SALT LAKE CITY — A frequent point of contention by critics against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the doctrine that there is not just one, but a multiplicity of gods.

Yet allusions to that concept pervade the Bible as well as ancient Near Eastern culture, Mormon scholar David Bokovoy said Thursday. He spoke at the annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, at the South Towne Exposition Centre in Sandy.

Not formally affiliated with the church, the foundation seeks to counter criticism of Mormonism, primarily by means of websites and the annual conference. Formerly an instructor in the church's seminary and institute programs, Bokovoy holds a master's degree and is a doctoral candidate studying the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East studies. He spoke on the topic "Joseph Smith and the Biblical Council of Gods."

"The Prophet Joseph Smith, of course, produces that inspired Book of Abraham (in the Pearl of Great Price) that really rocks the foundation of the Christian world at the time," Bokovoy said, "when he, through this translation, revises Genesis, Chapter 1, the priestly version of the Creation, and introduces this concept of gods organizing the world."

He quoted Joseph Smith as sermonizing, "In the beginning, the head of the gods called a council of the gods. They came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it. When we begin to learn this way, that God exists in this council structure with other divine beings that he calls gods, we begin to learn the only true God and what kind of a being we have got to worship."

Bokovoy commented, "So this is not a superficial topic; it is really quite significant in terms of the Restoration."

There are differences, he acknowledged, "but there are some remarkable similarities between what Joseph introduces theologically through the Restoration and what biblical scholars now know to be true regarding the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and ancient Near Eastern tradition."

Bokovoy said William Dever, a renowned American biblical archaeologist, wrote that a generation ago, biblical scholars were nearly unanimous in thinking that belief in a single God had been predominant in ancient Israelite religion from the beginning. "Today, all that has changed," Dever wrote. "Virtually all mainstream scholars and even a few conservatives acknowledge that true monotheism emerged only in the period of the exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. as the canon of the Hebrew Bible was taking shape."

"The canon," Bokovoy remarked, "not the books themselves. Because the books themselves clearly point to this concept of a multiplicity of gods who govern the affairs of the universe."

Textual evidence of this is "everywhere," he said.

Hebrew words associated with the heavenly council of gods include those translated as "council," "meeting," "assembly," "congregation," "the holy ones" and "sons of God," a reference to the gods of the council, Bokovoy said.

"One of the great 'council' texts is Psalm 82:1," he said. He quoted the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which reads, "God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment."

"This is an exciting text," Bokovoy said. "It is, of course, the one Jesus cites when he defends his divinity in the New Testament."

There are two ways to understand "sons" in the expression "sons of God," he said. One is that they are the literal offspring of God.

But, he said, the word for "son" in all Semitic languages "has the connotation of referring to members of the group, caste or guild."

"So quite frequently, in contemporary translations of ancient Near Eastern documents, one will see the expression 'sons of God' simply translated as 'the gods,' the members of that group," Bokovoy said.

He theorized that references to a council of gods are not more specific in the Old Testament because of the covenant code in Exodus 23:13, a legal mandate not to specify the names of the gods. "What we do see are references to a divine plurality in the Old Testament," he said. For the most part, contemporary scholars take this as pertaining to a council of gods, he added.

For example, Genesis 1:26 states, "God said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness," containing the plural pronoun "us."

Both the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate version of Genesis 2:18 present Jehovah saying in the masculine plural, "Let us make for him a help meet," Bokovoy noted.

He also cited Genesis 3:5, where the serpent says to Eve, "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil," the word "gods" being plural.

Genesis 3:7, Bokovoy pointed out, has the Lord saying, "Behold, the man is become one of us, to know good and evil."

This speaks, he said, "to a non-specified group of gods."

"Again, perhaps this non-specification happens as a result of ancient Israelite tradition we see in the covenant code and elsewhere."