And a letter to the Guardian…

Since the Guardian decided to produce very similar errors (going a step further by calling on the talents of a novelist who decided to write fiction about polygamy), I ended up feeling I had to write to them too. This covers very similar ground to the last letter, so feel free to give it a miss if you read the other one…

Dear Chris Elliot, Guardian reader’s editor,

As an academic working in the field of Theology and Religion, and specifically in LDS related matters, I am writing to indicate concern about several significant factual mistakes in the article written by David Ebershoff entitled “Polygamy wasn’t a theological debate for early Mormon women. It was part of their lives”, dated 13th November 2014. I recognise some of these mistakes have been perpetuated elsewhere, and I also recognise David Ebershoff is a novelist, and not part of your regular staff. However the article was published under your paper’s title, and so it bear some responsibility to correct the issue when an article is insufficiently researched and has fundamental misstatements of fact, particularly in a field where media errors are common and bolster popular misconceptions.

In particular, Mr Ebershoff makes the claim that “[f]or some 180 years the church has discouraged any kind of discussion of Smith’s plural marriages despite the historical evidence”. He furthermore claims that “[b]y disputing Smith’s plural marriages, and asking its followers to ignore the evidence, the church was denying the experiences of many women — some of whom were among its most loyal believers.” He likewise talks of the LDS Church having spent “180 years of discrediting the evidence and those who spoke of it”.

This claim, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spent much of its past history denying that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamous marriages, is a serious factual error. The LDS Church has always claimed that Joseph Smith inaugurated the practice of polygamy. It has never denied this fact, and indeed has continuously published it since the 19th century in Section 132 of its “Doctrine and Covenants” (part of the LDS Church’s scriptures, alongside the Bible). Furthermore, this claim was even key divide between the LDS Church and a related religious group, the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), who rejected both polygamy and the claim that Joseph Smith practised it. This debate can be observed in historic works such as “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage” (Deseret News Press: Salt Lake City, 1905), where a LDS Elder (and future President of the LDS Church) argues against RLDS claims that Joseph Smith indeed practised polygamy. More recent scholarship has continued on the issue – an LDS Scholar for example published last year (to little press attention) a three volume scholarly work on the very issue (Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy”, 3 Volumes, Greg Kofford Books, 2013).

Thus to claim that the LDS Church has denied and suppressed claims that Joseph Smith practised polygamy is incorrect. Such a claim ignores the actual historical documentary evidence (including the LDS Church’s own publications throughout this period) and mistakenly attributes to the LDS Church a position belonging to some of its historical critics. It also implies a degree of institutional dishonesty, an unfortunate claim in an area dominated by popular myths and media errors. And it overly dramatizes what is simply the publication of essay that follows other scholarly works.

It is understandable that unfamiliar topics might present some challenges to research and fact-checking; as I know from my own experience there are few comparatively few academics working in this field and I have also had to write to one of your competitors about very similar errors. Yet that very difficulty underlines the real importance of basic research and understanding to avoid communicating such basic errors to the public.

Regards,

David Richards
djr214@exeter.ac.uk
Phd Researcher​, Department of Theology and Religion
College of Humanities
University of Exeter

A letter to the Daily Telegraph

Mistakes in the media about the Church are exceptionally common. In this particular case it felt egregious enough that I roused myself to write the letter below to the newspaper responsible:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have serious concerns about the research and fact-checking for an article written by Philip Sherwell, your US editor, entitled “Mormon church finally admits founder Joseph Smith was polygamist with 40 wives”, dated 11th November 2014. In this article, Mr Sherwell claims that “church leaders have acknowledged for the first time in a surprising revelation about their most important prophet” that Joseph Smith was a polygamist and that the LDS Church’s “teachings had previously portrayed Smith as happily married to one woman”.

As an academic working in this field, these are serious misstatements of fact. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always maintained that Joseph Smith inaugurated the practice of polygamy within the LDS Church, and has published this since the 19th century, including in Section 132 of its “Doctrine and Covenants” (one of the Church’s four sacred texts, including the Bible). This position was even a point of historical debate between the LDS Church and the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), the latter of which historically denied this. This debate can be seen clearly in publications such as “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage” (Deseret News Press: Salt Lake City, 1905), in which the future President of the LDS Church Joseph Fielding Smith forcefully argues that Joseph Smith indeed practiced polygamy. To claim that the LDS Church has until now denied this not only ignores the historical record, it mistakenly attributes to the Church the position of its rhetorical opponents. It likewise sensationalises the release of an essay that, however informative, does not represent any particularly noteworthy change in direction for the LDS Church.

There has been a long history of media mistakes in reporting on LDS related matters that fuel popular misconceptions. Many of these could be resolved with some basic research.

Regards,

David Richards
djr214@exeter.ac.uk
Phd Researcher, Department of Theology and Religion
College of Humanities
University of Exeter

The whole counsel of God

While I’ve posted little here due to being snowed under with completing a thesis, I felt the need to post something in response to the news that the BYU Religious department is changing their curriculum (and consequently that of CES institutes worldwide). Previously, whereas core courses would focus on each on the standard works of Scripture, now these are to be de-emphasised in favour of four new courses arranged on a thematic basis: ‘Jesus Christ and the Everlasting Gospel’, ‘Teachings and Doctrine of the Book of Mormon’, ‘Foundations of the Restoration’ and ‘The Eternal Family’. Bill Hamblin has more details, including a link to a letter outlining the plans, as well as some trenchant criticisms.

Some comments have defended the plans, pointing out that a) the original courses will remain available as optional courses and b) the content of the new courses has yet to be fully decided. These arguments are true to a degree. They are also irrelevant. Setting aside the fact that many institutes abroad don’t have the resources to indulge in optional courses, the real problem I see is with the thematic approach itself. I believe this approach is fundamentally flawed. BYU, of course, have the right to arrange their courses as they wish, but I cannot see this as anything other than a mistake. And – since they’re not the only ones to adopt this approach – I feel the need to spend some time showing why I think such an approach is utterly inadequate.

This is not to say that thematic approaches to the scriptures are always wrong at all times. There is a time and a season to all things. But I believe that when we adopt this as our primary way of reading and studying the scriptures then there are certain inevitable drawbacks that compromise our ability to understand and draw strength from the word of God. These drawbacks I see are as follows:

1) We pull passages out of context, and miss their full meaning

This is perhaps the most obvious problem with an approach that is likely to alight upon a verse here and a verse there. Bill Hamblin rightly comments on how the historical context can be lost. This is not the only context of importance either – there’s also the literary context, which in this case can often simply be a fancy way of talking about the verses immediately before and after a phrase. What might seem to say one thing may, when one looks at the passage around it, might mean something very different. And this isn’t a minor issue, as anyone trying to take 1 Nephi 4:12 as a guide for life might realise.

The Scriptures, aside maybe from the likes of Proverbs, were not written as a set of disconnected verses. Rather, as inspired by the Holy Ghost, the ancient prophets and apostles wrote letters, spoke sermons and described visions. Our verses and chapters, as useful as they can be, are mere modern conveniences that – if we let them – can actually hamper our understanding of scripture if we cut up the same sermon into tiny discrete and unrelated passages. If we wish to follow the arguments of Paul, the testimony of John or the sermons of Alma then we need to have an eye on the whole. It’s only when we take a passage like Alma 32-34 in full that we can really understand the point of what Alma and Amulek were saying. This is particularly true of the Book of Mormon, I might add, which alone of our standard works wasn’t even written as a set of books, but rather one glorious whole. And when we divide and subdivide it, and take a bite here ignoring all that is around that, we miss the big overarching themes that it is trying to teach us.

And yet, as serious as this loss of context can be, I feel the next two problems have the potential to be far more grave.

2) We place a ‘lens’ over our reading of the scriptures, and limit what they can teach us.

We all have ‘lenses’, by which I mean our upbringing, background, disposition and ideas affect what we read and understand. It’s a problem that as mortal, fallible humans we can never be entirely free of, although we can recognise and thus hopefully try to correct for this disposition. Scriptures have often been misunderstood because of these very lenses: that many of the early converts to the Church were of Protestant backgrounds, for example, led at least some to misunderstand what Nephi was talking about in 1 Nephi 13-14 in regards to the ‘great and abominable church’.

But when we direct our attention at particular scriptures with a certain theme in mind, we have chosen to place lenses upon ourselves. We look at certain passages with a preconceived idea as to what they are already about, and so we end up reading a portion of scripture solely with the idea of confirming what we already know or think we know. At worst, it can involve us in projecting our understanding of what a passage is meant to teach upon the Scriptures themselves, and so miss what it is really saying and effectively ignore the word of God in favour of own understanding (and I’ve seen this, regularly, in Sunday School). Even at best, by approaching them with a fixed idea as to what we are trying to learn about, we limit our interaction with the Scriptures by depriving them of the opportunity to surprise us, to teach us something new or to correct us, to speak to us of something unexpected. I believe the Scriptures – the same passage even – can be an inexhaustible reservoir of divine wisdom, yet by approaching them with only a particular theme in mind we can lose the opportunity to hear God teach us about something different that he needs us to learn. We limit what we can learn by deciding in advance what we are going to learn about. We cut ourselves off from all that those scriptures can teach us.

3) We restrict our reading to those passages that appear to ‘fit’ the theme, neglecting the rest of Scripture

A thematic approach can cause us to deprive ourselves from learning all a particular passage can teach us. It also – since it invariably involves reading only those passages that are considered to ‘fit’ a particular theme – can and usually does involve neglecting the rest of the Scriptures. Certain favourite verses are read again and again. Other passages, no less lacking in divine inspiration and in all that they have to teach us, are not read at all. We thus miss many parts of scripture, many of which are not only valuable and precious, but are essential.

Consider the Sunday School reading schedule, which in many respects is caught between thematic and other approaches depending on the year (with the D&C year at one end of the extreme, and the Book of Mormon at the other). During the Old Testament year, the reading schedule for Isaiah involves reading Isaiah 1-6, a selection of verses from 22-30 and 32, 40-56 and 63-65. Chapters 7-21, 31-39, 57-62 and chapter 66 are missed completely. Even if we were to count 22-30 as being read (which they aren’t, when one considers the reading covers only one verse, say, in chapters 22-23), that leaves 31 chapters of Isaiah that are never covered. Were one to leave one’s scripture reading up to that schedule (and sadly some do, and some don’t even do that), they would never read those chapters. And yet Isaiah is not only the one book especially recommended by the Saviour, but he gives us a commandment to read it (3 Nephi 31:1). When a set of themes are adopted as our primary approach to scripture, such precious portions are left out. We content ourselves with reading a few preselected passages and miss the rest. And that rest can well be life-changing and life-giving. They might even help us understand – quelle surprise – those bits we do read.

Limiting ourselves to only a portion of available truth can mislead us. One can see in this in how we see God. In the 17th century, men were so caught up in his wrath and his justice that they forgot his love and mercy, and so often failed to show the same to others. In the present age we often talk about his love and compassion, and are prone to neglect his justice and righteousness, and hatred of sin, and so fail to teach and live those standards that are necessary to prepare us to enter his presence. When we only read certain scriptures, and not others, we leave ourselves open to being misguided or deceived.

Even if we escape this, however, what certainly does happen is that by confining ourselves to only a portion of scripture we deprive ourselves of experiencing the full blessings it has to offer us. We cut ourselves off from all that it has to teach us. We pick the lessons we learn from those passages we do read, and of course we cannot learn anything from that which we don’t read. And God has given us such a range of scripture for a reason. God did not give us an inspired Gospel principles manual, though He very well could have done. He chose instead to give us the scriptures he did, with the promise that more was to come as we accept, use, believe and obey that which we already have. We cannot become ready to receive more if we reject – even from simple neglect – that which we already have.

Reading and studying the scriptures is not a simple matter of trying to learn particular ‘facts’ about God and the Gospel. It is a spiritual discipline, to which we must apply our whole souls, and which in return our whole souls can be strengthened. We cannot simply condense and communicate those ‘facts’ to people, or give them the ‘cliff notes’, and expect it to benefit anyone because that is not where the blessings come from. The blessings come as we apply our minds, and our faith to the word of God, and in return a channel of spiritual communication is opened which can guide us and empower us. An approach to scripture that leads us to limit what we can learn, and leads us to avoid whole portions of the word that God has given us, deprives us of the full stream of revelation that is contained within it. Let us not narrow our reading of His word, but seek instead to learn from the whole counsel of God, to learn from all that He has given us and so be open to all the blessings He has to give us.

A Psalm

O Lord My God,
I shall praise thee in the morning
and in the evening.
I shall praise thee amongst hope
and amongst the blackest shoals of despair.

I am encompassed round about,
I am assailed on all sides,
yet I shall praise thee
for I know that thou art over all,
and orderest all things for our good.

Deliver me, O Lord,
from my afflictions and my enemies.
I know not what to do,
or where to go,
and feel beyond hope,
yet I know that thou wilt aid those without aid.
Thou art the final refuge,
and a sure redoubt,
against all the efforts of the enemy
and against all failings of the heart.

O Lord I desire to serve thee,
and greatly desire to do thy will.
Yet I stumble,
and fail thee,
and much is beyond my power.
Forgive thou my weaknesses,
and grant me strength to accomplish all that thou dost desire
and to become all that thou wouldst.

I am alone,
and my strength faileth.
My heart aches,
and I see no succor.
Yet I know that thy hand is mighty.
Help me, I pray thee.
Comfort my soul,
and ease my pains.
Make me to see thy aid
and that of thy servants,
that I might praise thee
and acknowledge all thy goodness,
and pour out thy comforting spirit upon me
and grant me thy peace.

Make me to serve thee,
and to dwell in thy rest,
and grant me thy hope
in all the blessings that thou hast promised.

Jacob and self-loathing

When I see a lot of academic attempts at looking at the Scriptures, including a lot of recent LDS attempts, I am reminded of the difference between interesting and important. Some stuff doesn’t even reach the level of interesting, of course, but some stuff does and I like thinking about it – things like chronology and so on.

But that isn’t really the point of the scriptures, as much fun as those things can be. Likewise things like historical issues can largely fall into this area. Knowing people existed and so their testimonies are real is important of course – otherwise the additional witness of Christ as presented by those of 3 Nephi 11:15 or Moroni’s own witness in Ether 12:39 is meaningless. But the exact cultural and geographical context, and things like that isn’t the important thing. What is important is that the scriptures are the word of God, containing revelation from him, that is meant to both kindle faith and change our lives. If we read or study the scriptures and come across nothing that affects our own lives, we have wasted our time.

There’s lots of ways we can encourage that, but one I’ve been reminded of lately is captured by the statement of Brigham Young that “Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so…” (DBY, 128). I feel that one thing we can do is to find ourselves in the scriptures, by studying and then learning from the examples, both good and bad, we find within. When I read the lives of these individuals, I often find myself seeing things I can learn – examples to emulate, to beware and sometimes to endure. One of the reasons I love the Old Testament is what I learn from the people in it, and how honest the book is about human predicaments. The Book of Mormon is in some ways quite different from the Old Testament, and tends to be a lot less subtle about conveying its major points, but it can also be very sophisticated, much more than is recognised, about what it is saying about the people within it.

Copyright 2014 by Elspeth Young, All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Al Young Studios.

So I turn to the example provoking this post – namely Jacob, the brother of Nephi. He is such a different person in his voice from Nephi that I’m surprised not to see more comments on it. Nephi, while he does have his burdens (see 2 Nephi 4:15-35), carries in himself in a quite bombastic, enthusiastic and determined way, to the extent that I have often joked that I don’t know I would have liked him if I had known him. Jacob however comes across as a very different individual.

Jacob, for one thing, is very sensitive to the feelings of those to whom he preaches. While Nephi, faced with his brothers comments, meets them with the truthful but blunt ‘the guilty taketh the truth to be hard’ (1 Nephi 15:2), Jacob is almost solicitous in his comment that “…behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up souls if you were pure?’ (2 Nephi 9:47). Jacob’s sensitivity extends to concern that his necessary words may hurt the feelings of those of his audience who are the victims, rather than the commissioners of sin:

…it grieveth me that I must use so much boldness of speech concerning you, before your wives and your children… it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea the word which healeth the wounded soul. Wherefore it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained… to admonish you according your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of healing and consoling their wounds; and those who have been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds. (Jacob 2:7-10)

There is no other passage in the Book of Mormon quite like this.

However, what I find most striking about Jacob is what I see as his lack of self-assurance. Contrast his comments to Sherem with Alma’s confrontation with Korihor. Alma is typically robust: ‘This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.’ (Alma 30:49). Jacob however is keen to emphasise that the decision is not in his hands: ‘Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine.’ (Jacob 7:14).

Yet perhaps the clearest expression of this comes in 2 Nephi 9, where Jacob is talking of the Final Judgement:

Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness. (2 Nephi 9:14)

Perhaps unnoticed here amid the terror of the concept of a perfect memory is that Jacob includes himself (‘we’ and ‘our’) amongst the wicked. Yet there is nothing we know that would agree with that assessment – quite the opposite when one factors not only his teachings but his revelations and encounters with angels (2 Nephi 10:3, Jacob 4:6). Yet it seems he mentally cannot bring himself to class himself amongst the righteous. When one adds his closing words, the impression is of a man that – despite his undoubted righteousness – did not always feel happy and may well have felt quite insecure about himself:

…the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days. (Jacob 7:26)

All this is built to some degree on some slender threads, but it does speak to a sometimes common dilemma. Jacob’s self perception appears to have been at odds with his actual standing as an individual and with God. And for some of us that can be an issue – that however much we know of God’s will, and however much we might actually be serving at that time, we still feel deeply inadequate: unsure of our standing before God or those we care about, and all too conscious of at least some of our mortal frailties, and perhaps deeply afraid that people will finally see us the way we see ourselves, or worse that we have whole other faults we’re completely unaware of but that everyone else really is. And while God is certainly capable of piercing those feelings – and on occasion does – many of the well-meaning suggestions people have for dealing with such feelings fall short.

If my reading is right, Jacob – like others – may have struggled with such feelings all his life. Yet what his example can teach us is that despite what he may have felt, he served courageously anyway. And despite what he may have felt, we know differently, and can be sure that God feels differently, and perhaps we can hope that he now knows differently, and knows as he is known (1 Corinthians 13:12). And for those of us who do struggle with such feelings, perhaps we can remember that some of God’s noblest children may have felt the same, yet were wrong. That our self perception is flawed, that despite our inadequacies and fears we can serve, and serve well, and that in the final accounting before God may see things quite differently, and far more kindly, than we can imagine.

Edit: Embarassing mind blip removed!

What are the humanities for?

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, so I’m going to try and rectify that!

humanOne matter that has been on my mind has been the state of academia, and the humanities in particular. I doubt it is any surprise to those that know me that I am often highly sceptical of the academy in the general and the value of much of what is produced. Between a ‘publish and perish’ culture that encourages publication even of dross, the pursuit of esoteric subjects with little wider import and readerships that often factor in the single figures, much of what academia – especially the humanities – accomplishes appears irrelevant to anyone outside the ivory tower. That those inside the ivory tower sometimes have trouble grasping this point is part of the trouble. It’s one thing to believe that you are engaged in a disinterested search for knowledge, but when what is produced are conjectures about esoteric subjects few people care about, when you fail to communicate these things to virtually anyone else (and those who do read do so to disagree), and where the existence of absolute truth is commonly denied, it’s really hard to see that being the case. And since the humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence – both as courses for students to study, and departments to occupy university and government funding – I don’t think I’m the only one to wonder what good the humanities do.

So I was thinking about these things, and I guess about the wider purpose of the so-called humanities. There are many issues, such as over-specialisation, and the growth of arcane terminology intended to cloud rather than clarify meaning, but one issue is that so much of the humanities appears pointless, except for activities to do in humanities departments. One thing that seems clear to me is that the sciences (especially the harder sciences) retain some outside respect and relevance because much of their research and teaching has an effect on the wider world. Much of it has ultimately practical consequences that go far beyond the ivory tower.

However, it’s not like the humanities can easily offer that sort of thing. Studies of history, or theology, or literature  or so on do not at first sight appear to offer practical implications. And it is not enough to have some – in order to be consequential, there must always be something that can answer the ‘so what’ question. Okay, you have presented your theory, or your research or your conclusions – so what? Where there is consideration of it, it’s often at the service of the narrow identity politics so popular in academia, but so alien to life as actually lived. And to much of the rest of the humanities, the only answer to that question is polite applause and a few questions at a conference, and then everyone goes home to never think or remember about that topic again, let alone real consequences in the outside world – for the rest of humanity.

Yet I believe there is scope to answer that question. Part of the problem has been the conception of the humanities as a gaining of knowledge (even as the very concept of objective knowledge has been undermined). But the mere collection of abstract knowledge, sometimes of such narrow topics can never successfully answer the ‘so what’ question. But what if there was a different understanding of what study of these topics could offer us – a study of the collected record of humanity’s thoughts, writings and actions? What if rather than just seeking knowledge about how humans live and have lived, we see it as an opportunity to gain wisdom – to learn how human beings can live well. What if we seek to learn and teach not just to add to our knowledge, but to guide our actions, to learn from the follies and mistakes of mankind, to learn what works, to be inspired by its truest thoughts, and to be better than we otherwise are?

I don’t know if the academic humanities as presently constituted can make that step, consumed as it is by its own interests, content as it is in its own introversion and uncertain as it is to the nature of truth. But on a personal level I can certainly try to address that question in what I do, particularly when looking at things like the scriptures, lumped as they presently are in the humanities. For if they are inspired, if they are of God (and they are), the most important questions about them are not of history, but of their present implications for my behaviour and my actions. When I look at them, ‘so what’ should be the foremost question in my mind.

Wise Men from the East

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

(Matthew 2:1-2)

This obviously strikes a seasonal note, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently. The story itself has had a long influence, including on ideas of gift giving and more recently in things like Henry Van Dyke’s story of “The Other Wise Man”, which perhaps encapsulates best in fictional form much of the real point of the whole thing.

However, I’ve been thinking a bit about the actual wise men themselves. Generally biblical studies tends to disregard them as fictional, as part of an overall scepticism towards the gospel narratives, but as anyone following this this blog will be aware, that’s not an approach I share. More recently I’ve come across claims of the mythicists (that is those who take the position that there was no such historical person as Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was invented out of Egyptian and Classical myth – very much a minority position), that is is some reference to an ‘alignment’ between the three stars on Orion’s belt (claimed to be called “the three kings” in Egyptian mythology, although I can only find reference to that name in modern languages) and Sirius on December the 25th – however, aside from the astronomical issues, this clearly ignores the fact that the Gospel of Matthew does not refer to three visitors (the number coming into the tradition from adding up the gifts), nor refer to them as kings. Furthermore, the nativity account precedes the actual attaching of a festival to the 25th of December by several centuries – the date is a late addition essentially for ecclesiastical convenience, not the actual anniversary. So this latter position relies on some myth making of its own.

Yet if one accepts the actual existence of the wise men, the question arises as to their identity. Where did they come from? There is little information in Matthew – that they were from the east and were ‘magi’ (Greek: μάγοι magoi, translated ‘wise men’ in the KJV). The latter term has suggested connections with Zoroastrianism, but the Greek use of the term had taken on a much wider definition many centuries before the Gospels. Some translations take this (along with the star connection) as referring to astrologers, but they are also subsequently warned by God in a dream to avoid Herod (Matt. 2:12), indicating there knowledge was not that obtained solely through stargazing. Even the timeframe is unclear – contrary to Nativities everywhere, that Hero’s killed all male children two years and younger may suggest a visit almost several years after Christ was born.

As a little thought for the season, I’d like to add one highly speculative possibility for Latter-day Saints: That at least some were connected with Book of Mormon peoples. We read in Helaman 16:14, a few short years before the birth of Christ:

And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

This verse has clear connection with the nativity accounts (with angels bringing ‘glad tidings of great joy’), and makes specific reference to ‘wise men’. However we also have some possible specific candidates. Samuel the Lamanite, after prophesying a specific time frame of 5 years for the birth of Christ and prophesying a ‘new star’ as one of signs of this (Hel. 14:2, 5), subsequently returns to his own people and then ‘he was never heard of more among the Nephites’ (Hel. 16:8). Likewise, Nephi son of Helaman, the year prior to the birth of Christ (and perhaps leaving time a little tight for any trips not involving supernatural assistance – though remember the extra timeframe!) passes the records to his son Nephi and then ‘he departed out of the land, and whither he went, no man knoweth’ (3 Nephi 1:2-3); unlike his great grandfather Alma, who pulled a similar trick over half a century earlier, there is no suggestion in the text here of possible translation.

Were Book of Mormon figures involved, this might also explain the facet of the story where the wise men turn up at the court of Herod in Jerusalem asking where the Messiah is born, a question Herod must ask the Chief Priests and Scribes who give the correct answer (Bethlehem) by referring to Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6). But since the only person to quote Micah in the Book of Mormon appears to be the risen Christ (3 Nephi 20-21), the people of the Book of Mormon may not have had Micah, leaving them without a vital clue. What they would have had is Alma 7:10, which prophesies Christ will be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’. This has been a frequent target for critics, who have failed to note that it specifies ‘land of our forefathers’. This is consistent both with the Book of Mormon’s habit of naming lands after their chief cities, and with Bethlehem being a village in walking distance of Jerusalem, but it would also have left travellers in need of an extra little information.

Thus, while extremely speculative, this idea does account for certain details of the story. However, I like to think that the strongest argument in its favour comes from a psychological angle. If the account be true, these men knew one of the greatest events in human history was about to occur. They knew when, and with a little uncertainty knew roughly where, and knew few others would be able to witness this. If you were in that position, wouldn’t you try to go?