Biblical Keys for Discerning True and False Prophets/Considering Joseph Smith/Abuse of a Bible test

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Abuse of a Bible Test for Joseph Smith: A Case Study

An incident during an online discussion at the Mormon Apologetics Discussion Board in November 2008 prodded me to prepare this study for publication. Richard Abanes had claimed that his rejection of Joseph Smith had a Biblical basis. When asked “What are the criteria for being a Prophet of God?” he responded:

How about having the right "God." That's a good start. JS said Christendom had the wrong God. Christendom said Joseph had the wrong God. So, basically, make your choice. I choose the God of the Bible.

He further claimed that “We really don't need to go beyond that” test and asserted that “far from being some kind of hair-brained notion of my own, I refer you to the Bible's qualifications of a prophet, which apparently also thinks it's important that they have the right God:

"If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 13:2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, "Let us follow other gods" (whom you have not known) "and let us serve them," you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul" (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).

In response to Abanes, a well-informed LDS poster called Pahoran wrote that in Abanes' use of the Deuteronomy reference,

It blatantly misrepresents the Bible passage it wrests, I mean rests, upon. The ancient Hebrews understood exactly what it meant: do not listen to prophets of Baal, or Dagon, or Molech, or any other false gods. It warned the Lord's covenant people about those who served deities other than him; it does not even remotely contemplate prophets who speak in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but whose understanding varies from "traditional" orthodoxy.

Pahoran makes a strong point. The context against which Abanes interprets the Deuteronomy 13 test is that of later Orthodox Christianity, not of the ancient Israelites being addressed. In the thread, Abanes made this context explicit when he says that “JS said Christendom had the wrong God. Christendom said Joseph had the wrong God.”

But how was God known and understood in ancient Israel? We can safely assume that none of those to whom Deut. 13 was directed had read the New Testament, nor did they vote in the fourth century councils that decided Christian Orthodoxy. What happens if we inquire into the ancient Israelite understandings to which the Deuteronomy 13 test applied?

LDS scholar Kevin Barney wrote an essay that surveyed recent scholarship in comparison to “Six Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.” In the essay Barney notes that “revelation often results after wrestling with ideas, and Joseph’s struggle with the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 seems to have yielded six key concepts, which he expressed either in the King Follet Discourse, or in a parallel discourse he gave on June 16, 1844. These six concepts may be summarized as follows. “

  1. The creation was effected not “out of nothing,” but from pre-existing matter.
  2. In the very beginning, there was plurality of Gods.
  3. Among this plurality, there was a head God (or there were head Gods).
  4. These Gods met in a grand council.
  5. There Gods in council appointed one God over us.
  6. The idea of a plurality of Gods, which is most easily seen “at the beginning,” is found throughout the Bible.

Barney’s essay notes that “when propounded in 1844, each of these six ideas was no doubt considered unusual or unorthodox by other religious traditions...Yet the first five are widely acknowledged by current Biblical scholars to be accurate expressions of religious beliefs among the Hebrews during the time of the patriarchs. The sixth concept, while still representing a minority view, has also received strong scholarly support in recent decades.”

After reviewing a wide array of Old Testament commentators on these six points, Barney observes that “this scholarship appears to have answered a long standing problem in New Testament Studies: How was it possible that Jewish-Christians in the early church were able to acknowledge Jesus as divine? If, as many believe, the Jews of that era held to an iron clad monotheism, such a result would have been very problematic. If, however, the pluralistic, dualistic elements of historic Hebrew theology had a continued vitality until and beyond the Christian era, then it becomes more understandable how the earliest Jewish-Christians were able to worship both the Father and the Son as readily as they did.”

Barney then makes a statement that shows the real implications of the Deut. 13 test for appreciating Joseph Smith:

It is one thing today for scholars to identify the persistence of ancient Hebrew pluralism and to write papers and books on the subject (each building on the work of earlier scholars). It is quite another thing for Joseph Smith to have made these claims, against his own earlier pietistic perceptions of monotheism and without any discernible support from the learned of the day, and to have committed the Church to this position as a principle of doctrine. That no scholar ever did... That Joseph should have articulated these ideas so well and so forcefully in the middle of the nineteenth century is, in my view, nothing short of remarkable.

The implication of the discoveries of recent scholarship is that if the test in Deuteronomy 13 calls for considering a true prophet against the understanding of God had by the ancient Israelites then it turns out that this particular test provides a profound endorsement of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. It shows Joseph Smith accomplishing something that “no other man did.” It also illustrates the process by which a prophets persecutors “shall stumble and shall not prevail” and how the word given by the prophets is strengthened. It shows how Joseph helps us understand scripture. Rather than decisively failing one test, this incident shows Joseph Smith fully passing that test, and at least three others.