BMGD #1: Introduction

December 26, 2011 | 23 comments
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These are the notes from which I will create my Sunday School lesson. It is not a Sunday School lesson, unless your ward has Sunday School for five hours and a high tolerance for rabbit trails that happened to catch my interest.

1. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion.

From the introduction to the Book of Mormon:

“The Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.’”

I sometimes find it interesting to see what Webster’s 1828 dictionary has to say about a word Joseph Smith used, as it is one of the dictionaries closest in time and place to Smith’s use of language. (Now, it isn’t perfect–it was more prescriptive than descriptive–but I still like to take a look.) Here is its definition of keystone: “The stone on the top or middle of an arch or vault, which being wider at the top than at the bottom, enters like a wedge and binds the work; properly, the fastening-stone.” Does this definition give you any more insight into what he meant by calling the BoM the keystone of our religion?

Jim F. wrote, “The keystone holds an arch together, distributing the weight that bears down evenly to the two sides of the arch, and preventing the two sides from toppling under the sideways pressure on them.” Does this explanation of a keystone give you any more insight into what Joseph meant?

Is this keystone a bridge? An arch? A doorway? What might that symbolize?

What was Joseph Smith trying to convey about the Book of Mormon when he called it the keystone?

How might you respond to a non-member friend who reads the introduction to the BoM and asks, “Really? The BoM is the keystone? Shouldn’t Jesus Christ be the keystone? Or families? Or your temples? Or the Holy Ghost? Or the scriptures?”

My boys have this Roman arch puzzle. I brought it to an institute class I was teaching, hoping that a physical, visual arch might spur their thinking about what a keystone is. I carefully assembled it before class (you have to place the base on its side, with a printed guide beneath it that shows the proper placement of the stones, insert the stones–which isn’t as easy as it sounds, since many are similar but not identical–and then rotate the whole thing so it stands up) and put it on a table behind me. At the appropriate moment in the lesson, I turned to pick it up, bumped it, and the entire thing fell on the floor. For a second, I thought about quickly reassembling it but then remembered that this isn’t something you can do in a second. I learned something important about keystones that day: they show planning, forethought, and preparation!

I think sometimes this keystone concept is used to beat over the head with an ultimatum people who have questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But consider this statement from Elder Holland:

I think you’d be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we’re not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. … We would say: “This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I’m going forward. If I can help you work toward that I’d be glad to, but I don’t love you less; I don’t distance you more; I don’t say you’re unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can’t make that step or move to the beat of that drum.” … We really don’t want to sound smug. We don’t want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

I love that his approach isn’t “smug,” rather it is inviting. We should be sure that we are using our knowledge of the BoM to invite, not incite.

Perhaps with the “keystone” statement Joseph Smith was also commenting on what is not the keystone: polygamy, the Kirtland Safety Society, Zelph, anything any prophet in 1880 or 1940 or 2010 said that made you cringe, etc. It should help us focus our attention on what is most important.

Joseph Smith also called the Book of Mormon “the most correct of any book.” Note that Joseph Smith did not say that the BoM was without fault. This is, I think, particularly interesting given that the Book of Mormon itself seems very concerned with the possibility of its own faults (from the Title Page: “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men;” see also 3 Nephi 8:2 [“if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time”], Mormon 8:17 [“And if there be faults they be the faults of a man.”]) This is an awareness of possible fallibility completely missing from the Bible.

As our own Nate Oman explored in this post, the Book of Mormon is also quick to tell us how to respond to its possible faults: the mention of possible errors in the Title Page is followed by this: “wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” (Mormon 8:17 is similar.)

This raises, I think, some interesting questions about the translation process for the Book of Mormon.

Royal Skousen described the translation process:

During the translation process, the witnesses were able to observe, in an open setting, the following:
•Joseph Smith placing the interpreters (either the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone) in a hat and placing his face into the hat;
•Joseph dictating for long periods of time without reference to any books, papers, manuscripts, or even the plates themselves;
•Joseph spelling out unfamiliar Book of Mormon names;
•after each dictated sequence, the scribe reading back to Joseph what was written so that Joseph could check the correctness of the manuscript;
•Joseph starting a dictation session without prompting from the scribe about where the previous session had ended.

The translation process that these witnesses observed was an open one—that is, others in the room could observe the dictation from Joseph Smith to the scribe. But early on in the translation, from late 1827 to early 1828, it appears that Joseph used a different process while translating. During this early period, Joseph would first copy some of the characters directly from the plates onto sheets of paper, from which sheets he would then translate his transcribed characters into English by means of the Urim and Thummim. During such a process, the plates were uncovered while Joseph translated (or at least while he copied the characters from the plates to paper); and since no one was permitted to see the plates until later, Joseph took precautions to prevent anyone from seeing him working directly with the plates. Martin Harris, in a couple of early statements, said that a blanket or curtain separated Joseph from him at the time he (Martin) obtained a sample transcript and translation to take to Professor Anthon in New York City.

In place of this early procedure, Joseph Smith soon turned to a method of translation that depended directly on the interpreters alone, so that the plates did not have to be viewed, and thus the translation could be done openly. All witnesses that refer either to the translation of the lost 116 pages or to our own current Book of Mormon (Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and members of the Whitmer family) openly observed this translation process—one without a curtain or blanket separating Joseph from his scribe. In fact, according to Emma, the plates were wrapped up and not directly used.

Grant Hardy describes it thus:

This somewhat cumbersome physical process also explains why he always needed scribes to write for him. For example, if the quotation from Emma Smith that appears on pp. 8-9 had started a couple paragraphs earlier, it would have included this description of the mechanics of the translation: “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour and hour with nothing between us.” There are many such accounts. Or as Richard Turley and William Slaughter explain in their recent How We Got the Book of Mormon (published by Deseret Book): “Several people . . . said he looked into the interpreters or another seer stone, blocking out external light, such as by placing the interpreters in his hat and putting his face down into it.

Sometimes there is extreme squeamishness about the role that seer stones played in the process; consider this from the introductory materials in Verse by Verse: The Book of Mormon:

We do not know exactly how Joseph Smith’s work of translation proceeded. All of the witnesses to the process thought that the Prophet somehow saw words and dictated them to his scribes. The witnesses are also unanimous that Joseph did not have any helps or prompts with him during the translation process–no books of manuscripts or papers. And there was no great secrecy, pretense, or flowery display of spiritual power exhibited during the period of translation(p6).

Verse by Verse seems to obfuscate to the point of misleading. Why is this such a common position for LDS? And then, oddly, you can search for “seer stones” on lds.org and find a bunch of hits in . . . The Friend. Do not D & C 10:1 and JS-H 1:35 make clear that seer stones were used in the translation, and yet, as I think the Verse by Verse quote shows, we do not like to talk about seer stones and hats. (This is purely anecdotal, but this topic seems to be the one that most trips up people who are raised in the Church, encounter this idea in later life, and feel that they have been “lied to” or “misled” about church history.) OK, end rant.

Regardless, the translation process raises (at least) two questions for me:

(1) If (at least some of) the translation was performed with seer stones in a hat and Joseph Smith’s face in said hat, what was the point of having plates in the first place? (Had I been one of the Nephites who had labored under great difficulty to create the plates, write on them, preserve them, and then watched Joseph translate without looking at them, I would have been ticked! I would have totally gone Old-World-grandmother on the PTB: “All that work for nothing! Wasted!”)

(2) How “tight” or “loose” was the translation process? (“Tight” meaning Joseph Smith saw specific words and spoke them precisely as given; “loose” meaning that the English BoM is more impressionistic and has more of Smith’s personal stamp on it.) LDS have taken a variety of positions on this matter:

Brigham Young:

Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. Citation.

Orson Scott Card:

But it’s no surprise that the translator repeatedly errs, because this is not his natural speaking voice. No one speaks this kind of language around him. He doesn’t understand the grammar, and so grammatical errors are thick on the ground. Those who believe, like David Whitmer, that the translation appeared word for word on the Urim and Thummum, are ripe for disillusionment — or else they are accusing God of some really embarrassing grammatical errors. This is ultimately why David Whitmer ended up outside the Church — he refused to accept the idea that Joseph Smith could edit revelations previously given, precisely because Whitmer believed God gave them to him word for word. But Whitmer’s view of translation was wrong. However the process of inspiration worked, it could only produce language that already existed in Joseph Smith’s mind. Whether the Book of Mormon is a fraud or a genuine translated book, it will reflect Joseph Smith’s language. Citation.

Royal Skousen:

There’s a lot of evidence that the translated text of the Book of Mormon was controlled down to the very word, in fact, to the very letter (at least for the spelling of Book of Mormon names). Citation.

Grant Hardy:

I do not know why the Lord saw fit to reveal The Book of Mormon in a non-standard grammatical form, but that’s what happened, and Joseph Smith himself smoothed out much of the language in the 1837 and 1840 editions (he even deleted 46 instances of “it came to pass”!). Citation.

Grant (I think Hardy but perhaps some other person named Grant who comments on the BoM in a freakishly articulate way.)

The Lord’s instructions about translation specifically and revelation in general (“you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right”) have always seemed to me to point to non-tight control. If the Lord is sending the English text, tightly controlled, for Joseph to read from the seer stone, why would he prescribe to Oliver a different way to translate? But the reason Oliver thought that he could translate without taking any “thought save it was to ask” was that he saw Joseph dictating the Book of Mormon, apparently neither taking thought nor asking, i.e., by dictating the tightly controlled text from the interpreters or the seer stone. Tight control seems to account for Oliver’s expectations but is inconsistent with the Lord’s instructions to Oliver. Citation; see comment #19.

This is a good summary of mss. history.


2. Many witnesses have testified of the Book of Mormon.

We always talk about “the three” and “the eight;” today, I’d like to talk about other witnesses to the BoM.

Grant Hardy:

On p. 77, [Oct 2011 Ensign] in answer to the question “Who else saw the golden plates?”, the editors state, “In addition to Joseph Smith, several other men and women saw the plates and testified of their existence.” They go on to briefly describe the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, but readers might reasonably ask, “Can you tell us a little more about the women who saw the plates?”
Although I’m not exactly sure who the editors had in mind when they wrote their answer, we know of several women who saw or even held the Nephite record wrapped in cloth. Joseph’s younger sister Katherine reported that when he first brought home the golden plates, after being attacked by several unknown assailants on the way, she took the package containing the plates from him and laid it on a table until he could catch his breath again.
His wife Emma, in an interview with their son Joseph III in 1879, described her own experiences with the plates as follows:
Q. Are you sure that [Joseph] had the plates at the time you were writing for him?
A. The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edged were moved by the thumb, as one does sometime thumb the edges of a book. [Another except from this same interview appears in the October Ensign, pp. 8-9.]
In 1842, a visitor to Nauvoo wrote about a conversation with Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, in which she affirmed: “I have myself seen and handled the golden plates; they are about eight inches long, and six wide; some of them are sealed together and are not to be opened and some of them are loose. They are all connected by a ring which passes through a hole at the end of each plate, and are covered with letters beautifully engraved.”
We are not sure whether he was embellishing a bit (he goes on to say that Lucy had also seen the breastplate with the interpreters, when we know by her own first-hand account that she had only felt them through the cloth that covered them), or perhaps Lucy was referring to an otherwise unknown event, but in any case there a report of another woman who definitely saw the plates directly.
When Joseph, Emma, and Oliver moved in with the Whitmer family to finish the translation, the mother there, Mary Musselman Whitmer, found that her workload had significantly increased. Her grandson told the story this way:
My grandmother in having so many extra persons to care for, besides her own large household, was often overloaded with work to such an extent that she felt it to be quite a burden. One evening, when (after having done her usual day’s work in the house) she went to the barn to milk the cows, she met a stranger [identified in another version as Moroni] carrying something on his back that looked like knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone, and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with inexpressible joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witness to the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end. The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell. From that moment my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard.
I quite like the striking contrast between Mary Whitmer’s miraculous account and Emma Smith’s matter-of-fact reporting (at another time Emma said that she used to lift and move the covered plates while she was dusting). Both are impressive testimonies in their own way, much like the contrast between the Three Witnesses who saw an angel show them the plates, and the Eight Witnesses who handled and turned the pages themselves, with no divine intervention at all.
. . . The story of Mary Whitmer is a little harder to find (it appears in my Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon on pp. 639-640), but it was originally published in official Church publications in the 1880s and then was made into a BYU movie titled The Fourth Witness: The Mary Whitmer Story in 1997. Citation.

When I joined the church, it was kind of a fad for members to write their testimony in the BoM, include a family picture, and share it with others. But this shouldn’t be just a fad! The BoM was never intended to have just 3 or 8 witnesses–but lots! All of us! We should be witnesses to the BoM. Any experiences that you have had with sharing your witness of the BoM that you would like to share? Any unique ideas for sharing that witness? Anyone had the experience of developing or strengthening a witness in order to share it?

3. The Book of Mormon was written for our day.

Orson Scott Card wrote,

A few years ago, I was called upon by the Brethren to rewrite the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They told me to ignore the existing script, and instead to go back to the Book of Mormon and find a way to shape a clear and coherent story that would present the book’s most important themes for an audience of nonmembers.

What is the theme of the BoM?

Grant Hardy says Terryl Givens identifies the following themes in the Book of Mormon: “1) personal revelation, 2) a focus on Jesus Christ, 3) wilderness and varieties of Zion, 4) new configurations of scripture, and 5) the centrality of family.” He then suggests this list: covenants, house of Israel, prophecy and fulfillment, moral government, obedience, social justice, church, coming to Christ, mercy, belief and skepticism, deliverance. He explores the list here (Note that I think Hardy had some editing problems here–if you read through, you see that the lists don’t add up.).

Do you agree with that list? (You might want to put this list of themes on the board before class.) Ask if anything is missing or should be removed. Imagine getting the assignment to present the themes of the BoM to a huge audience, like Card did. Or, if a nonmember friends asked you what the theme of the BoM was, what would you say? What do you see as the main one or two themes, and what does the BoM have to say about those themes? I personally think “family” is a stretch, although there is a good bit about fathers and sons. Why is there so little about families in the BoM if it was written for our day? Are there any other themes that you might have expected that aren’t there?

4. The Book of Mormon can bring us nearer to God.

President Ezra Taft Benson:

The moment you begin a serious study of [the Book of Mormon, you] will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path. … When you begin to hunger and thirst after those words, you will find life in greater and greater abundance (in Conference Report, Oct. 1986, 6; or Ensign, Nov. 1986, 7).

How do you understand this promise? I can think of at least two mechanisms by which it might work:
(1) Doctrinal: By seriously studying the BoM, you will learn new things from the text that will help you live more abundantly. Do you have any personal experiences with this?
(2) Covenental: By showing your obedience to the counsel to study the BoM, you will be taught through the Spirit. Has this happened to you?
(3) Other ??

Note that President Benson didn’t say “let your eyes skim a few verses before you fall asleep,” but rather “serious study.” Some thoughts on how to study the BoM:

Pres. Benson: “We should constantly ask ourselves, ‘Why did the Lord inspire Mormon (or Moroni or Alma) to include that in his record?’” This is an excellent question to ask yourself!

As I read this statement from Grant Hardy, consider what obstacles he identifies to studying the BoM and what we might be able to do to overcome them:

English-speaking Latter-day Saints who desire a thorough understanding of the Book of Mormon face a considerable challenge—the text is written in English. As a result, it is too easy to read. That is to say, it is too easy to get the gist of what is being communicated without actually taking the time to analyze every verb form, every pronoun, and every conjunction to determine exactly how the words fit together and the ideas unfold. We grasp the general message, but we also miss many of the details. In fact, the people who know the Book of Mormon best may be those who have translated it into another language or who as nonnative speakers are trying to read it in English.
Latter-day Saints who have studied Greek or Hebrew know that it is not difficult to spend 20 minutes or more on a single verse of the Bible—working out the possible meanings of the words, making sure all the grammatical parts fit together, and trying to figure out how a slightly different construction might change the meaning. This level of scrutiny is simply not possible for someone reading the Book of Mormon as if it were a sacrament meeting talk. (Another analogy would be the difference between listening to a piece of music and actually learning to play it.)
If you have not taken the opportunity before, look at the Anchor Bible commentary. There is usually one volume for each book in the Bible, and most public libraries have at least a few of these on their shelves. Each volume consists of new translations of short passages of scripture followed by two commentaries, one of which focuses on the actual words and the other on the main ideas. The level of attention to individual words in the notes section is often breathtaking, perhaps reflecting the seriousness of religious traditions that view scripture rather than modern revelation as the primary avenue to understanding God’s will. By contrast, most commentaries on the Book of Mormon move rather quickly from the details of the text to larger theological issues. We just assume that we have all the words we need and that we know what they mean. Citation.

So consider reading the BoM in a second language. Consider closely studying each word. Other ideas?

Grant Hardy:

The October Ensign (p. 79) reminds us that the present chapters and verses were added later in the history of the text (in 1879 to be exact; Joseph Smith only read The Book of Mormon in paragraphs). It is also worth noting that the punctuation was introduced by John Gilbert, the non-Mormon typesetter for the 1830 edition. This means that the divisions into clauses and sentences were not part of the original revelation.
Sometimes this can make a difference in how we read. For example, Elder Andersen observes on p. 43 that in The Book of Mormon, “the specific roles of women and daughters are to some extent unmentioned,” which is why we treasure those few verses where they are highlighted, and why the praise of the young stripling warriors for their mothers is quoted not once, but twice in the special issue (pp. 45 and 46): “”We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 56:47). This is intelligible — it indicates that the young men were sure that their mothers had testimonies — but Royal Skousen has argued that it would make more sense if there was some sort of punctuation break between the words doubt and our: “We do not doubt; our mothers knew it.” Or, in other words, “We do not doubt [that God will deliver us; after all,] our mothers knew it” — a sentiment that fits the context a little better (and still honors mothers). Ultimately, their faith was in God, not in their mothers, but the two elements were certainly closely related. Citation.

So consider ignoring the chapter visions, verse divisions, chapter headings, and punctuation and see what you come up with.

What have been some successful techniques in your own study of the BoM? What have you always wanted to try but haven’t?

What have you learned from the Book of Mormon about Jesus Christ?

5. Misc. notes.

The Title Page

Jim F.: “How does the Book of Mormon convince people that Jesus is the Christ? “

“I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general.*” [The asterisk directs the reader to a note that says, “*That is, from right to left.”] Joseph Smith Jr.

Would your experience of the title page and of reading the Book of Mormon as a whole be any different if you read this last?

Interesting that this is all “interpretation” and not “translation.” Should that shape how we view what Joseph did? Does it imply a looser translation process?

The word “gift” interests me. We give gifts to everyone; they only gave gifts to kings and to God. So if the BoM is a gift, then God is treating us like royalty.

Jim F. : “Though we might expect an ancient book of scripture to divide the world into Israel (or Jew) and Gentile, its division is Lamanites, on the one hand, and Jews and Gentiles, on the other. “

Sidney Sperry argues that the title page was written in two stages.

Note the repetition:

Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed—To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof—

Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God

What are we to make of the repetition?

Testimony of the Three Witnesses

“And it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Quoting Ps 118:23 here–related to rejected stone becoming conerstone. What does that language mean here?

Introduction

“The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible.”

In what ways is the BoM similar to and different from the Bible?

See here for thoughts on an answer: I could have quoted the entire article because that’s how awesome it is, but didn’t for copyright reasons. Please go read it.

Grant Hardy:

Consider the characteristics of Old Testament narrators as described by Shimon Bar-Efrat, formerly of Hebrew University at Jerusalem:
“The narrator in most biblical narratives appears to be omniscient”
“Biblical narrators do not usually mention themselves”
“Biblical narrators [generally] make no reference to their activity in writing the narratives”
“The narrators do not . . . address their audience directly”
“Outside the books of Kings there are very few instances in which the narrator passes judgment”
How many of these statements are true of the Book of Mormon? None of them.

The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith

Grant Hardy:

I like the fact that although he first saw the plates in 1823, he was not allowed to take them home until after he had married Emma (she may have been a stabilizing influence in his life, and in fact, she accompanied him to the Hill Cumorah the night he finally took possession of the plates). The story of Martin Harris’ loss of the 116 pages, at a time when Joseph and Emma had just lost their first child, is heartbreaking.
You may have noticed when we studied the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual in Priesthood and Relief Society that Joseph hardly ever quoted the Book of Mormon or referred to its prophets or its narratives in his preaching. Instead, he almost always taught from the Bible. This may seem a bit odd, especially in contrast to the way that more recent church leaders use the Book of Mormon, but it seems to me like evidence that the scripture did not originate with Joseph Smith (as an author myself, if I had ever written anything half so clever as the Book of Mormon, I would be quoting from it for the rest of my life). He did, however, work hard to spread the Book of Mormon more widely through two additional editions during his lifetime (1837 and 1840), and most tellingly, in his final evening on this earth, while in Carthage Jail, he read from the Book of Mormon with his brother Hyrum and bore testimony of its truthfulness. Citation.

One final thing: you need to read these.

23 Responses to BMGD #1: Introduction

  1. Ardis E. Parshall on December 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Fantastic, Julie, especially with all the links. I hope you can keep this up through the entire year — I’m going to depend on that!

    Someone asked me this weekend about Verse by Verse. I hadn’t heard of it before but read the extensive excerpt on the Des Book site — my reaction was mixed. Have you reviewed it, or might you in the near future?

  2. Julie M. Smith on December 26, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Ardis, I was initially extremely excited about reviewing it, but only made it a few dozen or so pages before I became just as disappointed and gave up.

    Given that the work is ~1000 pages (printed as two volumes), I expected a close study. But Grant Hardy’s words above (“most commentaries on the Book of Mormon move rather quickly from the details of the text to larger theological issues. We just assume that we have all the words we need and that we know what they mean.”) are a perfect description of what I read.

    There’s a lot of ‘plot summary,’ there is a lot of devotionally-oriented theologizing, but there is not a close reading of the text or any engagement with critical issues of interpretation. (And the title is misleading–they don’t comment on every verse.)

    I’m coveting Royal Skousen’s six volumes analyzing textual variants–partially because I’m interested in the variants, but moreso because the analysis that he does on the variants constitutes a close reading itself. But it is definitely beyond my budget.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall on December 26, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Yeah, thanks. I’ve only read the posted excerpt, but it felt to me like a hasty cut-and-paste of whatever was handy, more to get something in print to take advantage of the curriculum than a carefully thought out plan to explicate the scriptures. There seemed to be a lot of pronouncements on what things mean without any seeming awareness of the theological struggles of earlier commentators (e.g., when Lehi “thought he saw God,” did that mean he was physically transported to God’s presence, or was seeing images on a mental “screen”), and some pat lessons that aren’t really supported (e.g., Nephi shows us the importance of keeping a journal — but the record as we have it now was written on plates made 30 years after the events at Jerusalem, making the books of Nephi a reminiscence rather than a journal). If it were cheaper (and not two volumes) I’d probably buy it, but not anytime soon. Glad to know you don’t think it’s a must have.

  4. Ben P on December 26, 2011 at 11:24 am

    This is wonderful, Julie. I’m preparing an intro to the BoM class right now, and you actually provided some of the exact quotations that I was trying to find. A belated Christmas present!

  5. Ben S on December 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Quick note- the means of translation (see words or not?) has no bearing at all on the tightness or looseness of the translation. Stephen Ricks has written on this, but it’s often overlooked in these discussions.

  6. MC on December 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    “(1) If (at least some of) the translation was performed with seer stones in a hat and Joseph Smith’s face in said hat, what was the point of having plates in the first place? (Had I been one of the Nephites who had labored under great difficulty to create the plates, write on them, preserve them, and then watched Joseph translate without looking at them, I would have been ticked! I would have totally gone Old-World-grandmother on the PTB: “All that work for nothing! Wasted!”)”

    That’s a good question. I wonder if the plates were sort of like Dumbo’s feather. Perhaps Joseph had to be able to transcribe the characters on the plates and translate them directly before he had the faith to believe in both himself and in the power of God to be able to translate without using the plates directly as an aid. In which case none of it would have come about without having the plates themselves.

  7. Dave on December 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Wonderful notes, Julie. I especially like the quote from Elder Holland, which emphasizes that a broad range of opinion on historicity is compatible with full membership in the Church. That is an interesting contrast to his deep conviction of BoM historicity expressed so clearly in Conference a couple of years ago.

  8. Ardis E. Parshall on December 26, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I dunno that I would say it’s a contrast to his conviction — there’s no reason to question that his “deep conviction … expressed so clearly in Conference” is any less today than then. He says only that if your [generic “you”] conviction of that isn’t as deep, he/we will help you work toward it rather than boot you out of the Church. Is that any different from saying that if you aren’t fully living the Word of Wisdom, or aren’t paying a full tithe, or aren’t always sure that X is a true principle of the gospel, you’re still welcome to be one of us while you work on that shortcoming?

  9. Sonny on December 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I love that his approach isn’t “smug,” rather it is inviting. We should be sure that we are using our knowledge of the BoM to invite, not incite.

    Well said.

  10. Kevin Barney on December 26, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    This is great stuff, Julie. As a GD teacher I will be using your posts throughout the year as a valued resource.

  11. prometheus on December 26, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    That was fantastic Julie! Thank you so much for sharing. The citations are particularly valuable for me, having so many, so neatly organized. Awesome.

  12. Jacob J on December 27, 2011 at 2:36 am

    I really don’t see how the “study it out in your mind and ask if it is right” could be about the translation process itself. There is no way Joseph Smith could have translated at the speed he did coming up with stuff on his own and asking for a confirming burning bosom for each phrase. I think that verse is talking about Oliver’s *request* to translate. At least, that seems more plausible to me. Oh, and great notes.

  13. David T on December 27, 2011 at 10:30 am

    I highly suggest Brant Gardner’s “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon” (see also BHODGES’ excellent review). It addresses and explores a lot of the comments and discussion going on here re: translation method/process/type.

  14. David T on December 27, 2011 at 11:54 am

    and while we’re at it, Gardner’s Second Witness: Analytical Commentary on Book of Mormon series is fantastic. While I don’t agree with every single conclusion or interpretation, he’s definitely given me a lot of info to think about, and new ways to view and read the text. A wonderful companion (and at times contrast) to Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon.

  15. Rameumptom on December 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Nice, Julie.

    I hope you’ll consider linking this at the Feast Upon the Word wiki for the BoM Sunday School lessons.

    Gerald Smith

  16. Dan on December 27, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    thanks for the good write up.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 27, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    The observation about the contrast between the lack of information about the writers and writing process of the Bible and the Book of Mormon applies mainly to the Old Testament. Even in the Old Testament, though, some of the prophets are also characters in their own narratives, such as Daniel.

    In the New Testament, most of the epistles identify specific authors, and Paul’s relate even the names of the scribes or those who carried them to their destination, as well as clues to the time and place of their composition. Luke’s gospel and the Acts are introduced as compositions addressed to a reader and with attestations about the reliability of the sources, in addition to the first person plural passages that indicate Luke was a participant in some of the later parts of Paul’s journeys. Paul, Peter, John and James are characters in other authors’ narratives who then speak to us in their own voices. Mormon’s effort covers a vaster time span, but is in parallel to Luke’s efforts to compile reliable narrative about real sacred events.

    Royal Skousen’s conclusion that the translation was basically revealed word for word to Joseph through the seer stones is based on the most exhaustive examination to date of the manuscripts created during that process. One of the important things he found is that the English vocabulary of the Book of Mormon is NOT typical of 1829 but rather of two or three centuries earlier, when the King James Version was new. This is a definite indication that Joseph was not reaching into his own personal vocabulary to compose sentences based on mental pictures.

    The clear implication of a “tight” translation is that the English words Joseph read from the seer stones were composed by someone else. I have seen no evidence that Joseph ever claimed to have learned to read OR write the Reformed Egyptian characters on the plates or the Hebrew which apparently underlay them. The process of turning text written in a totally foreign script and language into some form of English did not take place in Joseph’s head. It took place “off stage”, after the narrative of the Book of Mormon itself was completed but before the plates were entrusted to Joseph.

    The concept of the “loose translation” has assumed that Joseph was receving in his mind some kind of “meta language” intermediate between reformed Egyptian and English, which still leaves out the initial stage of any translation, namely the resolving of symbols into words and words into sentences and meanings that guide the reader in forming the mental image that is “understanding” a text in a language we know. Joseph was not doing the process of reading and understanding the engravings on the plates; even the “loose translation” theory requires an initial reader, either God or an angel or some other person called by God. That kind of process seems to be at the root of the gift of tongues as experienced by, for example, Karl G. Maeser after his baptism, when he and the mission president could converse, each speaking in his own language, but understanding what was said by the other.

    We have become so dependent on the narrators to reveal the process they used to create and compose the text, that we assume that what has not been shown us did not happen. But in this one area, the Book of Mormon transmittal process is still obscure.

    Could Joseph have introduced errors into the text as he read out loud a visual text? Of course; we hear such mental slips all the time when we are reading scriptures together in Sunday School, especially if the words are unfamiliar. Everyone has witnessed the agonizing difficulty some young men have in reading a single Sacrament prayer from a card, leaving out or introducing words as they read, and doing it repeatedly. And without punctuation, forming coherent English sentences in our own minds, and saying them out loud while reading, would be even more difficult, with common slips like skipping a line or repeating a line.

    We likewise do not know precisely when or where Moroni was when he composed his closing testimony, or any of the specific events that took place between then (circa 421 AD) and his revealing the record to Joseph in 1823. There was plenty of time for the actual translation to be prepared, which would then be seen by someone with the special gift (like King Mosiah) to be able to see information displayed in a Urim and Thummim, a gift that could only be exercised through righteousness and faith, in the same way the Liahona was made to both point and display legible writing only to the faithful. Joseph could not use the seer stones when he was angry with Emma; Oliver would likewise need to develop the ability to “tune in” to and calibrate his perceptions before he could read the display in the stones. We use passwords to limit access to our handheld computer information appliances; they are employed to enable the ongoing unseen communication that takes place within a WiFi network between our tablet computers and a WiFi terminal/modem connected to the internet. Presumably the Lord has an even more secure way to ensure that only those who are spiritually authorized can read the devices he provides. Thus, D&C 130:11 says that we will need individual “key words” based on our “new names” to access our assigned revelatory “white stones” in the celestial kingdom.

  18. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 27, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I forgot to say thank you for the many insights in your piece.

  19. Kent Larsen on December 27, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Raymond (17), wrote: “Even in the Old Testament, though, some of the prophets are also characters in their own narratives, such as Daniel.”

    Um, why do you assume that these are “their own narratives?” I’ve always assumed that many of the books of the old testament were written by others who are not named. The titles are simply descriptive, and, as I understand it, they came along much later than the text themselves.

  20. Ben S on December 27, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    “I really don’t see how the “study it out in your mind and ask if it is right” could be about the translation process itself.”

    Only if you assume the revelatory process most of us are taught today based on that verse, is what it’s actually talking about. It makes good sense to me, to be constantly turning over in your mind the right way to express something, and wondering/asking if this is a good way to express it in English. How does Joseph know? When he hits upon something acceptable, the words appear and he reads them off, thus training him in a way. (This is paraphrasing Stephen Ricks’ view, which I mentioned above.)

  21. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    To Ben S: That is certainly an attractive hypothesis, and I personally believe that this process is a valid one for many kinds of efforts to receive personal revelation, up to and including what President Kimball went through that led to the revelation on priesthood ordination for all worthy males. But I don’t see it corresponding to the rapid rate at which the bulk of the Book of Mormon was dictated over the course of just a few weeks.

    Besides, what is the object of the thinking and searching that one is to receive revelation about? When we apply those verses to our own search for revelation, and to that of people inivestigating with the missionaries, we are generally talking about pondering the truth of the statements made in Joseph Smith’s testimony about his vissionary experiences, and the Book of Mormon itself. What exactly do we conceive that Joseph is focusing on, and making a guess about? Is he seeing Reformed Egyptian characters, which might as well be Japanese, whose meaning is totally unavailable to him in the ordinary sense of pronouncing or associating a meaning with each one, let alone a grammatical phrase? How is he not starting from scratch with every new line of text? How is he supposed to even make a first approximation guess, and then narrow down the meaning to something expressible in a coherent sentence, without starting with some kind of approximate meaning in the first place? Do we suppose he is seeing the English text out of focus, and as he guesses at the letters, he gets spiritual confirmation on each letter or word, and its snaps into focus? None of this really makes up a coherent picture of his actions, and it has no apparent connection with how he actually dictated the text to his scribes.

    When someone is doing translation in a more conventional sense, they have generally been educated in the meaning of the original foreign language, and there will be a first cut at translating each unit of meaning into a coherent English sentence. Then there is the reading of the English sentence and comparison with the original language to see if something has been omitted, added, or distorted.

    Something more like what Joseph accomplished is creating a translation from a language that has no existing dictionary in English, where meanings for most words are guesses, and the guesses are subject to change with each new sentence. Such processes require a start with a Rosetta Stone or other clue that relates the foreign text with something known. This kind of process would definitely profit from the kind of confirming or disconfirming aid of the Holy Ghost that D&C 8 speaks of, but there is asolutely no evidence for that kind of process being performed by Joseph in translating the Book of Mormon. There is no evidence that Joseph was learning to read Reformed Egyptian in the sense of understanding it so he could write an Egyptian to English dictionary or teach the skill to anyone else, or translate an English sentence into Reformed Egyptian. There is no evidence that Joseph retained such a body of knowledge. When he studied Hebrew with Joseph Seixas, there was no evidence that he had learned anything about Hebrew vocabulary or grammar from the underlying language of the Nephites. Nor did he make any claim that his knowledge of Reformed Egyptian in any way made it easier for him to parse the meaning of the Egyptian papyri associated with the Book of Abraham.

    For that matter, Joseph received many revelations in the presence of witnesses, such as D&C 76, in which Sydney Rigdon participated. They were not searching for words, but alternated stating sentences describing their vision, the other man saying “I see the same”. There was no start with fuzzy vision, or ambiguous meaning, that was clarified over a period of time as a guess was either confirmed or disconfirmed. It was apparently a physically demanding experience, but it was not a mental exercise of “studying it out in your mind” and “asking if it be right” before receiving the revelatory text. Possibly he had started with a question and pondering before asking God, but once the answer started, it just came.

    I really think that the only model for the translation process that even has the virtue of being logically coherent is the “tight translation” in which the words he dictated were written in English script in his view of the Urim & Thummim or seer stone. The other models necessitate major gaps in the process that have no explanation or even clear meaning in the models. We Mormons criticize the rhetoric of the “three persons in one substance” Trinity as logically incoherent and self-contradictory. We might consider that some of our models for the Book of Mormon translation process also have gaps in meaning and logic.

  22. Raymond Takashi Swenson on December 29, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Re: Keystones. The important thing about keystones is not that they hold up an arch through their strength in standing up to compression from the two sides, but that the arch they complete is able to support an additional great weight of stone in a wall or bridge above. In fact, by decreasing the weight of the supporting structure, they make the whole building stronger and more enduring.

    When I have taught this lesson I use a picture of the Pont du Gard, the Roman bridge that carries an aqueduct some sixty feet above a French river and has stood, made of stones without mortar, for 2,000 years, even withstanding floods in the channel it spans. But without the keystones the structure would collapse into disunity.

  23. chris on December 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Raymond, my experience with revelation is that sometimes a light goes on, illuminating what was previously unknown, and then suddenly it’s as if my mind is filled with all kinds of knowledge that I put into “my own” internal words. Sometims when I try to get these internal words which are very clear in my mind “out” into the vocal or written language, I stumble a bit and have to try to fill in the surrounding thoughts with meaning, etc. Clearly, for me in this case the experience is not all from me and not all from God, but the result of me + the spirit.

    My feeling is that the nature of revelations as received in the D&C mirror this concept somewhat (at least to the ideal of what I’m attempting to describe). I think it’s also possible that it could be a similar case with Joseph. While he may not have been studying characters and guessing at their meaning and asking if each guess were true or false, sometimes the plates could have been the impetus for the light turning on and illuminating his mind to fill in the rest, and other times the various seer devices could have filled that role.

    Divine illumination through the spirit, followed by an outpouring of knowledge that is shaped, composed, and vocalized in a combination with some of my own thought process & voice is how I experience revelation. I don’t see why it’s impossible the BoM translation included elements of this, but not necessarily to the exclusive of tight translations (or rather revelations) at times either.