Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

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Early in the 1980s, my father suffered a serious heart attack. My wife and I were living in Egypt then, and we learned the news via a telegram from my brother.

Egyptian phone service was so inadequate in those days that many companies employed messengers to crisscross the city of Cairo rather than depending upon unreliable telephone connections. It took me more than twenty-four hours to get a telephone call through to California. In the meantime, I didn’t know whether my father was alive or dead. My anxiety was intense, but there was little alternative. (As it happened, he recovered fully and lived on for more than two additional decades.)

We take modern means of communication for granted. But we shouldn’t. I’m convinced, for example, that the church founded anciently by Christ not only didn’t survive intact but couldn’t have, largely because the contemporary means of communication weren’t up to the task.

Within a remarkably short time after Pentecost, the Christian movement had expanded beyond Palestine—to Anatolia and Greece, to Rome and Italy, to Spain, eastward into Armenia and Mesopotamia, across Egypt and North Africa. It had covered vast distances, largely due to the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace,” and the impressive system of Roman roads that had been principally designed to facilitate the relatively rapid movement of the Roman legions across the Empire. So secure were the Romans and those who lived under their rule [Page viii]that what we now call the Mediterranean Sea was, in their terminology, usually called Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea.”

But travel and communications were still, by our standards, very, very slow. The “supply lines” of ancient Christianity were extraordinarily long and, moreover, in the first two centuries or so they were quite thin. There simply weren’t very many Christians at the first. Thus, those lines of communication were rather fragile, and were seriously exposed to persecution, corruption, human sin and ambition, misunderstanding, forgetfulness, and a host of other threats.

The problems that this would have caused for the leadership of the fledgling Christian church should be fairly obvious.

I’ll mention a few of them in a moment, but, first, there are some other factors that we need to keep in mind: For at least the first century of Christianity, and probably for much longer, there was no New Testament. It was still being written during the thirty to seventy years following the ascension of Christ, and, even when they were complete, individual gospels and epistles circulated separately; the “New Testament” still hadn’t been gathered together, and the canon hadn’t yet been defined. Even after they had been written and put into circulation, copies of the scriptural texts, expensive and hand-produced, were extremely rare. Ordinary Christians wouldn’t have had their own private copies of scripture, let alone several of them, as many of us do today. (Many of them couldn’t read, anyway.) In fact, most branches of the church, even whole regions, would probably have had little or nothing in the way of scriptural manuscripts. And those privileged church congregations that possessed, say, part of a gospel or one of Paul’s epistles might have had nothing else.

Thus, local leaders, who might have joined the church after only the briefest of missionary instruction—commonly at the hands of preachers who, themselves, had received no more than a cursory oral introduction to the basic Christian story [Page ix]and a few fundamental doctrines—would have had no scriptures to consult, let alone anything like a “general handbook of instructions,” when difficult questions arose. And teachers and class members were unable to simply flip through their personal copies of the Bible in order to learn Christian doctrine and practice.

It’s a miracle that Christianity survived as well as it did. And I mean that literally; I attribute it to the work of the Holy Spirit.

But what did leaders do when a crisis or a question or a dilemma arose? While the apostles were alive, inquiries or requests for help could perhaps be sent to them. But, at any given time, it might be almost impossible to know where the apostles were. In Rome? In Athens? In prison? Dead? Unlike the emperor of Rome and the decreasingly relevant Roman Senate, the leadership of the church had no permanent fixed headquarters, and the apostles were, as they had been called to be, everywhere, preaching Christ and Him crucified. (The imperial court would soon become rather nomadic itself, but that’s another story.) And how long would it take to get a response from one of them?

A local problem might brew for weeks, or months, or perhaps even years before local leadership sought advice from the apostles. (Let’s leave out of consideration cases in which the local leadership, or perhaps an entire branch or region, might have been the problem. There were, we know, many of these.) Then, even when the apostle’s location was known, it might require several weeks or months to get an inquiry to him. He would, of course, need time prayerfully to consider the matter, and then several weeks or months would be needed for his response to reach those who had inquired. Turnaround time for counsel from an apostle, in other words, likely would have run into months, and perhaps into many of them. That allows plenty of opportunity for problems to become insuperable.

[Page x]But even if an apostle visited an area, how were local people to know that he really was who and what he claimed to be? There were no two-page General Authority photo charts in any ancient equivalent of the Ensign or the Liahona, and Paul, for example, repeatedly laments the damage caused by “false apostles.” (See, for instance, 2 Corinthians 11:13–15.) Apostolic faces weren’t familiar to people who had never met them before.

For these and other reasons, as I say, it’s difficult for me to imagine how the ancient church could ever have survived without serious deformation and distortion. And we know by divine revelation that, in fact, it didn’t. That is why the Restoration was necessary.

Especially in America, Latter-day Saints often affirm that the freedoms afforded by the United States were established in order to enable the restoration of the Gospel and the Church, which presumably could not have survived under the state churches and oppressive governments of earlier European centuries. There is truth in this, I think. But we should not neglect the preparation of the path for the Restoration via new means of transportation and communication. These have, in their own way, made possible the rise of a unified global church. They are indispensable if “the stone . . . cut out of the mountain without hands” is really to fill “the whole earth.” (Daniel 2:45, 35.)

Movable type and printing had already made books relatively inexpensive long before Joseph Smith’s birth, and, by that means, had rendered literacy something worthwhile for common people. “I defy the Pope and all his laws,” the great English Bible translator William Tyndale (d. AD 1536) had said. “If God spared [my] life, ere many years [I will] cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he did.”1

[Page xi]Thus, by the time of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 6 April 1830, each potential Latter-day Saint convert could own and read the scriptures for herself, and each could easily receive instructions via church periodicals. Very shortly thereafter, railroad travel began to be commonly established. And steamships. And the telegraph. Then came aviation, and ever more rapid travel around the world. Today’s Church leaders can watch over the kingdom, and intervene where necessary, via telephone, faxes, and the Internet. Indeed, a modern apostle can be virtually anywhere on the planet, if need be, within a day. The apostle Paul couldn’t have conceived of such easy movement:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.

Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;

In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;

In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. (2 Corinthians 11:24–27)

Which brings me to this journal, and to The Interpreter Foundation. A few months ago, someone observed to me that the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) had, conceptually at least, been an Internet organization avant la lettre—that is, before there actually was an Internet. The initial, limited goal of the organization was to bring together a network of scholars who had been working, often in isolation, on the Book of Mormon and related [Page xii]matters, and to facilitate their sharing of their work, both with each other and with a small interested public.

But, given the means of communication of the day, we were basically limited to print, conferences, and the occasional fireside. And the people centrally involved in FARMS, which would later be called the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, and, ultimately, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, had to be in reasonably close geographical proximity to Brigham Young University and to each other.

Now, though, The Interpreter Foundation can carry on the vision of those who founded, nurtured, and led FARMS in a way that very few could have imagined even several years ago, let alone back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Our Executive Board includes members from various points in Utah, but also from Alberta, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC, and we’re in constant and easy communication with one another, including by videoconference. Our overall board of editors is even more far flung (including people in Hawaii, Ireland, and Italy), and a videoconference for the whole board is planned. The Foundation posts weekly “scripture roundtables” during which, thus far, discussants based in California, Michigan, New Mexico, Utah, and Ireland have carried on conversations with one another, in real time, about scriptural texts.

I find such things truly stunning, and I’m grateful for all those who have made it possible. The remarkable spirit of volunteerism and dedication that created and built FARMS lives on in The Interpreter Foundation, and is visibly apparent in the pages of this journal. The Foundation is more agile, more nimble, than the old FARMS ever was. I thank those who have donated time and effort to the cause, as well as those who have begun, very generously, to give of their money and means. In particular, I’m grateful right now to the authors of the pieces [Page xiii]in this issue of Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, to the proof readers and peer reviewers who work the articles over during our editorial process, and to Alison V. P. Coutts, Tanya Spackman, and Bryce M. Haymond, who prepare these pieces for actual publication.

Interpreter’s achievements to this point are remarkable. Amazing. And they’re going to get even better still. This effort is in its infancy.


  1. John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs: An Edition for the People (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1911, repr. Greenville, NC: Ambassador International, 2005), 139. 

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About Daniel C. Peterson

Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D., University of California at Los Angeles) is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and is the founder of the University’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, for which he served as editor-in-chief until mid-August 2013. He has published and spoken extensively on both Islamic and Mormon subjects. Formerly chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, his professional work as an Arabist focuses on the Qur’an and on Islamic philosophical theology. He is the author, among other things, of a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007).

35 thoughts on “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

  1. The notion that the Interpreter Foundation is virtually FARMS in exile reminds me of the theological split within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in the 1970s, which led to the exile of most of the students and faculty of Concordia Seminary, their off campus location then becoming known as Seminex.

    Only time will tell whether Interpreter can provide the elan and substance of classic FARMS.

    • I’ve explicitly referred to Interpreter, sometimes, as “FARMS in exile,” and, doing so, I had precisely this Lutheran episode (and Seminex) in mind. Hence the “in exile.”

      Yes, it remains to be seen whether we’ll be able to capture and, if so, to keep what you call “the elan and substance of classic FARMS.” I hope so. But that was a specific historical moment, and a few of us, at least, were younger then. Still, I’m optimistic.

      I’ve long missed the sheer volunteer enthusiasm and excitement that were there in the first years, even in the first two decades, of FARMS. And I’ve regretted the bureaucratization that crept in, reducing its agility and sapping its energy, and that has now, in my judgment, come absolutely to dominate the Maxwell Institute with endless memos and mission statements and sharply reduced productivity. I see that energy, excitement, volunteer enthusiasm, and agility reborn in Interpreter, though, and I’m optimistic. So far, so good.

      Some of us have done this before. We built FARMS up, with the assistance of wonderful volunteers and donors and many contributing scholars. I hope we can do it again — though I regret the fact that we NEED to do it again. You, frankly, are among the crucial people I’m counting on to help with this. And we need others.

      • I can only speak for myself of course, but I have found the Interpreter every bit as thought provoking and exciting as FARMS. So much show that I’ve been trying to share it with anyone I can. When I first heard about the Maxwell Institute incident I was extremely concerned and The start of Interpreter allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. The work you all do changes lives and strengthens testimonies and all I can do is say thank you and keep up the excellent work.

  2. One thing that FARMS had was a nifty logo, combining aleph from the Hebrew alphabet with omega from the Greek, and meso-American and Egyptian writing symbols, to indicate its orientation to both the Lord (Alpha and Omega) and to cross cultural scholarship. I was told there was a specific decision made to not “commercialize” the logo through sale of shirts, bags, rings or pins that would help fund FARMS. (I got a polo shirt with a FARMS logo only by being a pest.)

    But I think there is a good reason to create and “commoditize” a logo for Interpreter, namely, to enable those of us in the Interpreter fan base to recognize each other, so we can enjoy sharing our appreciation for Interpreter. We can hardly go around at every Church meeting verbally trolling for fellow Interpreter geeks. A discreet lapel pin or tie clip to wear on Sunday, or a t-shirt to wear during Church basketball or service activities, would help build up the network of Interpreter supporters. It would also be a conversation starter so we could make our neighbors aware of it.

      • I guess I will have to take on that challenge, but I still would like to have logo bearing items. If it is OK for BYU it ought to be OK for this. It is not like we are going to have Dan Peterson bobble head dolls, although …

          • I LOVED the original logo & it’s symbolism. I don’t remember why it was changed, not that it matters anymore.

            While part of me would *really* like to see it’s return (here), a new day has dawned and maybe it wouldn’t be quite right for Interpreter. (Besides, it’s probably “owned” by Bradford, er, I mean MI.)

            Talent abounds, I’m sure something wonderful will be forthcoming, but somehow keeping the substantive message of the original logo’s symbolism could be a goal.

            I know! A contest for the best design. Winner gets free access to all published materials for a year… Oh wait, that’s no good since its all free to everyone all the time anyway!!

            [No, you don’t get to make Bryce come up with something! Give the kid a day off now & again!]

            Now here’s the thing about the new venture: Maybe it is not the original intent of the DARPA Internet, but certainly the hopes for the World Wide Web was the free, unlimited exchange of ideas, collaboration, and information. Interpreter fits nicely into that ideal.

            Being disaffected and displeased with the lethargy that seemed to be plauging the MI (this being well before I’d ever heard of the coup), I was ecstatic upon learning about Interpreter!

            The infrastructure in place for disseminating the work of Interpreter, and the quality/quantity being produced, truly none of us (founders & “consumers” alike) could have hardly conceived in bygone days.

            Just do us one favor, keep a sharp eye out so this work cannot be usurped, and please STAY INDEPENDENT (no offense to the Y or other Church affiliated organizations, but if any of them ask you to “join”, please politely (and insistently) decline.)

    • Many years ago, once, when I was representing FARMS in a meeting with the BYU Board of Trustees during the process of bringing it on campus — a fateful move, as we now know! — President Hinckley turned to President Packer and asked whether he had any objections to us. “No,” President Packer responded. “But you’re not going to be selling FARMS keychains, are you?” He was half serious, and I assured him that we had no such plans. (He really, really, really doesn’t like commercialization of the gospel.)

      • it is not the commercialization of the gospel, but the commercialization of a means of understanding the Gospel through scholarly. I have often thought that a good logo for Mormons (to put on the back of cars or on ties, for example) would be a fish that instead of the word ICHTHES or Darwin inside would simply have a Moroni blowing a trumpet inside. I thought of that idea because it combines the ancient Christian symbol and the modern Mormon symbol at the same time.
        perhaps that or something similar to be used for Interpreter.

  3. On the topic of the difficulty of maintaining consistent teachings and policy in the early Christian church, a rebuttal to our LDS belief in an apostacy asserts that “God would not let His Church expire, ergo, it did not.” Which raises a legitimate question, What did God intend to accomplish, knowing the Church on earth would stray without real revelation to apostles?

    There was clearly benefit in the preservation of the Bible, and a tradition of belief in Christ. It had a large positive effect on society that mitigated the natural tendencies to abuse of authority.

    But I think it helps to understand that the early converts to the Church were not lost, but took the Church with them into the Spirit World, and carried on the work of conversion in a realm where the communication problem does not exist. All of the original apostles and the faithful saints are there, continuong their work among the billions who have lived and died, in a true and living Church of Jesus Christ that has been in continuous existence since the visit of Christ between his death and resurrection. We Mormons don’t think about the doctrines of salvation for the dead as related to the doctrine of the ancient apostacy, but I think they tell a unified story that explains why the missionary efforts of the early apostles bore fruit despite the earthly Church apostacizing. When John the Baptist, Peter, James and John, and Moses and Elijah came to earth to restore priesthood authority, they were reestablishing a connection between a living Church on earth and the continuous Church in the spirit world, one that is embodied in the temples.

  4. Thanks for your continuing insight into the history and development of the early Church. I have felt very deeply that we need to express heartfelt gratitude to those early Christians and Church leaders who kept the foundational faith in Christ alive so that the truth would someday be able to find a “home”,

  5. We have been traveling in Israel and Europe. As I look at the beautiful Cathedrals, Mosques and Synagogues built over centuries, I see a love of God by many diverse and honest-hearted people.

    • I think that one of the (very many) attractive aspects of the restored Church is its willingness to acknowledge the good in those other communities.

      Some Christian traditions are less open to doing so.

      Some are very open, but, in their openness, essentially abandon their own truth claims.

      I think that Mormonism falls in the perfect middle, unashamedly proclaiming that the fullness of saving truth and authority is to be found within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but, at the same time, freely granting that truth, goodness, and beauty are to be found in other faiths, as well.

  6. What no one seems to want to talk about is why FARMS was allowed to falter (as you state) and who decided to clip its wings. If it was a GA then I for one hesitate faulting its previous posture, and the need to reinvent it by going over the head of sanctioned leaders.
    I also hope “Interpreter” is not trying to pick a fight with FARMS, or those who curtailed its functions or those who set parameters chosen by some unnamed GA.
    I do enjoy following “Interpreter” and Bro. Peterson I think a lot of you and this attempt to bring great Gospel in sights to church members.
    But, let’s let keep it friendly and inspiring. Thank you

    • “Interpreter” is absolutely not trying to pick a fight with FARMS — or, more accurately, with the Maxwell Institute. (We have, in fact, posted announcements for every new Maxwell Institute publication and every conference or speech sponsored by the Institute.) We don’t even want to go over the particulars here about the recent changes at the Maxwell Institute.

      I can assure you, though, on the highest possible authority, that the leadership of the Church did not order those recent changes.

    • I think that is a very important distinction, and in far more than name only: MI is NOT FARMS.

      I’m sure many of us are not happy with the current “regime” at the MI, nor with some of the directions they wish to pursue, but they seem to (finally) be getting in gear. The announcement (which, incidentally, I saw here first) of their work on the New Testament I most heartily cheered!! Which happily brings us back to the topic of the OP. I hope that as this NT project progresses it will shed further light on the early Christian Church.

      Another point, that is well made in the OP—copies of the scriptures & rapid communication were rare commodities. I find it striking when we talk of the apostasy that these things seem to go by the board. The general tone in discussing the apostasy seems to be something of condemnation for those rebellious early saints. Well, how about the folks who did the best they could with what they had? I know that sounds simplistic, but we’ve all heard stories where GAs have had to go set things aright in a Ward, etc. Not so easy to do when, a) you have to walk for days on end to get to you destination and b) you can’t find the members of the local congregation once you get there! (“Where’s the membership clerk when you need him?!)

      • Just a minor note: The BYU New Testament commentary isn’t closely tied to the Maxwell Institute, if indeed it’s really associated with the Maxwell Institute at all. It’s pretty much a stand-alone project. It would have been a perfect thing to do under the auspices of the Institute, but that isn’t the way it’s happening.

  7. My general feeling is that the effect of technology is to speed everything up so things can happen in one’s lifetime that otherwise would have taken hundreds or thousands of years. For example, computers allowed Family Search to index one billion human records in seven years, and that indexing in turn will facilitate thousands, perhaps millions, to be re-acquainted with their ancestors who never otherwise could have done so in this lifetime.

    However, sometimes God uses revelation to bridge the gaps in human knowledge and ability. For example, in the early days of Christianity, there was a terrible drought and famine, and a prophet predicted it in advance so that the saints in Antioch could provide timely relief for the saints in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:27-30) Another example, rather than wait for us to discover and translate a certain hidden parchment containing writings of the apostle John, the Lord revealed it directly to Joseph Smith through the Urim and Thummim (D&C 7). As a software developer I’m glad that my work can be used to hasten the work of the Lord, but I’m humbly aware that the Lord can do his own work, and that His technology is better than mine.

  8. When I joined FARMS in the early nineties it had an intimacy and openness feel to it that I enjoyed. As it grew, that feeling dissipated and I eventually quit being a member. I’m glad that the Interpreter is around because it meets a need that I have to explore gospel ideas and concepts in an open environment beyond what is taught in Sunday School. Sometimes I feel that as a people we limit our thoughts too much for fear of becoming doctrinally misaligned. There is so much to explore and understand. Over the past years my exploration has been a solo journey but it is nice to have the Interpreter around to help me.

    • Doug, I agree, wholeheartedly. I enjoyed Farms in those early days. One of the highlights for me was a visit to our stake in New Zealand by Dan Peterson and Louis Midgley. I wish the Interpreter every success and will certainly be spreading the word.

  9. I don’t recall how or when I became aware of Dan Peterson but I read or listen to anything he puts out whenever the chance presents itself. Keep up the good work Dan! I have a tremendous appreciation for the work you do and others who also participate. You make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t have any bobble heads but if there were a Dan Peterson bobble head I would get one.

    Dwight.

  10. I have often pondered the original mission of the Church as established by the Savior. so many things that have been restored did not survive such as the priesthood ordinances of the temple and even the exact words of the Savior. nevertheless I believe there was a great mission for those early since and I believe many of them were very valiant in their efforts to become the Church as they understood it.

    Remarkably, to me, the words of James, or at least somebody claiming to be James, echoed throughout the centuries and reached Joseph Smith. because of that the Prophet was able to receive the message and go into the Grove and pray and give us the Restoration could begin. remarkably too, the main event of the meridian of time, i.e. the atonement, with its component of seeking forgiveness for sins and invoking the atonement,
    is what led Joseph to seek to find the right church in the first place. praise be to the early Saints and for those good men over the ages iwho were able to preserve those important parts of the message.

  11. Professor Sorenson was one of my favorite teachers when I was an Anthropology student in the early 70’s (along with Myers, Nibley, and Van Wagoner for Arabic). I recall the excitement when rumor was repeated of a planned organization for the application of scholarly tools to achieve deeper insights into the scriptures and religion generally. Voila! There was FARMS, and I have loved it ever since, though the recent change in tone has been noticeable. It has been thrilling to stumble across The Interpreter and discover the same excitement that was there 40 years ago. The feeling is back. (Hmm–forty years. Doesn’t that have some significance?) Best Wishes, and keep up the good work!

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