Raw Personal Histories: Mark, Paul, and Joseph Smith

One of the reasons that conspiracy theories flourish is that humans have a hard time with incompleteness. In Numb3rs, Charlie points out that humans tend to replace mathematical randomness with deterministic patterns that only appear random. As Science Daily states, "The brain doesn't like visual gaps."

This unease with incompleteness extends to other areas of our lives. My personal theory is that this need to "finish" the puzzle is a survival mechanism, a way of ordering the world, no matter how uncooperative it proves to be. 

Unfortunately for the brain, information about the world is often incomplete, uncertain, lacking corroborative details. Primary evidence specifically is the opposite of complete, tidy, detailed. In the moment of relating a fresh experience, people fail to realize that they are supposed to be providing context, countering possible arguments, underscoring their experience with precise descriptions. They are vague, making allusions and references without explanation. They can also be surprisingly cagey.

Hence the reason translation is such a difficult process--and why writing historical fiction (from a contemporary perspective) never sounds exactly the same as the fiction written during that history: Jane Austen never explains herself. 

The following examples are not meant to answer questions of faith. Faith and evidence will be dealt with in another post. They are, rather, meant to reveal a similar quality regarding primary evidence and spiritual experiences. (Keep in mind that these men believed their experiences, whatever others might think.)
In the earliest of the gospels, the Gospel of Mark, Mark or someone interviewing Mark (there is no evidence to the contrary) breaks off in Chapter 16 after presenting the reality of the empty tomb. The chapter resumes with scriptures that were possibly--though not conclusively--added later.

In his letters, the Apostle Paul twice details his vision, the Damascene Conversion, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and in Galatians 1:11-16. In both cases, he is brief, detailing only enough of his experience to prove a point to the fellow believers to whom he is writing.

Joseph Smith's 1832 written account of his First Vision focuses almost entirely on what he was told in the vision rather than on context and details.
In all three cases, later accounts flesh out the original. And here's where a good historian (and a non-conspiracy theorist) acknowledges that fleshing out after the fact is perfectly normal--it is not indicative of some dark agenda or desire to deceive. After all, we do this with our own lives all the time: we look back and see connections that weren't apparent to us in the moment. I have written short stories that were obviously dealing with an issue in my personal life--nothing terribly profound, merely something that was bothering me at the time--yet I didn't "see" what I was doing until months or years after the time of writing.

A good historian (and non-conspiracy theorist) rather than proclaiming disillusionment will try to balance various accounts, starting with the inconclusive, vague and difficult-to-decipher primary evidence. Later, the scholar may add in or consider later accounts since later accounts may include information and even accuracies lacking from the primary accounts (Agatha Christie argues this possibility in several of her mysteries--over time, clues not apparent at the time rise to the surface). The entire process involves discernment, honesty to the principles of research, and recognition of how little humans in fact comprehend about the past.

What strikes me about the above three accounts is that whatever the men experienced struck them as so profound and untellable, they felt the need to keep the knowledge and details to themselves. I'm afraid that I don't see this in theological terms (though some scholars do). I see it in purely human ones. It makes perfect sense to me that someone like Mark would pull back at the awe and heart-wrenching relief of the Resurrection, only returning to the event when other oral versions had entered every-day discourse; that Paul would be reluctant to boast about such a seminal experience regarding his chosen and transformative path; that Joseph Smith would focus his attention on what he--in the moment--thought most important to his understanding of religion and God.

True histories do not in fact anticipate questions, concerns, debates, criticisms, nitpicking, or the need to compete with other versions--not even to relieve doubt.

This happened to me, and this is what I got out of it! is the primary concern. How that information (data) is handled in terms of faith and in terms of evidence is a topic for another post. Suffice to say for now, tackling incomplete histories as some kind of personal insult ("How dare it not be exactly the version I demand for proof!") is poor scholarship and indicates a na├»ve understanding of the world.

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