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Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Narrative of Zosimus: The Critics' Best Hope to Show Book of Mormon Plagiarism?

In spite of all the cries of plagiarism by the critics of the Book of Mormon, I marvel at just how weak the alleged parallels are to other texts that Joseph Smith might have had access to. The Spaulding manuscript is a case in point. It has long been the best hope of the critics, but even Fawn Brodie advised her fellow anti-Mormons to give it up as a hopeless effort. After the Spaulding manuscript became available, BYU became the first and only publisher of this manuscript to make it possible for people to read it for themselves - and to see just how unrelated it is to the Book of Mormon. (See, for example, Kathy Quito David's review of the book at Amazon.com.)

The weak parallels that critics are able to find pale in comparison with the many parallels that I found to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The resulting page shook up a couple Mormons (a few cases of humor impairment syndrome are found among the Saints, I must admit) until I made it clear to them that the impossibility of plagiarism in 1830 from Whitman's 1855 publication meant that the page was a spoof. But it was a valuable spoof, in my opinion, because it shows just how easy it is to find "impressive" ties when they are most likely due to chance. To show real plagiarism, stronger parallels must be provided than anything one can find in Spaulding or the other numerous sources that critics point to.

There is a document that just might qualify as a candidate for plagiarism, based on the numerous close parallels to First Nephi -much stronger than what the critics have cooked up as they scour the writings of the past. It is a little known early Christian document called The Narrative of Zosimus (the link is for a translation available in the writings of the Early Christian Fathers (Ante-Nicene Fathers), which is a wonderful resource for Latter-day Saints interested in understanding early Christianity and the evidences for apostasy and a modern Restoration, a resource which Barry Bickmore has mined with great success in his site, Early Christianity and Mormonism).

John Welch explored the numerous and puzzling parallels in "The Narrative of Zosimus and the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1982, pp. 311-332. The article can be downloaded for $2 from BYU Studies.

The Narrative of Zosimus is an early Christian document from Palestine, originally written in Hebrew, dating to no later than the 4th century A.D., though it may date to 70 A.D. or earlier. It was included in the early canons of some Christians, but fell out of favor and become unknown until the late nineteenth century, when a Russian translation was found. Now a variety of texts have been found.

There are some interesting parallels to the story of Lehi and his vision of the tree of life. The story occurs at the same time as Lehi, around 600 B.C., at the time of Jeremiah, and refers to a people that God led out of Jerusalem. Some have even wondered if the story of Zosimus was based on ancient contact with Lehi.

Here is a brief excerpt from John Welch's article:
According to the Narrative of Zosimus, a righteous man named Zosimus, dwelling in a cave in a desert, prays to the Lord and obtains spiritual passage to a land of blessedness. In order to arrive at this land of promise, Zosimus must wander in the wilderness without knowing where he is being led. He is pushed to the point of exhaustion but attains his destination by constant prayer and divine intervention. Zosimus at length arrives at the bank of an unfathomable river of water covered by an impenetrable cloud of darkness. Catching the branches of a tree, Zosimus is transported across the water where he sits beneath a beautiful tree, eating its fruit and drinking of the life-sustaining water which flows from its root. Zosimus is then met by an angelic escort, who asks him what he wants, shows him a vision in which he thinks he beholds the Son of God, and ultimately introduces him to a group of righteous sons of God. These elders tell Zosimus of their history and instruct him in their ways of righteousness. Their history is engraved upon soft stone plates. It explains how the group, led by their father, escaped the destruction of Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah and how as a nation they survived the scattering of Israel. They were allowed to occupy their other-worldly land of paradise and abundance only because of their righteousness. Their religion is based upon prayer and chastity, and they receive knowledge of the wickedness of the outside world by revelation. Notwithstanding the wickedness of the people at Jerusalem, Zosimus rejoices when he is shown a book in which he learns that mercy will be extended to the inhabitants there.

The many parallels between the early chapters of the Book of Mormon and this Narrative require little elaboration: dwelling in the desert (1 Nephi 2:4), being led by prayer and faith (1:5, 11:3, 16:29), wandering through a dark and dreary waste (8:7), being caught away to the bank of a river (8:13), crossing to the other side of a river or abyss and passing through a great mist (8:32), coming to a tree whose fruit is most sweet above all (8:11), eating and drinking from the tree which was also a fountain of living waters (11:25), being greeted by an escort (11:2-3), being interrogated as to desires (11:2), beholding a vision of the Son of God (1:6,11:29), keeping records on soft metal plates (3:24), recording the history of a group of people who escaped the destruction of Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah (1:4, 7:14), being led to a land of promise and of great abundance due to righteousness (18:25), practicing constant prayer (Alma 34:21-27), living in chastity (Jacob 2:25-28), receiving revelations concerning the wicked- ness of the people of Jerusalem (1 Nephi 10:11), and yet obtaining assurances of the mercy to be extended to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (1 Nephi 1:14, 10:3).

For a reader to appreciate and evaluate the similar characteristics of these two writings, a detailed examination of both is required. The extensive parallels which exist between them may substantiate the great antiquity of both.
Welch then explores the text in detail and find additional parallels and insights. Well worth reading!

The parallels may be more numerous and significant than one would expect to find by chance in such a short text, certainly better than what has been dug up by the critics, in my opinion. At the least, it suggests that First Nephi follows patterns that are evidence of authentic ancient Semitic roots. But the connection may be even more significant. One thing is for sure: Joseph could not have plagiarized from this text.


Anonymous said...

Greetings Jeff,

Interesting post. I must confess that the methodology finds me suspicious. My first concern is that any exemplars produced/used by Smith are not extant. As such no direct textual comparison is possible. Secondly, the fact that there are parallels should surprise no one. The range of dates surrounding the Zosimus Document, as well as its content/themes, fit neatly alongside those found in the Septugint and Torah. So accusing Smith of plagarism is nothing but introspection. One might well accuse Dante of robbing Zosimus for his Inferno?

thaumkid said...

If you read the Narrative of Zosimus, how can you possibly see parallels large enough to be worth mentioning? Welch has a gift for summarizing a text in a nonsensical manner if it pushes his agenda, like the so-called chiasm in Alma 36. It is just as compelling a correlation as your Leaves of Grass correlation.

This kind of scholarship is exactly the reason why I'm glad to see that FARMS has been dissolved. There's better, more honest scholarship out there, for people who are looking.