Thursday, March 5, 2015

In for the Long Haul

Travis Kerns is a missionary for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention with "a Ph.D. in applied apologetics with a focus on Mormonism from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary." According to this article he has come to Utah as part of the "Send North America church planting initiative."

At the end of the article there is a telling statement:
"In 18 years of doing this, I've only seen two people convert from Mormonism to Christianity," said Kerns, who notes that on average it takes from two to seven years for most Mormons to convert, the majority being closer to seven years. "Being around leaders of the LDS church to share my faith with them drives everything that I do."
Since Mormons are Christians, Mormonism is part of Christianity. Kerns would probably take offense if someone talked about converting someone else from being a Baptist to being a Christian. Kerns does not realize that Mormons find this sort of statement offensive. It would not be the first time that someone with a Ph.D. in a living religion had no clue about the actual religious believers in the religion he had studied (for another example see here). I wonder if his degree counts as being in Mormon Studies.

What is more interesting about this statement is the numbers reported. They provided an anecdotal match to what some sociological studies have observed, which is that most Latter-day Saints do not leave the Church to become born-again Christians; they leave to become irreligious. I observed a number of years ago (here on pp. 197-198):
Ironically, the result of evangelical countercult “evangelizing” among Latter-day Saints is that those who do abandon their faith usually become nonreligious rather than evangelical. Rather than adopting evangelical belief, they abandon belief altogether. In this sense evangelical “evangelizing” can result in people ceasing to believe in Christ.
As a friend of mine said:
May he be received well.  May he be successful in leading faithless people to faith in Christ.  May the people of Utah treat him kindly.  May he have no success whatever in seducing faithful Latter-day Saints away from the Restored Church. 
At the rate he is going it will take him only 450 years to plant a Church.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Battle of the Big Boys

Academic disagreements can get quite sharp at times. When important values are called into question, the discussion gets sharper. Here is a recent example of a clash between two heavy-weights in the archaeology of ancient Israel (Israel Finkelstein and William Dever) with a medium-weight thrown in (Aaron Burke). These scholars are big boys and do not necessarily pull their punches. (I actually think Dever is being very restrained in this exchange.) At the bottom of the page is the comments section where anonymous ignorati pretend that they are able to mix it up with the big boys.

Those who have seen some recent squabbling by some Latter-day Saints (who are feather-weights by comparison) over issues in biblical scholarship might be reminded that when it comes to biblical scholarship, there is seldom consensus. Appeals to consensus are merely a way of signaling to those in the know which side an individual is actually on.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Interconnected Ancient World: On the Steppes of Central Asia

The ancient owner of P. Joseph Smith I was Horos, the son of Osoroeris. One of his jobs was prophet of Chespisichis. The temple of Chespisichis was located just a little southeast of the great temple at Karnak. Only one major inscription of that temple has survived. It is now in the Louvre. It tells of an ancient Pharaoh who married a princess of Bakhtan, a conquered territory of Egypt. Her sister became ill and so the Pharaoh sent an image of the god Chespisichis to Bakhtan along with a priest to help cure her.

Bakhtan is usually equated with Bactria in central Asia. As far as we know, although Alexander the Great may have made it to Bactria, no other Egyptian pharaoh did. (And some Egyptologists would not count Alexander as a pharaoh.) This is one of the reasons that the story of the princess of Bakhtan is usually considered ancient fiction.

While we currently do not have evidence for the Egyptian god Chespisichis in Bactria, we do, however, have evidence for Egyptian gods there. In Munchaktepa, located in the northern Ferghana valley, which is on the very eastern end of Uzbekistan, a statue of the Egyptian god Harpocrates was found. Other statues of Harpocrates have been found:
  • at Sirkap in Taxila (which is just over the mountains west of Islamabad) in the Punjab province in the north east of Pakistan,
  • at Balkh, which is on the northern edge of Afghanistan,
  • at Begram, Afghanistan, which is to the north of Kabul.
Images of the Egyptian god Serapis too have been found in Begram. Several have also been found in Gandhara, Pakistan. (See Ladislav Stanco, Greek Gods in the East [Prague: Karolinum Press, 2012], 133-34, 189-92.)

While there is a temptation is to assume that seemingly fantastic tales of far-flung contacts from the ancient world are fiction, but that is a modern fiction created by our desire to compartmentalize the ancient world into easy to handle disciplinary boundaries.

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Telling Juxtiposition

The following two quotes come from adjacent articles from the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Both deal with the topic of source criticism:
While an appreciation of stylistic difference is often to some extent subjective, the variations within books such as these are wide enough to make it unlikely that a single author is responsible for all the material.
(John Barton, "Source Criticism (OT)," ABD 6:163.)
Compare this with:
No definite evidence, however, can be drawn from differences of vocabulary and style, as any author is able to remold a written text (although not all NT writers do this), or, on the other hand, to adopt the style and vocabulary of a source in passages which he is going to write himself. Therefore, observations on different style and language can only have subsidiary importance.
 (Dietrich-Alex Koch, "Source Criticism (NT)," ABD 6:166.)
So stylistic differences are both crucial and largely meaningless for source criticism.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Historical Discrepancies

One of the disciplinary leitmotifs of biblical studies is the search for discrepancies or inconsistencies or contradictions in the text. Supposedly discrepancies or inconsistencies indicate different sources since we all know that human beings in general and source critics in particular are entirely free from inconsistencies. Supposedly inconsistencies with historical or archaeological evidence indicates that the account is not historical.

Unfortunately, inconsistency is a staple with ancient history. Take for example the history of Til-Barsip (modern Tell Ahmar). A poetical account from Assyria tell us that in 856 BC. the Assyrians under Shalmaneser III conquered the Aramaean forces of Bit-Adini under the ruler, Ahuni, at Til-Barsip, resettled Assyrians in the city, reorganized it as a royal residence, and renamed it Kar-Shalmaneser.

We know Aramaeans were in the city because tablets bearing Aramaic inscriptions were found there. The Assyrians also left a provincial palace which is attested archaeologically, as is an expansion of the town to cover 50 hectares. Assyrian statuary, murals, and mosaics have been found.

So from Assyrian sources we know that the Assyrians conquered the Aramaic speaking nation of Bit-Adini in Til-Barsip in 856 BC. These seem to be supported archaeologically.

Now, as it so happens, a number of inscriptions from the ninth century BC. were also discovered at Tell Ahmar. From these inscriptions, in Hieroglyphic Luwian, we learn that Tell Ahmar was the home of a pair of dynasties of Luwian speakers throughout the entire ninth century. The kingship seems to have passed from Hapatilas to Ariyahinas to Hamiyatas's father (whose name is missing) to Hamiyatas to Hamiyatas's son (whose name is also missing) and back to Ariyahinas's son. These Luwian speaking rulers ruled a country called Masuwari.

The Hittite style architecture and the statuary is also attested archaeologically at the site.

So the contradictions here are huge. They include the name of the country (Bit-Adini vs. Masuwari), the names of the rulers (Ahuni vs. Hamiyatas or Ariyahinas), and whether or not there was an Assyrian invasion. There have been a variety of attempts to make sense of the historical and archaeological record but the inconsistencies are plainly there. None of those who have dealt with the evidence (Lipinski, Hawkins, Akkermans and Schwartz) seem to deny that any of the evidence that they work with was not historical or accurate; none of them deny the Assyrian conquest or the account left in poetic form.

Tell Ahmar is now on a island in a lake created by the Tishrin dam on the Euphrates and part of the tell has washed away. It is also located in the Kobane province of Syria and so not an ideal place to excavate at the moment. So it is unlikely that there will be any additional help from archaeology for a resolution of the contradictions at the moment.

Inconsistencies and discrepancies are a standard part of the historical and archaeological record. The existence of inconsistencies does not mean that the events did not take place or were not historical, nor does the fact that the historical accounts were couched in poetic form, despite what some biblical scholars might think. Navigating through such discrepancies is what historians do. Different historians will propose different theories to resolve the discrepancies in the historical evidence. The usual method of deciding which historical theory is to determine which theory best accounts for the available evidence.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Different View of Teenagers Leaving

When I reexamined the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) publications for why youth lose their faith, I discovered that I had overlooked one of the books: Lisa D. Pearce and Melinda Lunquist Denton, A Faith of Their Own (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Dissatisfied with previous four NSYR categories (devoted, regulars, sporadic, and disengaged) that accounted for only 63% of the surveyed youth, the authors take a very different look at the relationship of adolescents to their faith. They divide youth into five classes regardless of their formal affiliation based on the content of their faith, their conduct, and the centrality of their faith.The classes all have labels that start with an a:

The abiders (22% of wave one and 20% of wave two) are those who report high levels of practice, belief and centrality.

The adapters (28% of wave one and 20% of wave two) are basically those who take a smorgasbord approach to religion. They strongly believe but are not particularly committed to any denomination and are eclectic in their religious practices.

The assenters (30% of wave one and 31% of wave two) are basically those who are involved in a denomination but religion is not particularly important to them. For them their church is something of a social club.

The avoiders (17% of wave one and 24% of wave two) are those who vaguely believe but are not really interested in religion.

The atheists (3% of wave one and 5% of wave two) actively do not believe in God.

The various percentages at any given wave imply more stability than is actually there. On the individual level a fair number of individuals changed groups between waves. The most stable group is actually the abiders, 85% of whom stay in that category between waves. If abiders changed groups they were more likely to switch to assenters. The next most stable group is the avoiders, 84% of whom stayed in the same category. If avoiders changed category, they were more likely to become atheists. Two thirds (67%) of assenters stayed in their category between waves; if they changed, they were more likely to become atheists though they might become anything. Adapters were almost as stable (65%), and while they might become anything were most likely to become assenters. The least stable category were atheist (52%); almost half of them became something else, with becoming avoiders being the most likely change although they could become almost anything.

In general, youth only moved one or two categories between waves but could end up moving almost anywhere. There is an exception to that rule though: Abiders did not become avoiders or atheists and vice versa.

Abiders tended to have the most desirable sociological outcomes.

Where do Latter-day Saint youth fit into this picture?

Because at the end of wave three 56% of Latter-day Saints were in the devoted category, I would guess that at least that many would be in the abiders category. Beyond that, I could not locate enough information to determine any percentages. When we talk about Latter-day Saint youth losing their faith, we seem to be talking about them becoming either avoiders or atheists.

This study seems to suggest that youth do not just go from being active committed Latter-day Saints to non-believers. Rather they first go through a stage where it is either no longer important to them or that they start picking and choosing what parts they will accept. When Latter-day Saints start to see the Church as some sort of social club or take a smorgasbord approach to religion they are moving off safe ground.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Kenneth Dunn (1922-2015)

My friend Ken Dunn passed away the other day. He was a good man and devoted to his dear wife who preceded him a few years ago.