A Respectful Meeting of the Minds

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    An interfaith symposium at BYU—the first of its kind—studies some striking parallels.

    The Religious Studies Center was organized in 1975 as the research and publication arm of religious instruction at BYU. It has five areas of concentration: ancient scripture, Judeo-Christian religions, world religions, Church history, and ancient scripture. The general director is Ellis T. Rasmussen, and Paul R. Cheesman, Truman G. Madsen, Spencer J. Palmer, LaMar C. Berrett, and S. Kent Brown are the area directors. The Center seeks to coordinate scholarship on an inter-departmental, intra-university, and worldwide basis. Part of the Center’s work is publishing this scholarship. The first of a projected series of monographs—Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless—has just been published.

    It was a respectful—and high-powered—meeting of the minds.

    Three rabbis, the dean of the Harvard Divinity School, a Methodist minister from Duke University, the chairman of the Religion Department at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and the editor of the Anchor Bible series—among others—met at Brigham Young University in the spring as guests of the Religious Studies Center. They discussed such familiar-sounding topics as temples, Abraham, the anthropomorphic (personal) nature of God, religious art, and the Sermon on the Mount compared to Third Nephi.

    Truman G. Madsen of the BYU Religious Studies Center arranged the conference. He had met many of the scholars in his role as Richard L. Evans Professor of Christian Understanding and finds this kind of discussion “exciting.” Obviously so did others. Hundreds of eager listeners filled every seat and jammed the aisles of the first day’s meeting until the symposium moved to more spacious quarters.

    The eleven men and one woman were not simply scholars—they are active in their own faiths and committed to their own search for truth. The proceedings were sensitive and respectful, enlivened by frequent touches of humor and warmed by personal experience.

    They came at their topics from a variety of positions. Some chose to explore and area of expertise and let the audience draw their own parallels. Others plunged into point-by-point comparisons between Mormon and non-Mormon correspondences, showing—despite their reluctance to claim mastery of Mormon theology—careful and thoughtful preparation.

    David Winston, the first speaker, professor of Hellenic and Judaic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California, and director of the Center of Judaic Studies, took the second approach with his topic “Pre-existence in Hellenic, Judaic, and Mormon Sources.”

    He focused on three main themes: the eternal existence of souls, God’s underlying purpose in creation, and the view that earth-life is a test in the work of two Alexandrine writers about the time of Christ, one a Hellenistic philosopher named Philo and the other a Jew who wrote The Wisdom of Solomon. Both Philo and the Jewish writer, he said, assumed the premortal existence of souls but saw very different purposes in mortality. For the Hellenistic philosopher, mortality was an imprisonment and the soul was “sucked down” into matter. The Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand, sees mortality as both a refinement and a test, in terms similar to those of the restored gospel.

    Another interesting parallel he discussed concerned the process of the creation. Did God create the world out of materials which already existed or did he also create those materials? He showed how the second position became orthodox in the second century of Christianity, even though it was “not part of the Greek or Rabbinic texts,” most probably as an attempt to defend God’s supreme majesty against the attacks of Gnostic groups who asserted that matter was evil and hence God could not have made it.

    Abraham Kaplan, professor of philosophy and sociology at the University of Haifa, and Andrew W. Mellon, Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the California Institute of Technology, discussed “The Meaning of Ritual: Comparison.” After reviewing such explanations for rites and ceremonies as utilitarian, historical, magical, psychological, and sociological theories, he protested: “They all ignore the fact that ritual has something to do with religion.”

    He described ritual as “a disciplined rehearsal of reality, a symbol of man’s understanding both of his place in the world and of the world itself.” Rituals “recognize a natural order of things that is not subject to our wills,” and hence let us come to terms with a sometimes hostile universe. Even more important, rituals “symbolize the transfer of a predicament into an opportunity.” In other words, a ritual is a way of making a commitment, a discerning “of what we find most worth doing.”

    This overview, rich for Latter-day Saints’ own understanding of religious ceremony, was followed by a microscopic analysis of one tiny part of a Jewish temple ceremony.

    Jacob Milgrom, professor of Near East Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the leading authorities on the Temple Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discussed the possible meanings of why the priest daubs sacrificial blood on the horns of the altar, a ceremony described in Leviticus 4. [Lev. 4] Then, during the question period, he added an insight about the sacrifice offered by the “sons of Levi.” When a question was explained to him, he smiled, “I thought the questioner had found me out. I happen to be a Levite.”

    He confirmed that the Temple Scroll, the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls and only just published in Hebrew, describes the ancient Jewish temple ceremonies and rituals in great detail and claims for the Levites a significantly higher position than the other priests. Since the Levite temple role had been usurped at the time of the Scroll’s writing, analyzing the changes may result in significant new interpretations about that period.

    David Noel Freedman, professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan, editor of the Anchor Bible series, and past president of the Society for Biblical Literature, reported on a discovery so significant that “individual items will ultimately affect almost every page of the Hebrew Bible.” This discovery occurred in the fall of 1974 when two Italian archaeologists reported excavating seventeen thousand clay tablets and readable fragments at Ebla in Syria. Written in Sumerian and an unknown Semitic dialect being called Eblaite, they date from the third millennium B.C., which, Dr. Freedman hypothesizes, is the time of Abraham.

    Already the tablets are shedding exciting light on biblical narratives. For instance, the name David is used by only one man in the Bible and, until the Ebla tablets, the name was found only in the Bible. Thus, it’s “very interesting” that the same name (but a different man) appears on one of the Ebla tablets.

    Another tablet may help locate Mount Sinai. Various locations have been proposed, but the latest scholarly research seems to favor a location on the Jordon-South Arabian border. However, one of the Ebla tablets gives the itinerary of a “traveling salesman” who left the great trade center of Ebla in the north and visited such familiar coastal cities as Sidon, Carmel, Ashdod, and Gaza. Then he comes to Sinai.

    “That’s a surprise,” commented Professor Freedman. “This city was on the coast, apparently, and it means that the name was known a thousand years before Moses. This may mean that we should look again for a location within the Sinai Peninsula.”

    An even more striking parallel is the light shed by these trade documents on the state of international affairs in the ancient world. Genesis 14 describes “five cities of the plain” linked to the story of Abraham: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela. The same five cities—in the same order—appear in the Ebla tablets. “Five for five is rather impressive,” said Professor Freedman, “But what does it mean? It means that the person who wrote Genesis had access to the same information a minimum of one thousand years later if we take the most conservative position and assert that Moses wrote Genesis.”

    That isn’t all. Genesis contains “the curious comment” that Bela is “also” called Zoar. Usually in such cases it means that the city was called one name earlier and the second name in the writer’s time. That’s evidently not the case here. But another Ebla tablet specifies that Bela was in the district of Zoar. Thus, the Bible “reflects a reality that, in my opinion, only somebody living at the time would know,” he said.

    The kings of these five cities were in league against four kings from the east, named in Genesis 14:1. [Gen. 14:1] If you’re an expert in Semitic languages, he pointed out, “you recognize that those names have too many consonants.” But one name appears on the Ebla tablet, “not just a similar name, but an identical name—consonant for consonant and vowel for vowel.”

    Naturally, the consequences for confirming the historical accuracy of the Bible are compelling, not only for Latter-day Saints but for all students of the Bible. As the work of translation gets underway, more discoveries will come forth, some undoubtedly illuminating the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price which Professor Freedman had just read.

    W. D. Davies, George Washington Ivey Professor of Advanced Studies Research in Christian Origins at Duke University, is the author of a definitive work on the Jewish claims to the territory of Israel. His lecture drew the audience from the contemplation of clay tablets three thousand years old into modern times as he discussed Mormonism as a return to Israel, as a restoration of Israel, and as a reinterpretation of Israel.

    Early Mormon leaders were “steeped in the Old Testament” and went to considerable lengths to learn Hebrew, he said. The scriptures formed one strong link between the Mormons and Israel.

    The second link was the Mormon view of being physically descended from Israel. Other religious groups have defined themselves as “the new Israel” but the Mormons simply see themselves as the “same Israel in a new stage of existence.”

    As a consequence of this identification, he said, the Mormon interpretation of the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews is “extremely refreshing. Seldom do Christians write so generously of Jews.”

    Another strong link is the importance of priesthood among both the Mormons and the Israelites. Even more interesting is the emphasis both placed on geography, beginning with the creation of the world as a place for God’s people to be tested. The idea of a “promised land,” Zion, and the centrality of a temple are dominant in both religions.

    James H. Charlesworth, associate professor of Christian Origins at Duke University, began the second day of sessions: “I’m not a Mormon. I’m a Methodist minister. But when I’m with a group of Mormons, I often feel the presence of God.”

    He directs the International Center for the Study of Christian Origins and massive editing work of the Pseudepigrapha Institute. The Pseudepigrapha are ancient religious writings written approximately between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament. They were once considered forgeries (the name pseudepigrapha means “false writings”) because the names on them are those of Abraham, Ezra, Adam, and other great figures of the past. He explained that the authors were writing “as if they [the figures of the past] were still alive, as if Abraham were alive through them.”

    Many texts were destroyed when Jewish libraries burned behind the Roman legions soon after Christ’s death. But many Jews fled to other countries, and Pseudepigraphic texts have turned up in Armenian, Ethiopic, Syrian, and Old Irish. Reliable translations are just now becoming available, but there are no concordances or commentaries yet.

    Professor Charlesworth spent the first part of his lecture analyzing passages from Pseudepigraphic works in which the name Messiah appears, sometimes denoting a peaceful man, sometimes a militant warrior, frequently a combination of both who will give his people peace and deliverance when he comes again. Some of the texts are Jewish, some are Christian, and some are Jewish with Christian additions that describe the virgin birth, Christ’s miracles, etc.

    As he looked at Book of Mormon passages describing the Messiah, he saw some of the same characteristics—“some look Jewish and some Christian.” Some of the passages, even in 1 Nephi, he said, seem “Christian,” including even Christ’s name.

    He also pointed out a parallel between the Pseudepigrapha and the Book of Mormon. When Jesus told the Nephites that he would visit “the lost tribes,” he was saying something that is “rather unique. It appears in neither the Old nor the New Testament.” But the text of Ezra 4 has a parallel passage that is “rather striking.”

    He concluded with his own personal feelings, also sympathetic to his audience: “God kept talking after his book had gone to press. And every time we listen, he calls us again.”

    Krister Stendahl, dean of the Harvard Divinity School and chairman of the Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People for the World Council of Churches, also used the Book of Mormon for a text in his examination of the Sermon on the Mount. He pinpointed as most striking the series of changes that made Jesus—rather than the law—the center of those teachings. “In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher in the community, expounding the law.” But in 3 Nephi, he is the law-giver, and all the admonitions are Christ-centered.

    For instance, Matthew 5:3 begins the Beatitudes with: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” [Matt. 5:3] The corresponding passage in 3 Nephi 12:3 adds: “Blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me.” (Italics added.) [3 Ne. 12:3] Another passage, Matthew 5:13, states: “Ye are the salt of the earth.” [Matt. 5:13] 3 Nephi 12:13 [3 Ne. 12:13] expands this statement to read, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto you to be the salt of the earth.” (Italics added.) The cumulative effect stresses the role of Jesus in a way that the synoptic gospels do not, he said.

    Professor Stendahl outlined other characteristic differences of the Book of Mormon version:

    (1) The short parabolic sayings that characterize Matthew have been interspersed in the Book of Mormon with “behold,” “verily, verily,” and other phrases to stress that this speaker is revealing “divine truth,” not just the law of the community.

    (2) Some Book of Mormon statements are expanded with explanation. For instance, when in Matthew 5:25 Jesus tells his listeners to “agree with thine adversary quickly … lest … thou shalt be cast into prison,” he clarifies, “and while ye are in prison can ye pay even one senine?” (3 Ne. 12:25–26.)

    (3) Some of the language has been generalized. For instance, in Matthew 5:29–30 Jesus recommends cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye rather than letting them be causes of damnation. [Matt. 5:29–30] But “this gruesome parabolic language” has become, in 3 Nephi, 12:29: “I give unto you a commandment, that ye suffer none of these things to enter into your heart.” [3 Ne. 12:29] In Matthew 5:35 [Matt. 5:35] the people are instructed not to swear by Jerusalem; the city is omitted in 3 Nephi 12:35, possibly because “the specific meanings of ‘Jerusalem’ might be different.” [3 Ne. 12:35]

    Edmund LaB. Cherbonnier, chairman of the Religion Department at Trinity College of Hartford, Connecticut, talked in the defense of God as a person.

    “The Mormon view and the Biblical views of God are, as nearly as I can tell, indistinguishable,” he said. “However, the traditional theological view of God varies from embarrassing ambiguities to, sometimes, outright contradictions. Why are Christian theologians uncomfortable with seeing God as a person?”

    The Bible, he says, “is more consistent than is generally credited” in its descriptions of the nature of God. “The prophets never think of God as someone abstract. Try making sense of the Lord’s Prayer without the existence of a personal God. He is not the unmoved mover, but the most moved mover. Man’s deeds can intimately affect God.”

    He identified three characteristics that all the prophets seem to agree on: God created the world, he has a righteous purpose for the world which he makes known to man, and he is “steadfast”—he can be counted on to keep his promises.

    “This Biblical view of God has not fared very well,” he commented. One group believes that interpreting the Bible literally—including seeing God as a person—is, to quote Sigmund Freud, “‘patently infantile.’”

    But, “what if the Biblical authors actually meant some of the things they said?” People who have this problem with the Bible are confusing two things: what the Bible says with whether it’s true. Believing that God literally dictated every syllable of the Bible to the prophets, as some Christians do, sometimes leads to ingenious and unrealistic attempts to justify what’s there.

    Some philosophers also make the mistake of thinking that “the content of the Bible is unphilosophical” since the form is not philosophical. The prophets are not concerned with precise definitions; they do not use logical terms, and they’re more interested in parables than syllogisms.

    In summary, he stated, “The Christian denominations that are most vital today are those that believe in a personal God. It would not be the first time that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”

    John Dillenberger, president of the Hartford Seminary Foundation in Hartford, Connecticut, and former president and dean of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, analyzed the writings and teachings of Martin Luther and Joseph Smith to correct the stereotype that one preached the power of grace alone while the other preached works alone. His conclusion: “Luther was the most radical exponent of grace, not without works; and Joseph Smith was one of the most radical exponents of works, not without grace. Both are fascinating, prophetic figures, for whom the ultimacy of their visions were full of implications not amendable to easy bending.”

    Joseph Smith was the exponent of a view of man “that I have seldom seen religiously in more positive terms.” He taught that there was a genuine power in humanity that enabled it to “incorporate grace.” There is a “positive, self-reliant attitude in Mormonism—characteristic as well of other groups, but not until later were these directly related to their theology. Perhaps Mormonism, rather than the Protestant Evangelical movement, is the authentic American theology.”

    Jane Dillenberger, professor of theology and art at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, conducted a slide presentation on “Mormonism and American Religious Art,” and called the discovery of the C. C. A. Christensen panorama of Church history “the discovery of Mormon art.”

    These twenty-two paintings, originally on a roll of heavy linen designed to be cranked into view on a large scroll while Christensen lectured on Church history, portray such key scenes as the First Vision, Joseph receiving the plates from Moroni, scenes of persecution and violence, the martyrdom, and the burning of the Nauvoo Temple. Professor Dillenberger pointed out that the absence of wings on the Angel Moroni is “not unique” in religious art, “but the fact that he’s fully bearded is very unusual.”

    C. C. A. Christensen “did not have the ability to represent the human body accurately,” she said, “but he had an instinct for correctly grouping figures.” She praised his “passion”: “His earnest awkwardness gives his painting a kind of veracity” that convinces us of “the literal realism of his vision.”

    She made a distinction between “naive” or “provincial” art and the kind of Currier and Ives sentimental treatment of religious subjects “that is not art and is not religious.” Illustrative religious art of the kind presented in visitors’ centers could become dated. She cheerfully admitted that Catholic or Protestant religious art wasn’t much better, but she said she expects more of Mormonism: “In family, church, and temple, the opportunity for educating the eye and the spirit through great art, and for teaching great truths through the great masters is limitless.”

    Closing the symposium was Robert N. Bellah, the only nontheologian. Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, he is best known for his studies of the culture of Japan, but part of his field work as a graduate student in 1953 included a three-month stay in the small Mormon community of Ramah, New Mexico.

    “It would be fascinating to return to Ramah, twenty-five years later, and see what has happened,” he speculated, “but in 1953 I observed an extraordinary vitality of collective life. The family and the ward organization carried out economic, political, social, and recreational services that most of us receive from impersonal and anonymous sources in our own society.

    “The ‘plan of salvation’ dominated their lives and gave meaning and coherence to their activities. They were hardworking and dedicated to the values of work, but ‘success’ meant ‘making a living’ rather than ‘getting ahead materially.’

    “Ranching and farming in an arid climate meant that they lived life close to the margin, but they accepted sacrifice and hardship joyously. There were tensions and family factions, yet life was extraordinarily fulfilling. It was clear that life was meant to be lived with joy.”

    Professor Bellah summarized, “The Mormon experience in America has been so rich—both for good and for ill—that you have much to say to the nation at large. Certainly no group in America has ever suffered such persecution and injustice as the early Mormons.” He urged Mormons to “speak to public issues from your history and your theology.

    “The religious vision of a loving community, shared by all faiths, has perhaps been put into practice best by the Mormons. Unless that vision can be revivified today, it seems to me that our future is not very promising. Isolated individuals, motivated not by love and loyalty but by desire for material rewards and fear that they will be taken away, are the perfect material for tyranny. If there is to be an alternative to what seems to be the drift of our society, I cannot see where else to look but to our religious communities.”

    Truman G. Madsen commented on the conference: “What this conference has done visibly signals a change that has gradually been taking place over the past decade or so—the emergence of Mormonism as a subject for serious study.

    “Specifically, it’s had three effects. First, we’ve been able to see ourselves through other eyes in a way that we never have.

    “The second advantage is that the publication of the papers will be a jumping-off place for both Mormon and non-Mormon students who will want to probe the similarities and differences brought up.” (The full proceedings will be available after July 1 from the Judeo-Christian Studies Center, 165 JSB, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602.)

    “And the third result is more indirect. We have a long polemic tradition in the Church of being in opposition to the rest of the world. In some ways this role has been thrust upon us, but it’s resulted in some unfortunate stereotypes. Too often we haven’t taken scholars from other faiths seriously, and they haven’t taken Mormons seriously. The willingness of these people to come to Brigham Young University is symbolic. When we disagree it is lovingly and respectfully; we don’t take potshots based on superficial stereotypes.”

    [photos] Photography by Jed A. Clark and Marilyn L. Erd

    [photo] Smiling and relaxed, the symposium’s guests gather before the first lecture: Krister Stendahl, left, W. D. Davies, David Winston, James H. Charlesworth, Abraham Kaplan, David Noel Freedman, Jacob Milgrom, Ellis Rasmussen (BYU Dean of Religious Studies), John Dillenberger, Edmund LaB. Cherbonnier, and Jane Dillenberger.