This is the fourth installment in my series responding to Dan Peterson’s recent article, “Joseph Smith’s restoration of ‘theosis’ was miracle, not scandal.” As explained in the first part of this series, Peterson quotes from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, an unnamed Jewish source, and a few church fathers to illustrate the Mormon belief that Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation restored a doctrine of deification sometimes called theosis. In this fourth part, I take a look at Peterson’s unnamed Jewish source.
Peterson introduces the quotation at issue here as coming from “an early Jewish midrash or scriptural commentary.” This is the one citation from a Jewish source cited in his article as evidence that Joseph Smith’s doctrine was a return to a “forgotten strand” of “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Here is Peterson’s quotation:
The Holy One … will in the future call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of elixir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever. … (And He will also) reveal to all the pious in the world to come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds.
None of Peterson’s quotations from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, or the church fathers surprised me. However, I must admit I was taken aback at this quotation from “an early Jewish midrash.” No, it didn’t surprise me that Peterson had found such a quotation somewhere in Jewish literature. What surprised me was his description of the source of the quotation. I am no expert in postbiblical Judaism, but even I immediately recognized that this quotation did not come from “an early Jewish midrash” and that the theology of the quotation is medieval, not ancient, in origin.
This isn’t the first time that Peterson has used this particular quotation. A web article summarizing a “Fireside” lecture by Peterson in 2009 reports him presenting a longer version of the same quotation and this time giving the source as “Mid. Alpha Beta diR. Akiba, BhM 3:32.” Here again, Peterson attributes the quotation to “Jewish Midrash” without further explanation.
The term midrash generally refers to a body of Jewish exposition of the Torah that began to be compiled in the second century AD, much of which eventually led to the publication of the Talmud (in two major compilations, ca. 400 and ca. 500). The term also refers to a sizable body of post-Talmudic literature. However, when Peterson refers to the source of his quotation as “an early Jewish midrash,” the use of the term “early,” especially in the context of his argument for the doctrine in question as “ancient,” clearly implies that the text is pre-Talmudic.
Peterson is not the only LDS apologist to use this quotation to support the Mormon doctrine of exaltation. D. Charles Pyle, in a 1999 FAIR Conference paper entitled “‘I Have Said, “Ye are Gods,”’” quotes the same passage and says that it comes from one of the “early Jewish texts found in the Talmud and in various Midrashim.” (FAIR is a leading pro-Mormon apologetics organization.) Barry Bickmore introduces the quotation by saying that “Rabbi Akiba (d. AD 135) is credited with the following statement,” offering no further explanation. Both Pyle and Bickmore give Raphael Patai’s book The Messiah Texts as the source of the quotation. They also credit John Tvedtnes, another Mormon scholar, for supplying the reference. Tvedtnes later used part of this quotation in a 2004 FAIR Conference. Unlike these other scholars, he says nothing about the origins of the quotation although he also gives the reference (“Midrash Aleph Bet di Rabbi Akiba”) and cites Patai as his source. Tvedtnes presents this quotation in a mix of quotations from medieval Jewish texts, the Talmud, and the church fathers. Daniel O. McClellan, a Mormon Old Testament scholar, claims that the text “is part of the Jerusalem Talmud, which was completed around 380 CE,” and says that “this text was extant for some time before being abridged into the Talmudic corpus.”
So, just what text is this? The title is worded somewhat differently from one reference to another, but the Hebrew title is ’Otiyot De’Rabbi ‘Akiva’. In English it would be something like The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiba. (The Hebrew Aleph Bet and the Greek Alpha Beta are equivalent references to the first two letters of the alphabet, and similar in meaning to our idiom “the ABCs.”) This sounds like an impressive text; after all, Akiba, or more properly ‘Aqiva’, was one of the “founding fathers” of rabbinical Judaism, a noted and highly respected rabbi who lived through both of the Jewish-Roman wars of AD 66-73 and 132-35. If the quotation came from Aqiva, as Bickmore implies (without directly making that claim), that would be impressive indeed! Peterson’s description of this source as “an early Jewish midrash” implies that it originates from the same era of history as Aqiva. But does it?
The answer is emphatically no. We need look no further than Patai’s book, from which all of the Mormons derive the quotation, to discover that the text dates from at least six centuries later than Aqiva. In Patai’s “Chronological List of Sources” at the back of the book, the “Midrash Alpha Beta di R. Akiba” is listed as originating from the “8th-9th” centuries. In another book, Patai explains the religious context of the work:
“The foundations of medieval Kabbalism were laid in Babylonia and Byzantium in the 7th and 8th centuries, when a number of Midrashim with marked Kabbalistic tendencies made their appearance. Several of these (e.g,, the Alpha Beta of Rabbi Akiba and the Midrash Konen) deal with the mysteries of Creation and the structure of the universe.”
That’s right, the quotation comes from a foundational work in the development of the medieval mystical Jewish tradition known as Kabbalah. This isn’t just Patai’s opinion. It is the scholarly, academic consensus. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (the second edition appeared this year, 2011) states that it was “probably composed between the seventh and the ninth century CE.” Strack and Stemberger’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash describes it as a “work of merkabah mysticism” and says that “a date between the seventh and ninth century is likely.” The earliest possible date is that suggested by Joseph Dan, a leading scholar on The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva. He describes it as “an esoteric collection of midrashim put together at the beginning of the geonic period,” that is, no earlier than the seventh century. The latest possible date is the ninth century, as given for example in the 2007 reference work Encyclopaedia Judaica. These are typical, representative statements of current scholarship on the date and cultural origins of the work. Furthermore, the earliest manuscripts of the work date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The earliest published edition was published in Constantinople in 1515 or 1516. This and other published editions of the work reveal three or four different versions. These facts make it uncertain whether the entirety of the work or the wording of a particular passage even goes back to the first millennium.
One may suppose that some Mormon apologists, upon learning that the source of this quotation is a medieval proto-Kabbalistic text, will argue that even if the text is medieval the idea it expresses may be ancient. Obviously, no text appears in a vacuum; all texts draw on ideas that predate them. However, the point of the quotation is supposedly to provide evidence that a particular idea is ancient, and a medieval text of checkered textual history is not good evidence for that claim. A Jewish text dating from about the eighth century cannot provide evidence that Joseph Smith was restoring a doctrine supposedly lost or suppressed in a second-century apostasy. If Mormon apologists wish to defend that claim, they will need to use earlier, different texts.
Furthermore, the idea expressed in the quotation from The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva does not do much to establish even medieval precedent for the LDS doctrine of exaltation propounded by Joseph Smith. Here is a fuller quote as it appears in Patai’s book:
The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of elixir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever…. And the Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future reveal to all the pious in the World to Come the Ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds…. The Holy One, blessed be He, will give every pious three hundred and forty worlds in inheritance in the World to Come…. To all the pious the Holy One, blessed be He, will give a sign and a part in the goodly reward, and everlasting renown, glory and greatness and praise, a crown encompassed in holiness, and royalty, equal to those of all the pious in the World to Come. The sign will be the cup of life which the Holy One, blessed he He, will give to the Messiah and to the pious in the Future to Come.
There is no hint in this passage of Joseph Smith’s doctrine that God was once a man who became God by a process of exaltation that we are to imitate. Nor does the passage suggest that human beings preexisted as God’s spirit children prior to their mortal lives on earth. It does affirm that pious people will be “exalted” in some significant ways: they will have immortality, renown, glory, greatness, praise, holiness, and royalty. Depending on exactly how these are understood, all orthodox Christians would agree (though we have a different understanding as to the basis on which these blessings will be received). The one element that sounds similar to Mormon theology is the reference to the glorified pious ones “being able to create new worlds.” Even here, though, the context is very different: the pious will be able to do this because they will know “the Ineffable Name,” and the worlds they will have will be given to them by “the Holy One” and are limited to a certain number. It is far from clear that this text means that the pious will become Gods of the same nature and power as “the Holy One.” They apparently will not be creating their new worlds by their own divine power as new deities but rather as rewards given to them and obtained by invoking or using the divine Name.
It is no doubt possible to cull a large assortment of conceptual and verbal parallels to virtually any and every element of Mormon theology by ransacking Jewish and Christian literature throughout history, but such a methodology is hopelessly fallacious as a method for establishing that Mormon theology is a restoration of ancient doctrines lost, neglected, or suppressed. There is nothing “miraculous” about Joseph Smith’s teaching having such parallels when the pool of texts from which the parallels are drawn include such texts as a fairly obscure medieval proto-Kabbalistic writing. One could do the same thing for the teachings of any nineteenth-century religious figure who claimed to “restore” true Christianity, such as Ellen G. White, Mary Baker Eddy, or Charles Taze Russell.
The fact that Peterson and several other Mormon apologists resort to utilizing such a quotation while failing to describe its source accurately is especially troubling. This is the only quotation in Peterson’s article that he does not identify specifically. Clearly, had he done so, it would have weakened his argument. Each of the Mormon apologists cited here had the wherewithal to track down the source of the quotation and to state accurately the period of history and religious perspective from which it originated. I make no judgment as to why they all failed to do so. In any case, the use of the quotation to support the Mormon claim that Joseph Smith “restored” original, true Christianity is simply indefensible.
1. D. Charles Pyle, “‘I Have Said, “Ye are Gods”’: Concepts Conducive to the Early Christian Doctrine of Deification in Patristic Literature and the Underlying Strata of the Greek New Testament Text,” 1999 FAIR Conference paper.
2. See Barry R. Bickmore, “Of Simplicity, Oversimplification, and Monotheism,” FARMS Review 15 (2003): 257.
3. Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts: Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1988; earlier ed., New York: Avon, 1979), 251.
4. John Tvedtnes, “The King Follett Discourse in the Light of Ancient and Medieval Jewish and Christian Beliefs,” 2004 FAIR Conference paper, n. 53.
5. Maklelan (Daniel O. McClellan), “Do Mormons Believe They Will Rule Over Their Own Planets? Of course!” (Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board, 17 July 2009).
6. Patai, Messiah Texts, 346.
7. Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3d enlarged ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 113.
8. Marc Bregman, in The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, ed. Adele Berlin and Maxine L. Grossman; 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 43.
9. H. L. Strack and Günter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, trans. Markus Bockmuehl, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 349.
10. Joseph Dan, “Alphabet Mysticism/Letter Mysticism,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, ed. Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski, and Eberhard Jüngel (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1:156-57. The geonic period refers to a specific period in the history of Talmudic interpretation and education and is dated 589-1038, thus beginning just before the seventh century and running through the first third of the eleventh century. Dan, the Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of a three-volume academic study, History of Jewish Mysticism and Esotericism, published in Hebrew at the Shazar Center, Israel Historical Society. Chapter 30 (in volume 3) of this work is on “‘The Alphabet of Rabbi Akiva’ and the New Conception of Language.”
11. Moshe David Herr, “Midrashim, Smaller,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Fred Skolnik, 2d ed. (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2007).
12. Three versions are described in detail in Kaufmann Kohler, “Akiba Ben Joseph, Alphabet of,” in Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906), Volume 1. Herr (“Midrashim, Smaller”) states that the work is “extant in different versions and in many manuscripts, only some of which have been published (Constantinople (1516), version A; Cracow (1579), version B; Wertheimer, Battei Midrashot, 2 (1953), 333–465, four versions), but most of them (including Mss. of the 13th and 14th centuries) have not yet appeared in print.” See also the listing for a 2004 auction of the first known published edition of the work, published in Constantinople in Hebrew and dated 1515. The auction listing describes the work as a “Kabbalistic treatise that considers, letter by letter, the cosmological and eschatological properties of the Hebrew alphabet, and what it reveals about the Al-mighty. The work is heavily referenced in kabbalah literature and attributed to the sage Rabbi Akiva.”
13. Patai, Messiah Texts, 251.
NOTE: This article was first posted on August 17 and was edited on August 20, 2011.