Reviewed by Eric Johnson
Listen to a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast as Bill and Eric interview the author from July 27-31, 2020:
A disclaimer should be included on the first page of a 2020 book written by Dr. Robert Bowman, a scholar who has written Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions: Examining the Foundations of Christianity and Mormonism (Tampa: Deward, 2020). I suggest this disclaimer borrow from the cigarette packages and say something like this:
“Caution: Reading this Book May Be Hazardous to Your Spiritual Health.”
Perhaps the warning label should add:
“This topic has been detrimental to the presuppositions of many Latter-day Saints. Those Latter-day Saints who are determined to keep their faith in the religion of Mormonism…quick, put this book down immediately and flee the Devil. Understanding Joseph Smith’s visions could cause doubt and an eventual rejection of Joseph as a true prophet of God.”
I may jest, slightly, but Bowman’s newest work is so good that it has skyrocketed to the “Top 5” in my list for books concerning Joseph Smith that I believe, if read objectively from cover to cover, could single-handedly cause an honest Latter-day Saint to give up on Mormonism. If you think I’m kidding, here is what my list looked like before I read Bowman’s latest:
- Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994)—If you want a true picture of Joseph Smith’s polygamous ways, this is the go-to source. Written by two female scholars who had belonged to the LDS Church, this book shows how awful Smith treated his wife. I have found more former Latter-day Saints lose their faith due to information about Smith’s philanderous ways than any other topic.
- In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997)—If you are going to read #1, you ought to have this book beside you for a ready-reference resource, as this LDS researcher puts together a list of the 33 wives of Joseph Smith.
- …by his own hand upon papyrus: a new look at the Joseph Smith papyri by Charles Larson (Grand Rapids, MI: IRR, 1992). The best singular look at the issue of the Book of Abraham, with an incredible pull-out chart. The problems with the Book of Abraham have caused many Latter-day Saints to abandon ship.
- Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed by David Persuitte (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc, 2000)—Contains similar information as talked about in the second-to-last chapter by Bowman, but this book should cause every Mormon to struggle.
- No Man Knows my History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1983) by Fawn Brodie is the classic work on Joseph Smith. Besides Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, this book has probably caused more consternation throughout the years for doubting Mormons who have read it.
The first two on the list deal specifically with Smith’s polygamous/polyandrous lifestyle, a reason I have discovered over the years is why more former Latter-day Saints have left the religion than any other. This is true especially for women. However, the list has just been modified. Jumping into fourth place is (Drum Roll, please) Jesus’ Resurrection and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, moving Persuitte’s book to fifth place. Congratulations, Dr. Bowman. The check is in the mail!
And now let me explain reasons why every person who is interested in Mormonism needs to read this fabulous book.
Bowman provides an organized plan for how he tackles this multi-faceted subject. The first half of the book overviews the Christian position of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples and Paul while the second half scrutinizes the LDS position on Smith’s visions. The chapters can also be viewed from a parallel point of view. As far as organization, I thought this was genius. Here is the outline of Jesus’ Resurrection and Joseph’s Visions:
|Chapter 2: Jesus’ Resurrection in Context: What we Know about Jesus Christ||Chapter 6: Joseph’s Visions in Context: What we Know about Joseph Smith|
|Chapter 3: Jesus’ Resurrection: Did it happen?||Chapter 7: Joseph’s Angelic Visions: Did They Happen?|
|Chapter 4: Jesus’ Appearance to Paul: Did it Happen?||Chapter 8: Joseph’s First Vision: Did it Happen?|
|Chapter 5: After Jesus’ Resurrection: Testing the Apostles||Chapter 9: After Joseph’s Early Visions: Testing the Prophet|
Let me start by looking over the left side of the chart first.
The Case for Christianity: The Resurrection, Paul, and the Apostles
According to Bowman, true history is vital to consider the foundation of any religion. And he’s correct. In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus is crucial; if this event is fictional, then Christianity would not be worth, as it is said, a bucket of spit. Certainly it is possible that embracing Christianity could lead to pragmatic benefits, such as having nice families and guiding people to moral and productive lives. However, atheists and adherents of other religions could very well accomplish the same goals. As Paul surmised in 1 Corinthians 15:
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus (chapters 2-3), the information the author brings out is not new or as detailed as other available works. Of course, the resurrection is a huge topic, and there have been entire books written on it, including The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004) by Michael R. Licona and Gary Habermas, a scholar from Liberty University who has dedicated his professional life to this topic. Licona also wrote the 718-page magnum opus The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2011). (Note: Both men provided positive endorsements for Bowman’s book.) A third book meant for a popular lay audience is Lee Strobel’s classic The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Harper Collins, 1998), with the last third devoted to the crucial important topic of the resurrection.
Obviously, Bowman’s purpose is not to spend his allotted space on just the resurrection. Yet he needs to show that Christianity’s case is reasonable. Otherwise, the man who throws stones in a glass house will pay the price when the Mormon retaliates against the Christian’s faith and shows what he might contend is be a similar lack of evidence. Thus, Bowman produces a solid case for the resurrection as the best possible explanation when compared to the other possibilities.
After laying out the basic evidence for Jesus’ resurrection in chapter 2, Bowman takes time in chapter 3 to deal with other theories used by skeptics to displace the resurrection, including:
- Did the disciples steal the body? (pp. 90-93)
- Did family members move the body? (pp. 93-97)
- Did the witnesses have hallucinations? (pp. 103-106)
In chapter 4, Bowman discusses how the apostle Paul (formerly Saul) saw Jesus on the road to Damascus, while in chapter 5 he builds the case for the credibility of the witnesses to the resurrection. Systematically, Bowman devotes these first chapters to show how a) Jesus resurrected from the dead; b) Paul experienced Jesus on the road to Damascus; and c) the disciples changed their lives and beliefs, with no ulterior motives in providing reasons why they believes this event really happened.
Bowman wraps up the first half of the book with this comment on page 154:
Our examination of the foundation of Christianity, then, has yielded a very positive result. The historical evidence shows that Jesus Christ actually died on a cross and rose from the dead. We have also found significant evidence confirming that the New Testament apostles, including Paul, were faithful witnesses who truthfully told what they saw and heard, even at the cost of their lives. The New Testament writers invite reasoned scrutiny of their claims, and what we have found shows that their quiet confidence is well justified.
The Case Against Mormonism: Joseph Smith’s Sleight of Hand
As I talked about in the introduction, the Mormon reader must count the cost before proceeding to the second half of the book. This is the heart of Bowman’s work, as he dissects the two crucial historical events that must pan out for the religion of Mormonism to be true: the First Vision (God and Jesus appearing to Joseph Smith in 1820 in a secluded spot not far from his upstate New York home when Smith was 14 years old) and the Book of Mormon, a book about ancient Israelites who supposedly inhabited the American continent until one group, the Nephites, died out in the fifth century AD.
Mormon leaders have placed all their bets on the historicity of these two events. According to their own admission, if these two events did not take place, the entire religion is annulled. Consider what 8th President Heber J. Grant said about the First Vision:
Either Joseph Smith did see God and did converse with Him, and God Himself did introduce Jesus Christ to the boy Joseph Smith, and Jesus Christ did tell Joseph Smith that he would be the instrument in the hands of God establishing again upon the earth the true gospel of Jesus Christ—or Mormonism, so-called, is a myth. And Mormonism is not a myth! It is the power of God unto salvation. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, established under His direction, and all the disbelief of the world cannot change the fundamental facts connected with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Gospel Standards, p. 3).
Grant also said, “If Joseph Smith did not have that interview with God and Jesus Christ, the whole Mormon fabric is a failure and a fraud. It is not worth anything on earth” (Gospel Standards, p. 15). Meanwhile, Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland explained the importance of a historical Book of Mormon:
To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward (Christ and the New Covenant, p. 334).
There are many other quotes like these. Clearly Mormons have not been given permission by General Authorities to take on an “existential” belief, as these leaders claim these are historical events. In other words, a person who says that the First Vision or the Book of Mormon do not have to be historical but can be accepted through an internalized faith is not what the leaders have traditionally claimed. The “sudden death proposition” for the Christian is that miracles do exist in a historical context, so Jesus really did rise from the dead and He appeared to Paul. So can evidence be produced to support the historicity of Mormonism’s crucial events? The answer is no, Bowman contends. To make his case, he explains the process he uses on page 36 under the subtitle “In Search of the Best Explanation”:
Our examination of the foundational claims of Christianity and Mormonism employs a form of reasoning that is commonly called inference to the best explanation. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines inference to the best explanation as “the procedure of choosing the hypothesis or theory that best explains the available data.” . . . This evidence-based reasoning may broadly be described as hypothetical reasoning, in which hypotheses, or proposed accounts of what took place, are examined to see how well they explain the available evidence.
Empirical evidence– that “information acquired by observation or experimentation”–is not going to “prove” the case for or against either the Christian or the Mormon. It is impossible to go back in time, for instance, and interview the witnesses of the resurrection, look at the empty grave, and find a smoking gun. And since Joseph Smith was typically by himself when important events took place (as he was at the First Vision and the appearance of Moroni in his bedroom) or he was in control of the circumstances when “showing” the plates to the witnesses, it can’t be proven using empirical evidence to show Smith was lying.
Here’s the rub. Most court cases are decided by evidence that cannot be seen, touched, heard, or felt. Consider the evidence on the OJ Simpson/Nicole Brown case several decades ago. There was the killer’s knife along with other evidence that seemed to implicate Simpson. Yet, as a witty lawyer put it in his closing argument, “if the glove (tried on by Smith) don’t fit, you must acquit.” This was in reference to the killer’s glove that Simpson was asked to put on in front of the jury but which he struggled to do. While most observers who were surveyed believed Simpson was guilty, he ended up getting released due to what the jury felt was a lack of evidence.
A personal story can be used as another example. I once served as a jury foreman on a federal court case involving a Mexican national trying to cross the Tijuana River near San Diego and enter into the United States. When he saw a Border Patrol truck drive up on the American side, the defendant made an beeline sloshing dash down the river to the east. However, another Border Patrol officer stood on a nearby embankment as the national began to head toward him. The officer slipped and fell off the short cliff, landing on his back next to the river. The national reached into the water and picked up a rock to throw at the officer, so taking a sitting position, the officer shot the man in the hand. The national was then arrested by the other officers.
There were four border agents who provided their perspective of the story, albeit with details that slightly varied but were within reason. Generally, they all told the same story, although two of them did not see a rock in his hand because they were too far away. After four days of listening to both sides give their evidence, the jury retired to their conference room. As we discussed the case, it was obvious the majority of us believed that the story as given by the officers was true. The evidence that was presented seemed very clear to an impartial group of people.
However, as we deliberated, one juror defiantly declared that she believed the defendant was innocent. “How do you know?” someone asked her. “Because the Border Patrol hates people from Mexico and they would lie if they had to in order to protect their own.” She apparently had a low view of the Border Patrol officers and was demanding additional evidence. When I asked what was needed for her to vote “guilty,” she said she needed evidence she could observe, such as video. “But there is no video,” I responded. “Exactly,” she said. “Therefore, the officers colluded. I believe the defendant is innocent.” The woman’s presupposition took control of her demeanor and it was obvious that her mind was made up, damn the evidence. She ended up convincing one other juror to her point of view. The end result? The jury ended up hopelessly deadlocked 10-2, making us a hung jury. Several of the jurors were very angry that we had wasted more than a week of our lives to not come to a conclusion. Yet the two ladies on the jury came to their conclusion because they did not see the evidence the same way as the other ten did.
An atheist who sits back and scoffs, “What evidence is there for (God/Jesus/the Bible, etc.)?” may not really be open-minded about the evidence that is out there. I have had atheists demand that I somehow produce God and then allow them to shake the Almighty’s hand before they could accept any type of divine as true. This is a silly request. It is no different than saying “I don’t believe in an expanding universe unless I can observe it by looking into the sky with my naked eyes.” Even with a $69 Amazon telescope, this cannot be “proven.” Still, the evidence provides an expanding universe as the best conclusion when all facts are considered, even ones that can’t be easily seen. In the same way, the evidence shows that the First Vision and the Book of Mormon were creations of Smith’s very creative imagination. There may be no “smoking gun,” but the evidence seems stacked against the Mormon presenting the case for Mormonism.
Since we’re talking about courtrooms, Bowman reminds me of a lawyer who lays out his case to the jury in a systematic fashion, crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s each time, making it very difficult for the defendant to counter the evidence. Allow me to give a few highlights from these final five chapters.
First, he begins his case against Smith in chapter 6 (“Joseph’s Visions in Context”) by looking at “Joseph’s Historical Context.” He considers Enlightenment Philosophy, Pursuit of the Supernatural and Paranormal, the Second Great Awakening, and Restorationism. He also brings up Smith’s treasure hunting experience and the Smith family’s involvement with magic and occultism. Having these ideas in place is a perfect background to understand the following chapters.
In chapter 7 (“Joseph’s Angelic Visions: Did They Happen?”), Bowman pays special attention to the many visitations of the angel Moroni, a key character in the Book of Mormon story who supposedly directed Smith to the plates between 1823-1827 before later taking the plates back from Smith. On pages 192-193, Bowman produces a table laying out the 14 different visitations Moroni made to Smith. Then, on page 194, he provides another table of the “people in the Bible who saw angels or ‘the Angel of the LORD.’” The majority only saw an angel once, he explains, while the most any biblical individual saw an angel was three times (Jacob in the Old Testament and Peter in the New Testament). On page 195, Bowman astutely points out,
The large number of alleged appearances of Moroni is enough to warrant at least some measure of skepticism. Of course, God could send an angel to talk to a specific individual a hundred times if he chose. The point here is that the unusually high frequency of the angelic visitations is in and of itself rather implausible or unlikely. Not just atheists or agnostics, but also Christians who believe in the supernatural and accept the activity of angels, as a fact, are justified in regarding the claim with some suspicion. Not all stories of angelic visitations are equally credible.
Bowman makes an excellent point. Something seems amiss when one man (Smith) is claiming 5x more angelic visitations than anyone else in the Bible ever had. Even Jesus was visited by angels only twice! It just seems very suspicious, and I’m glad Bowman pointed this out because it is something I have never thought about before. Besides Smith, having angels appear to a Latter-day Saint is very rare; I’ve not heard it talked about in recent years, including at the General Conference sessions. (One would think the prophet and the general authorities would all have multiple stories, especially since their founder had so many encounters of angels.) All I ever hear about angels are the folk tales of the Three Nephites appearing to Latter-day Saints in need, but even these events seem to be highly disputed by the majority of Latter-day Saints. But, with 14 visits by angels under his belt, somehow we are supposed to take Smith at his word. Does that seem rational?
There is also a problem with Moroni’s first appearance in Smith’s bedroom, which he shared with his brothers. The angel’s glory lit up the room and Smith had an audible conversation with him. Are we supposed to believe that none of his brothers woke up? That sounds odd. Because of this problem, Bowman writes,
Even LDS historian and Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman indirectly acknowledged the problem when he explained that Joseph’s first vision (in 1820) took place in the woods because there was “no hope of privacy in the little cabin filled with children and household activity.”
To the argument that Moroni manifested himself only to Smith and not his brothers, Bowman systematically plows over this theory with a two-ton truck called reason by using four points. In the courtroom of public opinion, I can imagine silence from the attorneys on the other side.
Bowman also thinks it is suspicious that some of Moroni’s meetings were prearranged. He displays his skepticism on page 200: “No human being in the Bible was ever informed as to when he or she would see an angel.” I agree, it’s sounds very convenient that Smith somehow was able to name the time and place when an angel would come. Concerning the three witnesses who supposedly saw the plates, Bowman writes on pages 206-207,
Whether Joseph Smith saw an angel or not, the question of whether he had in his custody for two years a set of gold plates inscribed in an ancient language would seem to be a straightforward enough matter. Either he had the plates, or he didn’t. If he did, one would think anyone could have seen them.
He continued on page 210:
Think about it from this perspective: The one event in the Mormon origins story in which other people beside Joseph Smith see an angel, Joseph arranges the meeting and is present when they see the angel. At best, this aspect of the story negates any supposed evidential value of their witness as independent of Joseph Smith. Whenever any vision, revelation, or other religiously significant event supposedly took place in the origins of the Mormon religion, Joseph was there and was in control of the place, time, and circumstances of the event. At worst, the Three Witnesses’ dependence on Joseph for their experience is strongly suggestive of some sort of manipulation by Joseph.
In chapter 8, Bowman moves to the First Vision where Smith claimed to see both God the Father and Jesus. One of the biggest problems, he says, is the changing of the story from account to account–all of which are different. On pages 224-225, Bowman provides a table of the 11 accounts. Among other things, Bowman shows how there was no religious revival in Smith’s area in 1820; instead, it can be historically shown to have not taken place until 1824, which causes many problems. As Bowman writes on page 235,
If the revival took place in 1824, then it took place not only four years after the First Vision (instead of just before it), the revival also took place after Moroni’s first visit in 1823. . . . Thus, if we find that the revival did take place in 1824 instead of 1820, that would pose a very serious objection to Joseph’s narrative in Joseph Smith-History.
Earlier, Bowman had brought up the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, which was written on Joseph Smith and his religion by Eber Howe. As Bowman puts it, “the book is actually a compilation of numerous primary sources, mostly in the form of affidavits from residents of the town where Joseph grew up.” Last year I read this book from cover to cover because I wanted to see what had been said by a very early “anti-Mormon.” There was a lot of talk about the skepticism of the Book of Mormon along with other things related to Smith. However, there was not even one reference made by Howe regarding the First Vision! Such an omission of an early target would be strange. Or could it be that the First Vision was not an issue as late as 1834, 14 years after the supposed event took place?
In fact, as Bowman points out, there is no mention of the First Vision in Mormon writings or scripture prior to 1832. For example, he writes on page 246,
The lack of references to the First Vision prior to 1832 cannot be dismissed as a mere argument from silence. There are several reasons why this objection fails, two of which will be discussed here. For one thing, the First Vision is supposedly the foundational event of Mormonism, compared to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and second in importance only to that event.
82 of the 138 sections of Doctrine & Covenants, taking up about 156 pages in modern printed editions, were all produced prior to the summer of 1832. Yet there is not one reference to the First Vision in all that material. Indeed, there is no one reference to the First Vision anywhere in the 138 sections of D&C, all but five of which were authored solely by Joseph Smith. This would be roughly analogous to the apostle Paul never mentioning the risen Christ’s appearance to him in any of his epistles. . . (p. 247).
In chapter 9 (“After Joseph’s Early Visions”), Bowman takes a closer look at the Book of Mormon and deals with the rate of translation being “miraculously fast” and how a seer stone used in the translation was a “miracle.” Bowman lists five points on pages 275 to 279 to knock that argument to the ground. He then makes a solid case using 6 points for why the seer stone is problematic, especially since the plates supposedly came with a pair of spectacles that he never used in that scripture’s translation.
In chapter 10 (“Comparing the Foundational Claims of Mormonism and Christianity”), Bowman explains why his book matters. Based on the incredible evidence that he has produced, I believe his case is solid. If we take away Smith’s credibility and prove that there is a slim-to-none chance that the events he claims (especially the First Vision and the Book of Mormon) took place the way he claimed, then Mormonism is a fraud. As the leaders cited at the beginning of this review show, the case against Mormonism’s founder makes all the difference in the world.
Although he doesn’t list his entire biography (he gives a select biography of 25 materials), somewhere I saw that Bowman had used more than 400 resources. This is an incredible number! And he uses a wide variety of sources. Only a scholar like Bowman could have access to so many materials and weave them together as seamlessly as he did. I also appreciate the fact that he used footnotes rather than endnotes. God bless you, Dr. Bowman! Having to keep our place in the back of a book is tiresome and unnecessary. We, the readers, appreciate being able to see your sources without having to go on scouting missions.
My only complaint is that no index was included. A book this valuable will be used over my remaining research years, so not being able to just look in the back of the book for “Mormonism Unvailed” or “magic” will cause frustration. Perhaps for the second edition, Dr. Bowman?
I like how the book was concluded on page 306:
Christians of traditional belief, whether evangelical Protestant, conservative Catholic, or the like, are more than consistent in accepting Jesus’ resurrection while rejecting Joseph’s visions. We need not be embarrassed by the fact that we accept one miraculous claim but not the other. On the other hand, Mormons who have come to doubt or disbelieve Joseph’s visions because they care about truth need not and should not also jettison belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Abandoning Mormonism and falling instead into atheistic or agnostic skepticism is a tragedy—a turn, if you will pardon me for saying so, form one error into a worse one.
As I end, I once again warn all Latter-day Saints to put on their flak jackets and be prepared to be challenged if they decide to read this book. If they are honest and want to have a faith that corresponds with the available evidence, they should do this. There is much they could lose, I do admit, but there is much more to gain in worshiping the true resurrected Jesus as described in the Bible.