A review of “Ancient Roots of LDS Temple Covenants”

Jeff Lindsay is one of the more reasonable LDS apologists in the bloggernacle. He makes no bones about his stance, but he isn’t as much of a nutter as my favourite Kool-Aid drinker, Michael R. Ash. He recently put out a presentation that claimed to share his spectacular breakthrough in understanding that the Mormon temple ceremony is, in fact, a restoration of ancient rituals. However, the presentation suffers from lack of true specifics, and an unwillingness to go beyond vague connections and cherry-picking information — a hallmark of the style of amateur LDS archaeologists and historians looking to prove their faith through hard science. In the end, they always come up empty-handed, the way B.H. Roberts said they would a century ago. This is probably why the LDS hierarchy steers clear of encouraging scientific inquiry into LDS claims, leaving explanations for the historical settings of Mormon scripture up to popular culture and pseudoscience.

Lindsay explains: “Two books from non-LDS scholars did more to strengthen my appreciation of the LDS temple than anything I had encountered so far.” The titles are Sinai & Zion – An Entry into the Jewish Bible by Jon D. Levenson and The Sacred and the Profane – The Nature of Religion by Mircea Eliade, both of which are highly respected works on ancient religion. However, precisely how these books influenced Lindsay goes unmentioned, despite the fact that the video is over twenty minutes long.

Lindsay claims that the ancient Jewish temple built by Solomon and modern-day temples operated by the LDS church are one and the same, providing a space and time set apart from the secular world. This is a fairly superficial link, as throughout history there have been mosques, churches, temples, and shrines that serve exactly the same purpose. But with no further explanation, Lindsay concludes, “The LDS temple concept suddenly made a great deal of sense when viewed as a restoration of ancient concepts.” What those concepts are must remain as mysterious as the LDS ceremony itself, it seems.

Lindsay makes a comparison between research performed by George Mendenhall on Ancient Near Eastern treaties and the format of temple covenants. He lists six steps:

  1. Parties are identified
  2. Review of the past relationship between parties
  3. Terms of treaty
  4. Treaty is set in writing or some method of being able to be referenced
  5. Witnesses
  6. Benefits and penalties listed if the treaty is kept or broken

This sounds like the elements of any agreement throughout history. In fact, it sounds just like a modern legal agreement. Such a vague list of standard information necessary to form any kind of covenant agreement is hardly helpful proof that Joseph Smith wasn’t a master plagiariser. Saying that because ancient Near Eastern legal agreements and the LDS temple covenants share certain basic similarities is evidence of their historicity is like saying that because I have feet and Emperor Charlemagne had feet, I must be descended from Charlemagne. General similarities are not proof of descent.

Cherry-picking has been a big part of LDS attempts to historically verify the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and the temple ceremony. There are vaguely pyramid(ish) structures in Mesoamerica? They have those in Egypt too. Brilliant! They must be the same culture! Mayans used a glyphic writing system? So did the Egyptians. Brilliant! It’s proof that the Book of Mormon is true! Even when I was faithful, I’d get uncomfortable with the pseudoscientific, oversimplified approach taken by amateur archaeologists in my ward. But as soon as I said, “well, it’s a bit more complex than that” I’d be silenced with accusations of faithlessness. The same thing has happened here, except I’m not longer worried about being accused of faithlessness. I no longer consider it a crime to be honest about my scepticism.

Apologists frequently fall prey to their own good intentions. Lindsay may have had some mind-blowing epiphany that presents a really strong case for the temple ceremony as a restoration, not a fabrication, but since he isn’t allowed to discuss the ceremony in detail, the presentation comes across as a pretty flimsy argument. Lindsay saw the connections he wished to see, which is easy enough to do as Joseph Smith was deliberately setting out to create a neo-Jewish society when he founded Mormonism.

The Jewish temple was not a place where people came to make covenants with god. It was the ritual home of Yahweh. There was no drama, women weren’t even allowed in, and most Jewish men couldn’t get beyond the inner courtyard. It was a place you went to fulfil ritual obligations to Yahweh so that he wouldn’t get angry with you and allow you to be destroyed by some competing tribe. The ancient Jews of Solomon’s day didn’t even believe they had immortal souls, and they did not believe in Heaven. How can the LDS temple be a restoration of the ancient Jewish temple when it’s allegedly the gateway to the afterlife, and the Jewish temple was simply a luxury apartment for Yahweh?

Overall, if you believe in Mormonism, you’ll nod your head and find Lindsay’s presentation worthy of bringing up in Sunday School so your classmates can know how studious you are. But if you don’t, you’ll just find it another vague, bland defence of the faith. In the end, it’s all opinion. The only factual error in the presentation occurred when Lindsay said that Mormons take an oath in the temple to follow Christ. Given the dearth of specific claims, this was one of the few I could actually address. There is nothing in the LDS temple ceremony about Christ. The word “Christ” appears nowhere in the script, nor does “Jesus.” Incidentally, neither does the word “love.”

LDS temple symbols aren’t that rich. They’re fairly simplistic and sophomoric. Adam represents LDS males. Eve represents LDS females. Elohim is God and Jehovah is Jesus. Satan is Satan, and Peter, James, and John represent the leadership of the LDS church. Gender roles are assigned and everyone promises to do what the leadership says. Apart from the silly handshakes and chanting whilst waving arms around (which I feel are simply for theatric flair), it’s all pretty transparent.

So what’s my point? Being a religious apologist is largely a waste of time. It’s only effective at preaching to the choir and attempting to use pseudoscience to prove what is ultimately an opinion is unhelpful. Faith by nature is defined by its lack of external proof. Those who constantly quest for a prop to hold up their faith simply strike me as someone who is suppressing a deep down suspicion of what I already know: that it’s probably just a load of nonsense.

25 thoughts on “A review of “Ancient Roots of LDS Temple Covenants”

  1. Because, on some level, I’m spectacularly non-inquisitive, I’ve never understood this obsession with “proving” the Bible, or the Book of Mormon. I highly doubt that any of the events described in the Bible actually happened; to me, they’re allegories that, much like Aesop’s Fables, have teaching value. Their truth (or lack thereof) seems secondary to me. Isn’t the ultimate test of a religion whether, by practicing it, my life is enriched? If it makes me happy to be a Mormon, or whatever, great! If not, great!

    People often ask me how I can belong to such a stupid religion (and I nobly resist asking them how they can support the current pope). I answer honestly: yes, some aspects of my religion are silly, and made up, but some aspects of everybody’s religion are silly, and made up. Whether God exists or not, religion isn’t His creation; it’s man’s. The fact that Joseph Smith borrowed heavily from the Masonic ceremonies, had a “seeing stone”, etc. doesn’t really bother me, because I don’t need him to be more than he is–a fallible human being.

    What I like about Lindsay is that he tries. He seems pretty non-judgmental. That’s (unfortunately) rare. Sometimes, sadly, leaving the church actually makes (some) people *more* judgmental. Maybe it’s a reaction to the judgment they’ve received in turn from TBM’s, I don’t know.

  2. I forgot about the part where there isn’t *anything* about Jesus in the temple ceremony. I’d been prepped as a pre-mishie to expect the whole thing to make me feel close to Christ, yadda yadda. Nope. The whole thing just trains you to do exactly what church leaders tell you.

  3. Problem Molly is the burden of proof you’ve set up here.

    In your own words, the burden of proof you’re expecting to be met is a sufficient refutation that “Joseph Smith wasn’t a master plagiariser.”

    But we who do Mormon apologetics have no real interest in meeting this burden of proof for you. All we really care about is establishing a plausible link with the ancient. If we can do that, we’re golden. Especially since we’re not coming from the hostile and hyper-skeptical place you are. Plausible connection is really all we’re after. After that, spiritual witness can do the rest of the work.

    So for you to claim “but that doesn’t prove Joseph couldn’t have made it all up” is really quite beside the point. It’s good enough for us, and whether it’s good enough for you is, forgive me, of quite secondary importance.

    CJ betrays a similar false paradigm of expectations by trying to frame this as a matter of “proving the Book of Mormon.” If you think this has been the aim of LDS apologetics, I would say that you haven’t really been paying attention to it. No apologist I know if is even remotely interested in “proving” the Book of Mormon.

    So, while I can see why you’d have a personal interest in shifting the burden of proof like this, I’m afraid we aren’t really primarily interested in winning you back. That’s your own business. The stuff we do is for believers, and presumes the reader is approaching the material from that paradigm. Plausibility is good enough in that instance.

    You accuse us of preaching to the choir.

    Well… no freaking duh. That’s the whole point of apologetics – providing a reason for the faithful to continue being faithful. In short, it’s not about you – so quit acting like it is.

  4. Seth R., your apologetics skills leave something to be desired if you’re offending an actual TBM. Which I consider myself to be. My understanding of apologetics is that, in a nutshell, it’s about bridging the gap–not closing the door. It’s one thing to discuss history, quite another to criticize people for the manner in which they express their faith.

    Apologists might not be interested in “proving” the Book of Mormon (except they are) but many Mormons are. A good apologist–like a good anything else–is, first and foremost, a good listener. If these are the concerns being expressed by Mormons, then these are the important concerns.

    If you respond to people’s questions, comments and concerns by telling them they’re wrong, um, you’re not doing much in the way of persuading them to your point of view. Rather, you’re tending to, in their own minds, prove them right. As Dostoevsky was wont to point out, personal insult is the last bastion of the truly ignorant. Those who have logical arguments use them.

  5. Oh, and one more thing: when I studied apologetics at a major name-brand Boston area university, I was told, among other things, that apologetics is ultimately about justifying a particular faith to non-believers. And while we’re on the subject, yes, it *is* about Molly. This is her blog. Where she is expressing her personal opinions. Which she has a right to do, this being her blog–and we cherishing this wonderful principle known as free speech. Not to mention, a belief system that doesn’t embrace everybody–believer, non-believer, and ex-believer alike–isn’t one Jesus would’ve approved of. ‘Cause, you see, He never told the doubters, or the outright haters he met “this isn’t about you”. Because it *was* about them. So get with the program.

  6. That’s true CJ, but there are also different parts to the argument.

    The premise here that I’ve heard many apologists – both Mormon and otherwise – note is that matters of faith ultimately cannot be proven in the manner Molly is talking about here. You can’t prove the existence of God in such a way that everyone who watches the 5 o’clock news is going to have to concede it. You can prove it sufficiently on the personal level via spiritual experience, but not at the impersonal public level. Which is what Molly seems to want with Joseph Smith.

    What she seems to be asking here of the apologists is:

    OK – not only vindicate Joseph Smith, but establish his divine mandate – but do it without spiritual experiences, because I reject those.

    I say it can’t be done. And I think LDS apologetics understands this, so it doesn’t really set that goal for itself.

    Still, it’s not a bad observation that perhaps too much time is spent by LDS apologists fighting off attacks, and not enough time actually advocating for the paradigm of belief. Perhaps we farm that job out to the LDS General Authorities too much.

  7. I can’t speak for Molly, but, based on having read and enjoyed her blog for some time now, I’ve developed tremendous respect for her intellect. Therefore, my guess, based on what I do know, is that her argument is more nuanced (correct me if I’m wrong, here, Molly). The way I took it–especially considering as how this is a personal opinion forum–is that she’s asking for proof sufficient *for her*.

    Just as there’s no one single path to faith, there’s no one single bar of proof. We’re all different–and we all need different things to believe (or not believe). Moreover, I don’t get the sense that Molly feels there’s anything missing from her life! You don’t have to be LDS to be a righteous person, or to be happy.

    If this is what Molly would need to believe *for her*, then who are you, or I, or anyone else, to judge? Everyone’s different. If this is what she needs, then she has every right to ask for it–why shouldn’t she? Are her needs, for being different than, say, mine, any less valid? Even if what she asks for can’t be proven (and she knows that), shouldn’t her questions be embraced? That we can’t prove their answers doesn’t make the worth of these questions any less. In fact, I’d argue that they make them more.

    My original response spoke to what you’re bringing up now: the nature of proof. For me, all I need is the fact that living my faith the way I do works for me. Molly isn’t (I don’t believe) asking for anything public and impersonal. As I understand it, she’s simply stating what she, from her own logical perspective, finds lacking. Moreover, this is a review! Jeff Lindsay is a cool guy, but he’s certainly not perfect. Nor does he have the corner on logical argument.

    I agree with Molly; we should be able to anchor our beliefs and opinions–about religion, as well as about anything else–with more than “I have a feeling”. Even if only experience or ethics based, we need logic. I may not be able to answer the questions she has, but I have no problem with her asking them–and, on a personal level, at least, I can answer them.

    Other people’s disagreements usually only bother us if we’re secretly questioning ourselves. Oh, and a postscript: if LDS apologists don’t set that bar for themselves, then why does FAIR exist? See, to me, limited geography, that asinine argument about the tapirs, and various explanations of what must’ve happened to the “real” papyrii are exactly that: efforts to vindicate Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and, indeed, the entire LDS cosmology WITHOUT relying on faith.

  8. CJ, for me apologetics in the Mormon context is basically helping people not feel stupid for having beliefs they obtained for entirely different reasons.

    No one signed up for this religion because Nephi has a steel sword (to use one of the more trivial anti-Mormon arguments).

    But neutralizing the issue can help a faithful Mormon feel comfortable continuing to hold a conviction in Mormonism based on personal and spiritual grounds.

    Basically, it forearms faithful members of the Church from getting broadsided by a barrage of anti-Mormon arguments designed to make them feel harassed, vulnerable, and humiliated (which seems to cause a sort of panic reaction shutting off certain ability to reason). They encounter an anti-Mormon spamming session and realize – “oh, that’s all been addressed and contested – so it’s OK to still view those powerful spiritual witnesses I had as valid.” Or if they encounter something new, it makes it so they don’t have to feel threatened by it – which gives them the ability to stay open to the possibility of an answer turning up eventually.

    • I come from the point of view of not believing in the LDS religion as coming straight from God through the holy prophet Joseph but finding a lot of good in its beliefs. I was raised LDS and really didn’t care if people found my religion stupid as a kid. I still don’t really care if people don’t believe as I do, but I care deeply about the beauty of the Church being buried in crap like trying to change history or pretend prior teachings didn’t exist. Plenty of people can be Catholic without justifying the Inquisition. Certainly grown adults should be able to handle the fact that the temple ceremonies have nothing to do with anything that was going on in the ancient temples of Israel. So it is incredibly insulting and unhelpful to me to have people assume that helping people feel okay about being LDS consists of slapping some not very well supported stuff together in order to provide some thin basis of “well, at least we aren’t completely full of crap.” The LDS Church has caused their own problem in this regard. If you wish to maintain the stance that the Church was a restoration of the ancient Church from God through a line of prophets receiving revelation from God who are not allowed to lead us astray, you put yourself in the position of either showing that it all makes sense or that it doesn’t matter to your faith. The Church set out the ground rules of all or nothing, unless you are arguing that God has changed markedly, lies to his prophet and people or restores in some sort of half-assed manner. I don’t have a problem with Church leaders from Joseph on down being fallible and even flawed humans. As long as you accept that God speaks through humans, you have to expect some distortion as it passes through those humans with their own failings, world views and motivational systems, even if they are well-meaning.

      Since the Church is not okay with gray, it is disingenuous for apologists for its apologists to get upset with members or nonmembers holding it to black and white standards. When you tell people to pray about whether the BOM is the word of God instead of whether it teaches lessons God would approve of, you kind of make your own bed. I wouldn’t have made that bed for them, but I’m not going to put up with whining about someone telling them that they must then lie in it instead of renting out hotel rooms in a more flexible belief system when it’s more convenient.

  9. And incidentally, I don’t really prefer the “tapirs” thing you mentioned.

    I prefer to simply believe that there were actually horses in the Americas prior to Columbus. But that’s just my own pet theory.

  10. For the record, I do actually believe that Joseph Smith was preoccupied with the same themes that occupied the ancients. And he did a great job of bringing them back in a new context (which is why they don’t have to look exactly the same as 3000 years ago).

    Just because I didn’t address Molly’s main argument about whether the ancient connection was tenuous, doesn’t mean that I’m conceding anything here, or that I agree with her here.

    I think the connection with the ancient world in Mormon thought is actually pretty compelling. And I don’t think Molly has done much to question this in her post other than a lot of bare assertions about how “lame” it all is.

    Color me unimpressed. I didn’t think it worth bothering with, so I didn’t.

    I was simply dealing with her premise – which I thought was a bit faulty.

  11. Go Paula!

    Seth R., hanging out on someone’s blog and talking about how “unimpressed” you are is like following the head cheerleader around so you can tell her how “lame” she is. Attention is attention. What are you trying to prove?

  12. Well CJ, that doesn’t change the fact that she didn’t back anything up. Just a lot of unsubstantiated negativity really.

    The only reason I made that last comment was because Paula seemed to be reading something into my comments that I didn’t actually say, and I wanted to be clear here. I’ve been misquoted before, so figured it best to head that off. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have commented on it.

    Besides, why shouldn’t I say what I think about the argument? If you don’t want a contrary opinion, just shut off the blog commenting section on your blog. Simple.

  13. CJ sent me here (disclaimer: not a Mormon, former Anglican and quaker, current agnostic who sleeps in on Sundays). I agree with the idea that everyone has their own standard of proof required for faith, and religion is intensely personal. I think the LDS church is going through what Catholic and Protestant churches went through much earlier (Vatican II anyone?) in having to answer for its history and practices and ceremonies. Some will stay, some will leave (because their personal standards are higher), and you’ll probably see a split in the LDS church in future into liberal and conservative branches. It will be painful (Martin Luther and Henry VIII anyone?) but in the end everyone will find their comfort. Meanwhile apologists scramble around trying to keep things as they are and preserve the harmony.

  14. Speaking of unsubstantiated: “I prefer to simply believe that there were actually horses in the Americas prior to Columbus. But that’s just my own pet theory.” waaaa?????

    • Exactly. I had no problem with most of the substance of his presentation until we got to that point. I disagreed with his conclusions, but that’s a matter of opinion. When he said that I thought to myself, “And I believe there is a unicorn waiting for me in the back garden.”

      Sleeping in on Sundays is lovely, isn’t it?

      • The unicorn thing is more or less irrelevant here.

        We know horses existed on planet earth. And we don’t have definitive proof ruling them out of the geographic and temporal period in question. And we are dealing with biodegradable matter (bones) which are notoriously hard for archeologists to discover – in any climate. All this adds up to a situation where you simply can’t make conclusions.

        Unless, like I invite you below, you have some sources establishing that equine DNA tracking has ruled this out.

        • Extensive testing of feral American horse DNA has been conducted by Oklahoma State University. Their site provides a public-friendly overview, but professors at that university have published many peer-reviewed studies of horses. All of them indicate that horses (other than those that died out prior to 10,000 BC) were first brought to the Americas in the 1600’s by the Spanish.

  15. Why not?

    Organic matter tends to deteriorate so fast – in any climate that pre-Columbian horses is really just as likely as not.

    Horse bones have been discovered from the pre-historic era (which is obviously too far back to be relevant to the Book of Mormon story). So we know at least that there once were horses in the Americas. Why not at 400 BC?

    It’s well documented historically that the Huns kept vast herds of horses in modern day Romania and Bulgaria, yet not a single horse bone has ever been found to verify it. Likewise, it is well documented historically that lions lived in the Middle East hundreds of years before Christ – again, not a single bone to show for it.

    And when French trappers penetrated North America, they found horse herds already there. Everyone simply assumed they came from the Spaniards, but that’s all it was – an assumption.

    So you can call the idea of pre-Columbian horses “unsubstantiated” if you want. But don’t pretend that your assertion that there weren’t any is any better established. Or that the existence of pre-Columbian horses is any less likely than the non-existence of them.

    You have no data – nor are you operating in a system where such data would be expected.

    • Goodness gracious, Seth R., O He Who Comments at Length Yet Offers Nothing For Commentary, please just tell me that’s playing Devils’ advocate. Horse DNA is pretty easy to map. Modern North American horses are descended from Iberian breeds, which have been so overbred through the centuries that it’s as easy to recognise the difference between a Mustang and a Tapir as it is to see the difference between a Timberwolf and a Collie.

      Please tell me this is just some lousy trolling.

      • I’d be interested in seeing your sources that claim we have definitively mapped where all the horses came from.

        Until then, I’ll file that away under my “stuff people said on the Internet” folder.

  16. Incidentally, Mormon apologists are a very diverse group with diverse opinions. An awful lot of them are definitely NOT trying to preserve the status quo.

    Plenty of them are actually quite radical in their thinking and ideas about change the LDS Church ought to undergo.

    One of them actually wrote an article linking Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life to a portrayal of the goddess Asherah as “Heavenly Mother.”

    What’s “status quo” about that?

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