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April 3, 2011

Ancient Books, Modern Faith: Is Physical Proof Necessary for Believers?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/ancient_books_modern_faith_is_physical_proof_necessary_for_believers_391104/

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Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.—John 20:29

“It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign. Show me Latter-day Saints who have to feed upon miracles, signs and visions in order to keep them steadfast in the Church, and I will show you members of the Church who are not in good standing before God, and who are walking in slippery paths.” – Joseph Smith

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Do religious Jews and Christians need physical proof to validate their belief in scripture? That question came to the fore during last week’s media spotlight on the Jordanian Lead Codices, which were discovered about five years ago and are considered by some experts to be one of the most significant architectural finds in the history of Christianity. I couldn’t help but wonder to what extent they will strengthen Christians’ faith in their religion if their authenticity is confirmed.

During our Torah study class, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila stated that belief in biblical stories is a matter of faith for religious readers. This is so true, he continued, that even if an ark were to be discovered tomorrow atop Mt. Ararat and universally acknowledged to be the one constructed by Noah, this physical proof would only serve to validate, not establish, the profound faith of true believers. According to the good rabbi, physical proof is nice to have, but true faith does not need ancient artifacts to buttress it. To this Mormons would shout “Amen!”

When it comes to tangible proof for biblical stories, I’ve found that Jews in general are very interested in obtaining evidence of their physical presence in the Land of Israel throughout several millennia: Was there an Exodus from Egypt? Were temples built on Mount Moriah? Did a powerful King David rule in Judea? While Mormons are fascinated by these questions, they are probably more interested in the meaningful spiritual moments in the Hebrew Bible that continue to inform their belief and practice: Was Melchizedek’s priesthood shared by the ancient patriarchs? Was Aaron ordained to the priesthood by Moses? Did Ephraim receive the birthright in Israel after Reuben’s fall from grace? Did Elijah seal the heavens? If I had to choose between receiving incontrovertible proof that Moses parted the Red Sea or that he received two different sets of tablets on Mt. Sinai (which for us represent the laws of the two different priesthood orders), I would not hesitate to choose the latter. While Mormons generally accept the literal interpretation of Bible stories, they are taught in Sunday School to seek spiritual confirmation of its teachings. 

The main purpose of this blog is to present LDS beliefs as a serious theology, one with many Israelite themes and institutions (e.g., temples, prophetic authority). Serious believers should welcome serious scrutiny.  One of our books of scripture is the Book of Mormon, which we accept as a literal account of several civilizations (including two Israelite ones) that flourished in the ancient Americas. The first LDS prophet in modern times, Joseph Smith, claimed to have translated the book through divine inspiration from metal plates that were probably similar to those of the Jordanian Lead Codices.

I am often asked by Jews how Mormons can believe in this book of modern scripture. The answer? Because we have received a spiritual confirmation that it is true. How, then, should we respond to oft-repeated claims that there is “no proof” that the book is authentic? In the same way that Jews respond to assertions that there is “no proof” that an ancient Jewish Temple ever stood on Mount Moriah: the “put up or shut up” approach. Many readers are familiar with the familiar mantra “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.” That is, just because we haven’t found a stele with “Welcome to Zarahemla” engraved on it doesn’t mean that that Book of Mormon city didn’t exist. I believe that this approach is insufficient for people of faith. Would-be debunkers of scriptural historicity should be directly challenged to come up with plausible theories for discoveries. The “I don’t have any idea, but the Mormons [or Jews] can’t be right” approach is not a serious one. A couple of examples will suffice. 
 
For decades critics of the Book of Mormon pointed out that the name “Alma” (one of the book’s prophets) was not an ancient one and must have been made up by Joseph Smith. Unfortunately for them, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls papyri (Bar Kokhba #44) mentions a certain “Alma son of Judah” who was involved in a leasing agreement. As a result, it has come to be called the “Alma Scroll.” Does this prove that the Book of Mormon is true? No, but it does prove that Alma was an ancient name that could not possibly have been known by Joseph Smith (or anyone else) in the early 1800s. How, then, did the name find its way into the book? Of course, people tend to filter such “evidence” through their spiritual lenses, often seeing what they want to see. However, the Alma Scroll can serve to rebut the claim that there is “no proof” that belief in the Book of Mormon is logical and defensible.

Another example is perhaps more instructive. One of the objects on display in the wonderful “Lords of Creation” Mayan exhibit in Los Angeles several years ago was a clear depiction of three heavens. While almost all of the other objects had at least one paragraph of explanation in both English and Spanish, this one had only one brief sentence, which I am quoting almost verbatim: “Archaeologists do not know why the Mayans believed in three heavens.” Mormons believe in a three-tiered heaven, and it is entirely possible that this doctrine was taught to some of the ancient peoples on this continent (though it does not appear in the Book of Mormon). Can this Mayan piece serve to buttress the LDS belief in these ancient American civilizations? Maybe, maybe not, but what is clear is that no one else has a plausible explanation for why the Mayans believed in three heavens. Until someone does, the display goes into the “possible proof” category.


Again, I do not believe that Mormons or religious Jews should look to physical proof as the source of their faith in scripture. However, I do think that Mormons could learn from Jews how to be more assertive when challenging would-be debunkers of their scriptural narratives. In the specific case of the Book of Mormon, it is important for Latter-day Saints to affirm at every opportunity that the people and events recorded in its pages are historical. The consequences of not doing so can be seen in the Community of Christ, a member of the LDS movement that separated from the Utah-heading Mormons 150 years ago. In a meeting that I had with several of the church’s apostles, they stated that they no longer believe that the Book of Mormon is historical (though individual members are free to believe this). When I later asked whether their patriarchal blessings (which assign Mormons to an Israelite tribe) still contained a tribal designation, I was told they did not (though they did for many decades). The link here seems obvious: stop believing in a book about ancient Israelites, and you soon stop believing in modern Israelites.

For Jews, it is important (though not absolutely necessary) to demonstrate their continued presence in the Land of Israel since biblical times. Although Mormons don’t need physical proof to support their theology, they need not concede that there is no proof for it. If we wish to be taken seriously as a church, we have to be willing to challenge our debunkers on historicity issues, not pretend that they don’t matter.

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I will be speaking to Jewish and LDS students at Harvard University’s Hillel on April 8.

Rabbi Barry Block and I will engage in dialogue during the San Antonio (TX) West Stake’s Education Weekend on April 15, and I will make a separate presentation on April 16 entitled “Mormons and Jews in the Latter Days: A Zion Relationship.”


I will be taking a tour group to Israel in March 2012 for Morris Murdock Travel. Participants will return from the trip with a profound love for both ancient and modern Israel. The itinerary will be finalized this week. Travelers of all faiths (and none) are welcome.

I now write a weekly column on the Middle East for the Deseret News. Here is the inaugural post: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700124151/The-Middle-East-Beyond-the-headlines.html

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