The conspiracy/group hallucination/truth trichotomy about the Apostles, or other witnesses, looks like the group version of the classic liar/madman/god trichotomy about Jesus, or other religious figures. (I think neither of them deserves to be taken seriously.)
" We wouldn't expect twelve witnesses to swear up and down that they saw angels and magical golden plates and so on, and then stick to the story despite a host of opportunities to profit by denying it"
Actually, yes, we would. Publicly admitting that one is a liar, destroying a persona of years' duration, and loosing thereby respect and society of every member of one's reference group is incredibly difficult. So difficult, that it might be easier to endure persecution and even death,
Eh, back in the 1800s (and today) you're often regarded as liberated or enlightened if you come out of "delusional" Mormonism into the light of "rational" Christianity or atheism. When your "persona of years' duration" is already considered by virtually everyone to have been the persona of a fraud, charlatan, and liar, fessing up to one's misdeeds saves face. Sticking by the story of the reception of the Book of Mormon wouldn't have gained anyone respect, save from Mormons - who nearly everyone despised at the time!
I suppose you've left unclear who would be the "reference group" whose "respect and society" the Book of Mormon witnesses would lose were they to admit they were "liars." If Mormons, they lost it already by leaving the Church (though Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris both were rebaptized later). If Americans, as I've said, everyone already thought them to be liars, so renouncing the lie would have redeemed them somewhat.
Huh, I've never really heard the contention that twelve people couldn't consistently lie, but to me, it's not very convincing. Untrue things don't require conspiracies to propagate!
Moreover, the Gospel writers *don't* keep the story straight - something that's overlooked via tidied-up New Testament chronological concordances. And even when they keep the story straight, it appears to be the result of copying from previous sources (i.e. nearly all of Mark is used by Matthew) and there are small (but important) distinctions.
That said, as a Mormon myself, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to actually read a scholarly work on Mormons (Matthew Bowman is awesome, though I haven't read the book yet). It's rare that we receive that sort of treatment from anyone, Christians or atheists. The latter seem to see Mormonism as representative of all religions in its obvious absurdity, and Christians often write it off as not even deserving consideration, though as you point out there is more in common from an outsider perspective than many Christians would realize.
Edited at 2012-09-24 04:32 pm (UTC)
2012-09-24 04:22 pm (UTC)
" No goldsmith or wealthy backer "
You assume that they would really have been made of gold.
How much would a sufficient amount of gold leaf have cost?
One thing that has amused me, somewhat, about the people who keep asserting that four gospel writers, or twelve apostles, could not possibly have lied and kept a story straight is that the same people (many of them) inform me that tens of thousands of evolutionary biologists and climate scientists are all participating in a grand conspiracy to lie to the world about what their studies show, and those tens of thousands of people keep their stories straight.
(it's not universal among Christians to disbelieve those, of course - but the Venn diagrams overlap a whole lot.)
2012-09-24 06:15 pm (UTC)
They aren't keeping their story straight. Hence the whole email scandal.
2012-09-24 04:33 pm (UTC)
Some Preliminary Thoughts
This is quite interesting. I've been reading up on Mormon folklore off and on for the past several months. I think I've mostly gotten interested because of Mitt Romney's candidacy.
As a Christian/Catholic, I am not a rationalist. I expect life to lead to unanswerable paradoxes. But I expect to be able to reason my way up to the paradox, if that makes any sense.
For that reason, I applied what I uncharitably call "the Mormon test" to mystical experiences or pious beliefs that I run across in the Christian world. Before I even begin to assess whether I find an experience or belief legitimate, I ask myself: "If this assertion came from a Mormon backdrop, would I take it seriously?" It comes in handy.
So I was surprised and delighted to find the Mormon test turned back on my own beliefs! I like the methodology Scott uses here, mostly because I use it too and I'm as arrogant as the next guy.
However, I disagree with the conclusion. My reasons aren't entirely fleshed out so here are a few thoughts. I'll probably blog more fully on it later, but I wanted to share them here to work out any kinks with my premises before I go further.
1. In Mormonism and traditional (may I call it orthodox?) Christianity, there are two different things being witnessed. One is a lot easier to fake than the other. I think Scott undercounts the possibility that Joseph Smith was a charlatan who faked the plates. In other words, I can easily see how uneducated, mystical folks would be fooled or have to convince themselves by handling fake golden plates they want to believe in. I have a harder time seeing how uneducated, mystical folks would be fooled or have to convince themselves by a fake resuscitated corpse. Regardless of when people lived, even the uneducated and the mystical knew that people don't die and then come back to eat dinner with you.
2. The fact that many of the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses wound up in non-Mormon communities lends weight to the possibility that they really did see or experience something. It's probably impossible to prove what they saw or experienced, or what the source was, but I don't think the idea than an experience occurred should be discounted in either the Mormon or the early Christian cases.
3. Both the early Christians and the early Mormons made falsifiable claims of Divine Revelation. That is, while you cannot prove they did happen, you can prove they did not. Pilate or the Jewish could have proven that the Resurrection of Jesus never took place by producing his body. That never happened. (Of course, it doesn't prove anything and it remains unlikely since people do not generally come back from death.)
Likewise, the Mormons made the claim that Joseph Smith translated doctrinal works given him by an angel. While we do not have the golden plates, we do have the papyri from which he supposedly translated the Book of Abraham. What these papyri actually say bears no relation to the Book of Abraham as translated. Various explanations have been attempted, but the one Wikipedia lists first is that the Book wasn't a translation at all, but rather a revelation made through the papyri. In other words, the claims surrounding Joseph Smith's revelation have been falsified (at least in part) and Mormons are reduced the spiritualizing the text. This seems to me equivalent to someone definitively finding the grave of Jesus with a very old skeleton in it. This would seem to make the Mormon claims even less likely than the early Christian claims.
2012-09-24 04:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Some Preliminary Thoughts
4. (in possible contradiction to point 2) In historical Jesus studies, most scholars use the criterion of multiple attestation to determine (or divine!) how likely it is that Jesus really said or did something. While we may not have separate testimonies of 12 apostles, we do have the testimonies of the Markan, Matthean, Lukan, Johannine, Pauline, and maybe the Jacobite and Q communities (which did always agree with each other!) that eyewitnesses saw Jesus rise from the dead. I'm curious how future scholars will assess the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses using the criterion of multiple attestation. Since they came from the same community and belonged to the same two or three families, would that count and single or multiple attestation? And what does that say for the likelihood of the event?
Sorry these kind of came out as a jumble. As I said, these thoughts are still in formation. But again, I really appreciate Scott for applying the Mormon test to my own Christian beliefs.
(Ras Charles...would that ring a bell for anyone, or is everyone non-micronationalist?)
How much of that sort of thing do we need before we start increasing the plausibility of simulation/aliens/elves explanations?
Is the reported weight and size of the plates consistent with them being solid gold?
My somewhat cynical guess is that if Joseph Smith feeds his friends enough mushrooms and has a high enough Char stat, he can guide them through whatever experience he wants to.
Heh, I've heard this said about the Lucan story of the Nativity ;)
Interesting, but misleading analogically and in its historical details. Jesus DID go around claiming to be the Son of God (and trinitarians would say, thus God Himself) - does the fact that he never wrote it down (or, if he did, that the writing didn't survive) make much difference? Does this mean that if a book written by Jesus were to have survived somehow and made it into the Bible, that blogger would think less of Jesus? Further, the blogger ignores or writes off the fact that the eleven witnesses never recanted their sight of the Golden Plates, focusing exclusively on Joseph Smith - a poor analog to the early apostles.
Armand Mauss is coming out with a book about considering religious founders' biographies as scripture, and it seems like the author of this blog post would be benefited by reading it. Or by reading "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" as a (still faithful) contrast to the admittedly hagiographic official LDS presentations of Joseph Smith's story, the cleanness of which would probably surprise Joseph Smith himself. (The blogger should note that the revelations in the D&C often chastise Joseph Smith for something or other, too.)
Smith wins in that he's a demonstrable historical figure, we know he existed, because he was around recently, while JC is not quite so easy to grasp, AFAIK there are no primary sources giving evidence for the historical Jesus at all.
This is one of the first niggling doubts I started having about my Christianity. I looked up the Mormon story and found, contrary to the contentions of many, that it's simply not true no one else ever saw the plates. (Or rather, it's not true that Mormons believe no one else ever saw them.) Moreover, unlike gospel accounts that throw out numbers like 500 witnesses to a resurrected Jesus (which I have seen some apologists claim we should take very seriously), we actually have full names and personal testimonies for the Mormon witnesses. It's much, much better evidence in favor of their narrative.
All the better support for Dennett's proposal of mandatory world religion classes in public schools. Many Christians don't know this stuff about Mormons, and that's sad, considering all the mockery that takes place.
I remember reading some article online making a big deal out of Paul being the oldest written material about Christ, and that his experience of 'seeing' was spiritual (or a light, or something), not of a physical person. I think the article was arguing that Christianity started as totally spiritual/allegorical, with stories about Jesus-in-Heaven getting taken as literally true by later people.
(An interesting mechanism; I've seen it proposed for myths too: "stories that were simply mnemonics for astronomical data turned into myths when social disruption meant survivors remembered stories but didn't know the coding or inner meaning." I don't know if there's any evidence for this happening anywhere ever... except Christian fundamentalism is often described as an insistence on the literal truth of stories earlier Christians and Jews supposedly knew were stories. I dunno.)
Sort of apropos, _Fooling Houdini_, on magicians, had a line from a magician about how their greatest advantage was laypeople's disbelief in what great lengths a magician would go to just to fool someone.
2012-09-24 10:00 pm (UTC)
Warning: crackpot theory about psychiatry.
I think current theories far underestimate the ease of inducing hallucinations in many subjects. If there are studies of suggesting them to people with a history of hallucinating (the way we can suggest memories or opinions), I haven't found them. I have a lot of anecdotes about hallucinating specific objects, sometimes in lots of detail, especially in religious contexts. And someone with a firm belief in wishful thinking (that's most people) is likely to take even vague hallucinations seriously, if not to have more vivid ones.
This would also help explain mass probably-hallucinations like religious apparitions.
Actually current theories about "mass hallucinations" seem to run on the premise that you can attribute anything you want to explain away as a mass hallucination.
[Disclosure: Not what LWers might call my true acceptance, but something I spent some thought on because I have a Mormon non-conversion story.]
I think the analogy is less clear than that.
First, the early Christian martyrs were mostly killed by Romans. And we know that the Romans were trying to make apostates rather than martyrs. Their standard procedure was to let the accused off if they would do some things Christians wouldn't do. Basically it was a real and immediate question of dying for the faith. This doesn't apply to all of the twelve (John died of natural causes, some of the others's precise martyrdom stories I wouldn't bet much on and some got killed by non-Roman folk), but it does to some of them and very likely to some witnesses other than the twelve. On the other hand early Mormon martyrs were basically lynched for social aspects of Mormonism and not so much because of doctrine or allegedly witnessed miracles.
Second, again because Mormonism was hated more socially than doctrinally, the Mormon witnesses could distance themselves from Mormonism without renouncing their visions. There was no marginal benefit to get from also admitting to solemn perjury, which was kind of a big deal in their culture. And of course renouncing the testimony would be counterproductive on the harassing done by Mormons.
Third, the story came up in a different situation. Basically, Joseph Smith was around to guide them into seeing what he wanted them to see. The movement was going strong and the witnesses had hopes for their place in it, even if those were mostly in vain. And then we have Joseph Smith creating basically Asch-conformity like situations where it would be really hard not to "see" what they were supposed to see. And even then one of the witnesses couldn't see the plates at first and was sent out to pray until he could. But if the resurrection is supposed to be made up, Jesus wasn't around pretty much by definition. And then the legend would have been made up in a situation that was pretty much the social gold standard for a movement being finished.
And finally, the BOM talks about long past events the witnesses weren't involved in. The Apostles on the other hand left a tradition that makes their pre-resurecction behavior look petty and stupid. If they had been making the main part of the story up, they would have sanitized their own part too.
The era we're most interested in here is from the Crucifixion to just before the first Gospels - that is, the time when the Apostles might have been around and active and necessary to vouch for the Resurrection. This period is probably from about 30-60. I don't think we have great evidence that the Romans (as opposed to Jews, and the occasional Roman official who got convinced by the Jewish community) were actively persecuting Christians at all during that time, and certainly it's very speculative to apply what we know about much later Roman persecutions (the apostates rather than martyrs thing). It also sets up the false dichotomy between "Totally believed Christianity" and "Totally made it up", whereas I think other possibilities like "Believed in the vague outline, but tacked on some miracles and a resurrection" are also plausible. I doubt the ROmans were subtle enough to say "If you just admit maybe you might have been dreaming those resurrected appearances, we'll let you go and keep worshipping Jesus".
I agree Joseph Smith had a strong role in enforcing conformity / "inducing hallucinations", but if we accept that a single person who believes strongly can induce hallucinations in others, that's actually still a very important data point. It means that if even one of the Apostles decided that Christ had been resurrected (because of a very vivid dream or something), that could start a chain reaction where everyone else starts to believe it too.
I agree that Christianity was in a much worse position than Mormonism because of Christ's recent death. On the other hand, there's some really interesting atheist scholarship around "cognitive dissonance" and the idea that movements get more powerful just at the point one would have expected them to consider themselves disproven and move on. The Great Disappointment of 1844 and the Jehovah's Witnesses in 1914 are two of the more salient examples.
I've made a new post to discuss the "would have sanitized their own part" objection in more detail.