Scholars: BYU prof's 'Place of Women' book relies on hoax gospels
A Brigham Young University professor's new book is based on a manuscript that is considered a hoax, religion scholars said Friday.
In "The Lost Teachings of Jesus Christ on the Sacred Place of Women," associate professor Alonzo Gaskill relies on a book by a Russian war correspondent that was published in the 1890s.
The journalist, Nicholas Notovitch, claimed to have uncovered previously unknown teachings of Jesus Christ at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, and Gaskill connects that text to the words of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prophets and apostles about women in his new book.
Notovitch's tale, though, changed with new editions and has been dismissed by scholars since its publication. The text's description of women as "ornaments," and its focus on the ability to bear children, meanwhile, could also be problematic.
"It's not really a credible story to begin with," said Taylor Petrey, an assistant professor of religion and director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. "The idea that gospels were written down a few years after Jesus' life and ended up in India [and subsequently Nepal], for scholars of the day already had no credibility."
Gaskill did not return calls and an email seeking comment Friday, but in a response to the criticism on his blog, he acknowledged that academics "almost universally" dismiss Notovitch's memoir as a fraud. Gaskill wrote that he didn't intend to endorse its historical authenticity and acknowledged the controversy in the appendix of his book.
He maintained, however, that Notovitch's report provides a good "springboard" for talking about the role of women.
"I used the supposed discourse by Jesus ... because it was such a poetic and beautiful description of womanhood," he wrote, "and because it harmonized so well with what [Mormon] prophets and apostles have taught."
The role of women described in the book, though, could make some "uncomfortable," said David Bokovoy, an instructor of religion and Mormon studies at the University of Utah.
The text instructs that women should be honored, but "much of that honor is tied directly in with the ability and power to procreate," Bokovoy said.
Notovitch took a late 19th-century view of women, Petrey said, and "The Lost Teachings" adopts that tone.
Published by Springville-based Cedar Fort Publishing, "The Lost Teachings" was meant as devotional rather than academic literature, Gaskill wrote, while apologizing for any confusion.
A representative for the publisher didn't return a call for comment.
Petrey argued that a false sermon from early LDS leaders Joseph Smith or Brigham Young wouldn't be considered appropriate material for religious literature.
"Mormon scholars and devotional work can be better than this," said Petrey, an active Mormon. "In a way he represents my community. ... I think that we as a community need to have higher standards."