Being Biblical Part II

By March 11, 2011

My last post was a product of where I was at in my research. As I’ve argued in previous posts, I see heavy Neoplatonic (particularly that of Proclus) influences on Mormonism, which become more pronounced in JS’s last years. The Book of Abraham and the King Follett are thoroughly Neoplatonic in their notions of pre-existence, references to intelligences, the nature of the creation, the rejection of creation ex nihilo, deification, hierarchy of gods, and that God was once human.

I found two things most striking about the King Follett Discourse. One I mentioned in the previous post: that he seemed to be referencing some extra-biblical text with the statement ?I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible. If I do, I think there are so many over-wise men here that they would cry ?treason? and put me to death. So I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today.? [HC 6:307] The other was the fact that he reinterpreted Genesis 1:1 in a way that made it sound very much like Plato’s Timaeus: “The Head One of the Gods brought forth the Gods,” who then create. Here’s the passage:

When all the gods had come to birth… the author of the universe addressed them in these words:
“Gods, of gods whereof I am the maker and of the works the father” [he then tells them that the bond to Him is stronger than their previous bonds and that they now need to create humans] “turn according to your own nature to the making of living creatures, imitating my power in generating you. In so far as it is fitting that something in them should share the name of the immortals, being called divine and ruling over those who at any time are willing to follow after righteousness and after you–the part, having sown it as seed and made a beginning, I will hand over to you. For the rest, do you, weaving mortal to immortal, make living beings; bring them to birth, feed them and cause them to grow; and when they fail, receive them back again.” (Timaeus 41a-d).

That’s probably more than I needed to quote; my point is just that the idea of a head God “bringing forth” other gods and then proceeding with the creation is very Platonic. [1] So I thought it was striking that JS’s reconfiguration of Genesis 1:1 took this direction and that he seemed to be referencing having some other source that he considered authoritative that was not biblical. I couldn’t help but wonder if it weren’t a Neoplatonic text of some sort.

I had remembered hearing that Alexander Neibaur was into the Kabbalah: Jewish Neoplatonic mysticism. So when I mentioned this to my good friend Mark Ashurst-McGee over Christmas he pointed me to Lance Owens’s article. I didn’t get to it for a while because I’m swamped with other reading. On Saturday I tracked down my adviser at a conference and asked her what I needed to do before I left (I’m moving to Utah soon, my wife and kids have already left). She said I needed a simple, clear, and concise write-up explaining all this and that I wasn’t leaving until it was done. That stressed me out because I was supposed to me leaving in 2 weeks (my wife is eager for me to join her), had a lot to do, and didn’t know how to explain all that I had read in a simple, concise way. “Neibaur,” I thought/hoped.

That Monday I read Owens’s article. It was a godsend. My paper is now written and off to my adviser and I think I may make it out of here.

Mark also mentioned to me the critiques of the article, which I read and found unconvincing because of the following, which, to me, is beyond dispute.

1) Neibaur was into the Kabbalah. His article in Times and Seasons not only referenced Kabbalistic texts but discusses a very Neoplatonic idea, the transmigration of souls. Whether he had in his possession the books or not, any summary of them would likely have been Kabbalistic as well. Discussing transmigration demonstrates his Neoplatonic thought.

2) Neibaur was JS’s Hebrew tutor (also beyond dispute).

3) The King Follett Discourse is undeniably Neoplatonic (mentioned above) as is JS’s reading of Genesis 1:1, regardless of how we render the Hebrew he quoted. A Neoplatonic Hebrew teacher, a Neoplatonic Hebrew rendering.

4) Regardless of what degree JS had previously conceived of the ideas in the KFD prior to 1844, he could still have received more information. If he was already heading in this direction before Neibuar then Neibaur’s ideas would have been all that more more compelling to JS, like missing pieces to a puzzle.

If we believe the ideas taught in the KFD are True, does it matter where JS got them from? Do they become less true if they came from the Zohar? “Mormonism is truth,” JS told Isaac Galland “The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitations or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.” [2]

And yet, ?I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible. If I do, I think there are so many over-wise men here that they would cry ?treason? and put me to death. So I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today.? [HC 6:307]
[1] The Timaeus was a very important text, the only Platonic text to survive throughout the Middle Ages, and the text considered the most important (along with the Parmenides) by the Neoplatonists. Again, this was a living tradition that was expanded and tinkered with over thousands of years.
[2] Quoted in Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 394.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Intellectual History


  1. When I read Brooke for the first time, I really thought he dropped the ball by not focusing on Neibaur more. He’s the strongest link to these type of intellectual sources, if you were to take this route. (I still have my qualms with it.)

    You’ll want to read Sam MB’s recent dialogue article–it is a tremendous article, and the most convincing critique of Owens. He argues that JS had these types of ideas long before the Neibaur influence, though he goes about it a different way than I do.

    Comment by Ben — March 12, 2011 @ 4:06 am

  2. I trust your bibliography includes my article “Joseph Smith’s Emendation of Hebrew Genesis 1:1” from Dialogue. (Since I reject Owens’ treatment I may be one of the critiques of Owens you mentioned, but I didn’t know whether you might be alluding primarily to Bill Hamblin or not.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 12, 2011 @ 8:53 am

  3. Thanks, Ben. I have read Sam’s article (if you mean the chain-of-being one) though I read it before I read Owens. I mentioned it in a previous post: “Sam Brown?s forthcoming article does a good job of pointing out similarities. I would only add that the since the chain of being was only one aspect of Neoplatonism, there remains much more to be studied. Samuel Brown, ‘The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,? Dialogue, forthcoming.'” [fn 8] See my list above on additional parallels. So my take away from the article was the strong connections to Neoplatonism in Nauvoo.

    I did read yours (Kevin’s) and Hamblin’s articles. Again my list above 1-4 are why I see Owens’s central thesis as valid. (I hope I’m not coming across as combative, but I see these issues as meriting further discussion. I also want to be clear that searching for influences is in no way an attempt to call into question JS’s prophetic calling–see my little blurb after point 4.)

    I don’t find the argument that he already new all this stuff so he wasn’t influenced by Neibaur convincing (see point 4). Again, even if he was heading in this direction, Neibaur could have been an additional influence.

    To be clear, I see Neoplatonic influence on early Mormonism in the early 1830s (it’s very clear in DC 88). But Neoplatonic themes become even more pronounced in Nauvoo, suggesting additional influences.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 12, 2011 @ 9:45 am

  4. That’s fine, Steve. It’s not something I want to argue about, I just wanted to confirm that you had seen my take. It’s an interesting topic and I certainly welcome more work in the area.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 12, 2011 @ 10:24 am

  5. I’m excited to see where you take this project and glad that you have your prospectus up and running. I think one problem with Owens’s essay is his failure to understand the broader penetration of apparently neoplatonic ideas into early American culture independent of formal Kabbalah. (I’m not anti-Kabbalah, in fact I have a soft spot for it and am willing to give it some latitude.) It would be nice to get a sense for whether Smith ever ended up actually using the Zohar, but I doubt we’ll ever get beyond the fact that Neibaur was a Kabbalist of sorts and Smith trained a little with Neibaur. So then the question becomes how these ideas come into being and how they grow and change through time. Smith finding the Zohar late in the game of his development of his own complex brand of neoplatonism may prove to be true but largely irrelevant. That’s my point with kibbitzing Owens or Brooke.
    I did the Chain of Being because it’s so important to afterlife theology, but you’re exactly right Steve that there are several ideas that sound neoplatonic present from fairly early on. I try in the book to trace the other elements of divine anthropology through the 15 years of earliest Mormonism–there the sources are a little sparser than with the Chain of Being–and again I see a fairly rich system as Smith enters Illinois.
    That reference from KFD could also have been to Freemasonry, Mormon revelations, or other mystery texts.

    In another decade or so, it may be time for an Dictionary of Mormon Gnosticism and Esotericism to match the Brill volume.

    Comment by smb — March 12, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  6. scanned the Timaeus extract quickly–polytheism/divine council material again comes well before Neibaur. It will be nice to hear how this will get fleshed out into something beyond “Smith found something of a kindred spirit in a Kabbalist convert late in his career.” My problem with Owens is that he fleshes this out into a parallelomanic morass. I’m eager for you to flesh this out into something robust and interesting.

    Comment by smb — March 12, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

  7. Steve, I’m as interested in ever in your research and look forward to you putting this all together.

    Also, I really like when the blog produces some good back and forth between scholars working on the same/similar projects, and am glad others who have touched on these issues are commenting and engaging what you’ve presented here. Great stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — March 12, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

  8. Thanks, Kevin, Sam, Chris.

    Sam, I looked over the things you sent me (the book and the chain of being article) and you only make one minor reference to Owens in each (about Hyde). Did you say more in later drafts?

    What date and text are you pointing to for multiple gods and the council of the gods. BoA? If so, what chronology do we have on how that developed? (printed in 1842, Neibaur in Nauvoo in 1841)

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 12, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

  9. beyond the fact that Neibaur was a Kabbalist of sorts and Smith trained a little with Neibaur

    I think we still need a lot more evidence to make even that claim. We simply don’t know the nature of the texts Neibaur was accessing for his apologetics. And, consider the way apologists tend to grab texts, I think it a big leap to consider him a Kabbalist. At best we can say he had access to some Kabbalistic ideas but we don’t know how he conceived of them.

    As for Owens, it’s unfortunate he was the one to break these ideas since his paper was so horribly written. It gave them a bad connotation that lasted much longer than it should have. While I’m pretty skeptical of the Neibaur connection without further data I do think a more broadly quasi-neoplatonic American analysis is the best approach. And frankly those ideas were pretty widely distributed even before folks like the Transcendentalists like Emerson started espousing them.

    Comment by Clark — March 12, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

  10. The claim looks pretty solid to me Clark (Neibaur/Kabbalah): citing Kabbalistic sources and talking about a Neoplatonic issue. No doubt plenty of Neoplatonism was around and JS liked it; all the more reason to embrace Neibaur.

    Anyway, how this all was laid out before Neibaur would be very helpful.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 12, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

  11. Steve, I edited out some dismissive footnotes when I had to drop 30% of word count. I left in the Hyde reference bc it was directly relevant to the Chain issue and seems to me generally representative of the quality of the Owens article.
    I agree with you that there’s little reason to deny Neibaur’s interest in at least some form of Kabbalah. The implicit question that remains is, I believe, whether that allows one to look to Kabbalah per se as possible source material for Smith–Neibaur’s particular views may have been rather different from what we think of as the state of Kabbalah then. I’ve got so much else in my inbox right now I can’t contribute much more at this point, but I will look at this question of plural gods when I have to deal with copyedits in about a month.

    Comment by smb — March 13, 2011 @ 1:34 am

  12. “I don?t find the argument that he already new all this stuff so he wasn?t influenced by Neibaur convincing (see point 4). Again, even if he was heading in this direction, Neibaur could have been an additional influence.”

    JS was very much in this mode. You see this kind of thing enriching his thought in several ways, so I think you may be on to something Steve. I look forward to seeing it play out.

    Comment by WVS — March 13, 2011 @ 2:08 am

  13. I was just reading through JS’s March 20, 1849 Liberty Jail epistle: “our fathers have wated with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times which their minds were pointed to by the Angels as held in reserve for the fullness of their glory a time to come in which nothing shall be with held whither there be one god or many gods they shall be manifest all thrones and dominions principalities and powers shall be revealed and set forth”

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  14. Look forward to continued discussion, Sam.

    Thanks WVS.

    Good point, J. Do you mean 1839? The reference to “all thrones and dominions principalities and powers shall be revealed and set forth” suggests the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius (the “Christian Proclus”) as those are part of his nine orders of angels. The question is, could Neibaur have been a means by which that promised revelation was revealed?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 13, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

  15. Yep, 1839, my bad. And yep.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 14, 2011 @ 12:53 am

  16. I looked at some notes/text quickly this AM. Pretty secure references by 1842 both inside and outside the Church, and the conceptual pathway to plurality appears to be apotheosis/Elohim in the sources I find.

    Comment by smb — March 16, 2011 @ 7:47 am


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