If you spend a lot of time over on the exmo side of the Internet, you’ve probably heard all sorts unflattering stories about Joseph Smith, and you probably have a good idea of what kind of evidence these stories have to back them up. (My own most famous family history as church history figure — cousin Philastus Hurlbut — collected affidavits from people Joseph Smith knew…)
One time I read a passing remark on an exmo site about how the evidence clearly shows that Joseph Smith was a criminal — unlike Jesus, for whom there is no corresponding body of evidence against him. My immediate reaction was surprise at the absurdity of the point: there’s no unbiased contemporary evidence of Jesus at all. One is hard pressed to find conclusive evidence that he even existed, notably that means we don’t have access to his criminal record.
I don’t mean to come off as attacking a straw man by wasting time disputing this one foolish remark, but thing is that it got me thinking about the parallels between Jesus and Joseph Smith.
Let’s assume (for the sake of argument) that Jesus was a real person and the four canonical gospels tell us what his followers remembered about him a few decades after his death. From our knowledge of human nature we can start to make educated guesses about which parts of the story probably actually happened. For example, I would guess that Jesus probably really was tried and executed by the Romans since that is a pretty memorable event, and his followers wouldn’t have much reason to make that up. And I’d be willing to believe that an angry mob wanted him dead — that sort of thing happens. My suspension of disbelief starts getting a little shaky around the part where they say “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” Um… yeah, right. Sure they said that..
Anyway, the comparison with Joseph Smith makes me wonder what crime Jesus was really executed for. According to the Bible it was something like claiming to be king. But somehow I don’t trust his followers to report on something like that accurately. When Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob while trapped in jail, what was he in for? From what I hear, the official church materials tend to make some vague mention of “persecution.”Â If nothing had been written down during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, I doubt we would ever have heard one word from his followers about the destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor.
Even if it turns out the Bible story is wrong on this point — and Jesus was actually executed for a serious crime such as murder — that doesn’t necessarily mean he was guilty. There are plenty of cases of people being executed on questionable evidence for political reasons (one famous example that comes to mind would be Joe Hill — killed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City, Utah, of all places).
Still I can’t help but wonder if the great teacher Jesus — revered by billions — was actually a criminal. I know that to many it is blasphemy to even suggest such a thing. But what if we had those court records? Or affidavits from people from his home town or from people in the angry mob who wanted him dead? Would they be very different from the evidence against Joseph Smith? I have no particular reason to believe they would be.
It’s one of the great mysteries that can probably never be solved since the evidence no longer exists…