Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A tale of two tomes - Jesus' Resurrection and Joseph's Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism vs. First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins



A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Robert M. Bowman’s, Jesus' Resurrection and Joseph's Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism—a book I had ordered after discovering its existence during my recent studies into Joseph Smith’s 'First Vision’ (see this thread). I completed the book the day after it arrived, and became resolved to publish a post to bring the tome to the attention of AF readers; but before doing so, thought it prudent to order a book Bowman had referenced that I had yet to read: Steven C. Harper's First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins.

It took me over a week to read Harper’s heavily referenced tome—nearly 700 notes—spending hours each day checking a number of the works referenced, completing the book itself this last Tuesday morning. These two recent works clearly have diametrically opposing views concerning Joseph Smith's 'First Vision', though both authors acknowledge the importance of this event concerning the origins of the LDS Church. With this in mind, I would now like to share some musings on both tomes, beginning with Bowman’s contribution.

Bowman’s book is in a sense two books—the first half being a solid defense of the historicity of Jesus Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead; and the second half, a negative critique of Joseph Smith’s visions. From the publishers website, we read:

Just as the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christianity, the visions of Joseph Smith are the foundation of Mormonism. In Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, Robert Bowman compares the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection with the evidence for Joseph’s visions, showing how the historical data confirm the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, and that the accounts of Joseph Smith’s visions are historically unreliable. For Mormons who have doubts about their religion, this study will help them find a more reliable basis for faith in Christ. For Christians, this study provides a fresh angle on the historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. (link)

As related above, the first half is a solid, treatment defending Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead as a historical reality. It confronts the various theories that have been advanced by skeptics and non-Christians in their attempt to explain away the New Testament’s and early Church Fathers’ affirmation of the resurrection event. An important aspect of Bowman's defense is the use and referencing of a number of recent, full-length works that focus on the historicity of Jesus' resurrection by internationally recognized scholars—e.g. William Lane Craig, Craig Evans, Craig Keener, Michael Licona, Lydia and Timothy McGrew, N. T. Wright—scholars I have a good deal of respect for. After focusing on the Gospel accounts, Bowman then provides an entire chapter (#4) on, “Jesus’ Appearances to Paul”.

With that said—though I personally believe that the first half of the book offers a pretty good defense—I sincerely doubt that it will persuade skeptics and non-Christians to reverse their denial of Jesus’ Christ physical resurrection from dead as a historical reality.

But then, Christians who have been troubled by some of the recent attacks by atheists, agnostics, and liberals—e.g. Richard Carrier, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, John Shelby Spong—on Jesus’ resurrection, will undoubtedly find this section of significant value.

As for the second half, I have mixed feelings. I cannot help but conclude that this section begins with the presupposition that Joseph Smith’s visions did not happen. As such, even though Bowman gives the impression that his evaluation of evidence is objective, it clearly is not. In the introduction, he admits that in, “the broadest sense of the term Christianity, Mormonism is a type of Christianity” (p. 13). But, he follows this up with, “in the somewhat narrower sense used in this book, Mormonism is not a type of Christianity” (ibid.).

Bowman clearly has two differing approaches concerning the historicity of Jesus Christ’s resurrection and Joseph Smith's visions. But with that said, I still believe the second half still has value—especially for those folk who are unaware of the large amount of interest/research that has been taking place concerning a number of historical events that Joseph Smith related, which include: the ‘first vision’, Moroni’s visitations, and the ‘gold’ plates containing the Book of Mormon which he ‘translated'. Bowman’s footnotes demonstrate that he is up to date on the literature that has recently been produced concerning Smith’s claims—both pro and con. The major weakness of this section is his quick dismissal of a number of the solid contributions produced by LDS scholars, especially concerning the ‘first vision’. Concluding assessment: despite its weaknesses, I still think the book is worth reading.

As for Harper’s book, if one has the time to read only one contribution concerning the issue of the ‘first vision’, this is THE book to read. Though the author is LDS, he does not avoid ANY of the controversial issues concerning this topic.

In addition to the Introduction and “Afterword”, the book consists of twenty-eight concise chapters, divided into three parts. Part I, “Joseph Smith’s Memory”, deals with the Smith’s accounts of the ‘first vision’. Part II, “Collective Memory”, delves into how others related the ‘first vision’. It includes an interesting aspect that I do not recall reading of before—it was Orson Pratt who first used the phrase “the first vision” to describe Smith’s 1820 vision of the Father and the Son. Part III, “Contested Memory” examines the negative treatments of the ‘first vision’, and the types of reactions to them. Chapter twenty-seven relates the curious case of Jeremy Runnells. Runnells is the author of the infamous 'CES Letter'. What amazes me about Runnells’ case is that in 2012 he claimed that: “I did not know that there are multiple first vision accounts” (p. 239). Runnells before his apostasy from the LDS Church “was a lifelong Latter-day Saint and ‘fully believing’ former missionary.” What I find interesting is the fact that I fully knew about the multiple first vision accounts in the late 1980s. My knowledge of the multiple accounts came via easily available LDS sources—e.g. Milton Backman’s, Joseph Smith’s First Vision (1971, 1980), Paul Cheesman’s, The Keystone of Mormonism – Early Visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1988), BYU Studies Volume 9.3 (Spring 1969). The multiple accounts have never troubled me, which really makes me wonder why they bothered Runnells so much.

Moving on, Harper’s book is published by Oxford University Press. It is a scholarly work, but a readable one. If one ignores the footnotes, and just reads the main body of the book, it can easily be read in just a few hours. But if one delves into the footnotes as I did, it will take days to finish—I feel fully rewarded for doing so.

In ending, I want to relate that I am quite disappointed that Bowman did not interact with Harper’s book in any real depth—his treatment of it being little more than a mention of the tome. I am going to be on the lookout for future, scholarly dialogue on this informative contribution…

Grace and peace,