Prophets and textual criticism

April 25, 2008 | 33 comments
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The Book of Mormon poses a thorny problem for assumptions about the history of scriptural texts, especially if it isn’t true.

The Book of Mormon claims to be just what textual scholarship says the Old Testament and New Testament are: a compilation of writings from diverse sources that reached its final form through a long process of accretion and assimilation. The Book of Alma claims to have as many or more authors as has been argued for the Book of Isaiah. For Mormon devotional scripture study, this might suggest a degree of openness towards the documentary hypothesis and other critical work in biblical studies. However, the idea that the project of critical textual inquiry finds support in a book written on golden plates and revealed by an angel to a New England farm boy is more than a little weird.

Take away the golden plates and the angel, though, and the problem just gets worse. In that case, we’re left with the product of a few months of human creativity that mimics a thousand years of editorial intervention. The Old Testament and the New Testament feel like texts with long and complicated histories to me, with gaps and seams where the parts don’t match up perfectly. When I read the Book of Mormon, I find a similarly complex texture, with places where the contradictions haven’t been entirely smoothed out. But if Joseph Smith could simulate a complex textual history, why not Moses or Matthew?

My sympathies lie with the textual critics, but I have no good answer to the questions raised by the prophetic career of Joseph Smith. Does positing a multitude of authors for Isaiah and sources for the Pentateuch needlessly multiply explanations, when all that is necessary is one ambitious author? When we do historical criticism, are we peering back in time into the prehistory of the text, or only into the mind of a creative author? And can we reliably tell the difference? Are our sacred texts the products of complicated histories, like Mormon’s editorial work would suggest, or are they outbursts of (to use a neutral term) inspiration, like Joseph Smith’s work of spring 1829 would imply?

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33 Responses to Prophets and textual criticism

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 25, 2008 at 6:34 am

    Anyone who has tried to write an article of substantial length knows how difficult it can be for those of us who were educated in how to do it and practiced it. So how does a young man with little experience of the world outside his corner of western New York come to write a 500 page book with a complex narrative that nevertheless stays essentially consistent, and without any substantial revisions along the way? It would be one thing to see someone create a book in the mature phase of his career, after he has tried shorter and simpler work. But Joseph comes out with his magnum opus right at the start, before he has any experience running a church or fighting organized opposition or warfare, all scenarios and experiences that appear in great detail in the Book of Mormon. How does the book come up with all the lessons of the experiences BEFORE he has the experiences?

    The belief of Royal Skousen and the Critical Text Project is that Joseph did not have an active conscious role in creating the words and sentences, but rather was reading an English text with names spelled out in front of him. If the whole book were really Joseph’s voice, we would expect it to be a lot smoother, but it has awkwardness of expression that indicates it was composed by someone who knew English as a second language. The lumpiness of the text attests to its true nature.

  2. Ben on April 25, 2008 at 9:41 am

    “For Mormon devotional scripture study, this might suggest a degree of openness towards the documentary hypothesis and other critical work in biblical studies.”

    I wouldn’t go this far, at least for the majority of Saints. The documentary hypothesis seems to be different for the Bible and the BoM to me, because while that BoM is very open that it was compiled by different authors and states when transitions are made, books in the Bible like Isaiah claim that they are written by one author rather than the numerous authors textual criticism shows. It seems to me that the reason a lot of believers are hesitant on the documentary hypothesis on the Bible is because they think it goes against the claim of the Book itself; I don’t see that as much of a problem for the BoM.

  3. Ray on April 25, 2008 at 9:46 am

    or are they both?

  4. Bro. Jones on April 25, 2008 at 9:47 am

    #1 “If the whole book were really Joseph’s voice, we would expect it to be a lot smoother, but it has awkwardness of expression that indicates it was composed by someone who knew English as a second language.” — I dunno, some of Joseph’s “non-prophetic” speaking and writing doesn’t seem all that smooth to me. Besides, if a divine source were miraculously translating an ancient into a modern language, wouldn’t this divine source have a stake in making the final document perfectly grammatical and easy to follow? I’m not convinced that the occasionally tortured English of the BoM is the result of ESL difficulties.

    I’m not questioning the divine origin of the BoM: but I personally read the quality of the text as a function of Joseph (as translator) trying to take a meaning he understood and then give a “King James”-sound to the final language.

  5. Nate Oman on April 25, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Bro. Jones: I don’t think that Jonathan was making a reference to syntax when he talks about the lumpiness of the BofM. Rather, I am assuming that he was referring to the narrative and textual structure. For what it is worth, I don’t think that any of the other writings dictated by Joseph Smith — whether revelations, letters, etc. have anything like the narrative and textual complexity of the BofM. Indeed, if you look at his autobiographical writings they are quite a bit “smoother” than the BofM narrative even if I am willing to concede that they often adopt idiosyncratic syntax and grammar.

  6. Adam Greenwood on April 25, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Awesome.

  7. Bro. Jones on April 25, 2008 at 10:02 am

    #5 Point taken, but I think my argument applies to the narrative, too. In the book of Alma, Did Joseph literally see the letters exchanged between Captain Moroni and Pahoran, which he then translated? Did he see Mormon’s edited description of the exchange? Was he literally shown an English text translation of the letters? Might he have received a divine “understanding” of the intent behind the communications, and then just rendered that understanding in the narrative as the exchange of letters?

    I’ve always played fast and loose with the idea of translation in Mormonism–I’ve seen it as something more approaching my last idea above rather than the first couple.

    So in short, I see narrative lumpiness in the BoM in addition to syntactical lumpiness. And I see that narrative lumpiness as a function of a translator trying to approximate the same sort of lumpiness seen in the Old Testament.

  8. Nate Oman on April 25, 2008 at 10:13 am

    BJ: As it happens, I am personally more sympathetic to Ostler’s expansion thesis than I am to Skousen’s dictation thesis. On the other hand, even if one subscribes to the expansion thesis, the underlying ancient source will have a huge influence on the final English text. The problem with Joseph Smith trying to recreate teh lumpiness of the Old Testament was that in his time it was assumed that there was no lumpiness. This, I take it, is Jonathan’s point…

  9. jupiterschild on April 25, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Not to be a condescending wet blanket, but a point of clarification: Text(ual) criticism isn’t actually what we’re talking about, at least not in the way biblical scholars define it. Text criticism is the branch of inquiry concerned with transmission of and difference between manuscripts, like Skousen’s project. Source (or, previously, literary) criticism is concerned with the compositional history of the work (Documentary Hypothesis, multiple Isaiahs, etc.).

    I think the point that the BoM can take us in two different directions (openness or criticism of source criticism) is an interesting one. The assumption of the perfectly articulate author is certainly one that has been challenged especially by Derrida et al. But I think each one has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. First of all, we have no positive evidence that one person wrote any of the (okay, most of the) biblical texts, and any assumption along these lines must be examined carefully. Second, I think in many cases we can tell the difference between “normal” lumpiness and that which is the result of the weaving of sources together. For example, Exodus and Deuteronomy treat the Passover and Sabbath quite differently from each other. Is it better to explain this as an author’s capriciousness, or as the result of two different legal collections coming together? (I’m working on a post along these lines: what you have to explain if you don’t buy the DH). And what of the strands of Exod 34 that are separated in Deut 10? Let alone the fact that most of the “problems” in the Pentateuch are explicable by multiple sources that are generally consistent with each other. I think these sorts of problems are not the type introduced at the authorial level, but rather at the compositional (redactional) level.

    I think the BoM is a beast different from the OT/NT. Ben’s point (#2) is important: the redactional hand is visible and mostly transparent in the BoM, we know when we’re getting letters and sources from different origins. This is not the case for most of the Bible.

    PS It is curious that Third Isaiah (56-66) doesn’t appear to have been quoted in the BoM. Another thorny problem, but certainly interesting!

  10. California Condor on April 25, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Has anyone reading this thread done any analysis on “View of the Hebrews” by Ethan Smith? According to Wikipedia the book was written in 1823 while Oliver Cowdery’s family went to a church in Vermont where Ethan Smith was a pastor.

  11. Jonathan Green on April 25, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    Nate, you read my intentions correctly. I’m thinking of narrative structures at and around the chapter level, rather than sentence or word-level issues. In defense of B. Jones, I think he was responding to a point back in the first comment, rather than to my post directly.

    J. Child, I will repeat ten times before bed: source criticism. source criticism. source criticism. I knew that ‘textual criticism’ wasn’t quite the right term, but ‘literary criticism’ for me is too close to what students are supposed to do with sonnets to be usable. ‘Source studies,’ I believe, is a bit different still, at least in my neck of the woods, but I don’t do much of it, so ‘source criticism’ works great for me. Your points about the differences between the NT, OT, and Book of Mormon are all worth thinking about. I would only add that one redactional hand is transparent. How one would identify more, based on an English text, is an interesting question.

  12. jupiterschild on April 25, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Jonathan, You’re right about literary criticism, which is why I think that the term was largely abandoned (in order to avoid confusion with the growing field of literary criticism in english and comp lit departments).

    I also agree with you about the transparency of only one redactional hand. I don’t see evidence for sources at all in the same way we see them in the Pentateuch. For that matter, each text is sui generis, and must therefore be taken on its own. Questions like those you raise are extremely valuable for comparative, heuristic purposes, but at the end of the day each text has to be taken on its own terms. The Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Book of Mormon, D&C were all composed differently and must be analyzed differently. Actually, I should say that the redaction of the Pentateuch is radically different from the Deuteronomistic History, from Isaiah, from Jeremiah, and so on. This is a point that even senior source critics often fail to grasp, and as a result the analysis becomes significantly skewed.

  13. Ben II on April 25, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    “As it happens, I am personally more sympathetic to Ostler’s expansion thesis than I am to Skousen’s dictation thesis.”

    I’m not convinced they’re mutually exclusive theories.

  14. Ben on April 25, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    “I’m not convinced they’re mutually exclusive theories.”

    Care to elaborate how they are not mutually exclusive theories? Skousen argues that Joseph’s only role is to read the text as it appeared to him while Ostler argues that Joseph expanded and elaborated on the text.

  15. clark on April 25, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    I believe that properly Blake just says there are expansions but allows that they came from Joseph or someone else. Skousen doesn’t really say much about the manner of the translation proper (i.e. what happened before Joseph read and dictated) but asserts the person learned English a few centuries earlier. A few have speculated that Moroni was translated and learned English in England centuries earlier and that it was Moroni dictating. (For the record I find that rather dubious to say the least) In this case the expansions would be by Moroni trying to explain his text.

    For the record like most here I’m skeptical about Skousen’s theory and favor a looser translation. But I think that Skousen and Ostler can be reasonably reconciled to a point.

  16. Jonathan Green on April 26, 2008 at 8:51 am

    J. Child, while it’s true that we now have a decent understanding of the particular of biblical texts, that’s because we’re looking at the end result of a very long tradition of scholarship, which we don’t have for the Book of Mormon. If we don’t assume that Joseph Smith made it all up–that is, if we’re operating within some kind of hybrid devotional-scholarly framework–it’s not at all clear what kind of source history best fits the text, so that it’s still premature to give up on the search for analogs in other traditions (which isn’t what you were arguing for, of course).

  17. Shamrock on April 26, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    Are our sacred texts the products of complicated histories, like Mormon’s editorial work would suggest, or are they outbursts of (to use a neutral term) inspiration, like Joseph Smith’s work of spring 1829 would imply?

    The interesting irony surrounding the sacred text (ie golden plates), is that it had limited value in terms of its usage in the translation process. Other than representing a fairly sobering and tangible \”reality check\” that the work was divine in origin, it provided limited value in the translation process itself (which is highly ironic). That is Joseph often never used or opened the plates during the translation process; instead by medium of seer stones not necessarily in proximity to the plates the \”translation\” process carried on.

    So if the translation process was inspired by a seer stone (and not a literary record), did Joseph \”see words\” in the stones or did he \”see images\” akin to a worthy priesthood bearer \”interpreting\” an inspired message in his mind.

    If Joseph simply saw words appearing on a page (in the stones), then the visible image of the golden plates likely provided daily shock therapy that his work was real, inspired, and divine in origin, but of little benefit from a translation tool perspective.

    But if Joseph used seer stones (or temporarily used them) as a medium to conjure up images, inspirations, and creativity in recalling an ancient and complex historical narrative, it would appear that the critical and scholarly trail (objective and unbiased) runs very cold.

    From a believer and unbeliever\’s perspective, the Book of Mormon was born from the mind of Joseph Smith. The nexus of faith is where believer and sceptic part paths on this matter. Given the limited details known about the translation process, Ostler\’s expansion thesis seems better able to stretch and fit as a method of explanation of the translation process (from my point of view) than Skousen\’s dictation thesis.

    And yet adopting Ostler\’s expansion thesis seems like a scholarly cop-out in that it any rigorous scientific inquiry and scholarly critique is stonewalled by a dead-end audit trail which runs squarely through Joseph\’s mind, and Joseph\’s mind only…

  18. Jonathan Green on April 27, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Shamrock, those are excellent points. If the English text doesn’t hew fairly close to an ancient record, then any source criticism or search for hebaraisms are going precisely nowhere.

    I wouldn’t call Ostler’s thesis a cop-out, though, if it’s an accurate recognition of real limits. Also, I think the mechanics of the translation process–seer stone, urim and thummim, top hat, whatever–are a red herring, because they don’t tell us anything about the relationship between the source text and the translation beyond what we already knew, namely that Joseph Smith didn’t use a dictionary and reference grammar of Old Nephitish.

    I haven’t recently looked at the particulars of the translation process, but it seems to me that some things point to a fairly close relationship between source and original (at times, if not always), at least in how Joseph Smith thought of it: the title page, for example, and the dictation of proper names letter by letter.

  19. Blake on April 27, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    In assessing the existing Book of Mormon text and its relation to the translation process and what was one the plates, the best evidence we have is the English text itself. As I see it, there could not have been an inspired revelation of the ancient text if the ancient writing on the plates didn’t exist as an ancient text. What was being revealed was the ancient text itself.

    Further, the translation process was not uniform. At first, Joseph Smith used the urim and thummim (“UT”) as his brother William described. He stopped using the UT because it was large and cumbersome and heavy. The use of the seer stone isn’t materially different from the use of the UT, except it appears that Joseph actually looked at the plate through the UT to translate. However, what would that matter? Joseph still didn’t read either Hebrew or Egyptian. If what was being “magnified” in his understanding was what was on the plates, then it matters little whether he is looking directly at the plates or revealed directly to him with or without the UT and with or without looking at the plates. I believe that the relation between what was the on the plates and what Joseph Smith grasped conceptually in his mind initially was established through the physical act of his looking at the plates through the UT. However, once that connection is physically established, it is clear that the relation between them isn’t that the plates must be before Joseph as he translated, but that what is being revealed is related to what is on the gold plates.

    Further, once it becomes clear that the act of conceptualizing the translation into language is a relation between the plates, the UT or stone and Joseph’s ability to understand in his own terms and express in his own limited vocabulary and language what is being revealed from the plates, then the relation with the text becomes complex, but it is similar to the process of linguistic translation. If I translate a text, I am attempting to understand a text, perhaps not a single text but a heavily redacted text from several authors imbedded in the text, and my relation to the original writers of any given text is attenuated indeed. I can grasp the meaning of the text as it presents itself to me given my ability to make sense of it in my own linguistic abilities and vocabulary, but I cannot really get to the underlying texts and intentions of the original authors at all. The hermeneutic circle makes it impossible for a one-to-one translation in any event. The best that I can do is to be inspired with insight into what the text is really conveying and saying to me despite the fact that what I now write in translation is a new text. Moreover, I have to decide: do I attempt to bing out the underlying fissures and sources in translating, or do I attempt to present the view of the redactor and smooth over such fissures?

    The Book of Mormon appears to me to be a translation of an underlying text in which the translator attempts to express the underlying text with its various fissures and lacunae. It appears to me to be. however, smoothed over by Joseph Smith’s own conceptual vocabulary and, at points, with his commentary to attempt to make sense of the text within his own cultural setting. Both are common in translations of ancient texts and both seem particularly appropriate — especially given that Joseph is himself a prophet inspired with insight into the meaning of the text and the truths it is expressing.

  20. Stephen M (Ethesis) on April 27, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    I don’t think that any of the other writings dictated by Joseph Smith — whether revelations, letters, etc. have anything like the narrative and textual complexity of the BofM. Indeed, if you look at his autobiographical writings they are quite a bit “smoother” than the BofM narrative even if I am willing to concede that they often adopt idiosyncratic syntax and grammar.

    And the change in his ability to communicate over time is impressive.

    Once you get over “translator gloss” it is amazing just how much variability there is in the voice and style in the Book of Mormon.

    California Condor you’ve been ignored because if you had actually read Ethan Smith’s writing you would realize it has so little in common that your bringing it up kind of marks you as needing to come a long way in your ability to add something to the conversation.

  21. Jonathan Green on April 28, 2008 at 1:12 am

    Stephen, could you restate your comment to CC in the form of a polite response to a reasonable question?

  22. Kari on April 28, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Stephen, B.H. Roberts certainly thought enough of View of the Hebrews as to discuss it at length in his “Studies of the Book of Mormon.” Whether he truly believed his position or was simply playing devil’s advocate has been argued, but would indicate that CC’s question has some merit. If one believes, and the original post postulates as possible, that the BoM was the product of Joseph’s mind, then a discussion as to from where he may have had influence is certainly a reasonable discussion; maybe just not for this particular thread.

    I think that Jonathan’s comments in #16 are the ones that I found particularly intriguing. How do we know the appropriate scholarly model to employ in a study of the BoM, particularly when we have only the English text given to us by JS, and also edited significantly by him after translation, or inspiration or revelation, depending on how to choose to label the process? Is it even reasonable to spend time on scholarly studies/hypotheses such as those discussed here, when it ultimately boils down to a matter of faith in the JS story? I don’t know enough about textual/source criticism to claim to have an answer, I just find the question interesting.

  23. Raymond Takashi Swenson on April 28, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    As a thought experiment, suppose that in the early 1900s a scholar of ancient languages is out near the site of Byblos in Lebanon and finds what he thinks is an ancient text. He does a translation into English, and mails it to a colleague in the US, but he himself is killed and the original document lost during fighting between Turkish and British forces.

    Wouldn’t it be legitimate to examine the English translation for clues to the authenticity of it as an ancient Semitic document? If his translation includes information that was not recognized by his contemporaries as characteristic of the literature of the time and place, but is so perceived now, wouldn’t it be legitimate to note these characteristics as evidence that he was in fact providing information from an authentic source, since it is unlikely he knew enough to have forged it in that way?

  24. California Condor on April 29, 2008 at 1:32 am

    Stephen M (Ethesis),

    Actually, from what I’ve read on the Internet View of the Hebrews appears to have quite a bit in common with the Book of Mormon. That’s why I asked if anyone has done an analysis of it.

  25. Blake on April 29, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    CC: I am not impressed by the supposed similarities between VofH and BofM. I address the supposed similarities and important differences in my article on the Expansion Theory which you can find by going to my website by clicking on my name here. You might also want to check out: http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/response/qa/bom_plagerize_view.htm
    http://ldsfaq.byu.edu/emmain.asp?number=196
    http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=44

    The text of the VofH written as a scholarly text has almost nothing in common with the message of the BofM as I read it.

  26. Kevin Christensen on April 29, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    Regarding View of the Hebrews and Roberts, besides Blake’s useful discussion, John Welch did the most detailed response in his 1985 FARMS Preliminary Report, “Finding Answers to B. H. Roberts Questions and An Unparallel,” 41 pages. It’s not online, but easily obtainable from FARMS, and still worth reading. BYU Religious Studies also published the 1825 edition of View of the Hebrews. Andrew Hedges comments on that edition, and its implications for the Book of Mormon, here:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=247

    More recently, John Gee has offered some additional fresh perspectives on Ethan Smith here:

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?bookid=8&chapid=66

    And of course, Grant Palmer deals with the issue by quoting some gems from Roberts, and then ignoring all subsequent LDS research on the topic. What a guy.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  27. Rick Grunder on April 30, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    From the tenor of recent comments, I fear that we might leave California Condor with the impression that Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” has been dismissed and dispatched once and for all. However, writers on both sides work too hard, and miss the forest for the trees. To agonize over the countless ways in which this one Mormon parallel book is NOT the Book of Mormon, is surely just as short-sighted and narrow as to suggest that Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery hovered eagerly over “View of the Hebrews,” somehow using it as a guide to produce the Book of Mormon.

    Ethan Smith’s book popularized Hebrew Indian-origin theories, then dramatized a need to carry the gospel to Native Americans whom Smith saw as part of the posterity of Israel. These concepts had already emerged over a period of centuries, but Smith lent them additional focus and theological gravity in an interesting place and time. Unaware that another edition of “View of the Hebrews” was already in the press, an 1825 reviewer in central New York State confessed that he had traditionally viewed such ideas as “rather fanciful,” supposing “that there were but few resemblances” between ancient Hebrews and modern Native Americans. “But we have been surprised,” he conceded,

    “to find so many resemblances as this book exhibits, and feel utterly unable to account for them on any other supposition than that here are indeed the long lost Ten Tribes. We think, however, that it would be an improvement in a second edition, which we hope will be called for, if the evidence of that fact were summed up a little more distinctly, and if the Indian customs and traditions which are supposed to be of Hebrew origin were more distinctly compared with the similar customs and institutions of the Hebrews, and at the same time distinguished from those which were patriarchal. Such an improvement would be easy for Mr. Smith to make, and would exhibit the evidence in a clearer and more convincing light.” (“REVIEW. View of the Hebrews; by Ethan Smith, Pastor of a church in Poultney, Vermont. Poultney: Smith & Shute. 12mo. pp. 183.” The Utica Christian Repository 4 [May 1825], 149 [reviewing the 1823 first edition].)

    It was while writing his much more famous “Dissertation on the Prophecies,” 1811, that Ethan Smith first felt “affected” by some Native American relevance in Isaiah – the same prophet who might feel so curiously ponderous near the beginning of the Book of Mormon. “Ho thou nation of the last days,” admonished Smith in 1825,

    “shadowing with thy wings of liberty and peace; pity, instruct, and save my ancient people and brethren; especially that outcast branch of them, who were the natives of your soil.”
    . . . . .

    “Teach them the story of their ancestors; the economy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Sublimate their views above the savage pursuits of the forests. Elevate them above the wilds of barbarism and death, by showing them what has been done for their nation; and what is yet to be done by the God of their fathers, in the line of his promise. Teach them their ancient history; their former blessings; their being cast away; the occasion of it, and the promises of their return. Tell them the time draws near, and they must now return to the God of their salvation. Tell them their return is to be as life from the dead to the Gentile nations. Tell them what their ancient fathers the prophets were inspired to predict in their behalf; and the charge here given for their restoration. Assure them this talk of an ancient prophet, is for them, . . .” (Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews [Poultney, Vermont: Smith & Shute, 1825], [247], 249)

    If “View of the Hebrews” were so utterly irrelevant and uncompelling as some Book of Mormon defenders propose, then surely B. H. Roberts would have been bright enough to see that for himself, and he would not have exhibited so much concern over the book as he did, and for so long as he did. Yet Roberts was writing during a period when “View of the Hebrews” appeared to be an intriguing anomaly and a significant challenge which had to be addressed particularly, rather than merely an important example within a vast genre of Mormon parallel thought which flourished in Joseph Smith’s day. If we want to get out of the woods and see the wider terrain, we must first appreciate each bush or tree for what it was, but then find the maturity to rise above the tangles to comprehend the larger culture of Joseph’s world as the most propitious of all settings for the emergence of earliest Mormonism.

  28. Kari on April 30, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Raymond, you pose an interesting thought experiment. But if this is such a valid way to study ancient documents, by studying a “translation”, why is it that only Mormons are the ones doing this with regards to the BoM? Or are there non-LDS scholars doing this as a way to “understand” or “re-construct” the ancient text Joseph claimed to have had, yet really didn’t need to have present during the process? And if this is a valid way to study documents, can you give me examples of other texts that are being, or have been, studied in such a manner? I ask these questions, because I genuinely don’t know and would appreciate the knowledge.

    With regards to this your thought experiment, I would expect a scholar in 1900, who had time to translate, would also have time to transcribe, or even possibly photograph such a find, and keep such supporting documentation with his translation. Why is there no such thing with regards to the plates? Joseph made facsimiles from the papyrus used to generate the Book of Abraham, and drawings of the Kinderhook plates were included in his journal. These were minor things; certainly something as important as the gold plates should have generated a transcription of characters or a charcoal rubbing or two.

    Anyway, I only bring this up to reiterate my point that ultimately one has to decide these things as a matter of faith and belief in the Joseph Smith story.

  29. California Condor on May 2, 2008 at 12:54 am

    Blake, Kevin, Rick,

    Thanks for the links. It appears that at the very least, the Book of Mormon was not a wholesale point-for-point rip off of “View of the Hebrews.” But a skeptic could make a strong argument that VotH inspired Joseph Smith to make his own version of the story (perhaps in cahoots with Oliver Cowdery).

  30. Jonathan Green on May 2, 2008 at 2:08 am

    CC, here is a link to “View of the Hebrews”, chosen at random rather than after considering the quality of the edition: http://www.2think.org/hundredsheep/voh/voh_main.shtml

    Go take a look. Compare with the Book of Mormon. Are the parallels significant? Do they concern things that could have been picked up many other places, or only from VotH?

  31. California Condor on May 2, 2008 at 5:08 am

    Thanks, Jonathan. Mormon apologists point out that a lot of the details between the Book of Mormon and VotH are different. So it’s clear that Joseph Smith probably didn’t engage in straight up plagiarism. But what if Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith had never even read VotH, but only heard about it, thought it was a cool idea, and then made up their own version with its own twists and details? This could account for the broad similarities (and vastly different details) between the two books.

    I can even envision a scenario where God inspired Ethan Smith to write VotH, thus perhaps inspiring Oliver Cowdery to have the general ideas of the Book of Mormon, in turn preparing Joseph Smith to receive revelations that became the Book of Mormon.

    Of course, a skeptic could just say that Cowdery and Joseph Smith just created another version of VotH.

  32. Jonathan Green on May 2, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    CC, while that’s possible, in my limited understanding of early 19th c. American thought, it’s not necessary for VotH to exist. That is, if one is going to assume that Joseph Smith picked up ideas about the origin of American Indians from his environment, there were other sources he could have turned to.

  33. Rick Grunder on May 2, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Nicely stated, Jonathan. Indeed, these “Mormon” parallel ideas crept through the culture not only by being read, but through more subtle and often indefinable processes which occurred in art, singing, gossip, storytelling, preaching and praying, and through other aspects of a particularly active system of oral tradition which had to flourish then even more powerfully than in today’s mass-media-communicated world. And, as is still the case today, the appearance of an idea in written and printed sources generally suggested the presence of that idea already circulating orally somewhere – if not everywhere – in the environment. Books like View of the Hebrews were thus no more causes than they were indicators: not necessarily contributing directly to the mind of Joseph Smith, but standing as evidence that the thoughts which he proclaimed were waiting in the air. Such works do not presume that “Joseph Smith once read us,” so much as they insist that “we were already there.”

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