Christianity vs Mormonism: Atheist Bob Seidensticker Cross-Examined

Paul Cézanne, Apples and Oranges (ca. 1900)

Bob Seidensticker is an atheist with a blog at Patheos called Cross Examined. Two days ago (May 20, 2020), another atheist blogger at Patheos, Jonathan M.S. Pearce, posted “Using Common Sense to Not See God: Christianity versus Mormonism,” part of a chapter by Seidensticker in a 2017 book that Pearce edited called Not Seeing God: Atheism in the 21st Century. His thesis is that Christians don’t care about evidence because if they did they would accept Mormonism:

Many Christians declare that they don’t hold their religious beliefs just because they were born into a Christian environment. No, they believe because of the evidence. Let’s test that claim. If they believe because of evidence, they should accept claims that are better evidenced than those of Christianity such as those of Mormonism. The claims of Mormonism have just such a historical record.

Well! I just happen to have published a book two months ago that addresses this very argument: Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism.[1] As I point out in the first chapter, Mormons and skeptics are using a very similar argument. Both start from the same premise: that the evidence for Mormonism is just as good as if not better than the evidence for Christianity. From this premise, Mormons conclude that Christians ought to accept Mormonism, while skeptics conclude that Christians ought to reject Christianity. Seidensticker is thus using an argument that has become rather popular among atheists, whose skepticism is aimed primarily at evangelical Christianity. So, let’s take a look at his argument.

Judging from the skeptic’s piece, apparently I am doing this blogging thing all wrong. There is not a single reference to any source—primary or secondary—in the entire post. I counted perhaps half a dozen specific factual assertions (depending on how rigorously one uses the word specific), none of them backed up with any sources. There are general, dismissive remarks made about the four Gospels and a couple of comments about the Book of Mormon. Yet Seidensticker apparently thinks he has shown that the evidence for Mormonism, such as it is, is better than the evidence for Christianity. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, anyone can seem rational if he doesn’t have to bother with facts.

Documents: First-Century Christianity vs. Nineteenth-Century Mormonism

The core of Seidensticker’s argument consists of a series of issues on which he contends that Mormonism has better evidence than Christianity. The first is “number and breadth of documents.” Mormonism has a much larger corpus of documents pertaining to its early history than does Christianity. Indeed it does! Mormonism arose in the nineteenth century, when literacy was far more advanced (in some ways) than in the first century, and when books, newspapers, and other materials could be printed cheaply. As I point out in my book, “Despite Joseph’s relative lack of literary sophistication and his customary use of scribes (one way in which he and Paul were alike), his literary output in seventeen years (1827–44) was many times greater than Paul’s literary output in a comparable period of time (ca. AD 48–65).”[2] This difference actually accentuates the problems that arise in the documents pertaining to Mormon origins. With a much larger and more diverse corpus of documents at our disposal, one would expect (if Mormonism were true) that we would have abundant documentary evidence corroborating the most important and verifiable elements of Joseph’s story. Such is not the case. Instead, we have radically differing accounts of Joseph’s first vision from Joseph himself (differing on essential elements, not minutia) and external documentation directly undermining key claims Joseph made (e.g., regarding the unusual revival he said led to his vision in early 1820, as well as the intense persecution he said he suffered for many years due to that vision).[3] Somehow, Seidensticker managed to trumpet the supposedly superior documentary sources for Mormonism without mentioning the conflicting accounts that Joseph produced or the fact that the LDS Church suppressed one of those accounts (the 1832 account in Joseph’s own handwriting) for over a century.

Seidensticker also asserts under this first point, “Some of these accounts of the events in the early Mormon church were written within days or even hours of the events,” in contrast, no doubt, to the gap between events and written accounts about them in the Bible. The statement is true but misleading, because those events with near-immediate records are of relatively minor significance. The accounts of the foundational events of Mormonism were written years after they supposedly happened. Notoriously, there is no account of the First Vision (dated 1820) written until 1832, and no account was made public until 1840 (by early Mormon writer Orson Pratt).[4] In that period, Joseph managed to dictate the Book of Mormon and hundreds of revelations that were published as Doctrine and Covenants, another Mormon scripture.

Seidensticker poses this same faulty comparison as a separate point with the heading “oral history gap.” The Gospels were written, he says, “perhaps forty to sixty years” after the events they document, only after a period of oral tradition. Mormonism, though, supposedly “spent no time in the limbo of oral tradition.” That’s more or less true but a liability, not an asset: there was no oral tradition regarding the First Vision because the only person who supposedly had the vision was the same person who waited over a decade before trying out different stories about it in writing. In the meantime, as best we can tell, he did not talk about it to others, so there was no “oral tradition” about it at all.

Oddly, Seidensticker makes the remark, “The Book of Mormon was committed to paper immediately, which means no time for the story to grow into legend with the retelling.” Frankly, this makes me wonder how much he knows about Mormonism. Joseph claimed to have the gold plates in 1827, dictated over a hundred pages that were then lost, and then dictated a new text in 1829. The story might well have changed during those two years. More to the point, the story was supposedly about the histories of people living in the ancient Americas, ending in AD 421—over 1,800 years before Joseph produced the English text. If there was no time for the story to grow into legend, it is because it started out as fiction!

Copies: Ancient Biblical Manuscripts vs. Mormon Publications

The second comparison concerns the “time gap from original to our best copies.” Here Seidensticker makes the easy point that our earliest Greek copies of the New Testament books date a century or more after they were originally written, whereas the Mormon scriptures were published within a few years after they were written. That is another (generally) true but highly misleading statement—and its truth actually undermines the credibility of Mormonism in a big way:

  • The Book of Mormon was indeed published a year after it was composed. The problem is that the Book of Mormon was published in 1830 but claims to have been composed between 600 BC and AD 421!
  • The Book of Abraham was composed between 1835 and 1842 and was published in AD 1842, but Joseph Smith claimed it was written some 3,500 years earlier.[5]
  • Similarly, the Book of Moses was dictated in AD 1830–31, published in part in 1851 and more completely in 1878, but claims to have been a first-person account from Moses, meaning it claims to have been written over 3,000 years earlier.

We have zero copies of any of these three alleged ancient scriptures in any language prior to Joseph’s dictated manuscripts in the nineteenth century. The one extant manuscript is something of a smoking gun for Mormonism’s falsehood: The Joseph Smith Papyri fragments include portions of the manuscript he claimed to have translated in the Book of Abraham, but it turns out to be a pagan Egyptian funerary text from about the second century BC.[6]

On the other hand, the gap of one or two centuries between the composition of the New Testament books and our earliest copies is an extremely narrow one as compared to what is typical for ancient works of literature. Moreover, Seidensticker’s claim that the time gap for the New Testament manuscripts “means a long dark period during which undetected ‘improvements’ could’ve been made to the text” is unjustified. We have more than a dozen manuscript fragments from ca. AD 125–225, including complete or nearly complete copies of seven of the epistles and almost all of the Gospel of John. We also have roughly sixty manuscripts from ca. 225–300, including most of the texts of the Gospels and whole copies of other New Testament books. These manuscripts are sufficient for scholars to determine what sorts of changes the scribes made. We also have enough copies that were made independently of one another to be able to detect any “improvements” that scribes made, because they show up in some but not all manuscripts.[7] Like most skeptics, Seidensticker implicitly assumes that the second-century church was a monolithic ecclesiastical power that controlled the copying process and imposed its preferred wording on the texts. Nothing could be further from the truth: the church had no centralized authority and no political or economic power to manage let alone control the transmission of the New Testament texts.[8]

Cultures: The “Aramaic” Jesus and the Anglo-American Joseph

Seidensticker next claims that the New Testament was “one culture removed from the oral Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus” because the Gospels were written in Greek, whereas the accounts of Mormon origins by the first Mormons were written “in our own language,” that is, in English. It apparently did not occur to Seidensticker that this comparison works only for English readers. If your first language is Spanish, sorry—you don’t have access to the original cultural expressions of Mormonism.

About that “Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus”: Aramaic was a language, not a culture. The Jewish people in Judea, Galilee, and neighboring regions generally did speak Aramaic, but many if not most of them could speak in Greek, and in any case there was no difficulty talking and writing about Jewish beliefs in Greek, Latin, or any other language.

According to Seidensticker, because the Gospels were written in Greek, “They can only document the Christian tradition within Greek culture, a culture suffused with tales of dying-and-rising gods, virgin births, and other miraculous happenings.” This claim is so ridiculous that it is embarrassing. News flash: Jews could speak and write in Greek. Most people in the Mediterranean world were bilingual (including the majority who were technically illiterate), speaking their native language and either Greek or Latin (or both). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, did not need to create whole new stories for Greek readers in place of the original Hebrew accounts.

As for the “tales of dying-and-rising gods” business, frankly, the claim that Jesus was a “copycat savior” created from bits and pieces of ancient mythological figures (in another post Seidensticker lists Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal[9]) is itself a myth. Jesus was a real historical man: that is certain fact. Jesus actually died by crucifixion: that is also certain fact. His Jewish followers (all Aramaic speakers!) very soon after his death became convinced that he had risen from the dead: again, this is bedrock historical fact.[10]

As for Mormonism, it is all too easy to show the cultural mismatch between the Book of Mormon and its alleged ancient cultural setting in the Americas. The Book of Mormon has prophets predicting the coming of Jesus using language straight out of the New Testament in the King James Version. They preach sermons modeled on the revivalist preaching of Methodist and other Protestant evangelists and pastors in the Second Great Awakening. Its pages address such issues as paid clergy, whether infants should be baptized, whether God had ceased to grant miracles or to bestow supernatural gifts. The cultural familiarity of all these elements to modern readers is a selling point from the Mormons’ point of view, but from the perspective of an historian they are compelling evidence against the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. The culture “gap” between us and the Bible is actually a good thing, because it confirms the authenticity of the Bible as a collection of writings from antiquity.

Eyewitnesses: The Gospels vs. the Witnesses to the Gold Plates

Seidensticker makes the common claim that the four Gospels “don’t claim to be eyewitness accounts.” That is more or less true for the first three, but not for the Gospel of John (19:35; 21:24-25). The Gospel of Luke does not claim to be by an eyewitness—indeed, Luke expressly distinguishes himself from the eyewitnesses—but it does claim to be based on eyewitness testimonies (Luke 1:1-4). There is ample evidence to support that claim.[11]

As a supposed contrast to the Gospels, Seidensticker points out that twelve men (whose names we know) gave eyewitness testimony that they had seen the gold plates. These would be Joseph Smith and the two groups of men he hand-picked to be witnesses to the plates (a group of three and another group of eight). Yes, those twelve men all claimed to have seen the gold plates. Without getting into the particulars—which erode any confidence in these testimonies[12]—suppose the groups of three and eight witnesses did see some metal plates that Joseph had. Does this mean that the plates were ancient plates produced by Israelite prophets living in the Americas? Does it mean that they contained texts written in Reformed Egyptian? The eleven witnesses had no knowledge about these things. The eight witnesses reported that the plates had curious markings or engravings on them, but they had no way of knowing if the engravings were a genuine language and said anything meaningful at all, let alone if they contained the narratives of the Book of Mormon.

All of the really important, foundational events of Mormonism were “witnessed” (if they happened at all) either by Joseph Smith alone or by Joseph and a few men he selected. If the First Vision happened, it happened to Joseph alone. If Moroni made his many visits to Joseph between 1823 and 1829, no one else saw him. The three and eight witnesses had one opportunity each to see the plates, with Joseph present, at a time and place he chose. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, for example, is nothing like this. All sorts of people reported seeing the risen Jesus, on various occasions, with no advance preparation, individually or in differing groups. The evidence of eyewitness testimony is much, much stronger for Christianity than it is for Mormonism.[13]

Provenances: New Testament Authors vs. Joseph Smith

This next argument is a strange one. “The New Testament books were written by ordinary people, not by God himself, or even angels. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was told by an angel about the golden plates, from which the Book of Mormon was written. That his source document was vetted by an angel says a lot about the quality of what he started with (or at least it beats the claims of traditional Christianity).” This comparison is so bad it can’t even be called an apples-to-oranges comparison. Indeed, ordinary men wrote the New Testament books, but one thing everyone seems to acknowledge is that Joseph Smith was also an ordinary man. Yes, Joseph said that an angel told him about the gold plates; but the authors of the New Testament books said that Jesus appeared to them (or to the apostles with whom they were associated, in the case of Mark and Luke).

Seidensticker calls this comparison a matter of “provenance.” His use of this word is especially peculiar. When talking about texts, provenance refers to the place of origin or the known history of the text (or of the manuscripts we have for it). When it comes to provenance, what we know about the New Testament texts authenticates them in a way that a reasonable Mormon could only wish were the case for Joseph’s allegedly ancient texts. Based on internal evidence cross-referenced with external sources, we can date most of Paul’s epistles to within a year or so (with some uncertainty for a couple of them). Our manuscript evidence for Paul’s epistles is especially good, as mentioned earlier, since we have copies of most of them from AD 300 or earlier. We also know the locations (the cities) of the churches to which those epistles were sent and in several cases where Paul was when he wrote them.[14] Even for the six Pauline epistles that many scholars dispute Paul wrote, scholars universally agree that they originated from the same region and in the first century. For the rest of the New Testament, we have varying levels of detailed knowledge of their origins, which is actually what we would expect when dealing with ancient texts. Nevertheless, scholars across a broad spectrum, Christian and non-Christian, date all of the New Testament writings to within a century or less of Jesus’ crucifixion (and most or all of them within seventy years or so of that event).[15]

The situation is far different for the supposedly ancient scriptures Joseph Smith delivered to the world. Even Mormons disagree among themselves as to which part of the Americas was the region in which the Book of Mormon authors lived and wrote. Locations in North America, South America, and Central America all have their defenders today. There is no evidence for the existence of the Book of Mormon prior to the late 1820s. The situation is even worse for the Book of Abraham, which does not correspond to the text on the surviving papyrus Joseph claimed to translate, and for the Book of Moses, for which Joseph did not bother even claiming to have any manuscript or ancient copy.

Martyrs: The Apostles vs. Joseph Smith

Seidensticker questions the historical evidence for the deaths of the apostles as martyrs. As I detail in my book, “We may confidently conclude that at least four of the apostles were martyred (Simon Peter, James the son of Zebedee, James the Lord’s brother, and Paul) and likely at least two others (Andrew and Thomas).”[16] We have plausible information about the martyrdoms of four other apostles, but not strong evidence. As do Mormons, Seidensticker compares the apostles’ willingness to die for their testimonies to the death of Joseph Smith (and one could add his brother Hyrum). The problem here is that Joseph’s death had nothing whatsoever to do with the First Vision, Moroni’s visits, or the Book of Mormon. A mob stormed the jail and killed Joseph and Hyrum because of issues arising from Joseph’s actions as the political ruler in Nauvoo, including the reports of his polygamy and his ordering the destruction of a dissident newspaper.

Christianity is true not merely because some of the apostles died as martyrs, but because the totality of the evidence, including their martyrdom but also many other things, shows that it is true. By contrast, the senseless action of the mob that killed Joseph and Hyrum proves only that mobs can be senseless. It does nothing to substantiate even Joseph’s sincerity, let alone the truth of his religious claims.

Naysayers: The Empty Tomb vs. Empty Claims

Seidensticker says that Christian apologists argue “that if the Jesus story were false, naysayers of the time would have snuffed it out,” and he asserts that Mormons could say the same thing about their religion. His argument here is so vague as to be pointless. Let’s be specific. Suppose Jesus was crucified (as virtually all historians acknowledge). Then suppose that some days or weeks later, Jesus’ followers began proclaiming a complete fiction that Jesus had risen from the dead. Christians often point out that if there had been nothing to the Resurrection story, people at the time could have pointed out that Jesus’ dead body was still, well, dead. Now, there are ways around this argument for those who are skeptically inclined, but the point is a valid one in the context of the evidence we have for Jesus’ burial and for the origins of the Christian movement in Jerusalem.

Consider the Mormon origins story by contrast. None of its major claims were public events (as the Crucifixion was, for example), and most of its major claims involved only one witness (Joseph Smith). There was no way that anyone could “snuff out” the story of the First Vision by saying, “Hey, I was there in the woods with Joseph in 1820, and I didn’t see the Father and the Son!” When Joseph did have others present for his founding acts, he was always in control. So, for example, he dictated his “translation” of the gold plates either behind a curtain of some kind or (as he evidently did later) with his face buried in a hat containing a stone that he said revealed the text of his translation to him.

Testable: Christianity vs. Mormonism

Seidensticker concludes by asserting that the Book of Mormon makes testable claims, though they can be falsified, whereas Christianity supposedly does not. What? Has he even read the Bible? The Bible makes hundreds of testable assertions of fact that can and have been tested by archaeologists. Many, many of these statements of fact have been confirmed through the study of external evidence. A fair number of the Bible’s historical statements remain disputed, especially for matters of more distant antiquity (three thousand or more years ago, especially for the periods of the patriarchs and Moses). Here again, that is exactly what we would expect. Naturally, the further back in time the reported events, the less external evidence we will have, and the more difficult it will be to interpret the evidence.

Christians have nothing to fear from a comparison of the evidence for their beliefs with the evidence for Mormonism. In such a comparison, done fairly and with the relevant specific information, Christianity comes out far, far ahead.

NOTES


[1] Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa: DeWard, 2020).

[2] Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 293.

[3] Relevant primary-source documents are available at the Joseph Smith Papers website and in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003). See further Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, chap. 8, and the numerous references cited there.

[4] Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840).

[5] History of the Church 6:76-77.

[6] See Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. P. JS 1-4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq, with contributions by Marc Coenen, H. Michael Marquardt, and Christopher Woods (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011).

[7] On the study of the New Testament texts and manuscripts, see Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger, eds., The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Stanley E. Porter, How We Got the New Testament: Text, Transmission, Translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, ed. Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).

[8] See Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

[9] Bob Seidensticker, “Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior,” Cross Examined (Patheos blog), April 16, 2014.

[10] See Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 49–71, 97–103, and the references cited there.

[11] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).

[12] See Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 206–220.

[13] Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 298–305.

[14] For the details on these matters, see, for example, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993); John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook, Handbooks for NT Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012); David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

[15] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, editor-in-chief, 6 Vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992); Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016); Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[16] Bowman, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, 152. The evidence has been competently and fairly examined in Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015).

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