Scholar to Scholar: Paul Owen responds to John Gee’s critique of recent Book of Mormon article

03.27.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

Paul Owen is a religious studies scholar who has participated in academic conversations in LDS venues over the years although he is not himself a Latter-day Saint. In 1999 Owen and his colleague contributed an article to the FARMS Review. Owen again published an article in the latest issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies taking a non-traditional outsider’s look at the Book of Mormon. His article is called “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture: A Thematic Analysis of 1 Nephi 13–14,” and subscribers can access it here. The Maxwell Institute views the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture. Each member of the Institute shares a commitment to promote it as not only interesting, but as revelatory. At the same time, we seek to broaden the conversation to include those not of our faith who nevertheless see value in the scripture and desire to engage it in respectful, scholarly ways. We feel that all parties stand to benefit from such exchanges. This is fitting for the academic world where a variety of viewpoints are welcomed and engaged and discussed and rebutted and adjusted and revisited on and on, in ongoing conversations, conferences, periodicals, and books. 
Owen, much like James Charlesworth and other scholars before him, doesn’t necessarily agree with most Latter-day Saints in their convictions about the origins of the Book of Mormon. However, he 
does agree with Latter-day Saints who recognize that the Book of Mormon is worthy of careful attention as a sacred religious text—a text whose truth must be manifested not by the “arm of flesh” (in other words, the often helpful but never sufficient research and scholarship of finite mortals), but by the witness of the Spirit. Owen, like other non-LDS scholars, offers a gift of scholarship to the LDS and broader academic communities. He deserves careful attention and respectful response as needed.

Dr. John Gee, who currently occupies the Maxwell Institute’s William (Bill) Gay Research Chair, composed a response to Dr. Owen on his personal blog. We invited Dr. Owen to respond to the relevant portions of Dr. Gee’s post in this “Scholar to Scholar” feature. We thank Paul Owen for his willingness to continue the discussion here. —Blair Hodges
[Paul Owen:] Recently, BYU’s own Dr. John Gee has made some comments on his personal blog about my article in volume 23 of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, entitled, “Theological Apostasy and the Role of Canonical Scripture: A Thematic Analysis of 1 Nephi 13-14” (pp. 81-100). I am glad to have an opportunity here to clarify some points raised by Gee’s interaction. I will address them more or less in the order they appear in the blog essay.

Did I attack the Book of Mormon?

[John Gee:] “He has written books explicitly attacking Mormonism in general and the Book of Mormon in particular. His latest article also attacks the Book of Mormon.”
[Paul Owen:] In my judgment, this is an unfair characterization of my work in general and a distortion of the content of my latest article. Have I written and contributed to works over the years which subject the claims of various Mormon scholars to critical scrutiny? Of course; the volume I coedited with Francis Beckwith and Carl Mosser (The New Mormon Challenge) is the most obvious example of that. Did that volume (which was my most overt “apologetic” effort) constitute an “attack” on Mormonism and the Book of Mormon? Not in the judgment of most Latter-day Saints who have read the work (although the content and tone of TNMC varied amongst the contributors), including several BYU professors who wrote endorsements on the dust jacket.

But regardless of one’s judgment of the value of my work over the years (which includes several articles in Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology, as well as an appreciative essay in BYU professor David Paulsen’s Festschrift, none of which work is mentioned by Gee), it is difficult to imagine how my latest article could be perceived as an attack. Offering his readers what I believe is an uncharitable characterization of my work in his opening lines is a rather clear example of “poisoning the well.

Did I claim that the Book of Mormon is a fictional (though ancient) narrative?

[John Gee:] “He concludes that the Book of Mormon is a ‘fictional (though ancient) narrative.’. . . Since the Book of Mormon claims to have come from the New World, Owen is arguing that the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be.”
[Paul Owen:] This is an inaccurate generalization of my article’s argument. First of all, the tone of my actual wording in the article is more tentative than Gee suggests: “What I am suggesting, in essence, is that the Book of Mormon could be taken as a genuinely restored ancient text [italics in original] with a fictional narrative that originated in the Old World” (p. 99). Note the qualifiers: “suggesting” and “could be.” Those qualifiers were offered out of a mindfulness of the context in which I was writing (a publication of BYU’s Maxwell Institute). In the article, I neither made a hard commitment to the Book of Mormon’s fictional and/or modern character on the one hand, nor to its origin in the Old World as opposed to New World (whether ancient or modern) on the other.

Secondly, I actually presented and discussed four possibilities (which Gee ignores) regarding the origins of the Book of Mormon that could possibly account for its apparent dependence upon the content of 2 Esdras (discussed on pp. 92-93). Since this is the focus of Gee’s critique, and since I do see it as a potential indicator of the terminus a quo of the Book of Mormon’s literary composition (end of the first century A.D.), this point deserves some attention.

1. The parallels between 1 Nephi and 2 Esdras could be coincidental, in which case it would have no bearing on the origins of the Book of Mormon. While possible, I judge this to be unlikely (p. 94).

2. Nephi could have been given a prophetic glimpse of the role of Ezra, which is then reflected in the materials within 2 Esdras. Though I raise some possible problems for this view, I judge it as a “real possibility” that should be “kept in play” in scholarly discussion (p. 95).

3. Joseph Smith (or someone in his circle of associates) may have read 2 Esdras in the English translation found in the KJV. While I acknowledge that this provides a “straightforward explanation” (p. 96), I also point out the fact that the obscurity of the KJV English text of 2 Esdras 14:24 and 14:42 is a problem for this view, because two of the apparent points of correspondence with the Book of Mormon (and 1 Nephi especially) which I highlight, come from these obscure references.

4. The Book of Mormon could be (my italics were original) viewed as a modern “update” of an ancient Christian apocryphal text which itself made use of 2 Esdras (in an earlier version than the English translation available to Joseph Smith). Because this option is somewhat of a novelty, I devote more attention to it than the other possibilities (pp. 96-100). I also discuss (in footnote 13 on page 94) the possibility of a combination of these views (as has similarly been outlined by LDS scholar Blake Ostler), which could also account for the data, so that whereas the Book of Mormon is a genuinely historical and ancient text, it also includes modern updates based on Joseph Smith’s familiarity with 2 Esdras in the KJV.

Why is this important? Because not only is my argument much more nuanced and tentative than Gee suggests, but I also discuss, in a fair and impartial manner, multiple options of interpretation, some of which are consistent with belief in the Book of Mormon’s antiquity and historicity, and some of which are not. Unfortunately, those who have not read my article for themselves will not have any idea of the depth and range of my discussion based on Gee’s sweeping characterization.

Did I claim that Joseph Smith got the narrative of the Book of Mormon (or 1 Nephi 13-14), or at least the idea of writing on golden plates, from reading 2 Esdras?

[John Gee:] “Owen thinks that Joseph Smith took the narrative of the Book of Mormon (or at least 1 Nephi 13-14) from the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras.”

“If Joseph Smith were to get the idea for the plates by reading an apocryphal book, then why 2 Esdras/4 Ezra and not 1 Maccabees?”

“Paul Owen’s argument posits that Joseph Smith got the idea for the Book of Mormon by reading a book which historical sources deny that he read.”
[Paul Owen:] These are some of the most confusing criticisms and I’m not sure where John Gee got any of these notions. Certainly not from my article, which never hints or suggests that the purpose of my article was to tell my readers (at last!) where Joseph Smith really got the “narrative” of the Book of Mormon, or “the idea for the Book of Mormon,” or at least “the idea for the plates.” My discussion of 2 Esdras was not intended to answer such broad and sweeping questions. My purposes in writing this article were outlined for the reader on page 83, namely:

1. To explore the relationship between Mormonism and the catholic tradition.

2. To explore the importance of Anabaptist ecclesiology for Joseph Smith’s theological vision (which was rooted early in the Book of Mormon).

3. To consider the influence of apocalypticism on the Book of Mormon author(s).

4. To consider alternative models of the literary history of the Book of Mormon which could transcend conventional boundaries between conservative and progressive approaches to the text.

As far as I can tell, none of my expressly stated purposes for writing this article are addressed in Gee’s critique.

Let me say at this point, just for the record (though I have already expressed similar convictions in print elsewhere), that I do not believe, and never have believed, that Joseph Smith got the narrative of the Book of Mormon (or even 1 Nephi 13-14) or the idea of the golden plates, from reading 2 Esdras. I believe the origin of both the plates and the narrative is found in Joseph’s real visionary encounters with God, and an angel who identified himself with the name Moroni. I don’t believe Joseph made this up, though the iteration of these encounters naturally evolved over the years. I believe any serious grappling with the Book of Mormon which attempts to answer sweeping questions about its origins (which again was not at all the purpose of my article) has to start with Joseph’s evident spiritual experiences and the commission he received to offer a religious alternative to the chaos of Protestant revivalism in the context of the burned-over district in the early 1800’s.

Why then does an intelligent reader like Gee misread my intentions so badly? I cannot fully answer that question, but part of the problem may be Gee’s discomfort with asking historical questions about sacred texts, questions which do not already presume to know all the answers with non-negotiable certainty. In other words, he seems to want to approach the Book of Mormon like a lawyer in a courtroom who already knows the answers to all his questions, which he intends to ask in court only for the sake of persuading the jury. But that is a difference I see between certain brands of apologetics versus the sort of inquiry that occurs in scriptural study and public scholarship, even when engaged in by believers with open religious commitments.

For example, I think it’s likely (despite the points raised by scholars whom I hold in the highest regard) that Daniel 8-12 shows some signs of editing in the Maccabean period. Does that mean that the substance of the book of Daniel does not derive from Daniel’s memoirs, and pre-Maccabean stories about his life which were already circulating in Palestine, stories which derive from the real experiences of a Jewish exile named Daniel, who occupied a prominent role in Nebuchadnezzar’s court by God’s design? Not at all; that would be a false alternative. It’s precisely because I refuse to be boxed into such false alternatives, that I feel the freedom (as a believer!) to consider historical questions about the origins of the book of Daniel without calling into question my faithfulness to God, or my commitment to Daniel as a collection of prophetic revelations.

Viable arguments can be made for several positions:

1. Daniel is a sixth-century B.C. writing of the prophet Daniel himself, with an amazing degree of visionary specificity, especially in relation to the Maccabean period, up to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (who died in 164 B.C.).

2. Daniel is a combination of older (mostly fictional) tales and recent (pseudonymous) apocalyptic visions which were collected and published in the Maccabean period.

3. Daniel is a composition which took its final form in the Maccabean period, though there is no adequate reason to deny that it incorporates Daniel’s own memoirs, and stories that have real historical origins, even if those stories have narrative touches that embellish the events in Daniel’s life for various purposes.

I personally lean toward the third view, I see the first view as a live possibility, and I am still in principle open to the second view. But it would be an uncharitable reading of my position to characterize me as simply saying that the book of Daniel “is not what it claims to be” (as Gee says of my view of the Book of Mormon), simply because I entertain such questions. The Book of Mormon doesn’t “claim to be” anything, precisely because the nature of its own claims cannot be settled apart from answering underlying questions about its genre and probable historical location. These are the exactly the sorts of things which scholars must consider in order to ascertain just what sort of text we are dealing with, and thus provide limits as to what sorts of “claims” the text is even capable of making in the first place.

Did I claim that Joseph Smith read 2 Esdras 14:24 in the NRSV translation?

[John Gee:] “Owen does not actually cite the passage because his reader would have found his argument confused by the actual evidence.”

“So Owen appears to be arguing that Joseph Smith got his basic scenario for the Book of Mormon by reading a translation that was published 155 years after he died like Owen did. This argument is anachronistic.”

“Paul Owen’s argument posits that Joseph Smith got the idea for the Book of Mormon by reading a book which historical sources deny that he read, in a translation published over a century and a half after he died.”
[Paul Owen:] Gee seems to think I proposed Joseph Smith got his “basic scenario for the Book of Mormon” by reading the NRSV, and he thinks this was an idea, not only put forth by a tenured (and hopefully sane!) college professor with a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from the University of Edinburgh, but which passed the muster of all the readers utilized by the Maxwell Institute for peer review of their publication, as well as the line-by-line editors like Shirley Ricks, none of whom ever questioned the basic coherence of such a laughable and silly scenario. Or, to read Gee more charitably, perhaps what he means to say is that my article is unknowingly based on premises which would necessarily entail Joseph having read the NRSV, and the irony of such an obvious problem just never occurred to me (insert a Homer Simpson-esque “D’oh!”), or the readers, or the line editors? What is the likelihood of this? Is it not more likely that Gee did not read my article carefully enough to understand what I was saying?

Far from trying to hide or obscure the differences between the KJV and NRSV wording of 2 Esdras 14:24, I explicitly highlight this issue on pages 92 and 95 and 96. It is in fact integral to my discussion. And why do I highlight it? Because it is precisely the obscure wording of the KJV here (and in 14:42), in comparison with more recent translations like the NRSV, that raises questions about the adequacy of simply appealing to Joseph Smith’s available knowledge of 2 Esdras through his access to the English text of the KJV. In other words, if we want to explain the parallels between 2 Esdras and 1 Nephi (and the Book of Mormon more generally in a few instances) by appealing to Joseph Smith’s access to the KJV, we then have to grapple with the fact that a couple of the more striking of those parallels are actually more obscure in the English version that would have been available to Joseph.

The reason I bring this issue up in my article is because it could be used to indicate that the author of 1 Nephi perhaps had access to information that predated the KJV and even 2 Esdras itself. As I wrote on page 95: “If Joseph Smith, rather than relying on the printed text of 2 Esdras, was exposed by divine encounter and inspiration to a body of ancient lore that eventually found its way into Jewish-Christian apocalyptic works (cf. 2 Esdras 13:41-42), this would explain why we find those curious references to Jews writing on ‘tablets’ (2 Esdras 14:24) in obscure characters (14:42)” both in 2 Esdras (though not the KJV) and the Book of Mormon. This could be seen as favorable to (or an “apologetic” point for) the traditional scenario involving origins for the Book of Mormon dating back to Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. (This evidence would also be consistent with the alternative scenario I outline on pages 96-100, supposing the Book of Mormon to be a restoration of an ancient Christian apocryphal text, which could easily have utilized an earlier version of 2 Esdras, as I note on page 97.) Giving the other side of the argument, I then go on to list several ways one might account for this problem, if we still were to assume that Joseph’s access to the KJV is the primary source of this literary dependence (p. 96). These nuances and qualifications are all perfectly clear for those who take care to read the substance of my article.

Concluding Comments

Some of Gee’s arguments are of such a nature that I feel no great burden to respond to them. I know very few Mormon scholars who would agree with his radical claim that, “Joseph Smith never read the Bible before he translated the Book of Mormon, did not even own one, and was ignorant of it. He seems never to have read the apocrypha in his life.” That goes well beyond any evidence which Gee cites, or which could be cited, and is actually at odds with other evidence which in fact could be cited to the contrary. But I see no need to digress into such areas where others are far more qualified.

I do find it ironic that Gee dismisses the scenario of the Book of Mormon as a modern restoration of a fictional work of antiquity as not being “logically coherent,” when in fact, it was Gee who first put me on to this possibility in his discussion of the Book of Abraham, in his book A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri:
A handful of Latter-day Saints think that the Book of Abraham was written by an unknown individual in Greco-Roman Egypt (fourth century B.C. through the fifth century A.D.) and that it is an ancient pseudepigraphon translated by Joseph Smith” (p. 25).
Gee does not offer any documentation, but I believe this alludes to a hypothesis that has been put forward by Kevin Barney in a book Gee edited. Gee did not at that time dismiss such a proposal as logically incoherent. I’m not sure then why it could not be entertained as within the realm of possibility in discussions of the origins of the Book of Mormon.

Finally, I will note that Gee’s response was a personal disappointment. At the SBL meeting in San Diego last November I ran into Gee, who was standing next to Daniel C. Peterson among the book stalls, or to be more precise, I went out of my way to walk up to him and Dan, say hello, and inform them that I had an article coming out in the new Journal of Book of Mormon Studies issue. I told them that in this article I had put forward some new ideas about the Book of Mormon that I had yet to see in print thus far, and would love to hear their feedback. Well, I guess I got my feedback.

I find it disappointing that someone of Gee’s obvious intelligence and abilities could not devote his attention to the substance of my article, and instead chose to use it for apologetic target practice. If Latter-day Saints want non-LDS scholars to take their ideas and their sacred texts seriously (and I believe many do), they must be prepared to patiently enter into such discussions with outsiders who do not share all of their presuppositions. To do that, it will be necessary to view Scripture as common ground on which we can stand with people of good will and look into life’s deepest questions, rather than always and only a battleground on which to slay those whose faith commitments differ from our own.

What does John Gee think of my hypothesis regarding the identity of the “great and abominable church”? Is he persuaded by my argument that the “book” that proceeds from the mouth of “a Jew” alludes specifically to Ezra and the copying and collection of the books of the Old Testament? If he is not persuaded by my suggestion of literary dependence on 2 Esdras, then how would he account for the parallels I cited? Does he think it is interesting that the reuse of previous records and revelations seems to be something the Book of Mormon has in common with apocalyptic works more generally? And could this be suggestive of the envisioned relationship between the literary origins of the Book of Mormon and its transmission through the efforts of Joseph Smith? These are the sort of questions I’d like to see Dr. Gee engage here on the Maxwell Institute Blog.
[Editor’s note: Dr. Gee is invited to respond to these queries in an upcoming installment of “Scholar to Scholar” as well. He has since posted another critique of Owen’s article on his personal blog, and Owen is again invited to respond here. —BHodges]

About Paul L. Owen

Paul L. Owen (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is professor of Greek and religious studies at Montreat College in North Carolina. He has published in FARMS Review of BooksElement: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and TheologyJournal of Biblical Literature, and Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Dr. Owen is the coeditor (with Larry W. Hurtado) of “Who Is This Son of Man?”: The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus.