By January 1, 2017
Happy New Year everyone!
Over my holiday I read On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, which offers readers a keen insight into Richard Bushman’s post-publication thought as Mormon and scholarly audiences reviewed Rough Stone Rolling. Likely many readers of the book will enjoy Bushman’s reflections on his negotiation of the roles of scholar and believer. My favorite part, however, is the window that the book gives into the daily scholarly practices in which Bushman engages, including refining ideas and engaging in dialogue with the public about his book. Luckily for me, Bushman’s book is not the only place to receive such insights: the JI does a great job showing process, sharing resources, and exploring and refining ideas. Here are some of my favorite posts from 2016 that did just that:
By December 31, 2016
Across the world, the 2017 LDS Sunday School course of study is the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History. While church history has consistently been in the now regular four-year canonical rotation; the historical content beyond the manual has been minimal—basically limited to the 1838 canonized Joseph Smith—History and a glorified pamphlet—Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1996) in the last decade. Regrettably, English speaking members who use a hard copy manual or download the pdf will continue to use the same manual. (So don’t.) However, those who use the online lessons from lds.org or from the Gospel Library app will have access to a much broader scope of historical sources.
The new manual introduction—“Helps for the Teacher”—quotes from and links to M. Russell Ballard’s seminal February 2016 talk to Church Education System personnel, “The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century.” He then urged instructors to study the “best books”—including “the best LDS scholarship available.” Ballard cited
By December 30, 2016
It’s the time for year-in-review articles and retrospectives, as we get ready to kick 2016 out the door. I’m not sure how to put my thoughts about this year into coherent words, so maybe I’d rather write about some other proxy year instead. Some months ago, I posted about the Church’s annual Church in Action films by profiling the 1973 version. I recently began teaching Institute in my stake and because of a boundary change I took over mid-semester in the Cornerstones class about Church history and the Restoration. Joey Stuart’s thought-provoking piece earlier this fall on Mormonism’s biggest “change year” challenged me to find a way to present some of the rapid transformations in Church demographics, policies and practices that have taken place in recent decades for the last class in the semester. I thought bringing in one of the Church in Action recaps might highlight both continuity and change in recent Mormonism. It definitely did; we had a lively discussion about the film and what had / hadn’t changed since then.
By December 22, 2016
So in sum, if Platonism shows up in Joseph Smith’s scriptures and revelations (some examples), there may have been biblical precedence for it.
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
By December 21, 2016
We at Juvenile Instructor wish our readers a happy winter break and a happy New Year! If you’re in need of a few podcasts that touch on Mormonism during your holiday travels, here are two for your mind and ears.
By December 18, 2016
Nietzsche’s famously made this claim in the introduction to his Beyond Good and Evil, but Origen said something similar in his response to the Celsus. Among Celsus’s numerous critiques was that Christianity appealed to the lower classes and that its ethics were derivative of philosophy. Celsus quoted the passage from the Timaeus—“It is a hard matter to find out the Maker and Father of this universe; and after having found Him, it is impossible to make Him known to all”—before declaring, “You perceive, then, how divine men seek after the way of truth, and how well Plato knew that it was impossible for all men to walk in it” (Against Celsus 7.42).
By December 16, 2016
Plato’s concept of God seems to have been the central feature of his unwritten doctrine, based on Tubingen scholars arguing that it had to do with the One and Plato’s statement in the Timaeus, “Now to find the maker and father of the universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (28c). That you can only tell it to very few people lines up with what Plato said about his unwritten doctrine.
Plato seemed to have something monotheistic in opposition to the Greek pantheon since Socrates continually refers to “God” in a monotheistic way: one of the charges against Socrates was “not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in” new gods. (Apology 24-b-c).
With that in mind, here are a series of quotes that Andre Dacier thought were the most important for making the connection between Christianity and Platonism.
By December 14, 2016
This was the same daughter who said she was ready to leave the church over the Old Testament when she was 8. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t too crazy about the text when she studied it in seminary last year. She felt like she got a lot of lessons on God handing out punishment for what looked like violation of totally arbitrary rules.
I’d been thinking about the topic too in light of a statement in Plato’s Timaeus: “Now to find the maker and father of the universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (28c). It’s hard to know God, and if you come to that knowledge it’s even harder to explain it. As Paul said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:12).
So I told my daughter this: “This is what I think. Knowing God is difficult for humans. We do our best and make our hypotheses, but our point of view and understanding is limited. So our understanding of God has changed over time, and has gotten better in many ways. In the Old Testament, we’re seeing that process: the long process of the human understanding of God improving.” She seemed to like that idea.
Trying to gain this knowledge of God seemed to have been a major part of Plato’s unwritten doctrine. More on that in my next post.
By December 12, 2016
You can’t read a text by either an early Christian or early modern Platonist without being hit by a barrage of claims that Plato got most of his ideas from reading the Hebrew scriptures. Says Margaret Barker, “The similarity between much of Plato and the Hebrew tradition is too great for coincidence.” Barker attempts to prove that Plato’s ideas did come from the Jews, but does so with little evidence.
In his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, Russell Gmirkin considers “the possibility that both the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Bible as a whole drew on the writings of Plato found at the Great Library at Alexandria.” Gmirkin bases this argument on the assertion that “the Pentateuch’s law collections despite containing a few laws of Ancient New Eastern origin, are in large part based on Athenian law and on Plato’s Laws, and that the Hebrew Bible as a literary collection was based on instructions found in Plato’s Laws for creating a national literature.” Such an argument builds on Gmirkin’s previous work that argued that similarities to other texts suggested that the Pentateuch was written at the time the of the reported translation of the Septuagint (c. 270 BC.)
By December 10, 2016
To me, the strongest connection between Jesus’s secret teaching and Plato’s is the parable of the sower. Those who argued for Jesus having a secret teaching saw his parables as proof: said Origen, “Jesus explained all things to His own disciples privately; and for this reason the writers of the Gospels have concealed the clear exposition of the parables, because the things signified by them were beyond the power of the nature of words to express.” The parable of the sower is the clearest evidence that Jesus had different teachings for the masses and for his closest followers: exoteric (inside the walls) v. esoteric (outside the walls).
The parable of the sower has very striking similarities to passages from Plato’s Phaedrus and Theages. In the Phaedrus, in the same passages that Socrates says that writing is problematic and higher truths need to be taught orally, he compares teaching to a farmer planting seeds: “Now what about the man who knows what is just, noble, and good? Shall we say that he is less sensible with his seeds than the farmer is with his?… The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge…. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human can be” (276b-277a).
By December 8, 2016
As an addendum to my secret tradition posts, I recently came across something interesting related to Plato and the Greek mysteries. In my post on Plato, I noted the Anne Mary Farrell’s dissertation arguing that Plato often made allusion to the Eleusinian mysteries and that the that Diotima’s ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium may have been related to ritual stair case in the Eleusinian telestron (or the temple where they performed the rite). The Symposium also contained Aristophanes’ myth of spilt male and female pairs that can be “welded” back together so that they’ll be “one and not two in Hades” (ie the afterlife). So I wondered if since Diotima referred to a ritual, Aristophanes might have as well.
Joseph Campbell’s description of the Orphic Sacramental Bowl suggests that Aristophanes was referring to a rite. Unearthed in 1837, the object was later melted down by the Russians during World War I, but not before casts were made in England in 1867.
To explain why I found this Campbell’s description of the bowl significant, I first need to describe what Plato says about souls falling from and returning to the Gods in his Phaedrus. At 246 d, Socrates launches into his description of the chorus of the Gods by declaring, “Let us turn to what causes the shedding of wings, what makes them fall away from the soul,” based on his belief that we had preexisted with the Gods and our wings had allowed us to be up in the heavens with them. Socrates then describes the chorus of the Gods, how the Gods travel around the cosmos to behold “the place beyond heaven” or true reality, a process that Farrell says had the most over references to the Eleusinian mysteries. Premortal humans follow the Gods to behold this reality, but if “by some accident [the premortal soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrong doing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to the earth,” ie becomes a mortal (246d-248d).
By December 5, 2016
Three years ago I wrote about prehistoric reptiles in a mural in the Manti Temple: “Things I Did Not Know: Dinosaurs in the Manti Temple”. This past summer I went back and, this time, noticed some prehistoric mammals.
I was not able to find images of the particular murals , so… with the usual caveats about memory and eye-witnesses of a mural I saw in from across the room in July while doing something else, the animals I saw were:
- Deinotherium (looks like an elephant with downward curving tusks),
- Megacerops (looks like a rhinoceros with forked horn),
- Xiphodon (looks like a camel)
There was also a goat in the same panel, but I didn’t notice anything to distinguish it from a present-day male Alpine ibex (Capra ibex).
The murals in question were painted by Carl Christian Anton Christensen (1831-1912; usually CCA Christensen) in 1886-1887 and depict facets of creation up to, but not including, humans. Below I have included images from Louis Figuier’s La Terre avant le déluge (1863, French; 1872, English), which seems, upon casual inspection, to be a candidate for one of Christensen’s sources. . (Hat-tip again to Mina for pointing out Figuier when I posted about Mesozoic Reptiles.)
By December 4, 2016
Since I’m going to be referencing the Christian secret tradition a lot in these posts, I wanted to list out the post I did on this topic a couple of summer’s ago. I’d wanted to put these together anyway.
Clement of Alexandria declared, “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.”
Clement’s letter to Theodore
The debate of the the letter to Theodore
Evidence of a ritual
The Greek Mysteries
The Disciplina Arcani
By December 4, 2016
Friedrich Schleiermacher, who played a major role in the modern study of Plato, rejected the notion of a Platonic oral tradition, arguing that Plato’s central purposes were expressed in his dialogues. Though Friedrich Nietzsche was heavily critical of Schleiermacher’s interpretation, Schleiermacher’s became the dominant view especially in the Anglo-American academy. American Harold Cherniss went so far as to say that Aristotle was simply mistaken when he referenced Plato’s “so-called unwritten doctrine.”
The Tübingen school, or a group of scholars at Tübingen University who study the issue, pushed back against Schleiermacher, by not only pointing out Plato’s over references in the Phaedrus and in letter 7 but also noting the numerous times that Socrates refers to things he cannot talk about throughout Plato’s dialogues. As Dmitri Nikulin puts it, “The Tübingen interpretation to a large extent suspends the fundamental principle of modern hermeneutical interpretation: the sola scriptura. This hermeneutical principle stresses the importance of going back to the ‘original’ text as the only source of dependable interpretation, and hence implies the rejection of any oral tradition of transmission that is construed as only secondary and therefore untrustworthy.”
The Tübingen scholars have set about trying to recover what the unwritten doctrine might have been by looking at clues in Plato’s dialogues and statements by his pupils, to argue that the unwritten doctrines seem to relate to mathematical relations of ultimate reality, and dualism and monism. Many argue that the Neoplatonist’s “One” may have been what Plato had in mind, and that Plotinus had it right.
By December 1, 2016
We’re pleased to post the following Call for Papers from the Faith and Knowledge Conference, which will meet February 24-25, 2017 in Cambridge, MA. If you are a Mormon graduate student or early career scholar in religious studies or a related discipline, I can’t urge you strongly enough to propose a paper and attend the conference. The three F&K Conferences I’ve attended were among the highlights of my graduate student career, and I don’t know a comparable venue that succeeds in accomplishing what F&K sets out to do. -Christopher
SIXTH BIENNIAL FAITH AND KNOWLEDGE CONFERENCE
HARVARD DIVINITY SCHOOL
FEBRUARY 24-25, 2017
By November 29, 2016
Early modern Christian Platonists argued that Plato essentially was a precursor to Christianity and such individuals pointed to a few particular passages to make their case. Many of these passages relate to what is call “Plato’s unwritten doctrines” or ideas that Plato did not write down but only taught orally.
Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, refers to Plato’s “so called unwritten doctrines” in his Physics. In Plato’s seventh letter, Plato says, “There is a true doctrine that confutes anyone who presumes to write anything whatever on such subjects” and that “anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them. Whenever we see a book … we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with his fairest possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, ‘have taken his wits away’” (Letter 7, 342a, 344c-d, quotes from the 1997 Hackett edition).
By November 2, 2016
We are pleased to have a guest post from Nathan Waite, who is the manager of the Joseph Smith Papers web team
Note: You may be thinking this is nothing more than a shameless promotional post for the Joseph Smith Papers. And you’re partially right. It is unquestionably a plug to visit josephsmithpapers.org, but it’s also a brief look at the history and historiography of the Joseph Smith Translation. And if you make it to the end, I’ve got a question (an actual I-don’t-know-the-answer-and-really-want-to-know question, not a rhetorical one) about the shifting landscape of digital research.
On Monday, the Joseph Smith Papers Project published all the original texts of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. The LDS Church has never published the JST before this—and the JSP is not the same thing as the LDS Church, but we’re part of the Church History Department, which makes this feel like a significant milestone, a first for the church.
By October 25, 2016
Scholars have noted the Neoplatonic nature of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations. The beginning of D&C 88 (The Olive Leaf) sounds particularly so. In fact, it has numerous striking similarities to Plato’s description of the Good from his allegory of the cave. The following is Thomas Taylor’s 1804 translation of the Republic 571b-c. Like DC 88:6-13, it mentions ascent and says that the Good (like Christ) is the source of light, the light of the sun, and of human understanding.
If you compare this region … to the soul’s ascent into the intelligible place; you will apprehend my meaning…. In the intelligible place, the idea of the good is the last object of vision, and is scarcely to be seen; but if it be seen, we must collect by reasoning that it is the cause to all of everything right and beautiful, generating in the visible place, light, and its lord the sun; and in the intelligible place, it is itself the lord, producing truth and intellect.
In my dissertation, I argue that Smith seemed aware of Plato and may have used his Timaeus. The above quote suggests Smith may have been aware of Plato even earlier.
 The Works of Plato, viz. His Fifty –Five Dialogues, trans. Thomas Taylor, 5 vols (1804, reprint; AMS, 1979), 1:360-61.
 Stephen J. Fleming, “The Fulness of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism,” chapter 6. See here and the comments.
 Since I see Plato as rather Mormon, I quite like the idea. “Study it out” (DC 9:8) suggests such a process.
By October 24, 2016
I’ve been thinking recently about Grant Underwood’s article in Pacific Historical Review, “Re-visioning Mormon History.” In short, Underwood contends that 1890 is not such a watershed year for Mormon history as historians have led us to believe. Underwood argues, at most times convincingly, that Mormons had not Americanized nor become much less peculiar since the year of the Woodruff Manifesto.
I don’t want to rehash his entire argument and evidence here (those who are interested in a deeper dive should consult Christopher’s excellent rumination on the article here and David’s follow up questions on the article here). However, I find that I generally agree with Jan Shipps on the importance of 1890. She wrote, “Whatever else it did, the Manifesto announced that the old order would have to pass away.” Despite my belief that 1890 is a very important year for Mormons and historians of Mormonism, I think reducing the large-scale changes in Mormonism to 1890 alone is unproductive. If historians are seeking a sort of “trigger year” where Mormonism struck out on a new course, what date would be more appropriate than 1890? Here are a few options:
By October 20, 2016
[We are pleased to promote this forthcoming conference, which includes a number of JI’s good friends. Looks like fun!]
As the academic study of Mormonism continues to develop, scholars, students and practitioners of this tradition are increasingly interested in how Mormonism speaks to broader theological and philosophical questions. At this unique conference, scholars will present research on ethical dimensions of war, peacebuilding, and the application of violence. Presenters will engage these topics from a variety of angles that consider LDS scripture, theology, philosophy, and the historical development of the Christian tradition.
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