Friday, January 14, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (16): The Problem with the Sources

Imagine trying to write a history of the first seventy-five years of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints based only on the writings of Joseph Smith and his most devoted followers.  If you took seriously the possibility that many of these writers were either deluded or dishonest to varying degrees, you might be able to come up with a tentative outline of who the leaders were, what the church believed, and a broad picture of how the church got from upstate New York to Utah.  On the other hand, if you decided to take these writings at face value absent some proof that the accounts were less than truthful, you would probably come up with a narrative that was flat out wrong in countless major and minor details.

The problem with studying the origins of Christianity is that we only have a few documents from the first seventy-five years of its existence and those documents are overwhelmingly the product of men who were fanatically devoted to the new religion.  Our earliest and most prolific source is a man who claims to have received direct revelations from God, but never met the putative founder of the religion and gives very little indication that he knows what that founder is supposed to have said or done during his life or even when or where that founder lived or died.  While it is certainly possible that this man was scrupulously honest in everything he wrote, we would be fools if our analysis didn't incorporate the possibility that he was a lunatic, a pathological liar, or a charlatan.

1 comment:

  1. Imagine an even worse scenario. We have nothing that reliably dates to the first seventy-five years of the movement and forty years after the movement supposedly began, the city that supposedly housed it was destroyed, then another fifty years later was torn brick from brick and totally rebuilt and only after that event do we have reliably datable writings. That would make it even tougher, especially when the writings that we had that seemed to date from the first seventy-five years frequently disputed about issues that were very much in dispute in the second century.

    PS Word verification for this post was unded ... I kid you not.