Notes on Historicity and Inerrancy

Daniel C. Peterson

Daniel C. Peterson, “Notes on Historicity and Inerrancy,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 197–216.  

Daniel C. Peterson was an associate professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University when this was published.

Some believe that historicity and inerrancy in scripture are the same. By this argument, when a portion of scripture is found to have errors, the entire record is considered neither historical nor accurate. However, nothing in this imperfect world is inerrant, and although the authors of the scriptural records were prophets and called of God to write their portion of the scriptures, they were not perfectno one is. So although the authors were not inerrant, their writings are nonetheless historical. By academic standards the scriptures fulfill all the criteria for historically accurate records. With the human errors accounted for, the scriptures are reliable historically and accurate in their testimony of the doctrines of the gospel and the mission of Jesus Christ.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12).

Let these things be stated as conjectural only, similar to the reality (Xenophanes of Colophon). [1]

When I agreed originally to discuss “historicity and inerrancy,” I was a bit perplexed. One way for me to have dealt with this subject—and, I believe, to have done so quite adequately—would be simply to have observed that historicity and inerrancy are not the same thing. In fact, I was severely tempted to do only that. Most people would, I suspect, think it obvious that they are distinct. But most people, I fear, would be naive. There are individuals who claim that asserting the historicity of the scriptures entails an assertion of their inerrancy. Although the equation of belief in historicity with belief in inerrancy borders on the slanderous—despite its manifest character as a straw man intended to stigmatize those who believe in the essential credibility of the scriptures as unreflective, irrational fundamentalists, and notwithstanding the fact that there is no obvious merit to it but indeed major counterevidence against it—the equation persists in some circles.

I am reminded, for instance, of one well-educated Latter-day Saint writer who can discern no middle ground between fundamentalism, on the one hand, and radical skepticism on the other. “Once one gives up the idea of an inerrant, strictly historical, biblical record,” he says, “it must be admitted that there is little in the life of Jesus that can be known with certainty.” [2]

From a particular perspective, this claim is unremarkable. It is true that we can know very little in history or anywhere else with absolute certainty. Even divine or angelic revelation of the most spectacular kind can subsequently be doubted by the very people who experienced it and once firmly believed it to be true. [3] Brigham Young, for instance, recalled some of those (clearly beyond the better-known “official” witnesses of the Book of Mormon) “who handled the plates and conversed with the angels of God, [but] were afterwards left to doubt and to disbelieve that they had ever seen an angel.” One of the early members of the Quorum of the Twelve, whom President Young described as “a young man full of faith and good works,” “prayed, and the vision of his mind was opened, and the angel of God came and laid the plates before him, and he saw and handled them, and saw the angel, and conversed with him as he would with one of his friends; but after all this, he was left to doubt, and plunged into apostacy, and has continued to contend against this work. There are hundreds in a similar condition.” [4]

Anything can be doubted. I am unable even to prove that there is a real, objectively existing external world. How do I know that the room in which I wrote this paper and the audience to whom I originally presented it were not simply subjective experiences in my mind? I cannot prove definitively otherwise. Nor can I prove that God did not suddenly create my readers and me ninety seconds ago, equipped with a complete and utterly convincing set of false memories. Furthermore, as the great logician Bertrand Russell noted, no number of past sunrises, however great, logically entails that the sun will, without fail, rise tomorrow. [5]

So there should be little surprise that history, which manifestly operates on a lower level of certainty than those sections of almanacs that predict times of sunrise, can generally furnish plausibility and even a very high degree of probability—but no more than that. But this is true of all history, not merely of that area of history that focuses on religion and religious claims. Leopold von Ranke’s contention that real, scientific historians can and must describe the past “as it actually happened” is dead. Nobody that I know or read believes that totally objective, scientific history—history written without preconceptions and without prejudgments—is possible.

But I suspect that our selected revisionist skeptic is not merely offering us a banality, a bit of trivia, when he offers us his Hobson’s choice between inerrancy and agnosticism. No, his claim seems a different one, and it is one that is both remarkable and wholly indefensible. [6] This becomes instantly apparent if we simply plug different terms into an argument with a structure identical to his, as follows: “Once one gives up the idea of an inerrant, strictly historical [Thucydides], it must be admitted that there is little in the [history of the Peleponnesian War] that can be known with certainty.” Or, “Once one gives up the idea of . . . inerrant, strictly historical [records from the late eighteenth century], it must be admitted that there is little in the [history of the American Revolution] that can be known with certainty.” Or even, “Once one gives up the idea of an inerrant, strictly historical [memory], it must be admitted that there is little in the [story of one’s own life] that [one can know] with certainty.” Obviously, such claims would be laughed to scorn in secular historiographical circles, and well beyond. If they were to be accepted, they would destroy historical scholarship; they would destroy the human individual’s sense of identity and his or her capacity to act intelligently. Yet to reject thoroughgoing and unjustified doubt in religious studies, our revisionist writer informs us, is to be a fundamentalist.

The Historicity of Jesus

This writer and some of his associates are much taken with the controversial “Jesus Seminar,” which has gained a great deal of media notoriety in recent years with its assertions, for example, that real scholarship on the New Testament reveals that the Resurrection of Jesus never occurred, that the Savior never claimed to be divine, and that only about 18 percent of the statements attributed to Christ in the four Gospels are authentic. But the Jesus Seminar scarcely represents mainstream biblical scholarship, let alone mainstream historical scholarship. “Who,” asks Duke professor Richard Hays, “are the scholars that make up the membership of the Jesus Seminar? The group’s publicity creates the impression that they represent a broad cross-section of this country’s leading critical scholars. It is asserted that ‘the scholarship represented by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar is the kind that has come to prevail in all the great universities of the world.’ Though the Seminar expects to encounter hostile criticism, its work is said to be under attack principally ‘by conservative Christian groups’ and by ‘those who lack academic credentials.’ . . . In fact—let it be said clearly—most professional biblical scholars are profoundly skeptical of the methods and conclusions of this academic splinter group.” [7]

More important for our present purposes, the methods of the Jesus Seminar, which are far from the mainstream of biblical scholarship, are even farther from the historiographical mainstream. “No responsible historian,” Professor Craig L. Blomberg observes of the Seminar’s co-founders, “would ever approach the biographies of Alexander, Augustus, or Apollonius with the approaches of [John Dominic] Crossan or [Robert] Funk.” [8]

A good illustration of this is to be found in the case of Julius Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon River upon his return from Gaul to Italy in 49 B.C. In doing so, in violating the long-standing rule that no Roman general would ever bring his troops into the immediate vicinity of the city of Rome, he openly challenged the authority of the Roman state as then constituted, committed himself to fight a civil war, and changed the course of history. This event is often used as a textbook illustration of what seems to be an indisputable fact of ancient history. But things are not nearly so neat or so simple. “What is often overlooked,” remarks Professor Blomberg, “is that we are not absolutely sure of the date of the crossing or the location of the Rubicon. And, as with the Gospels, we have four accounts of the event from later historians—Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian. Only the first of these was even born before the mid-first century after Christ.” [9]

In other words, three of the four historians were born at least a full century after the event, meaning that they did not write about it until perhaps a century and a half afterwards. This contrasts very unfavorably with the four canonical Gospels, which have rarely if ever been dated to a point so long after the ministry of Christ. Even the earliest of the four historians whose extant works discuss the incident, Velleius Paterculus, was born a full three decades too late to have been even an infant eyewitness to it. Professor Blomberg states:

All apparently relied on one eyewitness source, that of Asinius Pollio, which has disappeared without a trace. Yet the four accounts vary at least as much as the Gospels do when reporting the same event. One writer, Suetonius, attributes Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon to seeing “an apparition of superhuman size and beauty,” who was “sitting on the river bank, playing a reed pipe.”

When this kind of miraculous detail appears in a Gospel account, the entire story is usually rejected [by revisionist skeptics] as mythical. Here it appears in an account of an event that is regularly cited as one of the most well-established historical facts of antiquity! Clearly a double standard is at work here. The Gospels deserve to be treated at least as generously as any other purportedly historical narrative from the ancient world. The words of the British historian of ancient Rome, A. N. Sherwin-White, though penned a generation ago, remain equally applicable to today’s radical criticism: “It is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn.” [10]

Historical Knowledge

A few months ago, while I was a guest on a Salt Lake City radio talk show, a listener called in to protest that nothing that we were talking about in connection with religion could possibly be an object of real knowledge. The only real knowledge, he said, was that of science, in which experiments conducted under controlled conditions can replicate and confirm the results of earlier researchers to the satisfaction of any intelligent observer. Now, I agree that laboratory experimentation offers one very important form of knowledge. The problem is that not even all science conforms to this model—to say nothing of other areas of human knowing. Nor can it. Virtually all of astronomy, for example, would be excluded by his rule. Has anybody replicated the Big Bang in a laboratory recently? For that matter, has anyone repeated macroevolution lately or re-created the Grand Canyon? The caller’s principle would rule out all history. We can never replicate the career of Ramses II, nor even his historical birth, even if it should someday prove possible to clone the pharaoh’s genetic twin. Quite unreasonably, the caller seemed to close ranks with the sort of modern people described by C. S. Lewis, among whom “Pre-Historic Man is labelled ‘Science’ (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labelled as ‘History’ (which is not).” [11] Moreover, the caller’s rule would make it impossible for him to prove, thirty seconds afterwards, that he had been on the phone with me. (At least, the confidence that he had been would not be “real knowledge,” by his own account.) It would deny the status of “real knowledge” to his memories of his family. Furthermore, it would destroy the basis of such varied kinds of knowledge as mathematics and the principles of ethics. Can one prove in a laboratory that two is an even number, or that it is wrong to torture people for fun? Indeed, the caller’s rule would invalidate itself, since the principle that “only propositions that can be confirmed in replicatable laboratory experiments constitute real knowledge” is itself a proposition that cannot be confirmed in a replicatable laboratory experiment.

Now, again, this may seem obvious. My discussion may seem the academic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But there is an important point to be grasped here: Historical knowledge does not, it is true, attain the same kind or degree of certitude as can be attained in a chemistry lab, or at the end of a geometric proof—though, even those two areas may not deliver quite as much certainty as is commonly thought [12]—but it can attain a plausibility or probability that comes very close to certainty. And we are right to call it, precisely, “historical knowledge.” Historicity is not the same thing as inerrancy. An inerrant narrative would certainly be historical. But there are plenty of substantially accurate historical narratives that are not inerrant. In fact, there is (so far as I am aware) no other kind. Although nobody in his or her right mind would ever call Josephus or al-Tabari inerrant, much less the author or authors of The Annals of the Cakchiquels, we still find these writers indispensable for the reconstruction of what we generally regard as fairly reliable histories of Second Temple Jewry, the early Arab Muslims, and the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Guatemala.

I am not even sure, honestly, what an inerrant historical text would be. For example, no text can possibly be complete. It would take me months just to catalog and describe all the movements and small events that took place in the lecture hall during the reading of this paper. C. S. Lewis makes my point with predictable eloquence:

Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled. He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore. A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past (I am assuming . . . that we need consider only the human past) in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours. We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not time. The new moments are upon us. At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion. Most of the experiences in “the past as it really was” were instantly forgotten by the subject himself. Of the small percentage which he remembered (and never remembered with perfect accuracy) a smaller percentage was ever communicated even to his closest intimates; of this, a smaller percentage still was recorded; of the recorded fraction only another fraction has ever reached posterity. . . . When once we have realized what “the past as it really was” means, we must freely admit that most—that nearly all—history . . . is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us. And if per impossible the whole were known, it would be wholly unmanageable. To know the whole of one minute in Napoleon’s life would require a whole minute of your own life. You could not keep up with it. [13]

Thus, any historical record must necessarily be selective. Indeed, most of its selecting has already been done for it, since the vast majority of facts are lost almost immediately. Most utterances are never written down; most actions are never recorded. But even if they were once recorded, the overwhelming majority of the documents of the past, like the overwhelming majority of buildings and artifacts, have disappeared without a trace. [14] To choose an example almost purely at random (simply because I have just been reading about her), virtually every bit of information about the life of the illustrious Greek poet Sappho has disappeared. As Dudley Fitts has observed, what we know about this rough contemporary of Lehi is “nothing but speculation. We have heard a great deal about Sappho, and we know almost nothing. The sands of Egypt have been generous and papyruses are still being found, but unless we are granted a discovery of almost theophanic import we are not likely to learn much more.” [15] Relatively few of the plays of even the great Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides have survived; all of the dialogues of Aristotle have vanished.

But even where the materials or documents still exist, the most important and most sensitive part of the historiographical task remains to be done. In the terminology of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, the raw data of the past, the mere theoretical list of events, isn’t even history at all. It is what he called chronicle. And chronicle only comes to life—becomes history—when the historian, picking and choosing what is meaningful for his or her present-day purposes, relives it in his or her own mind. [16] Sir Karl Popper relates that he once began a lecture to physics students in Vienna with the instructions, “Take pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!” Not surprisingly, the students found the assignment mystifying. What were they supposed to observe? Without some sort of object, at least an implicit one, without limitation and definition, the imperative “Observe!” is meaningless and absurd. [17] The same is clearly true for historiography as well. The German biblical scholar Herbert Niehr notes that “history cannot be found simply in the sources. The sources merely provide the material to be exploited. For writing historiography or the history of a religion, it does not suffice to retell the sources. Explicit working hypotheses have to be formulated that are open to subsequent verification or falsification. It is only within the frame of these working hypotheses that the interpretation of the sources finds its place.” [18]

But this is where the dream of an absolutely objective, valueneutral historical record dies. For it brings into play the personality of the author of the record, the selector and organizer of the data, whose beliefs, background information or misinformation, limitations of time and energy, perceptiveness or imperceptiveness, or even individual quirks will inevitably affect the outcome. Such factors play a role even in eyewitness testimony. The story of the discovery of the circulation of blood, and of the role played by the heart in it, will serve well as an example here: Numerous scientists before William Harvey dissected human hearts just as he would do, but they failed to observe the right, the salient, things. Instead, they saw what their theories and expectations had prepared them to see, and they apparently failed to notice the many aspects of the heart, now utterly obvious to even the most slothful student of anatomy and physiology, that were inconsistent with the prevailing doctrines of Galenic medicine. [19] As Karl Popper remarks, “Every witness must always make ample use, in his report, of his knowledge of persons, places, things, linguistic usages, social conventions, and so on. He cannot rely merely upon his eyes or ears, especially if his report is to be of use in justifying any assertion worth justifying. But this fact must of course always raise new questions as to the sources of those elements of his knowledge which are not immediately observational.” [20]

Scriptural Historicity

This is so in scripture, as in uninspired historiography. The Book of Mormon, for example, relates that due to fatigue or oversight or a lapse of attention or incomprehension or whatever reason, an important and fulfilled prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted from the narrative of his appearance among the Nephites. The Savior was obliged personally to direct its inclusion when he visited the New World after his resurrection (3 Ne. 23:7–13). In the case of the four Gospels, it seems rather unlikely that the fallible pre-resurrection Apostles (who failed to grasp much of what Christ said to them) were suddenly transformed into infallible automatons by his triumph over the grave. Recently published arguments for the impossibility and even the undesirability of historiographical objectivity surely apply to the scriptures and the prophets, as well as to secular or uninspired writers. Prophets are not marionettes. And there is no reason to expect a prophetic narrator to be historically omniscient, any more than there is reason to believe him scientifically omniscient. Moreover, the fact that the narrator of a story or a history knows how it will eventually turn out means that his or her understanding of that narrative will be different from the understanding of those who were involved in the story while it was in the process of unfolding. Knowledge of the broader picture unavoidably must—and should—affect our description of its details. Is it even conceivable, for instance, that the authors of the Gospels remained unaffected by the end of their story—the atoning death and triumphant resurrection of Christ—as they sat down to write their narratives of the life of Jesus? For the scriptural writers, as for us, “all observation involves interpretation in the light of our theoretical knowledge.. . . Pure observational knowledge, unadulterated by theory, would, if at all possible, be utterly barren and futile.” [21] We need not share the rather extreme mistrust that Professor Niehr has for the Hebrew Bible, nor think the gulf between biblical events and the biblical narrative of those events as vast as he clearly does, to understand the inevitable truth of his assertion that the Hebrew Bible “does not depict the histories of Judah and Israel as they took place, but as they have been reimagined in the mind of the writers.” [22] For this is the nature of all historiography, without conceivable exception. If God had wanted inerrant, perfect scriptures, He would not have given them through human beings.

But as we reject the notion of an impossible, completely objective historiography, we must avoid falling into the error of historical relativism, where all is arbitrary and no historical account can ever be rationally preferred over another. We have every reason, for example, to believe that the authors of the Gospels were conscientious and well-intentioned. The King James Version somewhat obscures the situation when it portrays Luke, who was himself a relative newcomer to Christianity, as “having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:3). What the Greek says, rather, is that Luke wrote his Gospel (and presumably also its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles) after “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning.” [23] In other words, he functioned just the way any conscientious historian functions: he did research. His research may have included the reading of other written accounts, and it evidently relied on the accounts of “eyewitnesses” (autoptai; Luke 1:1–2).

Thus, we have in the Gospel narratives inevitable authorial subjectivity, manifested in the decisions the writers had to make about what was or was not important and what was or was not trustworthy, and in their undoubted authorial commitment to a pre-existing belief system. But these are balanced, as in every good piece of history they must be, with careful research and an attempt to get the story right. In this context, it is perhaps significant that the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible anticipates modern scholarly emphasis on the individual character of the New Testament Gospels by such labels as “the Testimony of St. Matthew” and “the Testimony of John.” [24] And, like the testimonies we bear in our church meetings, the testimonies of the Gospel writers, though they are in one important sense subjective, should not (merely for that reason) be dismissed as arbitrary or as not grounded in real experience or history. [25]

President Brigham Young offered another reason why inerrancy is hardly to be sought, even in the scriptures themselves: “I do not even believe,” he reflected, “that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.” [26]

If God had wanted inerrant, perfect scriptures, He would not have wasted them on human beings. For what would be the point, anyway, of inerrant scriptures? We could neither inerrantly recognize them as such, nor inerrantly read them. Already in the sixth century before Christ, the pre-Socratic thinker Xenophanes of Colophon recognized this aspect of the human condition: “And as for certain truth, no man has seen it, nor will there ever be a man who knows about the gods and about all the things I mention. For if he succeeds to the full in saying what is completely true, he himself is nevertheless unaware of it; and Opinion (seeming) is fixed by fate upon all things.” [27] In other words, no mortal human being can know the truth absolutely, indubitably, precisely, or beyond any possibility of error or dispute. Humans are fallible and often foolish. Anything can be disputed. Anything can be doubted. Still, despite his awareness of human limitation, Xenophanes did not despair of attaining, perhaps asymptotically, at least a fairly good idea of the truth. “Truly,” he said, “the gods have not revealed to mortals all things from the beginning; but mortals by long seeking discover what is better.” [28]

Neither should we despair, for there is no cause to do so. It is vastly important that the scriptures be reliable guides to salvation and to the nature of God and His purposes. It is far less important that they be entirely accurate on the numbers of Israelites who left Egypt, or on the magnitude of the number it in the construction of Solomon’s temple. Historicity is essential. Inerrancy is not. And the two are not the same. Some skeptics want us to abandon our belief in the historicity of the scriptures because the scriptures do not appear to be infallible. But this is a leap we need not take. Some among those skeptics want us to believe that the scriptural stories can still be religiously meaningful even if they are purely fictional. In some cases, of course, this is true. The story of Job illustrates various answers to the problem of evil just as well if it is fictional as it does if it is an accurate historical account. In this regard, it rather resembles Plato’s Republic, or his Symposium, where we really do not care whether Thrasymachus or Alcibiades really said or did the things Plato relates. But Jesus is not Job, and it matters very much whether the story of Christ really happened as the Gospels say it did. Even here, though, we must distinguish the essential from the nonessential.

What Really Matters

Benedetto Croce’s contrast between chronicle and history, mentioned above, roughly resembles the distinction that German and other Christian theologians have long made between Historie and Geschichte. Both terms, of course, literally mean history. But, as Carl Braaten explains the theological and philosophical difference between the two, “Historie is the sum total of historical facts lying ‘back there’ in the past which can be objectively verified; the mode of knowledge appropriate here is impartial investigation and neutral observation. Geschichte has to do with phenomena that concern me existentially, that make some demand upon me and call for commitment.” [29]

Of course, we should object to the notion of “impartial investigation and neutral observation” as constituting any part of real historical practice. Probably no actual historian passively surveys the data without a question or a thesis or even a hypothesis in mind. [30] Obviously, there can be historical facts that have no life-orientational importance for me or for anyone else. That is to say that Historie can exist without Geschichte. It is, for example, absolutely insignificant for anyone I can think of that the Caliph ‘Umar may have sneezed on the morning of 10 June A.D. 640. But hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world conduct their lives based on acceptance of the proposition that sometime near A.D. 610, the Prophet Muhammad began to receive the revelations that would eventually be compiled in the Qur’an. And millions of Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith was in a grove of trees in the presence of the Father and the Son in the spring of 1820. Does it matter whether or not these events really happened? Can Geschichte be valid without an underlying Historie? Manifestly, people can find life-orientational significance in stories that did not actually occur. (Religious people commonly suppose that everybody not of their faith is doing exactly that.) A madman who thought himself Superman might well be moved to heroic behavior by his delusion. But do we not usually regard such motivation as defective? Would we not in most cases seek, however gently, to correct or to treat such mistaken ideas?

My contention, simply, is that sound Geschichte, life-orientational history, must rest upon substantially accurate Historie, or factual historical data. The underlying history need not be totally correct in every tiny detail, nor must it be complete. Given human limitations and the inevitable disappearance of virtually all human utterances and nearly all human records and artifacts, we can never—in this life—have a wholly true picture of the past. But the story, though told by errant human beings, must be largely true.

If, for example, the intent of the story of the resurrection of Jesus is to illustrate God’s love, or how God’s purposes triumph over evil—and, surely, these are among its intents—it fails to accomplish those ends if God did not actually resurrect Jesus from the dead. As the British scholar N. T. Wright points out, “Several first-century Jews besides Jesus held, and acted upon, remarkable and subversive views.” Accordingly, he asks, “Why should Jesus be any more than one of the most remarkable of them?” He concludes that “the answer must hinge on the resurrection. If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his explicit or implicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot, as a historian, see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and to regard him as its Messiah. There were several other Messianic or quasi-Messianic movements within a hundred years either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader’s being killed by the authorities, or by a rival group. If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah.” [31]

Indeed, if the purpose of the story of Jesus’ resurrection is to illustrate divine love or the triumph of good over evil, but Jesus did not in fact rise from the grave, God actually looks worse or less powerful than if the story had not been told at all. For it then serves only to show the vast contrast between what He allegedly could have done and what He in reality did. The Apostle Paul was vividly aware of what was at stake: “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:17–19).

However, if Jesus really rose from the dead, it scarcely matters how many angels were standing by His empty tomb when the apostles arrived. Much recent scholarship on the New Testament presupposes that the Gospel narratives are largely fictional or, at any rate, treats them as if they are. Such a presupposition would explain why so much academic attention is lavished on the authors and purported editors of the documents, on their schools and strategies and rhetoric and supposed agendas. It is because we are unconvinced that the Danish prince Hamlet, if he lived at all, has any particular relevance to the play that bears his name that we feel free to concentrate not on him but on the style, the biography, and the technique of William Shakespeare. But if Christ is God come in the flesh, the little details and the narrative strategies of the Gospel accounts, albeit interesting, possess at most merely secondary significance. Important though they are, the Gospels—indeed, all the books of the Bible—are intended to point beyond themselves to what really matters. [32] “The fundamental principles of our religion,” said the Prophet Joseph Smith, “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” [33]

We must also, of course, apply these principles to our reading of the Book of Mormon. If the emigration of Lehi did not actually happen, then the story of his emigration provides no evidence for God’s providential intervention in history. Indeed, quite the contrary, for it would then seem that contrary to the claim of the Book of Mormon, nobody, neither Lehi nor anyone else, was saved by God from the destruction of Jerusalem. But it would hardly matter whether Lehi left under the reign of Zedekiah, as the Nephite record asserts, or whether some mistake had occurred and he really took his departure in the days of Jehoiachin. God’s intervention in real space and time would still be attested. The more central question of whether Jesus really appeared to the Nephites is infinitely weightier than whether the figures given for the military units at the close of Nephite history are precisely accurate. No small historical quibbles, even if they call into question the infallibility of the Book of Mormon—an infallibility that the Book of Mormon pointedly refuses to claim for itself—are of more than academic interest, so long as they do not cast doubt on the essential historical truth of the book. That is the issue, and it is hugely important. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted from it. The Book of Mormon as an authentic record of a real God’s genuine interventions and self-disclosures in literal history is a very different thing from the Book of Mormon as a fictional expression of a nineteenth-century farmboy’s touching faith in such an intervening and self-disclosing God.

An ahistorical Book of Mormon makes a hash of the founding narratives of the Restoration, with their descriptions of golden plates brought by an angel. (And, I might add, an ahistorical Book of Mormon runs counter to the considerable evidence for the plates and the angel.) [34] A fallible but largely accurate Book of Mormon, however, is consistent with those founding narratives, and with its description of itself as a record of the migrations, wars, reformations, and ultimate demise of an ancient people. It still provides powerful evidence for the existence of a caring God and a redeeming Christ. Otherwise, simply, it does not. And the issues here are as important as they can be. If the universe is truly a closed, naturalistic system, what does this say about the religious hopes of humankind? What comfort for the terminally ill, or for bereaved parents? What point in morality or self-denial? What assurance of eternal purpose, of real goodness, of our being at home in the cosmos?

I want my position to be clearly understood. On essential issues such as the resurrection of Christ, we can trust that the accounts given in the scriptures are fundamentally and significantly correct. And, perhaps even more important, we can trust that the prophets have identified sound lessons for us, that they have given us the real meaning—or, at least, the most significant portion of it, since there is probably no way to exhaust completely the meaning of anything consequential—for the events they narrate. But I will go even beyond that. If I have seemed during this paper to insist only on accuracy in the big picture, while appearing ready to jettison the minor details, I want to make it clear that although I reject inerrancy, I believe that the scriptures are substantially accurate even in the details, that the narratives of the Bible are by and large accurate, that there were Nephites, and that their history is as accurately told in the Book of Mormon as it is humanly possible to tell a story. I believe that considerable evidence can be amassed to support these propositions and to sustain and confirm the witness of the Spirit.

And this, as you well realize, is no small thing. If the Book of Mormon is an authentic account of a real visit of the resurrected Christ to the Americas, miraculously revealed to an unlettered young prophet by a real, tangible angel, then it provides solid reason for a belief that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that revelation has commenced again in modern times. I testify that it is and does just that.


[1] The translation is from Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 24, where the reference to the original Greek is also given.

[2] Stephen E. Thompson, “Searching for the ‘Historical Jesus,’” Sunstone 16, no. 9 (June 1994): 61.

[3] I have personally spoken with several people who have had such manifestations and then doubted; one or two of them I have known rather well. Laman and Lemuel may fall into this category (see 1 Ne. 3:29–31).

[4] Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 7:164. A number of impressive accounts from “witnesses” to the Book of Mormon beyond the official eleven are collected in Susan Easton Black, ed., Stories from the Early Saints: Converted by the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1992).

[5] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 60–62. I am grateful to my colleague Dennis F. Rasmussen for helping me locate this dimly remembered reference. For a similar point, see David Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 32–39, and, 4 Treatise of Human Nature: Being An Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects (New York: Dolphin, 1961), 79–86, 120–31. Compare Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London: Routledge; Kegan Paul, 1969), 41–42 nn. 8, 53.

[6] James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 13, warns against precisely this kind of hyperskepticism. One is indeed tempted to say, on the basis of Thompson’s claim, that once one gives up the idea of inerrant radical revisionist skeptics, it must be admitted that there is little in their arguments that can be known with certainty to be either true or useful. Consistency would seem to demand some such verdict.

[7] Richard B. Hays, “The Corrected Jesus,” First Things 43 (May 1994): 47; also 44, 48. Close observers of recent arguments about Latter-day Saint history and scripture will recognize a familiar ring both in the claim that a debunking scholarship is the only true kind of scholarship on scriptural issues and in the would-be revisionists’ extensive and skillful use of publicity. I have recently commented on the Jesus Seminar, and on its derivatives and analogues within Mormonism, in my “Editor’s Introduction: Triptych (Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch),” F.A.R.M.S. Review of Books 8, no. 1 (1996): v-xlv. For an even more recent critique of the Seminar by an evangelical Protestant, see James R. Edwards, “‘Who Do Scholars Say That I Am?’” Christianity Today 40, no. 3 (4 March 1996): 14–20. In an article that was unavailable to me at the time I wrote my “Editor’s Introduction,” Birger A. Pearson, an eminent scholar of early Christianity, forcefully challenges the Jesus Seminar’s claim to be doing unbiased history. See his “The Gospel according to the Jesus Seminar,”Religion 25 (1995): 317–38. Paul Rhodes Eddy, “Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis,” Journal of Biblical Literature 115, no. 3 (fall 1996): 449–69, criticizes a position prominently associated with leading Seminar members. I had pointed to the apparent self-validating secular bias of the Jesus Seminar. On pp. 468–69, Professor Eddy notes the same problem in those who argue that Jesus was a Hellenized Cynic philosopher, “a noneschatological Jesus who preached a pure this-worldly kingdom of values (values, interestingly enough, that foreshadowed the moral worldview of the twentieth-century postmodern liberal academy).” “To what degree,” he asks, “is the historical Cynic Jesus essentially a reflection of the thought world and/or values of his modern-day co-constructors?”

[8] Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 27.

[9] Blomberg, “Where Do We Start,” 37.

[10] Blomberg, “Where Do We Start,” 37, citing A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 187 (emphasis in the original). See the discussion of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in Paul Merkley, “The Gospels as Historical Testimony,” Evangelical Quarterly 58 (1986): 328–36.

[11] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), 241.

[12] William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 3–117, describes the effect of cultural and psychological factors upon so rarified a discipline as mathematical logic. References on this issue could be multiplied indefinitely. “It is a disturbing fact,” wrote Sir Karl Popper, “that even an abstract study like pure epistemology is not as pure as one might think (and as Aristotle believed) but that its ideas may, to a large extent, be motivated and unconsciously inspired by political hopes and by Utopian dreams” (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 6). Popper’s entire corpus of work should be mandatory reading for those tempted to dogmatic scientism.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 139–40.

[14] The house in which I lived for two years as an undergraduate, and which I once rather imagined was destined for designation as a historical monument, was demolished to make way for the expansion of a pizza restaurant’s parking lot.

[15] Dudley Fitts, foreword to Mary Barnard Sappho: A New Translation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), viii.

[16] See the discussion in Ronald H. Nash, Christian Faith and Historical Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1984), 33–34.

[17] Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 46.

[18] Herbert Niehr, “The Rise of YHWH in Judahite and Israelite Religion: Methodological and Religio-Historical Aspects,” in The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms, ed. Diana Vikander Edelman (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1996), 50.

[19] Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 41–42 n. 8.

[20] Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 22–23.

[21] Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 23; cf. 28, 38 n. 3, 41–42 n. 8, 44–47.

[22] Niehr, “The Rise of YHWH,” 47.

[23] The translation is mine, but such modern renderings as the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the New American Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version will bear me out on this.

[24] The same idea seems to be present in D&C 88:141.

[25] For a discussion of related issues, see David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, “Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History,” BYU Studies 31, no. 2 (spring 1991): 139–79.

[26] Journal of Discourses, 2:314. I am inclined to agree, in at least one sense, with Karl Popper’s contention that absolutely pure and untainted sources of knowledge do not, and cannot, exist (Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 25). Not, at any rate, here in this fallen world.

[27] Freeman, Pre-Socratic Philosophers, 24.

[28] Freeman, Pre-Socratic Philosophers, 22.

[29] Cited by Nash, Christian Faith, 14.

[30] Again, see Honey and Peterson, “Advocacy and Inquiry,” 139–79.

[31] N. T. Wright, “How Jesus Saw Himself,” Bible Review 12 (June 1996): 29. A few lines later, speaking of the writers of the Gospels, Wright remarks, “I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth” about the Resurrection of Christ.

[32] We may ultimately find that much scholarship on the Bible and other gospel-related subjects was scarcely more perceptive than my family dog: Whenever I try to direct his attention to something, he inevitably focuses on my finger rather than on the object to which I am alerting him. Similarly, a great portion of contemporary academic study of the scriptures appears to be obsessed with the signifier while utterly neglecting the Signified.

[33] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 121.

[34] See especially Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981); Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1991); Eldin Ricks, The Case of the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Olympus, 1961); Milton V. Backman Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin, 1983; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986) and Rhett Stephens James, The Man Who Knew: The Early Years (Cache Valley, Utah: Martin Harris Pageant Committee, 1983).