Who authored the eight-witness statement?

June 7, 2012 | 7 comments
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The eight-witness statement appears to be a prosaic legal affidavit, yet one that has borrowed much of its phraseology from the three-witness statement. There are at most only two instances of phrases that could be said to have been taken from the Book of Mormon text proper: “of curious workmanship” and “we lie not”. In striking contrast to the three-witness statement, there are numerous phrases and word uses that are not at all found in the Book of Mormon text itself. I mark each of these below with an asterisk. Some of these are contemporary with the English language spoken in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. A few may be traceable to King James usage. These findings suggest that the eight-witness statement was not a revealed text but was constructed more as a legal document by Joseph Smith (or maybe even Oliver Cowdery). Along with the three-witness statement, I treat the eight-witness statement as extracanonical. But there is a difference: the eight-witness statement is of human origin. Thus the 1837 change that Joseph Smith introduced into it (namely, the replacement of author and proprietor with translator) is perfectly acceptable since it more accurately reflects Joseph’s role in receiving the Book of Mormon as a revealed text.

“and also the testimony of eight witnesses”

3-witness     the testimony of three witnesses

“be it known unto all nations kindreds tongues and people”

3-witness      be it known unto all nations kindreds tongues and people

“unto whom this work shall come”

3-witness    unto whom this work shall come

* “that Joseph Smith Junior”

There are no examples of Joseph Smith’s name in the Book of Mormon text or in the three-witness statement. The use of Junior is clearly contemporary usage.

* “the translator of this work” (originally, “the author and proprietor of this work”)

Both the three-witness and the eight-witness statements use the phrase this work to refer to the Book of Mormon. It is also found in the Book of Mormon itself.

There are no examples of the noun translator in the Book of Mormon text or in the three-witness statement. More problematic, to be sure, is the original phrase, “author and proprietor”, which was borrowed from the statutory copyright language. This phrase was famously used on the original title page of the Book of Mormon, in the 1830 edition: “by Joseph Smith, Junior, author and proprietor”. The legal language was originally in the plural, in order to protect the copyright of “authors and proprietors” of literary works. In the eight-witness statement (as on the 1830 title page), the phrase was merely revised to the singular, “author and proprietor”. For the 1837 edition, Joseph Smith emended the language to state that he was the translator. See the discussion regarding “author and proprietor” in part 1 of volume 4 of the Book of Mormon critical text, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, pages 35-36.

“has shewn unto us the plates”

3-witness     we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates and they have been shewn unto us by the power of God and not of man

“of which hath been spoken”

3-witness     the people of Jared which came from the tower of which hath been spoken

* “which have the appearance of gold”

There are two examples of the phrase “to have the appearance of X” in the eight-witness statement; both mean ‘to look like X’. No such usage occurs in the actual Book of Mormon text. Although appearance occurs there four times, it always refers to becoming visible, as in 2 Nephi 4:31 (“wilt thou make me that I may shake at the appearance of sin”) or as in three references to the appearance of an army (Mosiah 23:26 and 3 Nephi 4:7-8).

* “and as many of the leaves”

This is the only reference to the leaves of the plates or to a book in the codex form. There is one occurrence of leaves in the Book of Mormon text proper, but this is in an Isaiah quotation and refers to the leaves of trees: “as a teil tree and as an oak whose substance is in them when they cast their leaves” (2 Nephi 16:13 / Isaiah 6:13). The singular form leaf never occurs.

* “as the said Smith has translated”

mh2811     and after having translated and caused to be written the records
mh2813     and now he translated them by the means of those two stones

The reference to “the said Smith” (which occurs three times in the eight-witness statement) is legalistic language and is noticeably different from the language of both the Book of Mormon text and the three-witness statement.

* “we did handle with our hands”

This is the only instance of the word handle. The Book of Mormon text has examples of verbs that take the prepositional phrase “with one’s hands”, such as labor, make, and build. In actuality, the phrase “to handle with one’s hands” is etymologically redundant since handle is lexically derived from hand.

“and we also saw the engravings thereon”

3-witness     and we beheld and saw the plates and the engravings thereon

* “all of which has the appearance of ancient work”

As noted above, appearance with this meaning is unique to the eight-witness statement.

The adjective ancient, with the meaning ‘having existed for a long time’, occurs in the Book of Mormon text, but never in reference to physical objects. However, this gap many simply be the result of limitations on subject matter. There are examples of ancient in “ancient days” (2 Nephi 8:9 / Isaiah 51:9), “of ancient date” (Mosiah 8:13, 3 Nephi 3:19), “ancient priests” (Alma 30:23), “ancient prophecies” (Alma 30:24), and “ancient inhabitants” (Ether 1:1) as well as in reference to the Lord’s “ancient covenant people” (2 Nephi 29:4-5 and Mormon 8:15).

The word work, referring to a physical object, is never used this way in the Book of Mormon text except in two biblical quotes where the word work means ‘something made’ in Hebrew: “for shall the work say of him that made it : he made me not” (2 Nephi 27:27 / Isaiah 29:16) and “and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work” (3 Nephi 22:16 / Isaiah 54:16).

“and of curious workmanship”

1n1610     he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship
1n1801     and we did work timbers of curious workmanship
aa3739     there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship
er1027     and they did work all manner of work of exceeding curious workmanship

The reference to curious workmanship is a particular expression found fairly often in the Book of Mormon text and may have been borrowed from the text as a result of its familiarity to Joseph Smith (or to his primary scribe, Oliver Cowdery). In this phrase, the adjective curious takes the archaic meaning ‘careful or skilled’. The King James Bible has one example of the related curious works (in Exodus 35:32). And the Book of Mormon has an instance of curious man (in Alma 63:5) and one of curious workmen (in Helaman 6:11).

“and this we bear record with words of soberness”

3-witness     the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it
3-witness     and we declare with words of soberness that an angel of God came down from heaven

“that the said Smith has shewn unto us”

8-witness Joseph Smith Junior … has shewn unto us the plates

As noted earlier, the phrase “the said Smith” is unique to the eight-witness statement.

* “for we have seen and hefted”

3-witness and we also testify that we have seen the engravings

The verb heft occurs only here. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb derives from the archaic noun heft, which derives from the verb heave. The OED notes that the verb heft is colloquial in American English.

“and know of a surety”

3-witness wherefore we know of a surety

* “that the said Smith has got the plates”

2n2903     a Bible / a Bible / we have got a Bible
2n2906     a Bible / we have got a Bible and we need no more Bible

Once more the legalistic sounding “the said Smith” intrudes.

The verb phrase “to have got”, meaning ‘to possess’, is colloquial in American English, but is found (as cited above) in the Book of Mormon text proper but – it should be noted – only when quoting people’s reaction to the Book of Mormon. Even then, the two instances in 2 Nephi 29 could be interpreted as equivalent to “we have gotten a Bible” – that is, ‘we have obtained a Bible’. This interpretation seems unlikely for “the said Smith has got the plates” in the eight-witness statement. The meaning there seems to be that Joseph Smith has possession of the plates.

“of which we have spoken”

8-witness     Joseph Smith Junior … has shewn unto us the plates of which hath been spoken
aa1227        and after death they must come to judgment / even that same judgment of which we have spoken

* “and we give our names unto the world to witness unto the world”

mn0316     and I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard
mi0602     save they came forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit and witnessed unto the church

Nowhere else does the text use the phrase “to give one’s name” with the meaning ‘to publicly provide one’s name’. In the Book of Mormon text, for instance, a father can “give names” to his children (Helaman 5:6), or the Nephite monetary units are “given names” (Alma 11:4).

“that which we have seen”

8-witness     for we have seen and hefted and know of a surety that …
3n2721        for that which ye have seen me do / even that shall ye do

“and we lie not”

mi1026     and I speak it according to the words of Christ and I lie not
mi1027     for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not

The Apostle Paul, in the language of the King James Bible, uses the phrase “I lie not” five times, as in two instances that parallel the usage in Moroni 10:26: “I say the truth in Christ / I lie not” (Romans 9:1) and “I speak the truth in Christ and lie not” (1 Timothy 2:7). It is possible that the biblical usage may have influenced the language here in the eight-witness statement.

* “God bearing witness of it”

This is the only place where the phrase “to bear witness” occurs in the Book of Mormon. There are two instances of “to bear false witness”, once when the Ten Commandments is quoted in Mosiah 13:23 (“thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”) and once paraphrastically in Helaman 7:21 (“for the which ye do murder and plunder and steal and bear false witness against your neighbor”). The King James Bible has quite a few instances of “to bear witness of X”, with 11 instances in the Gospel of John, as in “and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me” (John 8:18).

A CONCLUDING CONTRAST

It has often been observed that the three-witness experience was completely different than the eight-witness one. The three witnesses saw the angel Moroni, who showed them the plates and other artifacts but did not allow them to handle anything. They heard the voice of the Lord declaring that the translation was correct and then commanding them to bear record of what they had seen. In some sense the experience was visionary, with Martin Harris claiming that he saw the plates with his spiritual eye. In fact, the statement itself says that they were shown the plates “by the power of God and not of man”. Joseph Smith was there with the three witnesses, but he himself did not participate. It was a completely spiritual experience. And the language of the three-witness statement is a spiritual one, ending with the liturgical phraseology “and the honor be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost which is one God” and the word Amen.

On the other hand, the eight-witness experience was completely physical and secular. The eight witnesses went out into the woods, and Joseph Smith met them there, with the plates. Each of these witnesses held the plates and examined the individual leaves. There was no angel, no voice of God, no artifacts except for the plates, and everything was done in broad daylight. There was nothing visionary about the experience. The emphasis in their statement is on what they saw. For instance, the plates had “the appearance of gold”, and the engravings had “the appearance of ancient work and of curious workmanship”. They did not claim the plates were made of gold; they did not claim that the work was ancient or skillfully done – but from what they could see, it was so! The plates were heavy – they hefted them. Their testimony would hold up in a court of law. The only reference to God is at the end, where they state that he will witness they are telling the truth. There is no liturgical language, no final Amen.

The origin of the two statements correlates with this fundamental experiential and linguistic difference. We can now see from the source analysis of the statements that the three-witness statement was a revealed text given word for word to Joseph Smith, just like the Book of Mormon text itself. The three-witness statement is a spiritual document, one that was spiritually derived. On the other hand, the eight-witness statement was written by a human participant – probably Joseph Smith, in my opinion – who drew upon the language of the three-witness statement (especially the opening words) but used his own language to describe the experience of the eight witnesses: what the plates looked liked (their “appearance”), plus how these witnesses “hefted” the plates and “did handle with our hands” the leaves. They conclude with their summary declaration that Joseph Smith really “has got the plates”. Included in the statement is legal language (multiple uses of “the said Smith” as well as the original designation of Joseph Smith as “author and proprietor of this work”). There may be a little biblical phraseology (“and we lie not”) and even a noted Book of Mormon phrase (“of curious workmanship”), but overall the eight-witness statement is a secular document. And like the experience of the eight witnesses, the statement itself was created without any spiritual intervention. It was not revealed from the Lord, but was constructed as a matter-of-fact human statement of a physical event.

7 Responses to Who authored the eight-witness statement?

  1. J. Stapley on June 7, 2012 at 8:43 am

    A couple of thoughts. JS and others were perfectly comfortable altering revelation texts, sometimes significantly; so I do see how the 1837 change can be taken as evidence for or against the witness text’s particular origins. I also don’t see the evidence for JS’s authorship, unless I missed something.

  2. Frank Pellett on June 7, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Do we have any journals of the individuals who participated in these event from the time they happened? It would be interesting to see writings without the joint language used in these statements.

  3. Dave on June 7, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    Very helpful post, Royal. The “legal affidavit” concept is misleading, a well-intentioned and oft-repeated misstatement intended to bolster BoM credibility. As noted in the post, it is unclear who authored the statement, so it is not even clear whose affidavit it would be. As a printed text, confusion over its provenance (who wrote it?) would make its introduction as documentary evidence problematic. Nor can it really stand for an individual statement of any of the listed eight persons whose names are printed after the document. They didn’t write it individually or as a group. There appears to be no document they actually signed. In other words, it is hard to even make much of a connection between the text and the eight persons listed after the text.

  4. Nate R on June 12, 2012 at 11:24 am

    If Royal is correct, the difference between these experiences makes an interesting point.

    Royals suggests that the 3 witnesses didn’t ACTUALLY even see the plates! Instead they received a spiritual witness, through vision and hearing the voice of God, that the B.ofM. was an ancient text translated by J.S.

    By contrast, Royal suggests the 8 witnessed did not have any spiritual witness. They saw the plates, and someone wrote down what happened.

    A way to get at the point is to ask the following question: which experience would you rather be a part of? the 3 witnesses? or the 8 witness? (assume you can have one or the other, not both)

    I would opt for the experience of the 3 witnesses: I would rather hear the voice of God than look at a gold bible. (I suspect I’m not alone.)

    This preference for the spiritual witness is consistent with other stories in the scripture. For example, in Thomas’s meeting with Christ after the resurrection, Christ emphasizes the importance of the spiritual witness. In the story of Laman and Lemuel, although they saw an angel they were “past feeling” of the Spirit. Again the moral is that the spiritual witnesses is more important than the physical manifestation of a heavenly being. And in the story of Alma the Younger, he gets stuck down by an angel, yet he “fasted and prayed” for many days for a testimony of the atonement. Why fast and pray when he had seen an angel? Among the reasons is that a spiritual witnesses matters more than the physical manifestation.

    Applying this to Royal’s proposal: the 3 witnesses (2 of whom were intimately involved in bringing forward the B.ofM.) received a spiritual witness, but not a physical witness. This was ultimately the more important of the witnesses. and then there were the 8 witnesses who had a physical manifestation of the B.ofM. This is still a valuable witness for them, and even a modicum of evidence for the skeptic about the gold plates, but it is ultimately inferior to the spiritual witness of the 3 witnesses.

    thanks for the posts, Royal.

  5. JMS on June 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    I think these two articles ignore human nature. The witnesses could easily have just gotten caught up in the wording of the Book of Mormon and wrote their statements in a similar language. Kinda like when people hang out with English and suddenly slip into their accent.

  6. Cameron N on June 20, 2012 at 1:51 am

    I know my wife and I have definitely heavily cross-bred our very different vocabularies to the point where they are almost identical, and as a designer I see all my influences coinciding often in my ideas and concepts, even if I don’t realize it until later. Fascinating how these things work. This is why we all need to read the scriptures more and get all those words in our memory.

  7. Bob on June 20, 2012 at 4:56 am

    @ Cameron N,
    ” Fascinating how these things work”.
    Is this what Royal Skousen has done? Or, at some point__do things start being facts?