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When Yahweh set out to create the world, the land was covered with water and with swirling clouds of darkness. In this primordial sea dwelt monsters, but no other things lived or could live in the chaos of the wind-swept water and darkness. The world was empty of life and order.

Then the great Yahweh approached. He ordered light to appear, and it obeyed. Yahweh was pleased with the light as it was useful, so he spread it throughout everything. Where light was placed Yahweh called it “Day” and where there was no light he called it “Night”. The light pushed against the clouds of darkness, and the monsters of the deep were angry.

Yahweh descended to the violent seas and fought the monsters of the seas and the darkness. He fought against the giant monster Behemoth who was the source of the darkness and chaos that had covered all and he destroyed it. He fought against great serpents like the vicious Rahab and he fought against the oceans themselves. With his great sword he killed and destroyed them all, and brought the oceans to rest.

The mightiest of all of the monsters was Leviathan and their battle was fierce. The great dragon had seven terrible heads full of snatching and tearing teeth, but Yahweh was able to defeat each one, and finally he stabbed his sword through the great serpent's thick skin. Yahweh cut the monster to pieces to become food for the fish and animals that would eventually appear in Yahweh's domain.

Having gained the victory over the great monsters of the deep and the ancient seas, Yahweh was now king of all. The other gods of his court honored his might and power.

With the violence of the oceans destroyed and the clouds of darkness dispersed, Yahweh set the light that he had created to soar through the heavens in a grand repeating cycle. In this way the first day occurred.

Now that the world was quiet Yahweh gathered up some of the deep waters of the oceans and placed them into the dome of heaven, coloring the sky a brilliant blue. Yahweh placed windows in the great dome so that the waters of heaven would always have places to emerge as clouds that would provide heavenly rains to water the world. The cycle of light moving through the skies continued during his work and Yahweh finished by the end of the second day.

As the light of the third day shone through the now-blue skies, Yahweh dealt with the rest of the now-still seas. He dammed up the rivers and stopped the springs that had fed the ancient waters that had covered everything. Now instead of allowing them to continually flood the world, he would keep the ancient seas that existed before creation underneath everything. Yahweh created a great boundary around his world that kept these oceans outside of his realm. He then moved the remaining seas to gather into different places and caused dry land to appear where the seas had previously covered all.

Yahweh was pleased with his progress, so he ordered the now dry ground to produce plants of every kind and it did. Many kinds of plants grew out of the ground: grasses, trees, vines, and flowers. All of the plants, following the orders of Yahweh, produced powerful seeds that could be placed into dirt that would grow more of the type of plant they had come from.

The cycle of the lights of the dome of heaven continued and the blue color of day faded to darkness as the light moved on. The third day had ended.

Having spend the previously day attending to the land, now Yahweh turned his attention back to the skies. He created a great light that lived within the moving light of day that provided heat and brightness called the sun, and in the darkness of evening he created a lesser light called the moon. Finally, he created swaths of small lights within the expanse of evening's darkness called the stars. Finally, he added more order and change to the moving skies, introducing the seasons of winter and summer, ordering some stars to attend to one and some to attend to the other.

The great court of gods was amazed at the progress of Yahweh. His sons shouted with joy at Yahweh's power and majesty. The very stars Yahweh had assigned sang songs throughout the heavens as they spun over the land.

As the sun now rose again with the blue skies of the fourth day, Yahweh decided to spread life through the remaining waters as he had with the plants of the land. He commanded the waters to produce fish and they did. The fish fed upon the remnants of the great monsters from Yahweh's mighty battles and multiplied. He ordered birds to appear, and they did so and fed on the fish and the fruits of the seas and the land.

The land was now full of plants, the seas were now full of fish, and the skies were now filled with birds. The slow turning of the heavens continued, pulling the sun below the rim of the earth and bringing another evening.

Dawn broke over the world on the sixth day, and Yahweh descended to the dry land and ordered it to be filled with animals, wild and tame, large and small. The land obeyed and was filled with animals. Yahweh was pleased.

Finally, Yahweh ordered all of his court, “We will make humans, male and female, like us, so that the humans can enjoy what we have created.”

And so Yahweh created humans, both male and female, and they looked like him. And Yahweh ordered the humans to have families and grow to fill the world. He ordered them to feed themselves with the fish of the water, the birds of the air, and the animals of the earth. He ordered them to farm the land and to take control of everything he had made. And the humans did as Yahweh ordered them.

And the sun went down over the world ending the sixth day. Yahweh was pleased. It had been a tiring six days, so for the entirety of the seventh day Yahweh rested while his full, living world continued on its now endless cycles.

For a full explanation of this post, see the previous one explaining the full project. In summary, this is my own version of the Hebrew creation myth as it might be presented in some future collection of Hebrew myths presented in the same fashion as we now have collections of myths by the ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Norse.


I like reading myths to my kids. We’ve ready the classic Greek and Roman myths, a collection of Egyptian Myths, and even a few Irish folktales and stories. One of my favorite collections is a children’s version of the Epic of Gilgamesh which summarizes the story in a way that is both appropriate for children but also covers the essentials of the actual ancient myths.

While talking to my kids about my childhood growing up in a Mormon household, I realized that my children were at a disadvantage when it came to the stories from the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament that permeate our culture. They knew about the basic image of naked people talking to a snake in a tree about fruit, but I hadn't spent much time actually going over that story. They recognized Noah's Ark as the big boat full of animals and saw it in various toys and images.

I felt bad about the fact that they know the stories of Hector and Achilles probably in more detail than they knew the stories of Moses or Abraham. Whether or not we want the world to be saturated with imagery and stories from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament is irrelevant to the fact that it is. It's going to be difficult to fully grasp the words of Shakespeare without understanding something of the Catholic and Protestant stories underlying many of his religious allusions.

I wanted to find a collection for children that approached these stories in the same way that the Gilgamesh stories approached his epic, or the books of Greek Myths approached the Olympian pantheon. These told the stories as internally consistent, but without trying to make a connection to the reader. The books said that Zeus's weapon was the thunderbolt, but they didn't say that even today you can see Zeus hurling his spear whenever a thunderstorm rolls by. When relating how the goddess Hel lives beneath Yggdrasil, the World Tree, the text doesn't encourage the reader to understand that the heat of the earth's mantle is actually caused by dragons.

But the only sources of ancient Hebrew myths and legends for children are in the form of religious Bibles. I'm not sure what to make of that, to be honest. I want a book that can introduce my children to the story of the man and the woman eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil without making some sort of reference to original sin or to how humans might still be living in paradise today. I want a book that discusses the primordial creation of the world by Yahweh without saying that it's a story of actual history.

I'm not saying I want a book that says that people who do believe it to be actual history are wrong or stupid. Nobody reads the account of the battle between Zeus and his father Kronos and think “Those idiots, this never happened!” Instead people read the stories as stories and they enjoy them as such.

I wanted a collection for children that approaches the Hebrew myths of creation and the legends of ancient Israelite heroes in the same way. As stories within their own context, not within the context of the world of the reader. A world where God creates a flat world where the sky is blue because it's made of water that he stuck up there. The world that the ancient storytellers would have in their minds as they told the tales to their audiences.

That book doesn't seem to exist. The books are either simplistic paraphrases tightly dependent on the actual texts of the Hebrew Bible and Christian gospels, or if they do expand on the texts in any artistic fashion they also speak to the reader indicating what lessons they are supposed to draw from the stories.

So in the sense of if you can't find it, make it, I've decided to begin work on my own version of the book I couldn't find. And yes, since you're probably wondering, I have no idea as to the issues of respect towards Jewish people and towards faithful fundamentalist Christians. There is an important difference between this collections and one about Gilgamesh, Thor, or Zeus: people still use these stories as guides for their lives. I welcome suggestions and comments on how a book like this might be assembled in a way that is still appropriate to modern believers.

As for one issue that might be raised, which is that I am not of Jewish ancestry and these stories are still foundational to Jewish religion and culture, I respond that I am writing the same type of book that a non-Greek would write about the Olympian pantheon, or a non-Scandinavian would write about the Norse deities. I don't have to be Finnish to write my own children's version of the Kalevala. Do I have to have ancestry in West Africa to write a children's collection of stories about Anansi? That is the same approach I am currently taking towards this project. Perhaps that approach is far too imperial, though, and represents an appropriation of stories that cannot belong to me. Which opens up the larger question of how to stories belong to different groups and what are the ethics of how they are told and related.

Anyways, if you have any suggestions or responses, I would be very interested in hearing them.

The next post is an example of the style I am looking for. It is a retelling and harmonization of the various Israelite creation myths. It doesn't really cover the creation of humans, per se, but instead uses the Priestly creation story of Genesis 1 instead of the Elohist story of the creation as found in Genesis 2, as well as a smattering of other hints of the various myths of the ancient Israelites (Psalm 74:13-23, Job 38:7, the Book of Enoch, and Isaiah 59:1), though as with other various children's version of myths I've made small alterations that may or may not be demanded by the texts (Behemoth is created by Yahweh in some texts, and the climactic battle between Yahweh and Behemoth happens at the end of time in others). That's important to me as well: these are not just simplified versions drawn from the modern texts as they emerged from centuries of editors and redaction following the Exile in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I want them to represent the stories in the same way that we represent stories from other cultures of similar age and importance.

I'm curious what you all think.

#AcademicBiblical #HebrewMythology #ReconstructedMythology


I have spent the past week or so watching old LDS videos at this YouTube Channel. The breadth of what they have is impressive. Usually people like to focus on the story-based films that the Church and BYU have produced, but there have also been many historical videos produced. The YouTube Channel has a playlist devoted entirely to these documentaries, interviews, and other videos of historical interest. I find them to be a fascinating glimpse into the past of Mormonism.

They also make me more than a little sad. When watching these films you get a real sense of the grandeur of the mid-century Church.

Here's an example. The following video is called “For the Strength of the Hills” and is about the construction of the storage vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon. As you watch it the sheer scale of the project is amazing.

These vaults, an the video detailing their construction, were made in the 1960s. But more impressive than the methods and scale of their construction is that they were ever constructed at all.

Seriously, take a moment to imagine what the Church's needs were that were fulfilled by the vaults and how they were meeting those needs before the project was created. They were storing documents and microfilm in buildings in the Salt Lake Valley. There were environmental problems, accessibility problems, communication problems. The vaults addressed some of these problems, the microfilming project some some of these problems, and computers eventually arrived to solve other problems.

The LDS Church of the 1960s and 1970s was in an amazing time of growth and flux. The video series “The Church in Action” was made annually between 1971 and 1981 in an effort to archive the history of the previous year (a final five-year catch-up episode covering 1981-85 was made in 1986). When it comes to the Church in the 1970s I think most members of the Church only think of the removal of the Temple Ban in 1978 (and yes, it was indeed a Temple Ban as the “Church in Action 1978” makes perfectly clear in its opening minutes as it mentions that black LDS members can now go to the Temple and serve full-time missions when they couldn't before). But there is so much more going on. The construction of the Church Office Building is proudly displayed during multiple years. Temples are completed in Seattle, Washington DC, Provo, and Polynesia. Welfare Square receives national attention.

You can find many of these old documentaries here.

Why do I find these old documentaries to be so fascinating? Because for each of these items there was a reason behind it. They weren't just building Temples for the fun of it or to try and be impressive with big numbers: the membership was clamoring for access to the buildings around the world. Welfare Square was made to meet the needs of LDS members during the Depression and after World War II.

Even a building like the Church Office Building, with its pompous white block jutting high up into the Salt Lake City skyline, represents more than just more office space for the growing number of Church employees. With the globes carved into its facade the building itself represents the hopes of the future. This was a Church that was building a foundation from which it would eventually fill the world. The Church was following the “Great Commission” of Jesus and it was doing so in a grand way.

That is why I find these videos fascinating. Because that dream is gone.

We've just finished the [October 2015 General Conference]. A subject that seemed to arise again and again was doubt. Members had to pass around stories of little children seeing “angels” holding up President Monson as he nearly collapsed at the podium because there wasn't anything else nearly so amazing for the weekend. We were encouraged to “Give Brother Joseph a break” for unnamed foibles and shortcomings. We were told that skepticism was “easy” compared to faith.

When we look at the Church of a half-century ago we can see an organization hopeful for the future and that promotes faith despite a lack of evidence. Today I see an organization that is deeply ambivalent about the future (even expecting an imminent breakdown of all social order) and that promotes faith in spite of the evidence.

The Mormon people hunger for powerful leadership. They hunger for revelations and miracles. And since they're not receiving any (and are only being told that small, private miracles happen all the time but are just not discussed or otherwise verified) they are inventing them. The age for missionaries is adjusted and the membership tries to transform what is a policy change into an earth-shattering revelation. The rules of order for some of the top councils are adjusted to allow women to participate in some fashion and the change is trumpeted as a great step forward. After the age for missionaries was adjusted but the differing time services for men and women was discussed, the response was the quip, “One miracle at a time!”

But the people know that this is like putting a Band-aid on a broken bone. Something has happened over the past few decades. The leadership continues to grow ever older in average age than ever before, and the actions of the Church seem to have slowed down in step with that age. When changing a missionary policy is a “miracle” it seems similar to when a person dealing with the effects of advanced age successfully completes something they often find difficult: it is a miracle. For them. But for other people it's less than notable. You might think nothing of just getting down the stairs, but your grandmother may view it very differently.

I think this is what explains the growing phenomenon of individuals like Julie Rowe or Denver Snuffer. These people offer visions and revelations. They offer proof that God is still very much active in peoples lives. They offer a narrative of the world that people can share in and feel like they're part of something grander than themselves. They can enjoy the energy that is now so clearly lacking from a Church that employs people to stay in the boat or to stay in the brine until they become a pickle. The stories may be funny, but most people don't actually find pickles to be all that inspiring.

How can the LDS Church regain that energy that is so obvious from these old films? I think the answer is obvious: it needs to spend money building things.

“But it's already spending lots of money building things!” I can hear you saying.

Yes, it's building more Temples, far more now than most of the active membership needs. Yes, it's renovating their Church History Museum and their Library. They are purchasing land and rebuilding more old homes and buildings in Nauvoo and Kirtland.

But I mean more than just building things like that. In the 1930's they built Welfare Square to feed people and employ people. Average people working in the Stake fields knew their work was going to help others directly. But now the orchards are sold and developed, and the canneries, which had never been able to compete against ever-cheapening international goods, are closing down. The Temple program expanded and brought Temples to people around the world. But now there are so many Temples compared to active membership that time spent at the Temples must be scheduled so that they can keep costs lower by not using cleaning crews as often and not using as much electricity or laundry (when the Temple even has a laundry) except when necessary. They expanded BYU into a world-class institution with state-of-the-art technologies. But now colleges themselves are facing a growing bubble of student debts and a workforce that is not rewarding an undergraduate degree the way it used to, leading to a resurgence in the importance of trade schools.

The answer cannot be to simply build what was built in the past. Those past projects were built to address specific needs. Those needs have changed.

What is needed now is projects built to deal with the current needs in a big way. We need a Church that has grown comfortable in avoiding risk to step up and take some risks.

What if the Mormon Church became known as the Church that:

  • Builds and operates low-income housing to help people lift themselves out of poverty
  • Operates domestic abuse shelters
  • Provides high-quality rehabilitation centers to help people get off of dangerous drugs and educate people about the science of heroine and meth addiction
  • Supports single-parent families through providing child care services or reimbursement so that parents can better provide for their families
  • Inoculates the world against common and deadly diseases like malaria and hepatitis using the knowledge they already have from their missionary program of how to get trained professionals into the towns and villages of the world to interact with people on a personal level
  • Is directly funding desalination technology to benefit people who need access to fresh drinking water
  • Is funding power technologies like wind, solar, fission, and even fusion because cheaper access to clean power helps to provide more resources to people around the world which lowers on of the major causes of wars and conflicts
  • Freely or at least cheaply provided technical education to the people of the world so that the Einsteins of the world who had died in times past with their genius unrealized due to poverty or lack of access to education are not passed over again

I know some of those idea seem extremely unlike the LDS Church and its aims today. But let's step back in time to the 1910s when the Church was just struggling to establish itself as pro-American in popular culture and imagine telling them than in just a few decades they're going to be boring caves into the mountainsides to store microfilm. Imagine telling them that in just a few short years they'll be growing food to feed the hungry and making clothing for the naked Mormons of Europe. Imagine telling them that they'll expand the Brigham Young Academy into a world-class institution of higher-learning with an amazing business school and strong support of the physical sciences. Imagine telling them that the ban of black members from the Priesthood and the Temples is reversed. And in all of those things, the Church was promoting a mission given to them by none other than Jesus Christ himself. They were not just helping humanity prepare for the next world, they were helping humanity to live in this one.

Then imagine telling them that afterwards they'll be cleaning their ward buildings by assignment every week with unskilled, unpaid volunteer efforts. Tell them that they'll provide some tuition loans through a “Perpetual Education Fund” but that often the amounts provided aren't enough to cover tuition without unattainable scholarships and that the interests on these loans are often more a challenge to pay off than was presented to the borrower. Tell them that building Temples has become so commonplace that many of them often spend multiple days a week closed due to lack of members to fill them. Tell them that the Church asks their membership to spend millions in a fruitless attempt to maintain laws in the face of overwhelming and successful public clamor for change. Tell them that their leadership has an average age approaching ninety years old and are constantly dealing with issues of physical and mental health. Tell them that the Church is expelling members who are dissatisfied with this state of events and respond either by seeking for revelations and divine energy of their own or seek to influence change from within the organization. Tell them that revelations like the Proclamation on the Family now arrive through committees and are never explicitly called “revelations,” leading to confusion among the membership regarding their authority and canonical status. Tell them that evidences of God's inspiration among their leaders is limited to policy changes about missionary ages and stories of how their leaders don't collapse at the pulpit due to their fellow General Authorities standing just out of sight behind them to catch them or due to angels that a handful of children tell their parents about seeing over the Television holding up the Church President.

There's a reason things are in a bad place. There's a reason that there are groups like the Remnant who are beginning to reject the Priesthood authority of the main Church. There's a reason that thousands of people hang onto every word spoken by members who had Near Death Experiences and speak to their fears about blood Moons and Jade Helm. There's a reason that people are finding it ever more impossible to believe in spite of the evidence to the contrary. There's just nothing left anymore for them to grab onto in the middle. People are walking out the doors, either to the conservative right or the liberal left. And the Church is doubling down on the middle, hoping that if they can just maintain long enough something will happen to rescue them from their situation.

They need to take a page from the playbook of their history. They need to get back to building what matters. They need to build for the future of their members, not just for the future of Salt Lake City, not just for their own bottom line by shuffling real estate around. They need to build the projects than can be the foundation for the next half-century. They can't just wait for God to rescue them. The aims of the old Welfare Program apply to them in this case: the idler has no place in Zion. God will help those who help themselves.


The Mormon Church has claims since its earliest days to be a restoration of an “original” Christian religion. The 9th Article of Faith states, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.”

However, the era of modern biblical studies arose a few decades before the Mormon Church began, and it's rapid pace of study and learning has continue ever since. The ability to read the Christian New Testament as a unified work has grown extremely tenuous. The formation of Christian orthodoxy and its various hierarchies is now seen as a very organic process that took decades and centuries.

As such, past arguments to “prove” Mormonism as “primitive” Christianity have become increasingly brittle as changes become ever-more obvious.

I have to take my hat off to Tad Callister. He has provided this argument with enough flexibility that I'd bet we'll still be seeing it made for a few more decades before Mormonism succumbs to the inevitable position of acknowledging itself as a modern religion.

As [our] home was being constructed, we occasionally submitted to the builder a “change order” that revised the blueprint. When the home was finally completed, it was in exact conformity with our blueprint as revised from time to time...In a similar way, Christ built a Church to best accommodate the spiritual needs of His children. The spiritual blueprint for this Church can be found in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Occasionally the Savior made a “change order” to the blueprint. Such a spiritual change order came in the form of a revelation.

This is how Callister is able to explain what previously have been large problems with the “Mormon Church is a Restoration” approach in the past. The Primitive Church had “evangelists” which the Mormons turn into “Patriarchs” (seriously, it's still a moronic change that is meaningless). The original apostles were missionaries, but the modern LDS apostles are corporate board members. Jesus sent his people into “all of the world” but until 1978 the LDS Church didn't really know what to do with their black members.

The “change order” however, has a wonderful flexibility. Did you find a difference between ancient Christianity and modern Mormonism? Change order! The two blueprints are still the same, but the Mormon Church has been divinely altered to better serve the needs of the modern world.

However, the “change order” is also a double-edged sword that threatens Callister's argument as well, because part of the need for a restoration is the idea of the ancient Christian Church disappearing. Callister is going to spend many pages discussing the process that he believes led to the need for a restoration. But first he has to deal with the “change order” idea he came up with.

Bishops are now going to be in charge of the Church? Was there a change order? Perhaps there was. The Catholic Church is a church of bishops. The Orthodox Church is a church of bishops. The Mormon Church is not a Church of bishops. If an ancient change order caused the ancient Church to move to an episcopal hierarchy, then the Mormon Church needs to also have that same change order, but it obviously has not.

So now Callister has to retreat to a position that will cause his argument problems throughout his book. He needs to uphold the idea that there was an ancient Christian Church lying behind all of Christianity (no small task as most scholars today distinguish between the religion Jesus taught and the religion his followers taught about him). He needs to uphold the New Testament as a source of truth and he needs to downplay early Christianity as found outside of the New Testament either in writings by early Christians or scholarship. He needs to show how ancient Christianity fell, but he needs to do so without drawing any disturbing parallels to modern Mormonism. Ancient Christianity fell, but modern Mormonism won't. Why not? That's actually a very difficult thing for Callister to explain.

So he needs to qualify what constitutes a real change order. But here he runs into a problem: he can define a change order narrowly enough that it supports differences between orthodox Christianity and Mormons, but wide enough that he doesn't highlight differences in Mormonism between 1830 and the present day because his thesis is that change without a change order is what constitutes apostasy and the ancient Church fell into the Great Apostacy through the cumulative little differences that arose. At the same time, his argument about the Mormon Church needs to support its truth claims from 1830 to 2015, which is a much larger feat that I believe Callister is aware of.

As an example, let's look at his first assertion of a matching blueprint:

Apostle and Prophets as the Foundation

...The Apostles understood the imperative need to keep the quorum of twelve Apostles intact. This was demonstrated when one Apostle, Judas, died and a portion of the foundation was “chipped away.” The other eleven Apostles gathered together and by revelation chose a successor so the foundation would be whole again (see Acts 1:22–26).

This pattern evidenced the importance of maintaining a quorum of twelve Apostles. In other words, the selection of the initial twelve Apostles was not a single, isolated event in the establishment of Christ’s Church... Suffice it to say, the Apostles were critical to keeping the doctrine pure.

The blueprint clearly reveals that at the foundation of Christ’s Church are apostles and prophets. Do you know of any change order in the New Testament, any revelation that revised the blueprint and stated that Apostles were no longer needed? I do not. If that is the case, then Christ's true Church today should have apostles and prophets at its foundation. Such is the case with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Grand words (I get the feeling I'll be saying this a lot over the coming weeks), but problematic. Only one chapter later, Callister says:

At first, upon the death of one Apostle, the surviving Apostles would gather and choose a successor. This pattern was established after the death of Judas. Since part of the foundation had been “chipped away” with Judas's death, the other eleven Apostles gathered together to make it whole again. The scriptures tell us: “Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection... that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell,... and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:22, 25–26).

I'm surprised Callister even chose to quote the qualifications that Luke gives for what constitutes an Apostle: a man who had been involved with the movement from the Baptism by John but who also witnesses Jesus ascend into heaven. Where is the change order that these requirements went away? Callister instead chooses to view this as proof that the Apostles all died before they could replenish their number. In Acts 1 it is stated quite clearly that the rewards appointed to Judas needed to be taken up so that there would be 12 Apostles. But there is no change order in this chapter stating that an unfallen apostle must be replaced upon death but only that Judas was replaced.

Another missing change order is that the Apostles were commissioned to go out into the world in Matthew and Luke. In Luke's sequel, Acts, we see the Apostles appointing seven men to take on the chore of handling the economics of the fledgling organization (Acts 6:2-4) so that they could be specifically freed to preach as missionaries (those same seven would also be compelled by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries themselves, a common theme in Luke-Acts of the irresistible Spirit, leaving the question of who actually handled the finances of the commune unanswered). Where is the modern change order for the Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the physical organization? It doesn't exist, at least not to be studied.

(In all of this I am still struck by how Callister approaches books like Luke-Acts as though they were history books. This is going to come up to bite him in the ass later on when he talks about an “open canon” as Callister rejects books many early Christians viewed as authoritative, choosing to quote from them only when it suits his purposes.)

This is getting pretty long as is, so I'm going to stop for now. Next time we'll go into more detail on Callister's absurd claims about the name of the Church and the “loss” of early “teachings” of the ancient Mormon Church.

#Mormon #AcademicBiblical #EarlyChristianities #Counterapologetics


I've just finished a very quick read-through of Tad Callister's “The Blueprint of Christ's Church” and figured it might be nice to do a sort of mini-review of my impressions of the book as a whole before beginning to discuss pieces of the book. The verdict? About what would be expected, though with some unexpected highlights.

I was surprised to find that I was not nearly as aggravated by errors and smugness as I thought I would be (damning by faint praise, I suppose, right?). Let's be honest: everything I was expecting to find was there. The book presents a false picture of the unassailable strength of Callister's position (I'd say the position of the LDS Church, but he was very clear in his foreword that the book is his own). There is a constant use of the weakest opposing arguments combined with the best supporting arguments. Often a list of supporting arguments ends abruptly and gives the reader the impression that the author could have continued to give examples supporting their position, but my impression knowing what I do is that the list is actually complete without betraying itself as such. Similarly, lists of opposing arguments end before the author runs out of the poorest arguments to dissect.

But the book surprised me, too, by it's careful approach to ecumenicalism in some areas. Chapter 7, which contains an extremely brief overview of the Nicaean Council and Creed did not actually run into blatantly false areas as other LDS authors and speakers do on the subject. Callister is careful to include language indicating that Trinitarianism as a theological idea might have existed before the Council convened and never comes right out to claim that Trinitarianism was invented by political expediency, which I've found to be the somewhat usual approach to a LDS interpreting the Council and Creed. It is unfortunate that Callister never read much of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” discussion of the debates of the Council, otherwise I'd imagine that his book would contain more of the scripture-based arguments of the Arianist position.

From this omission and several others I'm led to believe that while Callister may indeed own a copy of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” library, he's never actually sat down to read them through but instead has picked them up and perused them when he had spare moments. Or it may be that he does not want to associate himself with the other “heretical” early Christianities who agree with him in some aspects but who also hold other positions that Callister would find disturbing. So when discussing baptisms for the dead we hear no mention of Tertullian's mockery of the Marcionite version of the practice, or when discussing the word ὁμοούσιος we don't get into the use of the word by Valentinian Gnostics or it's uncomfortable close association to Sabellianism among early Trinitarianists. I'm guessing that Callister doesn't want to present a picture of a fractured early Christianity. Perhaps he didn't want to draw too close an association between a Christian movement that fractured and a Latter Day Saint movement that has also fractured along doctrinal, political, and geographic lines (and continues to fracture).

Which brings me to what I think is the main problem of the book: the audience. Callister claims that he is writing to an audience composed of both Mormons and even non-Mormons. He thanks a handful of non-Mormons for their helpful critiques of his early drafts (what I wouldn't give to see what those critiques actually were!) and is careful to address at time orthodox Christian readers, Mormon Readers, doubting Mormons, former Mormons, and even secular humanists (though not by such an accommodating name, preferring to just use the word “secularists). It's quite the presumed audience, but in the end I found myself increasingly creating a mental cast of characters and wondering how each of them would be responding to Callister's words. I admit, I was getting a little bored so I had more fun with this than I should have.

Callister's audience is supposed to be a wide variety of people, but in the end I think the only real audience he is seeking to satisfy is an audience of one. And I can't really blame him too much for that. The process of writing is often solitary. But the process of editing and rewriting does not have to be. I wonder how Callister's book would have emerged had he given it to my mental cast of characters for their thoughts on it before publication:

  • Astrid, the young single mother living in Norway raising her son. She is Lutheran as most Norwegians are, but also extremely secular as most Norwegians also are (they make it work, don't ask me how).

  • John, a historian and member of the Community of Christ, which formed around a large group of original followers of Joseph Smith living in the Midwest who were opposed to Brigham Young and polygamy. (Yeah, this guy isn't made up, I know. He's too cool to not leap to mind when thinking of modern RLDS people!)

  • Matthew, the Catholic father from Central America who isn't just Catholic because his father was Catholic, but has spent many years of his adult life reading Catholic books and listening to Catholic sermons very similar to your average Mormon father in Utah

  • Kumiko, the Japanese atheist who knows more about Shinto and the Buddha than Jesus

  • Michael, the retired professor of Meso-American history from Yale (again, this guy is real because it's too cool to have it otherwise)

  • Danielle, the follower of Denver Snuffer (who has no followers, I know, I've heard it, but let's be honest here, people follow him even if he doesn't want them to)

  • Raul, the black Baptist pastor from Georgia

  • Tammy, the female Anglican paster from California

Let's be honest: if even one of these mostly-hypothetical people (or a similar real-world counterpart) had been asked to provide input and that input was responded to we would have a very different book on our hands. I'll probably be referring to this cast list as I continue in my more focus critiques over the coming weeks. Each of these people would have a lot to find fault with or at least to question.

Another surprise was just how little of the book covered the same bases as Callister's 2014 CES fireside. Instead, this book is a consolidation of everything he's previously had published both in book form and in the Ensign. Even my (least) favorite graphical analogy of the line defined by two points being the line of truth between the Bible and the Book of Mormon makes an appearance! Large chunks of the book have been moved, occasionally just cut and pasted, from previous books and talks. If you've ever looked at the shelves of Deseret Book under Callister's name and wondered which book to buy (haven't we all been there?) now you don't have to: this book seems to be the end result of Callister's church writings over the past decade or so. Those familiar with his Ininite Atonement or Inevitable Apostacy are going to be feeling a lot of de ja vu reading this book.

The only notable absence or revision would be his discussion of modesty, which pretty much ends up a nothing more than a long paragraph that seems to avoid gendered distinctions of any kind. This leads me to think that Callister was very much aware of the frustration his BYU-I sermon had caused and it seems to be that it bothered him a lot. If so, I feel a little bad for him as I know he didn't mean anything hurtful by his comments and I imagine it would be a painful shock to be made to realize just how dangerous his words (and perspective) were. It really does feel to me that he retreated from those words and their absence in what seems to be the magnum opus of his life's written LDS work indicates that he'd rather not be remembered for those comments. Which I can respect: people always continue to change over time and it's a sign of a healthy mind that can re-evaluate things on the basis of new evidence.

But, in the end, my final overall impressions were what I was expecting. He quotes the infamously unsubstantiated Catholic priest who claimed, “You Mormons don't know the strength of your position.” Similarly, I would state, Tad Callister you also don't know the strength of your position, or, to be more accurate, the lack of strength. His wording is often bold, overbearing, and even sometimes demeaning in his assumptions that all sources of knowledge point to what he himself believes. He seems to be unfamiliar with the real arguments against his positions, which is odd as he presents himself as very well-read among many authors who would present challenges (being the only GA I know of who quotes Dr. Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, for instance). His position is not unassailable, and indeed his arguments often are unknowingly attacking themselves. All of this I'm sure will come up as I start to respond to this book.

Tad Callister has been gunning for one of the top seats for a while. I wouldn't be surprised if he makes it one of these days with the top 15 being as old and sick, physically and mentally, as they are due to their age. If that happens, this book will probably gain even more popularity which would be fortunate or unfortunate depending on your point of view. Testimonies founded on this book and its arguments are going to be founded on a deceivingly weak foundation of ice that will melt and shatter under any close examination and fail to uphold anything with the strength they claim to have.

#Mormon #AcademicBiblical #EarlyChristianities #BookReview #Counterapologetics


Let me state before going any further: I don't bear Tad Callister any ill will personally. I'm sure he is a great guy, and you don't get to earn a higher degree in law and still be a dodo. You've got to read a lot of books to get there!

I've heard some bad stories about the personal behavior of some of the General Authorities when they're in private situations like visiting a friend's home or working at the Church Office Building. I find it notable that despite being a rather well-known GA, Elder Callister always comes off as a thoughtful, intelligent, and kind man when talking to anyone who has met or worked with him personally!

Which is part of why it bothers me when it seems he always sticks his foot in his mouth when speaking publicly in his office as a General Authority.

A few years ago he chose a childishly silly analogy for why LDS doctrine depended on the combined authority of the Christian* Bible and the Book of Mormon. I'll have to write a short post someday on how that one fails miserably.

And then he gave his infamous talk at BYU-Idaho (a location where it seems the high level of strident Mormons in the local culture causes some of the mental cautions to fall for many people) where he unknowingly gave voice to what is pretty much the epitome of rape culture when he cautioned young women to dress modestly because of how they affected men. His comments at the time caused some stir, and the controversy only grew when a year later the Ensign reproduced the talk in its entirety for English-speaking Mormons generally living in America and Canada (interestingly enough, the talk was not translated or reproduced in the Liahona, the international magazine of the LDS Church which includes an English version that English-speakers around the world can subscribe to).

Finally, nearly a year and a half ago Tad gave nearly an hour-long overview of why Mormonism was true and confined himself to using the Bible to do so. The talk was merely the latest in a particular LDS argument that has been made far longer than I or even Elder Callister have been around. I led a panel discussion that sought to critique some of the more egregious errors and oversights of the this talk. If you do happen to give it a listen you should know that I am an anxious person by nature and it was my first major podcast that thousands of people listened to. I've been told that it's actually quite fun, but I haven't yet worked up the nerve to listen to myself. You can cover a lot more ground speaking out loud than through text, but you also can't review and revise what was said before releasing it. There's a few mistakes and mistatements I myself made in that episode and what is said is said and can't be easily fixed with audio.

For a while since recording, I have found myself thinking back to Elder Callister's presentation of January 2014 with the same thoughts. It's entirely possible that Tad made some mistakes, and that if given the chance to do it again he might have delivered things differently. I know that no matter how well I would have prepared, in the same situation there's no way that I could be completely satisfied with whatever I presented. Perhaps he has similar misgivings afterwards, too.

Which is why I am planning to take another look at Elder Callister's arguments over the new few weeks. He recently published a full book on the same subject, and while we could spent a lot of time discussing the possibly-immoral practice of spiritual leaders who publish materials for profit meant to benefit their fellow humans spiritually I think I'll have more than enough to talk about Tad Callister's arguments when he has the time and patience to slowly explore them in textual form. I hope that things will have improved in the interim, but I suspect that on the whole it will be as problematic as the fireside (please prove me wrong, sir!).

Why am I wasting my time critiquing something meant to help people? Why am I (conceivably) “tearing down” instead of “building up”? I covered my objections to the use of this particular argument style on the podcast episode, but to reiterate them here: because just as Tad discusses in his fireside, the strength of a position rests upon the foundational parts of it, ultimately running to the strength of the very blueprints of the position itself. The attempts to build up the position of the LDS Church by tearing down, misunderstanding, and omitting the beliefs of other Christians does not benefit anyone. It doesn't benefit other faiths who approach the Christian New Testament as an authoritative book, it doesn't benefit Mormons who build their testimony on faulty information and assumptions, and it doesn't even benefit the presenter when he presents faulty arguments unknowingly (or even knowingly as Elder Holland has sometimes done, though Callister doesn't seem to dance the same careful dance about the boundaries of information detrimental to his argument that betrays his knowledge of such information).

The hardcover has been out for a few weeks now, but like many people my age I tend to read a lot of my books digitally, so the release of the book on Kindle this upcoming Wednesday will be the first time I've taken a look at it. I'm looking forward to it because even if I plan on tearing down the bad arguments (and hopefully highlighting the goos ones) the end result is increased knowledge. I can reasonably predict that Elder Callister has read a lot on the subject of the rise of early Christian orthodoxy and I have too, but I doubt that our knowledge overlaps exactly. This will mean study and research of my own as I try to unwrap the original sources and current research behind Tad's arguments. I think everybody benefits from this sort of approach, because between the both of us I'd predict that most people who will be reading my critiques will walk away knowing more than they did about the subjects.

I hope you enjoy the series as much as I do. (And I hope I can actually keep moving forward with it, unlike the Nicea project I have thousands of notes and many aborted posts written for but just can't seem to find the oomph to keep moving forward on it.)

* I only use the term "Christian" here to distinguish from the Hebrew Bible, which many Christians would know as the "Old Testament". However, the idea that the scriptural authority of an entire religion and people can be relegated under the single term of "old" in comparison to "new" is rather offensive to Judaism in general, so I tend to use the terms Christian New Testament and Hebrew Bible, or Christian Bible if I need to refer to the combined scriptures that most Christians use. This isn't a statement of whether or not Mormonism is Christian. When compared to the wide range of Christianities in the history of Christian thought they most certainly belong to the same group, just as there were Arian Christians, Donatist Christians, Anabaptists, Pelagian Christians (in fact, the overlap with the Pelagians hopefully would pop up in Callister's book as there's a lot of meat for interesting discussion in comparing and contrasting there), and a plethora of various Gnostic Christians with widely divergent beliefs. They're certainly not orthodox or traditional, but they are Christian: a style of Christianity firmly in the camp of orthodox heresy, but Christian nonetheless.

† Seriously, what would the harm be of selling them only for the cost of materials and publishing, or even, in this age of the Internet, releasing the text for free digitally, especially if the material in question is meant to help people grow in testimony and spirituality?

#Mormon #AcademicBiblical #EarlyChristianities #Counterapologetics


There has been an odd idea percolating through the LDS apologetic circles for the past decade or so that has in the past few months finally begun to quietly boil. It's that the Book of Mormon isn't an 18th Century production, but rather a 16th Century one! Let's look a little further into this idea and then let's explain some of the problems it presents.

A Dictation, a Dictation!

The English text for the Book of Mormon comes from a dictation. Joseph Smith dictated the text aloud and had scribes, mainly Oliver Cowdery, write down what he said during brief pauses. Even if you feel that there weren't any gold plates with writing from the 4th Century on it, I think everyone agrees that the text went through an oral process from Joseph to a scribe.

The resulting manuscript for the Book of Mormon thus did not contain much punctuation, instead being a flowing text that more often than not represented the spoken words Joseph said out loud. While much has been made of the few times when a proper name was misspelled and corrected (with the story that Joseph was able to detect the error while dictating and waited until the fix was applied before continuing) the text is full of words written hastily and sometimes misspelled, usually to reflect the audible sound of the words as spoken by Joseph. An example from 1 Nephi 2 and 3:

this they said that he had done because of the foolish immagionations of his heart

and a bit later

the Lord hath commanded me that thou & thy Brethers should go unto the house of Laban & seek the reckords

Other aspects of Joseph's spoken voice that end up in the original manuscript (such of it as we still have as much of it has been damaged beyond repair or simply lost to time) include missing G's and R's at the end of some words, hastily scribbled back in, and 'a' added before some verbs (such as “while they were a runnin”).

Personally, I have loved this aspect of the text since I first discovered it in the UVU library around 2007 or so. I was reading through a facsimile transcription of the original manuscript prepared by Dr. Royal Skousen that the library happened to have. The country drawl of Smith leapt out at me from the pages. For instance, take that misspelling I listed a few paragraphs ago, “brethers”. At first glance it looks like it might be a mistake because the scribe expected to write “brethren” but the same mistake occurs just a few sentences later in the text. It is instead representing the sound that Joseph is making as he talks. Joseph has an accent that drawls and twangs and it emerges from this manuscript. It is humanizing and really connects you two centuries in the past to the very air in the room when the Book of Mormon project was ongoing.

Rescuing the Text from the Drawl

Okay, in 2005 Royal Skousen, who had spent years studying and transcribing this manuscript, released his findings and conclusions. Skousen had come to the conclusion through his studies that the text for the Book of Mormon was deliberate and that Joseph Smith himself was given the text word for word. But this led to an interesting problem: how do we account for the aspects of the language that reflect the language patterns and accent of Joseph Smith? And Skousen found what has become such a surprising solution that it has not died down but has gained a new life of it's own:

The original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon appears to derive from the 1500s and 1600s, not from the 1800s.

In one swoop, Skousen opened up such a mystery that it has energized countless LDS apologists who felt that every word of the English text was divinely inspired.

What does this mean? Skousen recognized that many of the spelling mistakes and grammar issues were to be found in Early Modern English in Britain. “They was yet wroth”? That's a construction that can be found around the late 1400s and early 1500s in England. “Therefore there were no chance for the robbers to plunder”? You can find usages of “there was no” in England in the 1500s. “Nephi’s brethren rebelleth”? Shouldn't that say, “Nephi's brethren rebel”? You can find similar usages of verbs with singular endings and plural subjects in 16th Century English.

Case closed, then. The language of the Book of Mormon does not represent bad grammar, but rather represents a version of English that is itself even older than the King James Bible! Apologists Church-wide had rejoiced to have this unexpected and unexplained marvel, one that to them shows just how unlikely it would have been for Joseph or others in the 1800s to have written the book.

Case Closed?

The first issue that arises for you should be, why? Why would the language of the Book of Mormon be more archaic than the King James Bible? Why does the English of the volume represent English from the period of transition from Middle English to Modern English? What does this actually mean and what are the implications for it?

These are questions that have not yet received much attention. Perhaps God just really likes that particular flavor of English. One theory that I have seen in a few places on various message boards is the idea that perhaps we have in the Book of Mormon the voice of a particular early Englishman. Perhaps God tasked the translation of the Book of Mormon once before in the early 1500s and rather than let this effort be lost we have it today in the form of Joseph's divine dictation. Perhaps the words that Joseph spoke out loud were produced by this mysterious early Englishman years before who vanished from history. Figures such as John Dee have even been proposed for such a figure.

These question, however, don't matter to many apologists. It is an odd quirk to them, nothing more. The archaic nature of the English is important more because they feel it is simply that much more unlikely for Joseph to imitate. I mean, it's not like Joseph could have faked this language, right?

Except that he didn't have to fake it if it was the English he spoke.

Joseph the 16th Century English Speaker

“Wait a minute!” I hear you saying, “what was that? Are you saying that Joseph Smith, living in the 1800s, spoke 1500s English?”

Actually, that is what I'm saying and it's not nearly as far-fetched as you may think.

Let's list how much of the world spoke English in 1820, okay? England, obviously. America. Canada (well, except French Canada, right?). Scotland. Parts of Ireland. Parts of Wales. The Isle of Man. And many British colonies in the Caribbean. Australia was beginning to be colonized in the 1800s, and South Africa was also experiencing some attention, but on the whole that's about it. Small world, right?

Wrong. Just within England itself we have people living in areas with their own accents all over the place. English speakers in the north of England and southern Scotland were not using the same words and the same grammar as people on the southern coasts. Someone from the Isle of Man might be nearly unintelligible to someone living in Pennsylvania even though both of them would be speaking English. English as a language has always been a wide tapestry of culture and people and changes that begin in one area can take centuries to fully arrive in others.

Coming to America

And in the midst of this wide tapestry we also have migration. The Puritans left England (via Holland) for American in the early 1600s and they weren't just “British” as we usually think of them. They were, on the whole, from Southern England and brought that southern accent developed in the 1500s with them to Massachusetts and began to develop independently of changes in England.

In all of these migrations we see the English language often uprooted and transplanted into America many times. Just like in the expansion into the American West, when people moved they tended to move with family and friends. Whole communities uprooted themselves from England to plant themselves into the American colonies. And while the British accent, for reasons still not entirely understood, quickly transmogrified into the now-recognizable “British” accent of Doctor Who fame, this occurred around the time of the American Revolution. Before the Revolution an English speaker in London may have sounded more “American” than you might have expected before reading this article.

But the end of the story is that while urban areas in both America and England continued to develop their accent and language, in more remote rural areas older forms of English were preserved. Including accents and grammar. Many of the forms of English that we today view as “hick” or “uneducated” are not the effect of people being “lazy” with their language, but rather are presenting archaic forms and accents of English. Take the word “ain't”, long hated by English teachers. You may think it is a modern word, but it isn't. It comes from England and can be attested all the way back to the days of early Modern English.[1]

Boyd Crowder and Shakespeare

The same was true for rural New England and the Appalachian country to the south of where Joseph lived. The Appalachians had been settled throughout the 1700s by settlers largely from the Northern England lowlands and Northern Ireland. North England in particular has always through the story of the English language seemed to resist change and hold onto their own particular ways of speaking long after southern England advanced, both in the days of Old English though the Norman conquest that brought Middle French and Middle English to the island. Certain aspects of English that they retained when they immigrated in the 1700s go back to Middle and even Old English. Some of these include retention of preposition in the progressive aspect (“I'm a talking to you”), propensity to use compound nouns (“kinfolk”, “ice cream”, “cesspool”), the use of very old styles of pronouns (“hit” for “it”, “hisn and hern”), the use of “them” as an adjective in place of “their” (“them boys”), and the dropping of the “ng” to just “n”. There's a surprising number of words they brought with them from 17th Century England, including words like “moonshine” and “redneck”. If you're a fan of “Justified” you're also a fan of a style of English similar in character and style to English around the the time of Shakespeare.

Take that “brethers” from earlier. This pronunciation is quite old, and represents how the word was spoken just after the “Great Vowel Shift”. There's a reason that the more-familiar archaic form is written “brethren” and not “brothren”. In fact, in some areas of England the word would have been pronounced as “britheren”.[2]

So as we can see, the various English accents surrounding Joseph Smith at the time are themselves composed of much older forms of English. In fact, a lot of them use verbal grammar and words that saw their heyday fade in London English centuries before, but they had been preserved both by being brought to the American colonies and then even further by virtue of their rural nature.

Is Archaic English Actually Remarkable?

So, getting back to the apologetics I'm sure you can see the second problem with the explanation that the grammar of the Book of Mormon is too old to be explained. The problem is that it fits into the grammar we would expect Joseph Smith himself to have. His spoken English would have slipped, when speaking between friends and family and when not paid attention to, into the “lower-class” forms he grew up with. Forms that were “lower-class” not because they were lazy forms of English but because they were archaic forms of English the the more “educated” had moved away from generations before and forgotten that their own ancestors had used.

Your Choices

The problem comes down to whether or not you think that God Himself has decided upon every word choice in the English text of the Book of Mormon. If you believe that He has, then you “must needs” believe that the grammar has been selected as a form of archaic English from the early 1500s, and you must believe this without any explanation as for why this would be. Is there some mystery translator from old England who did a now-forgotten translation? Was the Book of Mormon first translated by the gift and power of God through someone like John Dee? Just having a mystery does not in and of itself explain anything or really defend the text in any way. It's just a weird thing.

However, if you believe that when Joseph Smith was dictating the text of the project he did so in his own voice, then there isn't any great mystery that needs to be unfolded. He spoke in his 19th Century New England Appalachian mash-up accent, complete with grammatical forms that we today would see as improper and uncouth. He used what he felt was “King James” style English, complete with the occasional mistake in doing so, such as confusing the difference between “ye”, “you”, and the paradigms of “thee”. He used words he was familiar with that weren't commonly used in the 16th Century, like “extinct” and “adieu”. There's nothing surprising about it and we shouldn't expect not to find Joseph Smith within the pages of the book he spent so much effort to dictate.

The Coelacanth (added 6 March 2015)

I'm adding this note here as I think I gave something of an incorrect impression above. Perhaps I shouldn't have said that Joseph Smith was a speaker of 16th Century English. That gives the wrong impression that the “thees” and “thous” of the Book of Mormon were part of his native speech which is understandably silly. However, much as the coelacanth has been preserved in the waters of Madagascar so too have older fragments of archaic speech been preserved in much of rural American English. It doesn't mean that the entire language they speak is somehow out of time anymore than the entire fauna of the oceans of Madagascar is composed of ancient species, but rather that the ancient is mixed into the modern untouched and preserved. And a lot of it is still there.

More Info

If you want to learn more about the history of English in post-colonial America, here are some good sources you may enjoy:

> 1. O'Conner, Patricia T. and Stewart Kellerman. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. Random House. 2010. p.48.

> 2. Okay, this footnote is being written a little bit after the post itself. I was asked to explain about this and the Great Vowel Shift and what Smith's pronunciation of "brothers" as "brethers" has to do with anything. The Great Vowel Shift was a pronunciation change that occurred throughout the English speaking world primarily in the 14th and 15th Centuries, but continuing as a process up to the 18th Century. Basically, while the consonants of English words continued to change at a normal, slow pace the vowels English speakers used all seems to shift. Remnants of this shift still exist in how we pull the vowels in related words where one of the words has a long vowel and the other a shorter one. The vowel shift mostly affected long vowels leaving the shorter vowels alone. Take "nation" and "national": the "a" in the first syllable is different; the original "a" seems to have been the softer "a" from "national". Another example is "dream" and "dreamt" where they originally were similarly pronounced like the softer vowel in "dreamt". A lot of the strangeness of English spelling makes more sense when you realize that the spelling of the word made sense at some point in the past.

Now you may have noticed that the sound in "brethers" seems similar to that of "dreamt". So why didn't "brethers" become "breathers"? Technically, it should have and kinda did, but the original would have been pronounced "brouthers". The answer is a bt more technical than just a vowel shift. In Old English nouns were declined based on their grammatical function. A noun would be pronounced differently as the subject of a sentence than it would as the direct object or as the indirect object. Often these declensions of the nouns would produce vowel changes. Modern English only really declines our pronouns: "he, him, his". These pronouns change depending on where they fall in the sentence: "He threw his ball to him". The dative form of the plural "brothers" in Old English was often "brethre" where the first vowel was softened from an "o" to an "e". For some reason, this plural form survived in Northern England even after English stopped declining nouns, even becoming de-pluralized as "brether". The Reverend Richard Morris of London documents it being used as late as the mid-1500s (Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar, pg. 74).

So to be technical, the pronunciation of "brethers" is not a result of the Great Vowel Shift, but even after the Shift had largely occurred it was still being used in the Northern English dialects. These are the same dialects that were brought over by settlers in the 1700s to rural Appalachia, so it's not surprising to see it being spoken out loud by Joseph Smith during the translation project.


The First Council of Nicea occurred in 325 CE, nearly seventeen centuries ago. It may be odd to think that it bears any importance to or sheds any illumination on the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but in fact it does.

The common story told among Mormons about Nicea wrap up multiple ideas and beliefs about the Apostacy, the Bible, traditional Christianity, and even the Mormon conception of the nature of God. Long used, and often abused, the story is important to both Mormons and many former Mormons. However, the story itself is often mis-told, misremembered, and highly mythologized. From Jeffrey R. Holland to “The Da Vinci Code”, the Council of Nicea has been the scapegoat for why modern Christianity can seem so messed up at times. I want to pursue a series of blog posts that will explore the context of Nicea and unravel the myths from the facts.

When I was a young man I enjoyed traveling to BYU's Education Week. My parents paid the costs and let us pretty much go wherever we wanted for the week. Even then I loved history and archeology, so I spent most of my time at classes with names like, “Paul: Citizen of Three Worlds” or “Ancient America and the Book of Mormon: What We Know and What We Don't Know”. They had some EFY speakers, too, which usually helped to round out the scholastics with a bit of kid-focused fun.

I still remember one year listening with rapt attention to an instructor (I don't know whether or not to give his name as while I do not know him personally I used to be good friends with his son and daughter-in-law and he is otherwise a fantastic scholar of the Roman world) as he went over the progression of the Great Apostacy in the ancient world.

For those who don't know about the LDS conception of the Great Apostacy let me briefly explain: Mormons believe that Mormonism is the exact same belief system as Christ established during his lifetime, they also believe it's been on Earth multiple times before that even, all the way back to Adam. However, each time the Gospel has become corrupted or has nearly disappeared before being restored by another prophet (with Joseph Smith being the last of these restorers). So Mormons believe that the truths and authority of Jesus's Church were lost early in the Common Era and that humanity entered a period of nearly two thousand years where God was silent and where His authority was not present on Earth before Joseph Smith was called to restore the teachings and authority in 1820. (It's a little more complicated than that as Mormons also believe that there were real, physical immortals who roamed the world during that time who knew the true gospel and held the true authority of God, but since Mormons don't usually like nuance they tend to ignore the awkward questions that arise around these figures.) This period between Jesus and Joseph Smith is often called the “Great Apostacy”, where “great” is used in terms of size as it lasted nearly two millennia.

So the instructor was going over how the Apostacy began and while he had talked a little bit about shifting doctrines among the Church Fathers most of his blame was placed on the Emperor Constantine. Constantine, he said, had wanted a tool to unify a fractured Empire and saw Christianity as the perfect tool for it. Christianity was undergoing some internal divisions over the nature of God and Jesus where the true knowledge of the nature of God was in danger of being lost. Constantine assembled a great Council from across the Empire where he resolved the issue by proclaiming that the Christian Godhead was like the Roman gods who could have various forms and responsibilities and yet be one god. The instructor then said that in order to solidify the idea and his authority simultaneously that Constantine forced the Council to decide upon this doctrine of the Trinity while arrayed in the resplendent robes of a sun worshiper. The Council, cowed by the Emperor's might, decided upon the false doctrine of the Trinity, and thus we can say that the loss of truth that led to the Great Apostacy, was advanced nearly to completion.

The narrative he delivered stuck with me for a long time. It was very persuasive, and I knew that regular Christians believed in this extra-biblical “Trinity” thing, while Mormons believed in what we saw as the true biblical conception of God and Jesus as a team of individuals which we called the “Godhead”.

Besides this, I had already learned a bit about Nicea through general discussions with Church members. In Sunday School we'd discussed how the Bible had not emerged from the Apostacy entirely intact but had instead suffered from a “telephone game” of transmission, along with several cases where truths had been boldly ripped out of the text. The Council of Nicea was one of those places where scriptures were removed, I was often taught. One of the purposes of the Joseph Smith Translation was to resolve this loss of the “plain and precious” parts of the Bible, of which the Council of Nicea was one of the prime offenders.

Fast forward a number of years and I had found myself in the midst of a crisis of faith in Mormonism. In an attempt to salvage what I could, I resolved to study at the very least the Christian New Testament and the message of Jesus of Nazareth and to reconstruct my faith in Mormonism from there. I spent a long time learning Ancient Greek to read the reconstructed originals of the New Testament and learned more about the world of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the early Christian movement. (In an unforseen development, this study only further eroded my trust of the foundation of Mormonism and Christianity in general.)

Amazingly enough, though considering everything else I had already been struggling with, it turns out that what I had been taught about Nicea, the Trinity, and the development of the biblical canon was mostly wrong and those parts that were correct were often presented without context. Also amazingly enough, it seemed these same broken narratives told among members of the Church about Nicea were still prevalent among former Mormons.

Over the next few weeks I'd like to cover the history of the Council with you from my perspective as someone raised as a Latter-day Saint. I'd like to discuss why the Council was assembled, who attended, the role of Constantine, and the long-term effects of the Council (and later councils) on the developing history and doctrine of Christianity.

Along the way, I would like to try to explain and display some of the more popular ideas of Nicea as either untrue or simplistic myths. Often these myths have been preserved because they serve the world-view of Mormons and/or former Mormons, but the truth is much more complex and, in my opinion, interesting. Among these are:

  1. The scriptural canon of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament was decided at Nicea. In fact, the subject of which books were authoritative was not decided at Nicea nor at any Christian Council for centuries before and after Nicea. In fact, the apocalyptic “Shepherd of Hermas”, not to be found in any modern canon, was a major source of proof-texting for participants of the Council.

  2. The true conception of God as embodied and seperate from Jesus was lost at Nicea. The Council of Nicea was mostly about the vying theologies of the proto-orthodox and the Arianists. The Mormon conception of God is very different from both theologies and is not to be found as a topic of discussion at the Nicean Council.

  3. The doctrine of the Trinity was invented at Nicea. The forms of Trinitarianism promoted by the hard-line proto-orthodox and the centrists had been in existence before Nicea and the doctrine itself continue to evolve over time for centuries afterwards.

  4. Nicea employed Greek philosophy to resolve the Arianist debate, not scripture. Appeals to scripture formulate the bulk of the disagreement with Neoplatonic ideas being used by all present as secondary rhetoric.

  5. The doctrine of the Trinity is based on Roman pantheism. Usually paired with an assertion that Constantine was a sun worshiper, this idea again ignores the history and development of Trinitarianism before the Nicean Council assembled.

  6. Nicean Trinitarinism is nothing more than modalism (often vulgarly dismissed by Mormons as the “Three-Headed Monster”). The Council had to deal with walking the knife's edge between the heresies of polytheism and modalism. The infamous homoousia/homoiousia debate occurred between these heresies, and the view of the Trinity as more similar to the Mormon conception continued for hundreds of years. Also, the Book of Mormon describes God and Jesus in ways that are difficult if not impossible to define as being other than modalist.

  7. The debate between two opposing sides who saw each other more as opponents than as brothers is not in keeping with how such issues are dealt with by the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rather than denying the occasionally raucous nature of the Council, the truth is that the form of disputations found at Nicea are often seen in similar proportion and similar volume among leaders of Mormonism throughout its history.

  8. Understanding Nicea doesn't matter when it comes to understanding Mormonism. Nicea and the embattled doctrines involved with it have been viewed as important themes in the Mormon conception of the Apostacy. Figures including Talmage, Holland, Oaks, Packer, and many others have used it when discussing the truth claims of Mormonism. Sometimes these figures have consciously misused and misrepresented the history in an attempt to paint a false contract between the Council and the modern LDS Church.

I plan on exploring each of these myths in their place as I trace the history and context of the Council. It will take a long time, but I think it's important. I hope you'll join me down this trip to the ancient world.


It's long been a dream of mine to create a Rifftrax-like group (those of us who are older may remember the original incarnation of Rifftrax, MST3K) to create some high-quality mock tracks for the many films that BYU and the LDS Church have released over the past half-century or so. I think that dream has been shared by a number of other people and I've even seen it followed up a few times with varying degrees of success.

I'm proposing another try, this time with the benefit of the Internet to keep it all alive. The rest of this post is about the details of the project, so if you think you'd be more interested in the final product than the process hopefully you'll be hearing about this again in a few months as we begin to release.

My Inspiration

First I want to spend a bit of time comparing and contrasting the two examples of riffing I've seen of Mormon films. The first riff I ever saw of a Mormon film (besides the good-natured off-the-cuff mocking of various youth groups or missionaries) was at BYU by the infamous Garren's Comedy Troupe. They pulled out sheets of paper, sat down at the front of the audience with microphones, and then they ran a projector and riffed over Cipher in the Snow and Johnny Lingo, two BYU-produced films somewhat famous among residents of the Mormon corridor for their bizarre view of human relationships.

The GCT hit it out of the park. My sides hurt, my cheeks hurt, and my ears hurt from the strength of the audience's laughter. They absolutely killed it.

A few years later I saw that some GCT alums were planning a riffing of “Single's Ward” on local television along with some of the cast from the movie. It was pitifully horrible. It dragged. It made a mediocre movie into an absolute slog. It made it worse. Sorry to those of you who were involved, but that's how it was to watch it. I appreciate the effort, but it just didn't work.

Why didn't it work? Because it was obviously off-the-cuff. The riffers had long periods of “dead air” between jokes, they got off-topic into stories of the filming, and it was boring.

Why did the GCT riffing work? Because they were working off of scripts (seriously, if anyone still has one of those scripts please let me know so we can preserve them the way they should be preserved: as a new live recording ready to be replayed alongside the films).

That's the secret: it wasn't real. It was fake. It sounded like the riffers were reacting to the film, but they weren't. They were all reading from scripts. It had all been meticulously prepared beforehand. Some of the jokes stank, others were nonsensical, but what they lacked in quality they made up for in quantity. And the quality wasn't half bad because they'd had so much quantity of jokes that the remaining ones were then picked through for quality.

The “Single's Ward” riffers were actually doing it live. They were ad-libbing. And sometimes they hit it just right. And most of the time they were silent, waiting for a good joke to pop out of their subconscious. Meanwhile, the rest of the audience was waiting, too. It was real, and it sucked.

If you watch this video (relevant section starts at 8:30 or so) you can see that the writers of MST3K put a ton of work into their product. If we want to do anything of a similar quality we need to do the same. I plan to follow a lot of their techniques as described in this film.

So for those of you who feel up to joining in with the Gadianton Mockers (or if someone can think of a better name I'm not married to it) please note: this will take time. A lot of it. More for the editor, but a lot from everyone.

I want to give this a practice run, so I want to give it a go with something short. If it works well, I think we can extend the project to attempt full-length features like “The Testaments” and “Legacy”. But we should start small to make sure.

The Tools

Everyone will need a microphone, headphones, and a computer with broadband Internet access. We'll be running this over Google Hangouts, so Chrome will probably work best. One person per computer, even if you are in the same building with other participants.

The Process

Initial Run-through

We will watch the movie once through in five minute chunks, backwards. This means the last five minutes, followed by the penultimate five minutes, followed by the five minutes before that. We will not be watching a story with thematic rises and falls, we will be watching the attempts of people to make a movie with acting and costumes. We will break the narrative flow and force us as an audience to notice how the film is constructed. If need be we may actually repeat some of the five-minute segments. It will be boring and it will not be fun to watch. Hopefully, though, it will be fun to mock.

Everyone will be expected to say anything that pops into their head. Funny, unfunny, relevant, irrelevant, whatever. If it pops up, it pops out. We will have one person who will also have a Google doc open and will be attempting to write down what everyone else is saying as quickly as possible and with a time-stamp of the film. We don't care about quality yet, just quantity.

Then we will watch it through again in the backwards process, but in ten-minute segments, following the same procedure.

Finally, we will watch it through forwards, but pausing for a short break every ten minutes.

So that's a total of three times through the film, just to get the jokes on paper.

Joke Selection

The joke sheets from the watch-through will then be combined into one complete script. Then everyone will be expected to go through and comment on the combined script, noting what they really like and what they dislike. Then the script will be edited down.

Rough Read-through

There will be another group watching of the film with the script as presented. We will assign the lines to the participants and we will watch the film through while throwing all of the riffs at it. The film will be watched in roughly ten-minute segments again. At each break we'll decide what is working and what is not, if a line of film dialog can be covered by a riff or if it should be left audible to the audience and the riff thrown out, and so on.

The Final Read

We will select the cast of the riff (it's not a good idea to have too many voices or to have too many voices that sound similar). Each cast member will select their lines as they wish, and when they are finished selecting their lines each cast member will record, on their own, a complete read-through of their own lines performed as if with everyone else.

The Recording

Finally, we'll get the cast together for reading through it together. This will be a little difficult; we'll want to have the video being watch simultaneously by the cast, but we'll want to record their repartee separately from the audio of the film they are watching. We want to be able to record real interaction between the cast.

I'm not sure if this step is necessary or not. It all depends on the skills the cast has to sound like they are interacting with each other about the film.

The Editing

Finally, we'll need to edit it all together into an audio file to be shared. Their previous private read-through will be used for those parts where we have to deal with Internet latency and lag, audible cues will be placed so that people watching can ensure they stay in sync between the riff track and the film.


I think this can work. Obviously, it'd be a ton easier to do this all in person. And perhaps someone else will run with this idea. It's not without precedent. The Mormon Expositor podcast requires a lot more pre- and post-production work than the Mormon Expression podcast (which still requires a lot of attention, mind you) because MoExpression is a recorded panel of people who are all in the same physical space. MoExpositor is recorded between participants across the country and even the world. Because of this, MoExpression is limited in participants to Utah, but then again most Mormons live there. But if you don't live there and still want to participate you are SOL. I'd like to establish how this could work in an Internet fashion with no worries about physical proximity.


So those of you who would like to participate, please let me know! There are a lot of times and places where we could use help. There are many watchings and re-watchings of the films that you can participate in. Even though the final cast should be small (I don't even think I'll be one myself as I have a somewhat high-pitched voice and I think we're looking for people with more audio “presence”) there's always going to be a lot more people behind the scenes on a project like this.

After we've finished the project and have an audio file that can be used to play alongside an existing copy of the film we can establish a website or tumblr or something where all of the cast and credits can be displayed. You can get recognition for this, and if we can figure out the system in such a fashion where we can resolve the pain points we can easily do more with different casts if you want to get your own voice out there for it.

So please let me know by email (nocoolnametom at gmail), at Reddit, or whatever you can think of to get in touch with me and I'll begin work on figuring out how to organize everyone for the various watchings. It will probably require for most people at least twice as much time as the running time of the film, but for the cast many times that. But I really do think it can be done, and perhaps even if we fail we'll have learned enough lessons about the process that the next time this is attempted they can stand on our shoulders.

#MST3K #Mormon


I feel the need to rant a bit. Hopefully, something more substantive will arise from this, but for now I'm just upset and discouraged. The parallelomania by many Jesus mythicists has begun again.

It seems to come in waves. I suspect it has something to do with school and college (perhaps biblical studies has not yet reached its own Eternal September), but I have no way of proving it. Someone will write a blog post or an article at some magazine and the blogosphere ignites with it again.

The problem to me is not the Jesus Myth hypothesis. That is a valid exploration of the historical data (or to be more accurate, the near lack of historical data). I have my own argument with supporters of the Mythic position (usually about their binary approach to historical data, an approach that may have merit in the hard sciences but not as much in the soft sciences like history). My argument is with the parallelists.

These are the parasites that hang onto the discussions of the Jesus Myth hypothesis. “If there was no historical Jesus,” the historicist asks, “then every aspect of his life, not just the miraculous and supernatural, is an invention. Where did the non-supernatural parts of the story arise?” A fair question and one that can be answered by looking at yet-older Jewish apocalyptic ideas and Jewish numerology.

Enter the Parallelist: a certain brand of Mythicist that is even more excited about the non-historicity of an ancient, Jewish apocalyptic prophet than the regular Mythicist or Historicist. They know where every aspect of Jesus's life came from. They came from everywhere else, obviously.

The Parallelist is quick to produce long lists of parallels. And they certainly seem compelling! Mithra, a divine being of Zoroastrianism, was born on December 25! Horus, the son of the Egyptian god Osiris, was baptized! Both Horus and Mithra had twelve disciples! Mithra was known as the “Good Shepherd” and the “redeemer”! Horus was crucified and rose from the dead! Even the Greek god Dionysus died and rose again, and he turned water into wine!

Wow! What a list, eh? It sounds so much like Jesus it'd take a complete idiot to not see a connection, right?

Here's my mean, rude, and completely hurtful statement: it takes a complete idiot to not at least attempt some research of these statements and just takes them for granted. Seriously, we're dealing with history here, and what is the provenance of these claims? The answer: for most of what I just listed there is none.

And every time I bring this up it seems I tend to tick off at least one of the Parallelists. I've been accused of being a biased Christian. After explaining that I am not a believer in the supernatural propagandas presented by the ancient Christian texts I've been accused of being a biased historcist. Because obviously if I stand with a particular hypothesis then my reasoning for supporting that hypothesis must be because of confirmation bias, whereas the reason they support their hypothesis has to do with “evidence” and totally not confirmation bias.

Here's the crux of how it stands. You can take the position that there was no historical existence of a First Century Jewish apocalyptic prophet named Jesus who was executed by the state for insurrection. That is fine. You can reject the historicity of the gospels as biased sources written decades after the fact; they are. The crux of the Jesus Myth Hypothesis is the lack of evidence. The Parallelist is occupying no more than a sideshow of the tent trying to grab the limelight from the main ring by being loud and showy. And by not being above some exaggeration and occasionally some outright creative construction of facts.

Those of us who grew up in the LDS Church are familiar with the works of Dr. Hugh Nibley. No matter what you think of him, he was an intelligent man and he has left a lasting mark on LDS scholarship. And when it came to defending the historical claims of Mormonism, Nibley enjoyed the use of parallel most of all. Those of us who have left have had to deal with his parallels between scholarship about the Ancient World and “How Could Joseph Smith Have Know This?” His parallels are, at first glance, impressive. But once you start looking into their source you see how they begin to break down.

The same is true of a disappointing majority of the Jesus Myth parallels. Sorry, Horus wasn't baptized. Sorry, Mithra wasn't born on Christmas (unless you're going to argue that the Roman cult of the Unconquerable Sun established by Marcus Aurelius was in actuality centered around Mithra: that's a doubtful claim you'll need to back up, too). Horus didn't have twelve disciples. Mithra wasn't known as the “Good Shepherd”. If you've been passing these lists around you need to know that you have been duped (by people who have in turn been duped) and you haven't done the due diligence to back it up.

And if you are feeling angry and upset at my claim here, there is an easy way to resolve it that doesn't involve yelling at me: prove me wrong. My claims are falsifiable. I am claiming that the majority of those lists you see all over the Internet about figures like Mithra, Horus, and Dionysus are not accurate claims that can be backed up by direct textual evidence. All you need to do is to provide the quote from the ancient scroll(s) or inscription(s) that is the source for the parallel. Go ahead and dig into the sources from the books and YouTube presentations that lie behind the Parallelist claims. I'm pretty confident that you will emerge perhaps still a Mythicist but no longer a Parallelist. The sources are not there, and many of them were fabricated long ago (which is why I don't bear anyone now living much ill will over this; the faulty data was created generations ago).

Here's what you will find. You will find that there are certainly some parallels from various cultures. You will find, for instance, in one particular book evidence of Horus being conceived without sexual intercourse (in the more poetic “Book of the Dead”). But once you find the original sources you'll see that you are dealing with a stretched interpretation within the context of the source itself (Isis, Horus's mother, is certainly not a virgin even if you argue that Horus is conceived without sexual union with Osiris). You'll find that there are far more texts from the same culture spread across centuries of time that don't support the few true parallels you discover. And the very definition of confirmation bias is to support only the evidence in support of your theory while ignoring the evidence against it. Because even in the end, it's not enough to show that the parallel could have existed. You'll need to show the relative probability of this cultural viewpoint spreading to a small Jewish movement of the First Century. How likely was it that the nascent Jesus movement would have even been aware of the parallel in the first place to pull it from the foreign culture into the Jewish movement?

I respect the Jesus Myth position even as I have rejected it. Proponents of the Mythicist position have forced scholars to examine more closely the so-called genuine letters of Paul and their authorship as well as the nature of ancient Roman historical documentation entirely. Science, whether hard like physics or soft like history, is invigorated by scholarly critique and I believe that the position of the Historicist is benefited by the skepticism of the Mythicist.

However, the Jesus Myth Parallelomania is not the same as the Jesus Myth Hypothesis and it deserves to stand up to scholastic scrutiny and to live or die by the source materials. About the only thing I can think of that has resulted from this regurgitation of old lists is a renewed emphasis into the role of cultural astronomy in the ancient world view. So many of the parallels dovetail with ancient myths involving Venus, the solstice, and other aspects of the sky and the seasons. The ancient world was one where the stars were easily visible at night, and I do not doubt that there is merit in analyzing anew the relationship between the natural world and the creation of religious myth in the ancient world. But that does not mean that this relationship necessarily gave rise to aspects of the story of the supernatural Jesus's life: aspects that can be just as easily explained by an appeal to Jewish mysticism and numerology as they are to far-flung ideas of Sumerian myth and the Vedas. Just as they can also be partially explained by the short life of a poor, itinerant Jewish prophet from Galilee.

Oh and before I get the angry comment about my hypocrisy let me lay out my hypocrisy in the clear here: I'm not going to be putting footnotes on this blog post. I'm not going to be backing up my claims here with citations. As I said at the beginning, this is a rant written in the frustration of emotion. Go ahead and call my claims into question as I've called yours into question. And then why don't you begin to research your own position a bit further than you already have. Don't just depend upon some rock star scholar that you trust who taught these parallels to you. If they deserve the rock star status you give to them they'll have done the scholastically responsible thing of providing at least a bibliography where you can begin you search. Prove me wrong. I'm pretty confident, at least based on the work I've done myself actually trying to do so while I was myself a proponent of the Mythicist position, that you'll emerge with a better point of view on the uselessness of parallelomania.

#AcademicBiblical #JesusMyth #NewTestament #HistoricalJesus

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