Biblical Keys for Discerning True and False Prophets/Considering Joseph Smith/Jesus and Joseph Smith

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Jesus and Joseph Smith: Context and Perception

In a survey of a wide range of Jesus scholarship, Professor John McDade observes that:

There is then a radical dependence between the reconstructed Jesus and the reconstructed context/model: how the context and social model are understood determines how Jesus is understood. ‘Determines’ is not too strong a word, for one of the problems with this approach is that the grid of social and economic context is such a strong factor it can inhibit responsible handling of the actual textual evidence we have for Jesus.

That is, the selections that scholars make for foreground and background data not only provide the context for their discussions, but they also determine the Jesus that they see as a result. McDade includes a discussion of Foreground data for Jesus:

I point you to Telford’s summary of how Jesus emerges as a social type if he is considered in the light of ‘foreground data’ (the narrative tradition, especially the miracles, sayings and the traditions surrounding his death) and ‘background data’ (the elements of general context posited as appropriate to understanding him in his first century setting). Here, weighting is all and what should strike us about this helpful taxonomy is the selective and constructed character of the images of Jesus offered by historians, depending on their choice of emphasis, what counts as primary data, which heuristic models are used.

  • If weight is given to the miracle tradition, then Jesus emerges as an ancient magician (Morton Smith) or as a Jewish charismatic healer and exorcist (Vermes).

“If the weight is given to the sayings tradition, then a range of images of Jesus is adduced.”

  • If the wisdom sayings (proverbs, parables, aphorisms etc.) are given prominence, then Jesus emerges as a sage (Vermes, Flusser) or even an itinerant subversive sage (Borg, Robinson, Funk).
  • If an emphasis on the authenticity of the prophetic and apocalyptic sayings is retained, then Jesus emerges as an eschatological prophet (Meyer, Sanders, Charlesworth).
  • If his Kingdom saying are interpreted apocalyptically (following Schweitzer), and linked with the Son of Man sayings, then Jesus is an other-worldly figure, expecting cosmic catastrophe and relatively indifferent to social concerns.
  • If the Kingdom sayings are not interpreted apocalyptically, and the Son of Man sayings are viewed as secondary, then Jesus emerges as a this-worldly figure, a social prophet, with a social programme (Borg, Horsley, Hollenbach).
  • If the emphasis is placed on the opposition to him and his death at the hands of the Romans, then Jesus emerges as a para-Zealot revolutionary (Brandon) or the pacifist victim of oppression.

McDade then looks at the effect of the Background data: “The choice of context in which to place Jesus affects the estimate given of him:” • When emphasis is placed on the Palestinian Jewish context and within that on the Rabbinic tradition (although that did not flourish till after 70AD), then Jesus can be seen as the inspired Rabbi (Flusser, Chilton) or the Pharisee (Falk). • If the choice is made to place him in the context of apocalyptic Judaism, then he can be seen as the ‘humane apocalyptist’ (Charlesworth) or the ‘reasonable visionary’ (Sanders). • If his Galilean provenance is emphasized, then he becomes a charismatic holy man or hasid in the same tradition as Honi the Circle-Drawer or Hanina ben Dosa (Vermes). • If Hellenistic influences in Galilee are emphasized, then he can be seen as a Cynic teacher (Mack, Crossan) • If it is judged that he conforms to no particular social type, he cannot be placed in one of these categories (Hengel)

McDade continues, observing that

“The Jesus who is envisaged in these accounts is the pre-canonical Jesus, arrived at through certain judgements about the nature of the Gospel traditions (both canonical and extra-canonical -- the Gospel of Thomas is now a controversial card in the game), and set in the dynamics of the religious, social and economic life of Palestine.”

What all of these approaches have in common is that they generate a historical Jesus who is not the Jesus of faith, who is not the Jesus of the Gospels, but something less. After looking at the weaknesses of some of these approaches McDade offers the example of Margaret Barker who contextualizes Jesus in a new way, drawing on the traditions of the First Temple. In her book The Risen Lord, Barker’s view of him in this context leads her to conclude:

What Jesus believed about himself was identical which what the young church preached about him, even though he had been imperfectly understood at times. It makes Jesus himself the author and finisher of the faith, rather than the early communities, a supposition which has been fashionable for some time. The great message of atonement was not just a damage limitation exercise on the part of a traumatized group of disciples who could find no other way of coming to terms with the death of their leader. The sources do enable us to see how Jesus understood his own death, if only we listen to what they are saying and do not sit in judgement upon them with preconceived notions of what could and could not have been the case. The predictions of the Passion were made by Jesus himself, even though the details may have been added later. (Barker, 109-110)

McDade approves of her case because

“If Barker is right, then the principal Jewish context in which we must place Jesus is not that of Galilean healers and teachers, but that of mystical Judaism and Temple traditions. Her case, of course, depends upon certain hypotheses and certain connections being made, but in my view it has considerable merit in proposing a context within which Jesus may have come to a grasp of his ultimate significance.”

I cite McDade’s study in the hopes that Christians will grasp the importance of Richard Bushman’s talk given at the Conference at the Library of Congress in 2005. As McDade had surveyed Jesus scholarship, so Richard Bushman surveys a range of Joseph Smith biographies. Bushman sees the same relationship between the context a scholar chooses as background and foreground, and the appreciation they show for Joseph Smith.

As you can imagine, the context in which he is placed profoundly affects how people see the prophet, since the history selected for a subject profoundly colors everything about it. Is he a money digger like hundreds of other superstitious Yankees in his day, a religious fanatic like Muhammad was thought to be in Joseph Smith’s time, a prophet like Moses, a religious revolutionary like Jesus? To a large extent, Joseph Smith assumes the character of the history selected for him. The broader the historical context, the greater the appreciation of the man. If Joseph Smith is described as the product of strictly local circumstances--the culture of the Burned-Over District, for example--he will be considered a lesser figure than if put in the context of a Muhammad or Moses.

Bushman argued that Joseph Smith came to understand himself best when he put himself in a Biblical context. Like Paul, he had seen a vision, and he knew it, and knew that God knew it. After Martin Harris returned from his visit with Professor Anthon, he saw himself as fulfilling Biblical prophecy. Those who look at Joseph Smith in the context of Biblical prophets make note of their participation in some of the same practices that modern critics condemn in Joseph Smith.

And while any particular context may provide a seemingly valid and useful explanation for a prophetic figure, whether Jesus or Paul or Joseph Smith, the real question is “which paradigm is better?” For example, anyone can try to explain the rise of Christianity as “a damage limitation exercise on the part of a traumatized group of disciples,” but is that the best explanation? Does it provide accurate predictions? Is it comprehensive and coherent? Is it fruitful both in terms of scholarship and personal faith and practice? Is it aesthetically appealing and simple? Does it have future promise? Is such an explanation better than, for example, Margaret Barker’s reading of the evidence that makes the Jesus of history the Christ of faith?

The same issue arises in the different explanations of Joseph Smith. Richard Bushman observed that “Mormon writers are more inclined to put the reports from people close to Joseph Smith into the story. Because the recovery of the Book of Mormon is a sacred story, every detail is relished...Most of the detailed sources were written by believers, and to follow them too closely infuses a narrative with their faith. Secular historians are, therefore, more likely than Mormons to suppress source material from Joseph’s closest associates.”

A secular explanation of Joseph Smith, like a secular explanation of the resurrection of Jesus, calls for ignoring or discounting the words and behavior of eye witnesses. What skeptics suppose “must have happened” take priority over what eyewitnesses insist did happen.