Monday, December 5, 2016

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 2

If you look up the entry for "Higher Criticism" in Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, this is what you will find: "See Apostasy, Bible, Evolution, Revelation, Scripture." That is followed by an article about higher criticism that goes on for a page and a half and concludes, "In the final analysis [the conclusions of higher criticism] are doctrines of the devil, doctrines which destroy faith and prevent acceptance of the full gospel of salvation."

So what was it about higher criticism that made Elder McConkie call it a "doctrine of the devil"?

When McConkie included a cross reference to Apostasy he was not necessarily saying that anyone who engages with higher criticism is apostatizing from the church (though that also may have been the case), but rather the conclusions of higher criticism were the effects of the great apostasy. In his brief entry McConkie lumps the conclusions of higher criticism with all other false doctrines taught in other churches. The fact that a preacher or doctor of the church would even consider the implications of the documentary hypothesis is evidence that they do not have the spirit of revelation and are blinded by the effects of the great apostasy.

So what was it about the documentary hypothesis that prompted such a strong reaction from Elder McConkie? To bolster his claim that it is a "doctrine of the devil", McConkie points to the prophetic statements of Joseph Smith, which include the Book of Moses and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. Thus he is responding to the issue of authorship and authority discussed in Part 1. By highlighting the prophetic statements of Joseph Smith, McConkie is reaffirming the identity and authority of the author of the Pentateuch. He is unwilling to budge on the question of authorship, and therefore the authority of totality of the Pentateuch, and by extension the rest of the Old Testament. So McConkie rejects the documentary hypothesis on the grounds that it calls into question the authority of scripture. It is a laudable cause. He has a healthy respect for God's Word, but I find that such an uncompromising position is at odds with how God normally interacts with His children.

So how does evolution fit into all of this? Elder McConkie cross referenced evolution in his entry on higher criticism, which when you think about it is rather odd, unless you understand how the conclusions of the documentary hypothesis can potentially impact our understanding of the creation. Without that it would seem that Elder McConkie is simply applying one of the dirtiest epithets that he knows. But there is more going on here, and this brings us to the issues of Timing and Historicity.

Timing and Historicity

These two are interrelated so I will address them together. In my introduction to the documentary hypothesis I mentioned briefly the issue of when the different sources were written. Some scholars favor later dates (meaning in the range of 800-200 BC), while theologians tend to favor early dates (closer to 1200 BC). The issue with later dates is that it opens the way to first question whether the stories are accurate, and second to question whether to people in the stories really lived at all. The thinking goes, the more removed the actual writing is from the people in the stories the greater likely hood that they never lived at all. Perhaps Abraham was invented for political reasons? To justify political control of Canaan perhaps.

The example of Abraham being invented is not hypothetical. There are many scholars who consider Abraham to be an invention of the Jews to justify political control of Canaan. This view is so widely held that even the Wikipedia article on Abraham reports, "it is widely agreed that the patriarchal age [including Abraham] ... is a late literary construct that does not relate to any period in actual history." I'll lay aside the rather cavalier attitude of the Wikipedia author to the issue a historical Abraham, and just use this as an example of how the timing and historicity are linked. A late writing of the Pentateuch can easily translate (in their minds) into the patriarchs being nothing more than literary constructs (a nice way of saying fairy tales).

There are multiple issues with this view that I will not unpack here, but I will point out that the non-existence of Abraham is not based on multiple historical sources failing to mention him, or mentioning him in an entirely different context, or on hard archaeological evidence, but on a "careful" reading of the Pentateuch. It is a bit like watching Kenneth Branagh's version of Henry V and concluding that, based on a careful analysis of the dialogue, Henry was a fictional person.

A general trend I have observed is that as soon as one scholar proposes a late date for a part of the Bible, another one comes along and uses that as evidence for the non-existence one or more people in the Bible. In other words, using higher criticism there is a popular trend to systematically undermine the historicity of the Bible.

This trend manifests itself in interesting and odd ways. For example, there was an intense debate about whether or not King David was a real person. That debate has largely died down due to archaeological evidence for his existence and reign. As a more extreme example, I was part of an online discussion once where one commenter attempted to argue using higher criticism that Jeremiah was not a real person. That position is thankfully rare but there is a significant number of scholars who argue that because portions of the Bible were composed at a late date the main characters before David are nothing more than "literary constructs" at worst or fictional retellings of oral tradition at best. According to this way of thinking there may have been someone named Moses, but the exodus never happened, or it was severely limited to a few hundred priests or tribal leaders, without any miraculous occurrences.

In every field of study there is a drive to push the envelope, to be the researcher who finds the first, the highest, the newest, the strongest, the oldest, or the largest because that is what gets published and cited. In the field of Biblical scholarship the current fad of higher criticism is to show a later and later date for different parts of the Bible. For example, one Biblical scholar, David P. Wright, argued in a recent book that the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:23-23:19) was not written at an early date, but much later during the Neo-Assyrian period (740-640 BC). It may have been well argued but as one reviewer pointed out, "If the discovery of a piece of Mesopotamian law code in ... 2010 at Hazor is followed up by more such discoveries, Wright may have to do some quick backtracking on his proposed date. In fact, Wright's volume full of data can be explained better by an early date than by a Neo-Assyrian date."

In other words, a single archaeological find can overturn just about any argument based on higher criticism. It does not matter how complex, well thought out, or elegant the argument is, if evidence indicates otherwise it doesn't matter. The archaeological evidence prompted Cyrus H. Gordon, a noted Biblical scholar to declare arguments based on higher criticism to be untenable. "Though Bible scholars live in an age of unprecedented discovery, they stand in the shadow of nineteenth-century higher criticism, . . . even though archaeology has rendered it untenable." (Cyrus H. Gordon, "Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit," Christianity Today, 4 (1959): 131).

In a drive for ever decreasing notoriety it has become fashionable to argue for later and later dates for Biblical authorship, but that has divorced many of the arguments from the archaeological record, and has increasingly relied on even more tenuous arguments about what was and was not possible three thousand years ago in Israel.

In part a major motivation for this was to remove the wondrous and miraculous as a possibility from history. If Moses never existed then you don't have to deal with whether or not he parted the sea. If Adam was nothing more than a mythological figure then arguments about the creation disappear. By undermining the historicity of the Bible the more miraculous aspects of the Bible do not have to be dealt with. Thus Elder McConkie equated higher criticism with evolution, because scholars were using higher criticism to give naturalist explanations to the Bible. This is what prompted such a visceral reaction and got it labeled a "doctrine of the devil".

But not all Mormons are ardent Biblical literalists in the vein of Elder McConkie. While the issues of when certain parts of the Bible may have a minor impact on how an LDS audience interacts with the Bible, the big issue is the question of historicity. If the J and E sources were written down 400 years after Moses it is not an insurmountable problem for Mormons, but if Moses and Abraham never existed then there will be major theological implications. As Latter-day Saints we may be willing to accept new arguments about certain events such as the Exodus, but on the basic issues of historicity we will not budge.

The question of when the Bible, as we know it, was written is of particular interest to Mormons since a major part of our faith is the Book of Mormon. As related in 1 Nephi, Nephi and Lehi carry with them the brass plates which contain "the five books of Moses.... And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah."

If major portions of the Pentateuch were written after the Jews went into exile then it would have been impossible for the brass plates to contain those things. This would be a major anachronism for the Book of Mormon. Thus a late date, as proposed by many scholars, would invalidate the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. But there would be no problem with an early or even a middle date. As Mormons we already have a built in theological mechanism to incorporate additions, commentary and redaction made at a later date from when the events actually occurred. The Book of Mormon is an excellent example of how someone can take many different sources and splice them together into a coherent narrative several hundred years after the fact and still have it be valid as scripture. With this in mind it is not that big of a leap to accept that portions of the Bible were written much later than we supposed, and were the work of editors and redactors. Latter-day Saints would generally have no problem with most timelines for the writing of the Bible, as long as basic historicity was preserved.

Some, such as Elder McConkie, and his fan club might object, but I would think that most Latter-day Saints would have no problem as long as historicity and authoritativeness of the Bible were clearly delineated by proper authorities.

In this post I have briefly mentioned some of the difficulties Latter-day Saints will have with higher criticism and how it relates to when different parts of the Bible were potentially written and how that impacts whether or not the people involved were historical figures. In Part 3 I will point out some of the ways the Documentary Hypothesis can help Latter-day Saints understand the Book of Mormon and and give us some perspective into how scripture is written. This can help us digest how more modern scriptures came to be. Using insights from both the Documentary Hypothesis and the Book of Mormon, we can begin to understand the complex world that produced the scriptures we know and use.

In the meantime I would recommend Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis by Kevin L. Barney. It gives a very good break down of the issues (with references) for an LDS audience.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 1

In my previous post I introduced the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), which is the idea that the first five books of the Bible, collectively known as the Pentateuch, are actually a combination of four original source documents written at various times and places. While there has never been any direct evidence for these sources (i.e. the sources existing as separate documents) by carefully reading the text we notice certain peculiarities which are best explained by there being multiple original sources that were combined at a much later date. This method of critically analyzing the text for indications of the original sources is referred to as Higher Criticism. In its most general sense, higher criticism is a method of analyzing a text to understand who wrote it, why they wrote it, and when they wrote it. With higher criticism there is more interest in the world and society that produced the text, and what its original meaning was, than how the text is interpreted and applied today.

Since our scriptures were mostly produced in a much different society it is necessary to "translate" the concepts into terms that we can understand. In order to do this we need to understand the original context of what was written and the intent of the authors. But if a great distance in time, society and space separates us from the original context we will have a hard time understanding the scriptures. To get around this we must reconstruct the original context from any textual clues available to us. This is the basis of higher criticism.

From this perspective it would seem that higher criticism would be a natural fit with religious study, and in fact there was a point in history when higher criticism was closely aligned with religious scholarship, but over the past 200 years there has been an apparently intractable separation between the two. This has lead to intense criticism from one camp towards the other, with the sometimes bitter criticism likewise being returned. So what is the source of this disagreement?

The points of conflict generally fall under four categories:

  • Biblical Inerrancy
  • Authorship
  • Timing
  • Historicity
Underlying all of these issues is the implications for modern doctrine and religious practice. While a general survey of the conflict between religious scholarship and higher criticism would be enlightening I will only focus on how it manifests in an LDS context. Therefore I will not consider the ramifications for biblical inerrancy since that is a non-issue for Mormons.

The question of who wrote what in the Bible is a subtly important question for an LDS audience. Mormons have a strong sense of authority when it comes to scriptures and religious writings. Who wrote what, and what authority they had to write it, are important questions for Latter-day Saints. Embedded in our understanding of scripture is a complex hierarchy of authority that determines what takes precedence over other writings, and to what degree.

For example, what is written in scripture takes precedent over the words (spoken or written) of any single apostle or prophet, with the exception that modern revelation supersedes any and all previously written words*. [*with some exceptions to the exception. I told you this was complex.] In all things the Bible and Book of Mormon are considered to be on equal footing, with the exception that if there is something from the Bible that does not mesh with our understanding, then, while not rejected outright, it is given a caveat that it may not have been "translated correctly". But if the same happens with the Book of Mormon then generally the text wins out and informs our understanding. The same holds true for the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

All this complexity comes from our idea that the statements of a higher authority supersede the words of a lower authority. When this is applied to scripture it becomes a complex question of who said what, and with what authority. So the question of Biblical authorship poses a difficult question to many members of the Church. If the author is known, and is someone who has proper authority, then what is written can easily be placed in the hierarchy of authority. If the author is unknown then it reverts to a default level of authority which will afford it some authoritativeness by association.

This is further complicated when someone in authority compiles or edits works which may or may not have been authoritative. The authority of the compiler, perceived or actual, passes to the edited material which means that even if the original work was not authoritative, it becomes so since someone who had authority included it in the final edit. For this reason Mormon is nearly always referred to as a Prophet Historian, not not just a historian. It has the effect of elevating the authority of everything he compiled, even if the original material was not authoritative or inspired. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible because it both elevates portions of the text as authoritative, while demoting others*. [*Nothing is ever that simple.]

When it comes to Biblical authorship some things may seem straight forward but with the Documentary Hypothesis, Mormons are presented with an interesting conundrum. Among members of the Church, the Pentateuch is established as relatively authoritative due to the supposed source, but if Moses is not the actual author, the the authority of the author(s) would be in question. But the question may be irrelevant if, and only if, the sources were combined authoritatively, and without knowing the identity of the redactor we cannot make that judgement.

For some Mormons, the question of Biblical authorship as proposed by the DH will not produce more than passing interest, but for some it will be a major issue since it potentially undermines scriptural authority. While almost all Mormons are comfortable assessing the authoritativeness of individual passages relative to others, we are hesitant to reexamine our ingrained assumptions of the authoritativeness of whole books. For something that important we look to established structures of authority in the Church, as we should, for guidance.

But in the case of Biblical scholarship and the DH, that reassessment of authoritativeness is coming from outside the recognized structures of authority and that may lead members to automatically reject the conclusions of authorship without considering the evidence. Because it is not a small thing to reconsider the authority of certain passages of scripture, especially considering the context where it is most important, we should be hesitant when working through these questions of Biblical authorship.

I should point out that the answers to the question of Biblical authorship are not firmly established. While there may be general consensus, that consensus can be overturned by new research, or an incredible archaeological find. For these reasons I think it is advantageous that Church leaders exercise caution before speaking authoritatively or even semi-authoritatively with regards to these matters. Because of our complex hierarchies of authority if a particular viewpoint is given a veneer of authority, it will be difficult to change if the consensus shifts.

Any shifts in our understanding of Biblical authorship are not fundamentally destructive to an LDS viewpoint because we already have the framework in place to accept any modifications given enough evidence and the guidance of our structures of authority. But it is a transition that is best handled gently so as to not generate confusion and undue spiritual consternation.

For members of the Church there are some non-negotiable points to the question who authored the Pentateuch, namely that even if portions of it were written after the death of Moses, and compiled much later, portions of it must have been written by Moses, and it should depict actual historical events, even if the story has been distorted through time, there must be a kernel of truth to it. This will become important when I address the question of historicity. So even if other authors wrote portions of the Pentateuch, there needs to be some basis in fact for what they wrote, and at least some part of it containing the original writings of Moses. Unpacking the writings of Moses from those of later authors may be a difficult task, and it may add modifications to how we structure the hierarchy of authority for the different parts of the Pentateuch, but we are theologically prepared for that. If we consider these questions then it will enrich our understanding of how God has worked with His people and how He allows those in authority to have stewardship over everything given to them, including the scriptures.

For part 2 of this post I will cover the question of timing, that is, when the different parts of the Pentateuch was written, and why that generates conflict for an LDS audience. I will also address the issue of historicity. These are the two main sticking points when it comes to the conflict between current Biblical scholarship and LDS belief.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Who Wrote (The Hebrew) Bible? The Documentary Hypothesis

To some the question of who wrote the first five books of the Bible, collectively known as the the five books of Moses, is so transparently obvious that it barely registers as a question worth considering. But as we read the final chapter of Deuteronomy we note that most of what is recorded could not have been written by Moses since it details what happened after he died (or was translated). Many theologians throughout history have noted this and have cited it as proof of Moses's prophetic gift that he could write what would happen to the children of Israel after he died, while others have simply said that it was an editorial note added afterwards by Joshua or someone else.

But if we delve a little deeper we may note the addition of a few other notes most likely not added by the original author, whomever he may be. Plus, if we really pay attention we may begin to notice that the entire book of Deuteronomy is stylistically different from the other books of Moses, and in fact is stylistically closer to the Joshua and Judges, both not written by Moses, than the other books. It also covers many stories and ideas found elsewhere, as if it was written as a short condensed version of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.

Some scholars have noted this about the book of Deuteronomy and have theorized that Deuteronomy is the "Book of the Law" found by King Josiah in the 7th century BC. If that is true then that would mean Deuteronomy was kept separate from the other four books of Moses for much of their existence, and quite possibly was written, or at least compiled, by someone other than Moses.

The duplication of stories, and the difference in style, between Deuteronomy and other parts of the Torah leads us to suppose that the "five books of Moses" were not written all at the same time, and may not have all be written by Moses. Furthermore there are some duplicated stories found in Genesis that indicate that there may be more than one original source for the text that we now know as the Bible. The presence of editorial content in Deuteronomy leads us to suppose that there may be some editorial content in the other books that we are overlooking. This poses an interesting question, because if not everything in the "five books of Moses" was written by Moses, then how much of it was, and who wrote the rest of it.

The idea that Moses did not write everything in the five books Moses is not new, in fact it has been accepted as normal among biblical scholars for more than 150 years. Even then there has been some discussion of this going back almost 2000 years if not more. But in the past 200 years scholars have applied a level or type of critical analysis to the Bible that previous generations of scholars have not. This has lead to an intense focusing on the question, "If Moses did not write everything, then who did, and what and when did they write?"

About 150 years ago a German biblical scholar named Julius Wellhausen compiled all the insights into biblical authorship that had been growing for many years and set out what would come to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis (also called JEPD, for reasons which will be explained shortly). The fundamental insight of the Documentary Hypothesis is that what we know as the five books of Moses are actually a compilation of four different parallel sources, each written at a specific point in Israel's history, either by single author or by a group of authors. The four sources are:
  • Source J: Written in Judah, the southern kingdom, sometime in the 9th or 10th century BC. This source received its name from the fact that it consistently uses YHWH (or Jehovah in both German and English, hence it is called the J source) to refer to God. In the King James Version you can identify when the name YHWH is used since the KJV renders it as "LORD". Major themes of the J source include a promotion of the tribe of Judah over the others, an anthropomorphic God with a body ("And the LORD [YHWH] spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.") and willing to change and repent, with human emotions ("And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart"). In the J source animals can talk (i.e. the serpent in the garden, or Balaam and his talking ass). Biblical scholars posit that this version was written in the royal court as an official history of the Israelites and to highlight the role of Judah (the man) in establishing the tribe of Judah's right to rule. In the account of the flood the J source gives a much more limited scope to the extent of the flood. It is a mere local affair, though still devastating.
  • Source E: Written in Israel, the northern kingdom, sometime in the 9th century, possibly to counter the official history being promoted by the tribe of Judah (or "official" history depending on who you ask). The E source consistently uses Elohim for the name of God, and tends to highlight stories from Israel's history that occurred in the north. The E source does not mention anything before Abraham. This source also tends to have angels giving messages from God rather than God speaking directly to anyone. Source E also contains the important Covenant Code (Exodus 20:19–23:33), which is considered to be one of the earliest legal codes in existence. Some scholars argue that the Covenant Code was actually written much earlier and then incorporated into E when it was written.
  • Source P: This source receives its name from the fact that it is written to highlight priestly matters. It deals heavily with genealogies, names, dates, number, exact measurements, rituals, laws and punishments. It uses Elohim to refer to God, which is never depicted anthropomorphically. The God depicted in the P source deals with great cosmic events and is the source for much of the creation story. As one scholar put it, the God of the P source makes Heaven and Earth, the firmament and everything that is in them. The God in the J source plants a garden. The story of the flood in P deals with a great cosmic realignment, the waters which were above and below the firmament return to the earth and everything is covered. P is the source for a good portion of the second half of Exodus, 99% of Leviticus and most of Numbers. This covers all of the legal code stuff, such as the intricate washings for uncleanliness, and sacrifices. It also deals significantly with the tabernacle, including the details of construction.
  • Source D: This one is not so much a source as it is the work of a single author known as the Deuteronomist, because he wrote the book of Deuteronomy (hence the D). In the Documentary Hypothesis the Deuteronomist is seen as the author of not only Deuteronomy, but also Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. Consequently all those books can be seen as a complete history written with a specific purpose in mind, which is to highlight the principles of righteous leadership in Israel and to demonstrate that none of the kings in Israel or Judah managed to live according to the law as it applies to the kings (with the possible exception of Josiah). The Deuteronomist refers to God as "YHWH Eloheinu" which in English is rendered "The Lord our God". This phrase only appears a few times in Exodus, but is used heavily in Deuteronomy. The timing and identity of the Deuteronomist is a matter of debate. Wellhausen identified the Deuteronomist as Ezra, while Richard Elliott Friedman identifies the Deuteronomist as either the prophet Jeremiah (1st edition of his book Who Wrote the Bible?) or Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe (in Friedman's 2nd edition of his book). This would place the writing of the book of Deuteronomy in the second half of the 7th century BC during the reign of King Josiah, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon. There is some debate among scholars that the Book of the Law (i.e. Deuteronomy) "found" in the temple during the reign of Josiah was actually written to bring about a religious and political revival. The subsequent histories were written to demonstrate how the various kings, and Israel in general, had failed to live up to the Law given by Moses, until Josiah, and his priests, including Jeremiah, came and brought everyone back to the true fold and way of believing. Proper sacrifices and worship were restored to Jerusalem and all was going well and the line of David would have an eternal kingdom with Messianic kings such as Josiah to rule over Israel forever...until Josiah was killed by a stray arrow in battle. There is evidence that an editor made minor changes to the histories after the death of Josiah in an attempt to explain the failure of Josiah to establish an eternal kingdom. There are a few chapters (40-66) of Isaiah scholars assume were not actually written by Isaiah but were written later and then attributed to him. These chapters are collectively known as Deutero-Isaiah.
  • The Redactor: This is not another source, but rather a single person (or group of people depending on who you ask), known as the redactor, who edited the sources and combined them into a single text that we now know as the "five books of Moses". The work of the redactor can be found all throughout the five books weaving them together into a single coherent story. Because nothing was apparently left out this lead to multiple versions of the same stories, sometimes with minor or even major differences, such as two versions of the flood, two accounts of creation (one from the P source of a great cosmic event, the other from J on a much more limited scale where God plants a garden), Moses striking the rock and having water come out (in one version he hits the rock and water comes out, in the other he is commanded to speak a word and have water come out, but instead he hits the rock and is rebuked by God), and many other stories. Wellhausen identifies the redactor as an unknown scribe in the 2nd or 3rd century, while Friedman identifies the redactor as Ezra in the 4th century.
As you may have noticed, there is not always agreement among scholars regarding the identities of the authors or the dates of when JEPD were written, but generally there is agreement with the process. J and E were written in the Southern and Northern Kingdoms respectively sometime in the 9th or 10th century. J and E were later combined, presumably after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, during the reign of Hezekiah, perhaps as an attempt to incorporate the refugees from the north officially into his kingdom. P has the biggest uncertainty of all the sources with estimates ranging from the 8th century all the way to the 2nd century BC. Most scholars date D to before the exile, though some date it to shortly after the exile. The dating of the redactor ranges from the 6th century all the way up to the 2nd century. The redactor could not have lived any later than the 2nd century because the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the work of the redactor.

JEPD still stands as the preeminent explanation of who wrote the first five books of the Bible despite what some critics will say. The biggest issue currently under debate is the timing of when each part was written. The current winds of biblical scholarship are currently blowing towards a late date (post exile) for most portions, but that is not universal. There is good evidence pointing towards an earlier date for certain sources, and the debate is still out for others.

Ever since Wellhausen published his work in the 1870's there has been very little change in the consensus. Basically all biblical scholarship consisted of footnotes to Wellhausen's work, until about the 1980's when scholars such as Richard Elliott Friedman started to challenge some long held assumptions. Since then there has been a flowing of biblical studies which has allowed many different ideas to be presented, not all of them bound by the documentary hypothesis. But for the better part of 110 years, if you wanted any part of biblical scholarship you had to "toe the line" and accept the work of Wellhausen as "the gospel truth" as it were. But the field is not so strict now. Still the Documentary Hypothesis is still the default position in the field.

Some elements of the Documentary Hypothesis may present problems for members of the Church and for the Book of Mormon as a historical document. Basically the Documentary Hypothesis as formalized by Wellhausen was in direct contradiction with the Book of Mormon, but since the 1980's the field has changed and some of the new ideas are not antithetical to the Book of Mormon as a historical document and I plan on addressing those issues in a future post. But this post should serve as a brief introduction . For further reading I suggest:
  • Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman (2nd edition, the correct edition is important)
  • Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy by David Bokovoy (this was written for an LDS audience)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: TheBackyardScientist

The Backyard Scientist channel may be lean a little towards the "let's blow some stuff up because it's cool" but he does do some practical projects that are fun to watch. Now that I have a backyard I am seriously thinking about trying some of his projects out for myself.

Here are a few of the more interesting projects that the Backyard Scientist has done.

Molten aluminum in water beads.

Ping-pong steam engine (with liquid nitrogen).

Sending a GoPro to space.

Did you know molten salt explodes when it comes in contact with water?

Wood etching/burning with lightning.

There are plenty of "let's blow stuff up" channels on YouTube, but the Backyard Scientist tries to do science in the same style as the MythBusters. It may be for entertainment, but there is a commitment to be curious and to explore, and to test ideas and see what works. So it may not be publishable science, it does stay true to the idea of scientific exploration.

There are also a few cool ideas that would be fun (and safe) to try with young children. So if you need ideas for fun summer projects to help your children learn this is a good place to get a few ideas.

As a safety note: having worked with a few dangerous substances, and electricity before, the Backyard Scientists do not always take the best safety precautions. So as with anything hot, explosive, electrical, corrosive, or toxic, know the hazards and use common sense. But don't let that stop you from trying.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: Every Frame a Painting

My recommendations for educational YouTube channels are not limited to channels dedicated to history and science. I believe that there is something to be learned from any field of endeavor. In every field there are those who are good at their art because of pure talent. Then there are those who not only posses raw talent, but intentionally master their raw talent through education, training and understanding how and why their art takes the form it does.

Talent will only take you so far, and the difference between someone who is good at what they do and
someone who has mastered it, is a lot of hard work, practice and understanding how it works. All too often when it comes to videos, movies and pictures people just assume that all you have to do is point your camera and take the picture. But what differentiates a good movie from a great one is the preparation, forethought and understanding that goes into the picture.

The channel Every Frame a Painting covers the subtle aspects of cinema that make great movies. There are things that you don't even think about when watching a movie but can have a tremendous impact on your experience. Several years ago I watched the movie Seven Samurai and I remember being greatly impressed with it. At the time I didn't know that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa, one of the masters of Japanese cinema. It wasn't until years later when I watched the following video on the how Kurosawa uses movement to compose each shot that I learned that there was a reason why the movie had such an impact on me. The director was a master of his art and had intentionally composed his movies to produce strong emotional responses. He masterfully uses the art of the cinema to make experiences that his audience will not forget.

Similarly the director Michael Bay uses his craft to make engaging movies that are fun to watch. Even if you can't stand his movies, and I can't stand them, they are still very visually engaging. Understanding how he makes his movies will explain why his movies make hundreds of millions of dollars, even when the plots are full of holes and the characters annoying.

The same can be said of Buster Keaton. If you watch his movies, they are full of plot holes, the characters are annoying, but they are still fun to watch. There is a reason why Buster Keaton is still one of the best comedic geniuses in movie history.

There were a few videos on the channel Every Frame a Painting that changed the way I watched movies. I became more aware of how directors chose to compose a shot (or didn't choose, but just did the default, and therefore made a boring movie). I also learned what was possible in a movie and what I had been missing out in many american movies.

This is one channel that has changed (or maybe ruined) how I watch movies. I notice more and am aware of how the craft works.

One final note and disclaimer. Because this channel deals with Hollywood movies some of the subject matter on this channel is not for a younger audience. Some of the videos have graphic violence and the swearing is not edited out. I don't think any of the above videos has swearing, but several of the other videos do have extensive R rated swearing and violence. So if you let your teenage kids watch the videos on this channel, just screen them first.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

That it Exists: How Consciousness is Fundamental to the Cosmos

Recently I came across an article that was written as a response to a broader discussion regarding the nature of consciousness and the mind. The scientist writing the article took the position that all mental activity, and therefore all subjective experience, is just neurochemistry. That is, all thought can be reduced down to the motions of molecules in the brain.

His point was that we can trace neural pathways in the brain, and because we can do this we have discovered the source of consciousness. In making this assertion he was arguing against the possibility of consciousness being a separate entity apart from the measurable neurochemistry in the brain. His reasoning was that there was no evidence that human consciousness operated independent of the neuron activity in the brain. From a scientific stand point he has a very strong argument. There is no evidence that has ever been measured of human consciousness operating independent of a human brain. As he put it, "default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness." There is nothing to prove otherwise.

In making his argument that there is no evidence for consciousness independent of a functioning brain, he gave the following challenge in the form of a question.

"Where is the evidence for consciousness being fundamental to the cosmos?"

We must acknowledge that we have not yet observed free floating consciousnesses in the universe. We cannot look through a telescope, or in a particle accelerator, or in a microscope and observe a consciousness apart from the neural activity in our brains. So what evidence is there for consciousness in the universe?

That it exists.

Right now as you are reading this you are aware of your own existence. That fact alone is evidence that there is at least one consciousness, and that it is fundamental to the universe. You may also realize that you cannot observe, experience or measure my consciousness. You can observe the effects of my consciousness in how I act and talk, but you cannot directly observe my consciousness. (As a side note, if you were to insist that yours was the only consciousness in the cosmos and that everyone else were just cleaver machines then you would be slipping into the philosophy of solipsism.) So when the author of the article asked what evidence there was for consciousness being fundamental, the evidence is that it exists.

While his arguments may seem modern with their emphasis on neurochemistry, this argument is actually quite old and has been debated as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers. I can tell someone is a conscious being because of the way they act. I can observe their actions and how they react to language and conclude that they are an independent thinking being. All we have done with modern neuroscience is to do the exact same thing, but now with fancy equipment. It's a bit like inventing a car or an airplane and then concluding, "Now we have solved the puzzle of human motion! We now know how humans move!"

No, all we have done is take the same fundamental problem and wrapped it in a new shinier, more complex skin.

We have not solved the problem of consciousness. We still have not observed consciousness. We can observe the motions that result from consciousness, but we have not observed someone's self awareness. We may be closer to solving the riddle of human consciousness but we have not yet done it. Until then the idea that "brains cause consciousness" is not the "default hypothesis". To insist that "brains cause consciousness" is to assume a conclusion for which there is no evidence, while our own self-awareness is evidence that our consciousness is independent of our own neurochemistry,

Until we know what consciousness, or self-awareness, is, and not just its effects, we cannot say that we have no evidence of consciousness outside the measurable motions of neurochemistry. But we do have evidence that consciousness exists. Just think about it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Correcting an Abuse of the Lord’s Supper" Understanding 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 in Context

Today I was asked to teach the lesson in Elder's Quorum on the topic of the sacrament. The lesson manual at one point used the scripture found in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 to emphasize the importance of being worthy to partake of the sacrament. Since we use the King James Version in the Church this is what appeared in the lesson manual.
"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body."
This is not the first time, and definitely won't be the last, that I have heard this passage used to emphasize the importance of being worthy while taking the sacrament. But if there is one thing that I have learned is that if we are understand the scriptures we must read and consider them in context. So let me give the context of that passage and see if it changes the meaning. For this I will be using the New International Version translation of the Bible since it helps make it easier to understand certain critical passages.

In the early days of the church when Jesus's apostles established churches everywhere they went they frequently did not have a formal church building where the saints would meet. Sometimes they would meet in the local synagogue, but it was more common to meet in a member's house. Many notable women are mentioned as being the spiritual center of these early house churches.

In the early church it quickly became the custom that when the members met they would have a meal together, as in a full meal. As a part of the meal they would have the sacrament of the Lord's supper in the same manner that Jesus taught his disciples before he died. As Paul explained to the members at Corinth,
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
To follow the pattern set forth by Jesus the church members would have a full meal and then afterwards would have the sacrament. To understand what and why Paul was writing we have to understand the letter to the Corinthians.

Paul had traveled to Corinth and had established a church there. After he continued on his mission to other cities he received a series of letters from the saints in Corinth with some questions. They had had some contentions regarding how the church was to be run and they wrote to Paul to settle some doctrinal, procedural and administrative disputes. We do not know exactly what questions they asked, but a good portion of 1 Corinthians is Paul responding to their questions. Without this it is easy to get lost. The confusion is further compounded by the fact that occasionally Paul will quote from the letter sent by the Corinthians and his responses get mixed in with their questions. So sometimes it's hard to tell what are his responses and what are the statements he is responding to, and in some cases refuting.

It is in this context that Paul responds to the saints in Corinth in Chapter 11. We do not have their question, but obviously they had a question about the sacrament of the Lord's supper. From his response we can infer what problems they were facing.

It would appear that when the church started they had the custom of having a full meal before the sacrament. But at some point certain members started holding their own church meals (v. 21) and not inviting other members to these meals. Some members who had an abundance of food would use that fact to try to pridefully demonstrate to the other members that they had God's approval, while those who could not contribute to the communal meal did not have God's approval (v. 19). This caused divisions in the congregation (v. 18) since groups of members were having their own private "sacrament meetings" with full meals (v. 21). Thus the poor members were showing up to the meetings expecting a full meal before the sacrament and instead got nothing (v. 22). This made some members get sick, or be weak, and in some cases fall asleep in the church meetings (v. 30).

Thus the church in Corinth was having a problem with members holding their own sacrament meetings, perhaps without proper priesthood authorization, and in some cases they were having parties or meals (v. 21) and not having the sacrament afterwards (v. 20), but still calling it a church meeting. So they were misunderstanding the purpose of the Lord's supper and were calling any big meal they had "the Lord's supper." It had gotten to the point that the church meetings were doing more harm than good (v. 17).

So when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was trying to correct these problems and make sure that there were no contentions among the members. He was also trying to correct the misconception that "the Lord's supper" was not a meal to be shared with only friends, but that when the church came together for a meal, everyone should be invited and should participate (v. 33). But to prevent the sacrament of the Lord's supper turning into nothing more than a party, or well spread meal, the members should eat in their own homes first and then gather for the sacrament (v. 34). That way there would be no confusion between a church potluck and the sacrament.

Thus Paul clearly laid out the procedure for the sacrament (vs. 23-26) and admonished the saints to follow that pattern for the sacrament, until he could come and give them further instructions (v. 34). In is in this context that Paul gives his warning about eating and drinking of the sacrament unworthily.
"So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves." (vs. 27-29)
In this context when Paul talks about being unworthy he is referring to the contentions and divisions (vs. 18-22) that are tearing apart the church. Church members are not taking care of the hungry and poor (v. 22) and are despising the body of the church (vs. 22, 29, 31), or the "body of Christ". When the church comes together to "partake of the Lord's supper", they are not doing the ordinance correctly, and everything else, the unimportant stuff is getting in the way of the sacrament, hence what they are doing is not the Lord's supper (v. 20). For this reason the church is under condemnation and when they are doing it in an unworthy, or unauthorized manner, they are "guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord."

So in the end, the unworthiness that Paul was speaking against was the contentions and divisions in the church, and the fact that some members were not doing the ordinance correctly. Thus those members who were having their own private "sacrament meals" were eating and drinking "judgment on themselves."

In our church today verses 27-29 are frequently cited as proof that we need to be careful not to partake of the sacrament unworthily. While there are some cases where members who have committed certain sins are not allowed to take the sacrament, I think that sometimes members take those verses out of context and understand them to mean that if we have any sin or misdeed in our lives we should not take the sacrament, no matter how small. But unfortunately comes from misunderstanding the context and intent of the passage. Taking the sacrament signifies our desire to make a covenant with the Lord, it does not signify that we have personally atoned for our own sins. That is something we cannot do. Because of the misapplication of those verses some members get the idea that we must be perfect to take the sacrament. This in effect denies the atonement of Christ since it is he who atones for our sins, not us. The sacrament signifies our accepting the covenant that the Lord will cleanse from our sins, not that we have cleansed ourselves, since that is something we cannot do.

The reasons for not taking the sacrament should be when someone has committed a major sin, one that is damaging to other members and disrupts the good feeling among the members, or if there are divisions and contentions among the members. If they can't get along and be unified in the covenant then they should not take the sacrament. Also members should not try to partake of the sacrament without proper authorization from the bishop of other presiding authority. Thus members cannot have their own sacrament meeting if they happen to not like the bishop or other members in the congregation. They do not have the keys to determine when and where the sacrament should be done.

When I presented this in my lesson in Elder's Quorum, one member of the quorum commented that he had never had it explained to him like that. He said that taking the sacrament was something he had struggled with because he had never felt worthy and it was a relief to hear that it wasn't about fixing all the little sins and misdeeds before we take the sacrament, but that we take the sacrament to signify that we are unified with the body of Christ, which is the church.