Baker Academic

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jesus the Polygamist: A Riddle from the Annals of Mormonism - Le Donne

Allow me to apologize at the start to any Mormons who visit this site.  This post is going to cast a dubious light on at least one Mormon luminary.  I cannot claim to be an expert in Mormonism and (not that this matters much) I don't know any Mormons.  I have no reason to dislike Mormons or insult Mormons.  I have, however, spent the last week studying early Mormon views on "Jesus the polygamist".  This post is my attempt to enlist a bit of help from (a) my classicist colleagues and (b) experts on early Mormon chicanery.

I ask that your comments demonstrate civility.  All religions have embarrassing figures, doctrines, traditions, etc.  By pointing out this one bit of skullduggery, I do not mean to suggest that Mormons are unique.  I'm simply trying to get to the bottom of a riddle.  Also, I've been looking for a chance to use the word skullduggery.

When the early "Mormonites" emerged from the mainline/evangelical primordial ooze, there was no evidence of polygamy.  In fact, the Book of Mormon suggests that monogamy ought to be the default.  From 1829, through the 1830s: no plural marriage.  Then, in the mid-1840s, prophet Joseph Smith started acquiring "spiritual wives" in secret (polygamy was illegal in most states including Illinois where the sect was based).  It wasn't long before the cat was out of the bag and the sect was persecuted for this practice.  The first public advocate for the doctrine of plural marriage, Orson Pratt, made his case in a 1853 publication.  A year later, Jedediah M. Grant made a similar defense.  One of the standard arguments (and there were many) in support of the doctrine was that Jesus was a polygamist.  Here is a quotation from Grant:

What does old Celsus say, who was a physician in the first century, whose medical works are esteemed very highly at the present time. His works on theology were burned with fire by the Catholics, they were so shocked at what they called their impiety. Celsus was a heathen philosopher ; and what does he say upon the subject of Christ and his Apostles, and their belief? He says “The grand reason why the Gentiles and philosophers of his school persecuted Jesus Christ, was, because he had so many wives ; there were Elizabeth, and Mary, and a host of others that followed him.” After Jesus went from the stage of action, the apostles followed the example of their master (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1 [1854], p.345).
So you probably already see the riddle: what is this kuso about Celsus?  If Grant is correct, we have a first-century (adversarial!) witness to Jesus' career.  Moreover, this witness confirms that women were common companions among Jesus' band of misfits.  Boy, that would be impressive!  Unfortunately, it looks like Grant is either misinformed, a rascal, or both.

First, the Celsus who wrote "medical works" and who lived in the first century (to my knowledge) never produced any theological works as Grant claims.  I will ask my classicist colleagues to help me out here, but my impression is that Aulus Cornelius Celsus (ca.25 BC—ca.50) wrote about agriculture, oratory, medicine, military tacticsnot theology and not about Jesus.  Second, if I'm right, none of his works survive accept his De Medicina.  It could be that there is an unknown document in a Salt Lake City archive that no one else knows about, but this is highly unlikely.  It is far more likely that Grant has invented this source to fashion Jesus into a proto-Mormon.

So a few questions: (1) Am I correct in thinking that nothing from the pen of Aulus Cornelius Celsus survives sans De Medicina? (2) Could it be that Grant has confused Aulus Cornelius Celsus for the second-century Celsus made famous by Origen? (3) Or is Grant crazy like a fox?  Has he chosen the name Origen to create a ring of authenticity but given this voice more authority by locating him in the persona of the first-century medical philosopher?

I would really appreciate some help here.



  1. You are correct on 1, I think.
    2 is almost certainly correct. This doesn't mean he did so deliberately - we'd need to know what sources he was working with.
    A quick search of the text of Origen Against Celsus here:
    doesn't suggest this quotation is genuine - couldn't find it on a skim read, search for "Mary" and "Elizabeth" don't find it (latter name doesn't occur at all it seems).
    Even if the quotation is to be found in some Greek text, it must be counted as certain that "wives" should be "women" - the idea that Jesus surrounded himself with women would seem like the kind of thing to scandalize Celsus.
    A web search on "use of Celsus by Mormons" is fascinating - there's a PhD there at least.

    1. Thanks Bernard, I've scoured Against Celsus. Grant is not quoting from Origen.


  2. FWIW, the FAIR Wiki (a site created to defend Mormonism, though the site is not an official LDS activity) states that they cannot find the Celsus source cited by Grant.

    I would not describe Grant’s sermon as a defense of polygamy. His point, I think, was that the Mormons should expect to be persecuted, that Mormons should “look for mobs, and the very scum of hell to boil over.” Grant DID state that Jesus and his followers were persecuted “based on polygamy” (“We might almost think they were ‘Mormons’"), but Grant’s focus is on the persecution and not the polygamy. His exhortation was not that Mormons should marry often, but that Mormons should fight with the “grit” of Joseph Smith, so that Mormonism “will roll forth until it fills the whole earth.”

    But of course, Grant accepted polygamy as part of the Mormon program. And Grant was telling Mormons that they were being persecuted for their polygamy just as Jesus was (supposedly) persecuted for the same thing.

    Next: I would question whether Grant intended the quoted passage (“The grand reason why …”) to be understood as a direct quote from “old Celsus”. Yes, the passage DOES appear in quotation marks. But the quoted passage reads to me like a paraphrase. In particular, the use of the word “Gentiles” is strikingly odd in this context. What Greek or Roman writer in the 1st or 2nd centuries would have referred to Jesus’ persecutors using a word that might be translated as “Gentiles”? Perhaps “Gentiles” derives from Grant’s own translation (the Mormons sometimes used “Gentile” to refer to non-Mormons, including Jews).

    But then how do you explain (even by means of a peculiar translation) the idea that Jesus was persecuted by “philosophers”? What Greek or Roman would have said any such thing? Moreover, what do we make of the reference to philosophers “of his school”? WHOSE school? Did Celsus refer to a philosopher or school in the preceding sentence (something like: “One philosopher who had a great school was Cicero. The grand reason why the Gentiles and philosophers of his school persecuted Jesus Christ was …”), and did Grant simply fail to cite the preceding sentence? It doesn’t seem likely to me. But if the quoted words were Grant’s paraphrase, then things make better sense. Grant was referring to "Gentiles" using the Mormon meaning of this term, and the reference to “philosophers of his school” was to Celsus and people like him. Note that in Grant’s piece, Celsus is the only person identified as a “philosopher”.

    Also note that Grant’s sermon here appears to have been transcribed by someone else (the sermon begins with a comment on the “rather late attendance at meeting this morning”, which sounds like an ad lib), so maybe the quotation marks were added by a scribe. Also note the other paraphrased citations to Celsus in this sermon, including one that repeats the odd sounding “grand reason” language from the quoted material.

  3. How does “chicanery” fit into memory theories of history?

    We have here an example of a tradition within Mormonism that Jesus was a polygamist. The tradition is evidenced not only by the Grant sermon you cited, but from other statements made by Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt and perhaps even Brigham Young. It’s my understanding that the present-day LDS church takes no position on the question of Jesus being married (once, or more than once), and considers these early statements on the question to be speculations.

    I think it would be difficult to argue that Grant, Hyde, et. al., were heirs to some kind of pre-Mormon memory trajectory that Jesus had multiple wives. It is possible that Joseph Smith or others had a revelatory experience that included this information, though to my knowledge there’s no Mormon literature that so states. Instead, Grant’s argument is based on “Celsus” as well as Biblical sources, and I believe that the arguments of the others were based on Biblical sources. As the FAIR wiki puts it (I think rather well), “[s]ince members [of the LDS church] in the nineteenth century were commanded to practice polygamy, many presumed that Jesus would have had to also practice this law.”

    Can we say that much of the information we have in our holy scriptures might similarly be based on “presumption” or “chicanery”, instead of a memory trajectory that began with the impact of a real-world event? Does it even matter how a memory trajectory begins?

    1. Quick answer: extreme distortion by way of instrumentalization (the tendency for memory to be used to serve present interests). In this case, we're probably talking about false memory. But even false memory can tell us a whole lot about the remembering group. Here the memory category is "Jesus as proto-Mormon". Remember how this whole thing got started: The First Vision of Smith involved Jesus endorsing the new movement. That was a terrifically potent mnemonic vehicle for the formation of the sect. From there, the portrait of Jesus would continue to conform to the emerging identity of the group. In Halbwachsian terms, the invention of the artifact was "localized" within the frameworks of the group's identity.

  4. I searched Contra Celsum for instances of women, wife, and wives and found nothing that could possibly be the source. Considering that early Mormons invented the book of Abraham from some manuscripts in a language they couldn't read, I'm going to guess that this is a wild goose chase.

  5. I think there can be little doubt about (2). Nor, I think, is there any doubt that the passage in quotation marks, as quoted, exists nowhere in Greek, let alone in Origen/Celsus. My money, though, is not so much on outright fabrication as free interpretation, perhaps partly based on a passage like the following: Τὸ γὰρ κινῆσαν φθόνον τῷ Ἰησοῦ καὶ διερεθίσαν Ἰουδαίους πρὸς τὴν κατὰ τούτου ἐπιβουλὴν τὸ πλῆθος τῶν ἑπομένων αὐτῷ εἰς τὰς ἐρήμους ἦν, πεντακισχιλίων καὶ τετρακισχιλίων ἀνδρῶν αὐτῷ ἀκολουθούντων χωρὶς τοῦ τῶν γυναικῶν καὶ τῶν παιδίων ἀριθμοῦ. Τοσαύτη γάρ τις ἴϋγξ ἦν ἐν τοῖς Ἰησοῦ λόγοις, ὡς οὐ μόνον ἄνδρας ἕπεσθαι θέλειν αὐτῷ εἰς τὰς ἐρημίας ἀλλὰ καὶ γυναῖκας, οὐχ ὑπομεμνημένας τὴν γυναικείαν ἀσθένειαν καὶ τὸ δοκοῦν ἐν τῷ ἀκολουθεῖν εἰς τὰς ἐρημίας τῷ διδασκάλῳ· (3.10.7-15). It certainly emphasizes what is cast as the particular impropriety of a large following of women in the context of an explanation for Jesus’ persecution.