Four Contrasts between Joseph Smith’s Four First Vision Accounts and the Four Gospels

Icons of the Four Evangelists

The first article in the recent Book of Mormon Central “Insight” series provides an overview of “Joseph Smith’s Firsthand Accounts of the First Vision.” These include the 1838/1839 canonical account in Joseph Smith–History (part of the collection known as the Pearl of Great Price) and three other accounts given by Joseph, two of them earlier than the canonical account (1832, 1835) and one of them later than it (1842).[1] The main point of this article is to assure Latter-day Saints that the existence of these other accounts, despite any differences between them and the official account, should not be troubling to them. As an analogy meant to underscore this point, the article makes the following comparison between Joseph’s multiple accounts and the four Gospels:

As with the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that narrate the life and teachings of Jesus, the four primary accounts of the First Vision can be read individually to appreciate the nuance and subtle differences that they communicate in each retelling or they can be read together in harmony to appreciate them as an organic whole.

We will consider how nuanced or subtle the differences are among Joseph’s primary accounts as we proceed through this series. There are serious differences among those accounts that cannot plausible “be read together in harmony,” notably regarding what Joseph was seeking to know when he had the vision and who and what Joseph saw. For now, though, we should point out some relevant differences between the Gospels and Joseph’s firsthand accounts.[2]

1. The Gospels had four different authors, unlike Joseph’s firsthand accounts.

As the reader presumably already knows, the four Gospels in the New Testament were produced by four different authors. Although biblical scholars hold differing opinions as to the identity of the authors of the Gospels (none of which actually names its author), everyone agrees that they were four different individuals. By contrast, of course, the firsthand accounts of the First Vision were all produced by Joseph Smith himself.

A more appropriate comparison, one would think, would be between the four Gospels and various accounts by persons other than Joseph.

2. The Gospels were written longer after the events they narrate than Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision.

By the most conservative estimates in contemporary biblical scholarship, the earliest of the Gospels was written in the late 50s, at least 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection in either AD 30 or 33. Most scholars date the Gospels between the 60s and the 90s, which would be roughly 30 to 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection.

On the other hand, Joseph’s firsthand accounts were all written between 1832 and 1842, a narrow period of time 12 to 22 years after the date of the First Vision (1820). Thus, the latest of Joseph’s accounts was written a shorter period of time after the event it narrates than the earliest of the four Gospels.

3. The four First Vision accounts by Joseph Smith are all firsthand accounts, which is not the case with all of the Gospel accounts.

By definition, all of Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision were firsthand accounts and thus present themselves as eyewitness testimonies of what he said he personally witnessed. This is not the case with all of the accounts in the four Gospels.

According to the traditional attributions, the Gospels of Matthew and John were produced by apostles, whereas associates of apostles produced the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Assuming Matthew was in some sense the author of the Gospel that bears his name, he would still not have been giving a firsthand, eyewitness account of everything recorded in his Gospel. Matthew would not have been present during the events leading up to Jesus’ birth and infancy (Matt. 1–2) and probably did not witness most of the events that preceded Matthew’s call to follow Jesus as one of his disciples (Matt. 9:9). The traditional view is that Mark composed his Gospel based on the apostle Peter’s recollections in his oral preaching. Luke explicitly distinguishes himself from the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ earthly life (Luke 1:1-4). Luke makes it clear in that preface that he consulted and used multiple sources in writing his account, and most scholars think that is true of the Gospel of Matthew as well. Only the Gospel of John presents itself as based entirely or even predominantly on the eyewitness testimony of its author (John 19:35; 21:24-25).

4. The Gospels are often narrating different though related events, whereas Joseph’s First Vision accounts all claim to report the very same event.

By definition, those accounts that Mormons recognize as First Vision accounts are accounts of the same event—a specific vision that happened to Joseph on a particular day in 1820. The Gospels, of course, often narrate the same events, and one can see this easily in parallel passages such as the three accounts of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22) or the accounts in all four Gospels of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:33-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14). However, in many cases the Gospels are narrating different though similar events that occurred around the same time but that involved different participants. This is notably true of several of the Resurrection appearances reported in the Gospels:

  • Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene alone (John 20:11-18)
  • Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
  • Jesus appearing to the eleven disciples (and perhaps others) on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20)
  • Jesus appearing to seven of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee (John 21:1-23)

No specific Resurrection appearance is reported in all four of the Gospels.[3] Luke and John do give parallel accounts of Jesus’ first appearance to the men disciples gathered together in the house in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). On the other hand, Matthew does not mention this appearance, reporting instead an appearance in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20). John does have an appearance in Galilee, but it is a different one than Matthew’s (John 21:1-23). It can be very difficult to harmonize these accounts, but that is not surprising since they are about different events that happened to different groups of people, told from different individuals’ perspectives, and written up by different authors. Luke tells us that there were an uncounted number of these appearances that took place during a period of forty days (Acts 1:3).

Why these contrasts between Joseph’s First Vision accounts and the Gospels matter

The relevance of these four contrasts between Joseph’s firsthand accounts of the First Vision and the four Gospels is simple to understand. In light of these contrasts, we would expect it to be easier, not harder, to harmonize Joseph Smith’s accounts than it would be to harmonize the four Gospels’ parallel accounts of a particular event such as Jesus’ crucifixion or burial. Yet such is not the case, as we will see in subsequent posts in this series. The most significant difficulties in harmonizing the Gospels arise when trying to fit together different events narrated in different Gospels, such as the various appearances of Jesus to differing individuals and groups found in Matthew, Luke, and John. Such difficulties should not be surprising when the accounts come in different books written by different authors reporting different events.

In the case of the First Vision, on the other hand, we have four accounts written by the same author reporting the same event. Yet the difficulties in harmonizing Joseph’s accounts of the First Vision with one another (as well as with other accounts produced by associates during his lifetime) are far more serious than any such problems in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This is one of several ways in which the historical evidences for Jesus’ resurrection turn out to be much stronger and more secure than the historical evidences for Joseph’s first vision. This point is developed fully in my new book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (DeWard, 2020).

NOTES


[1] For the complete texts of these and other relevant accounts produced during Joseph’s lifetime, see “First Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision,” at the Faith Thinkers website.

[2] For the information presented here about the Gospels, see especially the mainstream textbook by Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical Literary, and Theological Survey, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018); the evangelical textbook by 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); and, for an agnostic scholar’s perspective, Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[3] If we exclude the Long Ending of Mark (16:9-20) as a later addition to the Gospel, as the vast majority of New Testament scholars do, Mark gives no narration of any Resurrection appearances, at least none that has been preserved.

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The Last Word Has Not Been Spoken on the First Vision

Joseph Smith’s First Vision, woodcut by J. Hoey (1873)

According to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), in the early spring of 1820 the Father and the Son appeared to their founder Joseph Smith Jr. when he was a boy. At its General Conference in April 2020, the LDS Church’s leaders commemorated the bicentennial of this event, known as the First Vision, which it believes occurred exactly 200 years ago. The Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, M. Russell Ballard, gave an address at their recent General Conference rehearsing the story,[1] and several other speakers at the conference also commented on the First Vision. The church’s current Prophet, Russell M. Nelson, read a new proclamation entitled “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” in a video recorded in “the Sacred Grove,” the woods near Joseph’s boyhood home where he said he had experienced the First Vision.[2]

In the past three months or so Mormons have produced a flurry of new materials referencing the First Vision. The LDS Church produced a new curriculum manual devoted entirely to the First Vision.[3] The February 2020 issue of the LDS Church’s official flagship magazine, the Ensign, included four articles on the First Vision.[4] Throughout February and March of this year, the pro-LDS organization Book of Mormon Central (BMC) produced a series of twenty “Joseph Smith–History Insight” articles about the First Vision on the related website called Pearl of Great Price Central.[5] On April 3, the BMC website posted a list of the entire series.[6]

Anticipating the attention that the First Vision would receive this year, at the beginning of last year I started work on a book that would, among other things, examine the historical evidence pertaining to the First Vision. That book, Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism, was published late last month (March 2020). One Mormon blogger, Robert Boylan, has already written a lengthy series of posts attacking the book.[7]

In light of the recent spate of materials produced on the First Vision, I will be producing additional resources on the subject to supplement the information presented in my book (which has just one chapter on the First Vision itself). Some of these resources will appear on the Faith Thinkers website, such as the new series of articles on “First Vision Accounts: Primary Sources for Joseph Smith’s Foundational Vision.” That new series presents primary-source accounts of the First Vision from Joseph Smith and his associates with informative notes about textual changes and about the use of the Bible in those accounts. Six of the articles in that series are already online. Other resources will appear here on The Faith Thinker blog.

Book order information: Currently, Amazon has a very limited number of copies of Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions and is estimating about three weeks for shipment. Faith Thinkers now has copies of the book in stock that you can order from us directly. We are working on being listed as an Amazon seller but that might take several days or even longer because of the way things are going there. If you would like to order a copy directly from us, you can do so from our website homepage, https://faiththinkers.org, where you can also get a free excerpt of more than thirty pages from the book.

NOTES


[1] M. Russell Ballard, “Shall We Not Go On in So Great a Cause?” General Conference, April 2020.

[2]Prophet Introduces a New Proclamation to the World: ‘The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” Newsroom (LDS), April 5, 2020.

[3] The First Vision (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020).

[4] “Palmyra, New York, USA”; “Eight Truths from the First Vision”; “Celebrating the Restoration”; and Henry B. Eyring, “The First Vision: A Pattern for Personal Revelation,” Ensign, Feb. 2020.

[5] The articles in this series are all anonymous. Regardless of who authored the articles, they are clearly based mainly on the work of Steven C. Harper, who has emerged in the past several years as the leading LDS historian on the First Vision. Harper’s works on the First Vision are cited in a majority of the articles in the series.

[6] BMC Team, “Twenty Insights and Evidences on Joseph Smith and the First Vision,” Book of Mormon Central (blog), April 3, 2020.

[7] Robert Boylan, “Articles Interacting with Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions (2020),” Scriptural Mormonism (blog), April 6, 2020.

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How Do We Know Jesus Died on the Cross? The Strong Hand in Defense of the Historicity of the Crucifixion

It is surely one of the oddities in the history of human thought that millions of people today deny that Jesus died on the cross. The historical evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate is about as strong as it could be for any historical event in the ancient world. However, today many skeptics and most Muslims dispute this historical fact. We should therefore be prepared to present good reasons in defense of this fact, which is so basic to our hope as Christians (1 Peter 3:15). I can think of no better day to reflect on the evidence than Good Friday.

Four considerations combine to make the case that the death of Jesus on the cross is certain historical fact. You can remember these different evidences by thinking of them as four “aces” in a hand of cards, representing an extremely strong “hand” for the defense of the Crucifixion as historical fact:

  • Accepted as fact in all our ancient sources
  • Accurate information in the Gospel accounts
  • Acknowledged by atheists and other non-Christians
  • Ad hoc nature of alternative theories

It is not necessary for us to have this kind of support for each and every reported fact in the Bible in order for us to be rational in accepting those reports. However, when we do have such evidence, we should point it out to those who challenge the Bible. In this case, the evidence is so strong that we may confidently say that those who deny the historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross are the ones who are not thinking rationally.

Let’s take a look at each of these four considerations. Much of the information here is presented in my new book Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions, which goes into more detail especially regarding the alternative theories.[1]

Accepted as Fact in All Our Ancient Sources

That Christ died on the cross was stated in writing very soon after the fact. Paul refers to Christ’s crucifixion in his early epistles between about AD 48 and 55 (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:17-18, 23; Gal. 6:12, 14), roughly 15 to 25 years after Jesus died.[2] In the context of ancient literacy and technology, having documentary evidence that soon after an event is excellent. Paul in these same epistles says that he was reminding his readers of what he had told them in person about Christ’s crucifixion when he founded their churches (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1). This information pushes the earliest known accounts back even closer to the event.

The death of Christ by crucifixion is as amply attested from a variety of sources as one could ask. Of course, this event is narrated in some detail in all four Gospels (Matt. 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). There are explicit references to Christ’s death on the cross not only in the Gospels and Paul, but also in Acts (2:23, 36; 4:10, etc.), Hebrews (6:6; 12:2), 1 Peter (2:24), and Revelation (11:8). Outside the canonical writings of the New Testament, Christ’s crucifixion is mentioned in the Gospel of Thomas (55) and narrated in the Gospel of Peter (10-22). These apocryphal gospels are usually dated in the early to middle second century but are sometimes thought to preserve earlier traditions.[3] References to Jesus’ crucifixion also occur in the writings of early second-century apostolic fathers such as the Epistle of Barnabas and several of the epistles of Ignatius.[4]

In addition to these multiple references to the crucifixion of Jesus from canonical and noncanonical Christian sources, we also have references in non-Christian literature from the late first and early second centuries. Josephus, a Jewish historian who wrote in the 90s, reported that “Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross” (Antiquities of the Jews 18.63). Tacitus, the Roman historian writing about AD 115-117, mentioned that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus” (Annals 15.44). The expression “the extreme penalty” in this context is clearly a euphemistic reference to crucifixion, since it was intended to be the worst possible way to be killed. Those who doubt not only that Jesus died on the cross but that he even existed have labored strenuously to discount the authenticity of these references, but sober scholarship is simply not on their side.[5]

The bottom line is that Christian (both canonical and noncanonical), Jewish, and pagan Roman authors within less than a century after the fact agreed that Jesus died on the cross. There is no contrary report from any source. In a major 2011 academic, encyclopedic reference work on Jesus, Joel B. Green concluded, “Multiple strands of evidence—from Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources—undergird the claim that among the data available to us regarding Jesus of Nazareth, none is more incontrovertible than his execution on a Roman cross by order of Pontius Pilate.”[6]

Accurate Information in the Gospel Accounts

The Gospels provide detailed information about Jesus’ death by crucifixion that can be corroborated from archaeology and from other external sources. Such information pertains to the who, when, and where of Jesus’ death.

Who: All four Gospels identify Pontius Pilate as the ruler who was responsible for ordering Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt. 27:2-24; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-24; John 18:29–19:22). This fact is confirmed by the epistle of 1 Timothy (6:13), as well as by Josephus and Tacitus. This identification is consistent with the historical evidence that Pilate was the governor of Judea (his official title was “prefect”) from AD 26 to 36.

When: We can narrow down the date when Jesus was put to death to two possible dates that are three years apart. The Gospels inform us that Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath (i.e., on a Friday) during Passover week. Based on ancient Jewish calendar conventions (tied to the phases of the moon) this narrows down the possible dates during Pilate’s tenure in Judea to four of the years from AD 26 to 36, of which only AD 30 and 33 are plausible. Therefore, virtually all scholars identify either AD 30 or 33 as the date of Jesus’ death. The AD 33 date seems to have better arguments in its favor.[7] The uncertainty about the exact year of Jesus’ death is not unusual for figures of ancient history. For example, the date of Roman historian Livy’s death (AD 12/17) is uncertain by five years.[8]

Where: We can determine with surprising specificity the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels report that the Romans crucified Jesus just outside the city walls of Jerusalem at Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull” (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John 19:17). We know where Golgotha itself was—an area of land just outside the northwest part of Jerusalem once used as a rock quarry. Thus, we are able to identify the location where Jesus was executed to within a half-mile radius at worst, and we have a very likely exact spot preserved in Christian tradition that fits the archaeological evidence.[9]

The correlation of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ death with specific people, places, and events known from outside sources provides powerful evidence for its historicity.

Acknowledged by Atheists and Other Non-Christians

Based on the sorts of evidences we have mentioned, one New Testament scholar concluded, “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward.” The scholar who made this statement was not a zealous conservative Christian. It was made by Gerd Lüdemann, a New Testament scholar who happens to be an atheist.[10]

Bart Ehrman, a former Christian who is now an agnostic, observes that the fact that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who was crucified during Pilate’s rule as governor in Judea “is the view of nearly every trained scholar on the planet.”[11]

John Dominic Crossan, a radically liberal New Testament scholar (and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar) who denies Jesus’ bodily resurrection, acknowledges, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”[12]

The vast majority of modern Jewish scholars also have freely acknowledged not only that Jesus was crucified but that he died while on the cross.[13]

In short, the death of Jesus on the cross is an historical fact acknowledged by a consensus of scholars of almost all ideological perspectives. Any time you can get atheists, agnostics, theological liberals, Jews, and orthodox Christians to agree on something about Jesus, you are likely finding what some scholars call “historical bedrock.” This support from scholars who have no religious commitment to the Bible or to the traditional Christian faith shifts the burden of proof entirely on anyone who for religious reasons denies the historicity of the Crucifixion.

Ad Hoc Nature of Alternative Theories

By far the most widely held theory denying Jesus’ death on the cross comes from Islam. According to the Qur’an (or at least some translations of it), the Jews claimed to have killed Jesus, but “they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them”; rather, “Allah took him up unto Himself” (4:157-158). One popular Muslim tradition explains that someone else was crucified by mistake. Judas Iscariot seems to have been the most often suggested victim.

The main reason why these Muslim denials of the Crucifixion are not credible is that they are based on Muhammad’s statements in the Qur’an six centuries after the time of Jesus. For sober historians, the first-century and early second-century sources (both Christian and non-Christian) attesting to Jesus’ death by crucifixion are orders of magnitude more reliable than a single seventh-century text. The Qur’an is, naturally, the primary source for understanding the teachings of Muhammad, but it is not a credible or reliable historical source of information about what happened to Jesus in the first century. In order to overcome this obvious disparity, some Muslims cite the so-called Gospel of Barnabas as early documentary evidence for the view that Judas was crucified in Jesus’ place. However, this apocryphal gospel dates from the 1300s and has no historical credibility whatsoever.[14]

The Jewish leaders had seen Jesus in the temple and around Jerusalem for several days prior to his death, and they would certainly have known (and objected) if the Romans were crucifying the wrong man. In addition to the watching eyes of the Roman and Jewish leaders, presumably Jesus’ friends and family would have known if he had been crucified or not. This reasonable presumption is confirmed in the Gospels, which give us two independent accounts informing us that various friends and family members of Jesus (including his mother) witnessed his death and burial (Luke 23:49-56; John 19:25-27, 38-42).

To get around this evidence Muslims have often claimed that God miraculously made whoever the crucified man was look exactly like Jesus. Of course, there is no evidence for this claim, either. It is an ad hoc explanation conceived rather desperately to save an untenable claim. Worse still, as even some Muslim scholars have noted, it makes God party to a deception that became, supposedly, the mistaken foundation for the Christian belief that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

Some skeptics have proposed a very different theory. They have sometimes admitted that the Romans crucified Jesus but speculated that he survived the ordeal, merely passing out or becoming unconscious on the cross. This “swoon” theory reflects a naturalistic dislike of the notion that Jesus rose from the dead. What exactly happened varies from one skeptic’s account to another. In some stories, Jesus revived only for a short time and died soon thereafter.[15] In other versions, Jesus lived for many years after his crucifixion. For example, according to the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, after his crucifixion Jesus married Mary Magdalene, moved to the south of France, and had children![16]

The swoon theory involves cherry picking only those elements of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial that seem to help the theory and rejecting or modifying those elements that don’t. For example, all versions of the swoon theory make much of the fact that Mark reports that Pilate was surprised that Jesus was dead after being on the cross only for about six hours (Mark 15:25, 33-34, 44). However, in the same passage Mark also reports that a centurion verified Jesus’ death (verse 45) and that the tomb was sealed with a stone (verse 46). Why should we accept Mark’s report about Pilate’s surprise but not his report about the centurion and the sealed tomb?

In a way, the ad hoc nature of the alternative theories regarding Jesus’ crucifixion constitutes a backhanded compliment to the case for its historicity. If all of the theories to explain away the evidence are this fanciful (and they are), the case for Jesus’ death on the cross must be awfully good.

Conclusion

Although many non-Christians accept the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, if they are thinking people that fact puts them in something of a predicament. Once it is established as historical fact that Jesus died just outside Jerusalem by crucifixion, we have eliminated the most common theories offered by non-Christians regarding the resurrection of Christ. No position on the subject that discounts this fact deserves to be taken at all seriously. Nor can the problem be finessed away by asserting that Christians cannot prove with absolute certainty (akin to working a problem in mathematics) that Jesus died on the cross. We do not have the capacity to demonstrate with that kind of absolute, one hundred percent certainty much of anything in history or in any other area of life. This limitation on human knowledge is no excuse for refusing to follow the evidence where it leads. In this case, it leads without serious basis for doubt to the conclusion that Jesus died on the cross.

NOTES


[1] Robert M. Bowman Jr., Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa, FL: DeWard Publishing, 2020), 63–71. For information about this book, see https://faiththinkers.org.

[2] On the dates of Paul’s epistles, 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). Of the seven Pauline epistles that virtually all biblical scholars agree Paul wrote (Rom., 1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal., Phil., 1 Thess., Phm.), there is essentially no dispute over their dates except for Galatians, sometimes dated ca. 48-49 and sometimes ca. 53/54. See Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9, Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 22–29.

[3] On the controversial matter of the dating of the Gospel of Thomas, see Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary, TENTS 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 125–27. Gathercole shows that current scholarship generally favors a date in the middle third of the second century. For the texts and introductions, see Bart D. Ehrman and Zlato Pleše, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] The Epistle of Barnabas is typically dated in the early second century, though any date between 70 and 130 is considered possible. The epistles of Ignatius are dated between about 105 and 115.

[5] See, for example, F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 19–53; Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 54–66.

[6] Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 3:2383 (3:2383–2408).

[7] See Harold W. Hoehner, “The Chronology of Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Holmén and Porter, 3:2339–59, and the references cited there, and Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[8] See the online Table of Contents, Livy, History of Rome, Volume I: Books 1–2, Loeb Classical Library 114, https://www.loebclassics.com/view/LCL114/1919/volume.xml.

[9] Joan E. Taylor, “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial,” New Testament Studies 44.2 (April 1998): 180–203; Marcel Serr and Dieter Vieweger, “Golgotha: Is the Holy Sepulchre Church Authentic?” Archaeological Views, Biblical Archaeology Review 42.3 (May/June 2016): 28–29, 66.

[10] Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 17. See also his The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 50.

[11] Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist, 12.

[12] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: Harper, 1995), 5.

[13] Notable examples include Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teaching, trans. H. Danby (London: Allen & Unwin, 1927); David Flusser, Jesus, trans. R. Walls (New York: Herder, 1969); Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (London: SPCK, 1983); Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Knopf, 1999). See further David Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017).

[14] Jan Joosten, “The Date and Provenance of the Gospel of Barnabas,” Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 200–215; Gerard A. Wiegers, “Gospel of Barnabas,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson, 3rd ed. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Online, 2014). See also my discussion of the Gospel of Barnabas in “What Are Good Sources about Jesus? The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus, Part 2,” IRR.org, 2017.

[15] Hugh Schonfield, The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus (New York: Bantam, 1965).

[16] Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983).

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Did the First Vision of Joseph Smith Happen 200 Years Ago?

Some Mormons believe that yesterday—March 26, 2020—marked the 200-year anniversary of the First Vision, in which Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in the woods near his home. If the First Vision had taken place in the spring of 1820, March 26 was a possible day for the event. However, there are many reasons to question whether the First Vision happened at all, including some evidence against any date in 1820. In particular, Joseph’s account of the First Vision in Joseph Smith–History correlates the vision with “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” (JS-H 1:5), that is, an unusual revival, that he says led to his going into the woods to pray on that early spring day in 1820. Joseph’s description of the revival contains a number of specific elements that allow us to identify the revival as one that took place in 1824-25, not in 1820. The case for an 1824 date of the revival is much, much stronger than I had realized before I began researching the matter for my book. Indeed, I had originally considered not even giving the matter any serious weight. The evidence changed my mind.

The evidence comes first of all in the form of very specific details from Joseph’s own account, as well as from Joseph’s associate Oliver Cowdery, Joseph’s mother Lucy Mack Smith, and (many years later) Joseph’s brother William Smith. All of these LDS sources provide details that cohere with the detailed account of the 1824-25 revival by George Lane, the Methodist minister that was one of the main leaders of that revival—and the minister mentioned by both Oliver and William as having been involved. This documentary evidence confirms the finding more than half a century ago by Wesley Walters that church membership statistics showed that 1824-25 was almost certainly the period of the “unusual excitement.”

In Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism, I devote ten pages to the issue of the revival (pp. 234–44). In this section of the book I present the following material:

  • An analysis of the chronology in Joseph Smith–History and why the date of the revival matters
  • A review of the seminal 1967 article by Wesley Walters and the efforts of a large team of some forty Mormon scholars that were recruited to mount a response
  • A list of 12 points of agreement regarding the revival between Joseph Smith–History and Oliver Cowdery’s 1834–35 account in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger & Advocate
  • A rebuttal to the claim of some LDS apologists that Oliver’s account, which identifies George Lane as a leader of the revival, is untrustworthy
  • A list of 6 points of agreement between Lane’s account of the 1824-25 revival and the accounts by Joseph and Oliver
  • Evidence that both William Smith and Lucy Mack Smith dated the revival shortly after the death of her son Alvin (which would mean it took place in 1824), and documentation of the LDS Church’s efforts to suppress this information from Lucy’s memoirs
  • An explanation of why LDS efforts to identify a revivalist setting for the First Vision in 1818-20 instead of 1824 do not work

If the revival that Joseph claimed had led to his prayer and the First Vision took place in 1824 rather than in 1820, this would mean that Joseph’s account of the setting and context of the First Vision is erroneous. It would be a serious problem for Joseph’s whole account, since he claimed that the angel Moroni appeared to him in 1823 three years after the First Vision—but a year before the revival that supposedly led to the First Vision. This is not the only problem with the First Vision story, but it is a very serious problem indeed. It certainly makes moot the claim that we can date the First Vision to March 26, 1820.

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Was Mary Magdalene Far from or Near the Cross? A Case Study in Gospel Differences

Rubens, Descent from the Cross (1917)

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, including specifically Mary Magdalene, were looking or watching “from a distance” (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; cf. Luke 23:49; 24:10]). However, John states that the women were “standing by the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25). Is this a contradiction? Should we try to harmonize this difference, or should we understand the difference in another way?

This particular difference in the Gospel accounts may seem somewhat trivial. On the other hand, since there are many such minor differences among the Gospels, we ought to have some method for handling them. In this article, I will use this particular difference to illustrate a proposed method for investigating Gospel differences, including apparent discrepancies or seeming contradictions. In this method, we consider openly and fairly both harmonizing and non-harmonizing approaches to determine which approach works better in any particular case. We are not going to assume that harmonization is the only proper approach. Nor are we going to privilege non-harmonizing approaches, whether authorial error, literary artistry, or theologically intended revision (often called “redaction”). Rather, we will ask in each case which of these approaches seems to do a better job of accounting for the available evidence. We will also be open to the possibility that in some cases we do not have enough information to draw a confident conclusion as to how to explain the differences.

Not All Harmonizations Are Equally Plausible

In considering a harmonizing approach, we should acknowledge that some harmonizations are better than others. Given a particular case of Gospel differences, we might know of more than one proposed harmonization, and we should analyze them to see if one is better than another. Continue reading

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Did Moses Literally See the Face of God?

Moses speaks with God – Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 33:11 says that the Lord spoke “face to face” with Moses, but Exodus 33:20 says that Moses could not see the Lord’s face. Is this a contradiction?

Two preliminary observations may be helpful. First, we should notice that Exodus says that the Lord “spoke” with Moses “face to face” (Exod. 33:11), not that Moses saw God face to face. There may be a difference, and as we shall discover there is indeed a difference. Second, it is significant that the two allegedly contradictory statements appear in the same passage. Exodus 33:11 says that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”[1]  Exodus 33:20 says that the LORD told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” It does not seem likely that the author of Exodus 33 contradicted himself in the space of just ten verses. Such contradiction in close proximity within the same passage is possible yet would be extremely surprising, as compared, say, to statements appearing in different books written by different authors. If it seems that these statements in Exodus 33 are contradictory, perhaps we are misunderstanding one of them.

Reading Exodus 33 in Context

The expression “face to face” can, of course, be used literally of two human beings seeing each other’s faces at the same time. However, in Exodus 33 that is not the case. Continue reading

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30 Days, 30 Books: The History of Christian Apologetics in One Month

In the Apologetics Book Club on Facebook this month, I am doing a series entitled “30 Days, 30 Books: The History of Christian Apologetics in One Month.” So far we have highlighted six key books in ancient and medieval church history. The series will feature 15 books from the first through the nineteenth centuries and 15 books from the twentieth century.

If you’re not a member of the ABC group, you can join any time and catch up on the series. Please also spread the word. The group started at the beginning of the year and so far we have 376 members. Here is a link to the group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/apologeticsbookclub/.

 

 

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Joseph Smith and the Many Wives of David and Solomon: Authorized or Abominable?

Giovanni Venanzi, Solomon’s Wives (1668)

In all of the debate over Joseph Smith’s teachings and practices regarding polygamy, little attention seems to have been given to an explicit contradiction in his scriptural revelations. This contradiction concerns what the Lord thought of David and Solomon having many wives. These statements appear in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine & Covenants, two of the scriptural volumes considered “standard works” in the LDS Church. I quote the two passages with sufficient context to allay any concerns that the contradictory statements are being taken out of context.

2:23 But the word of God burthens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This People begins to wax in iniquity; they understand not the Scriptures: for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which are written concerning David, and Solomon his Son. 2:24 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. 2:25 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord: I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch, from the fruit of the loins of Joseph. 2:26 Wherefore, I, the Lord God, will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old. 2:27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: for there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none: 2:28 For I, the Lord God, delighteth in the chastity of women. And whoredoms is abomination before me: thus saith the Lord of Hosts. 2:29 Wherefore, this peeple shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. 2:30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people: otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things. (Jacob 2:23-30, emphasis added)[1]

132:1 Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines…. 132:38 David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. 132:39 David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord (D&C 132:1, 38-39).

The standard Mormon perspective on these two passages is that God sometimes permits polygamy while otherwise prohibiting it. This is how Mormons typically understand Jacob 2:30. They argue that monogamy is the norm, but when God chooses, he commands some people to practice polygamy (or “plural marriage”). In my estimation, this view regarding polygamy has some problems, but for my purposes here I will not be challenging it. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Lord sometimes commands some people to practice polygamy and at other times prohibits it, there remains a direct contradiction between these two passages. Continue reading

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EASTER: The Evidence

Rembrandt, Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene

How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? Several years back I put together a simple outline of the main lines of evidence using the word EASTER. Each point is tied to Paul’s important defense of the hope of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. At the end is a list of six books for those wishing to pursue the evidence for each of the six points in detail.

Empty tomb (1 Corinthians 15:4)

One important evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is the fact that he was buried in a rock tomb and then a couple of days later that tomb was found empty. The Gospels accurately describe the tomb in which Jesus’ body had been laid, matching the many limestone rock tombs that had been carved around Jerusalem in the first century. The Gospels all report that women, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to discover the empty tomb—not something men were likely to make up. The author of the Gospel of John claims that he personally went to the tomb and saw that the body was gone and that the grave clothes had been left behind (John 20:2-9). Jewish critics of Christianity claimed that the disciples had stolen the body from the tomb. That claim is not credible (the disciples were disheartened and scared), but these critics implicitly conceded the empty tomb as fact.

Appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-7)

An empty tomb by itself is just a mystery: the case of the missing body. Continue reading

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Dale Tuggy and the Biblical Basis of the Trinity, Part 2: Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Incoherent?

In Part 1, I responded to Unitarian philosopher Dale Tuggy’s claim in a recent conference address that my biblical argument for the doctrine of the Trinity omitted essential elements of the doctrine. Here I will respond to his objection that my statement of the doctrine is incoherent. In Part VII of my outline study “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” I concluded by reviewing the propositions that constitute the essential elements of the doctrine, including these four:

  1. The Father is God (see Part III).
  2. The Son is God (see Part IV).
  3. The Holy Spirit is God (see Part V).
  4. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons, i.e., they are not each other, nor are they impersonal; they relate to one another personally (see Part VI).

As he has been doing with Trinitarian theology in general for many years, Tuggy finds fault with my argument by complaining about the logical difficulty of affirming that each person “is God” and yet that the persons are distinct from one another. “Things that are identical to the same thing are identical to one another.” With this analytical knife Tuggy thinks he can cut any presentation or defense of Trinitarian belief to ribbons without so much as opening a Bible. His point is that my argument is incoherent because (as he sees it) the affirmations that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God logically contradict the affirmation that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. To this objection, I have three responses. Continue reading

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