There are some who respect the Book of Mormon yet feel it is not derived from an ancient text but somehow stems from Joseph Smith's mind and his environment. That may seem bizarre to many faithful Mormons, but especially among academics, there are strong pressures to humanize the roots of our religion and the "keystone" thereof, seeing such things from a purely naturalistic perspective.
However inspiring and "truthy" the Book of Mormon may be, from that perspective it must ultimately be fiction. It is a perspective I reject and find inconsistent with my personal experience and with abundant evidence, beginning with the witnesses of the gold plates and the extensive evidences from the text itself and beyond.
But I feel it is vital to understand the debate if only to avoid being blind-sided and caught off guard when one finds occasional fellow Mormons teaching something quite surprising.
Two recent publications give insights into the ongoing debate over the origins of the Book of Mormon. One of these comes from the Mormon Interpreter, the publication edited by Daniel Peterson that is a leading source for scholarly investigation into LDS issues pertaining to our scriptures.
In apparent contrast comes an article from BYU's Maxwell Institute, once the banner carrier for LDS apologetics, which has gone through significant shape-shifting since casting out Dr. Peterson and distancing itself from apologetics. (However, the controversy over this article may be unnecessary, as I observe in an update below.)
The first article is "What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship" by Stanford Carmack in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 13 (2015): 175-217. This is a highly technical and challenging article, but one that adds important new evidence to previous recent scholarly observations showing that the English language dictated by Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon was not simply derived from the language of the King James Bible nor the English of Joseph's day.
Rather, there is a compelling case that the translation was somehow given in language predating the KJV by roughly a century or more. I mentioned this in my previous Nauvoo Times post, "The Debate Over Book of Mormon Translation: Loose or Tight?" Brother Carmack's latest contribution looks at the complex ways in which the verb "command" is used in the Book of Mormon, and multiple issues point to usage patterns that are surprisingly close to English around 1500, and significantly different from the statistical patterns of the KJV.
However this was done and why, it severely undercuts any theory that relies on Joseph Smith as the source of the translation. Carmack offers plausible reasons why these long-unnoticed characteristics of the original English point to a process outside of Joseph's abilities — in other words, evidence for detailed divine intervention in at least some aspects of the translation.
The controversial Maxwell Institute article comes from an LDS scholar who
In his essay, Dr. Park appears [at first glance, anyway] to endorse the notion that the Book of Mormon is a product of Joseph Smith's environment and not a truly unique and miraculous book, as would seem to be required for any ancient New World text translated by divine power. He approvingly observes that the academic works he reviews help to "chop away at Mormonism’s distinctive message” and shed the “shackles” of “Mormon historiography’s exclusive nature.”
For a publication coming from BYU's Maxwell Institute, this can easily be viewed as controversial material worthy of debate and response. Daniel Peterson briefly summarizes the controversy and challenges Park in his LDS blog at Patheos in the post, "Recovering, at long last, from the plague of Mormon exceptionalism." The comments there help reflect the depth of the controversy and the divide that can occur among LDS thinkers on both sides of the debate.
What I'd like to call attention to is the issue of the language of the Book of Mormon translation, which is an issue raised in Shalev's book and in Park's review. Here is an excerpt from Park, making reference to Shalev:
The book’s third chapter attempts to, as announced in its title, chart the “cultural origins of the Book of Mormon.” More particularly, the chapter examines the growth of what Shalev calls “pseudobiblical literature,” which used Elizabethan English and a biblical message in order to add a divine grounding to the nation’s message. During the early republic, Shalev explains, a preponderance of texts sought to imitate the Bible’s language and message while validating America’s destiny and purpose. “By imposing the Bible and its intellectual and cultural landscapes on America,” American Zion explains, “those texts placed the United States in a biblical time and frame, describing the new nation and its history as occurring in a distant, revered, and mythic dimension” (p. 100). These texts sought to collapse the distance between past and present—making both the Israelite story relevant as well as the ancient language accessible. This republicanization of the Bible possessed significant implications for American political culture. Beyond merely expanding their historical consciousness and placing America within an epic narrative of divine progress, the Old Testament added a pretext for such actions as those supposedly provoked by manifest destiny.The Elizabethan language of the Book of Mormon is widely assumed by critics, non-LDS scholars, and some LDS people as evidence of Joseph Smith's authorship of the text, while those believing in the authenticity of the book have often defended that language as a reasonable stylistic choice for the divinely aided translation.
Ironically, the Book of Mormon appeared after the apex of this literary tradition. By the time Joseph Smith’s scriptural record was published, texts written in the Elizabethan style were on the decline, and most works were presented in a more modern, democratic style. On the one hand, this made the Book of Mormon the climax of the pseudobiblical tradition; on the other hand, the book acts as something of a puzzle. Shalev writes that the text “has been able to survive and flourish for almost two centuries not because, but in spite of, the literary ecology of the mid-nineteenth century and after” (p. 104). While this may be true—and Shalev is persuasive in showing how the Book of Mormon appeared at the most opportune time to take advantage of its linguistic flair—his framework overlooks the continued potential for creating a sacred time and message through the use of archaic language. Not only did other religious texts replicate King James verbiage throughout the nineteenth century, but so did varied authors like the antislavery writer James Branagan, who used antiquated language in order to provoke careful readings of his political pamphlets. Yet despite this potential oversight, Shalev’s use of the linguistic environment in order to contextualize the Book of Mormon is an underexplored angle that adds much to our understanding of the text.
Shalev is at his best when comparing the Book of Mormon to other pseudobiblical texts from the period, such as “The First Book of Chronicles, Chapter the 5th,” which was published in South Carolina’s Investigator only a few years before the Book of Mormon, as well as “A Fragment of the Prophecy of Tobias,” published serially in the American Mercury. The latter text is especially fascinating for Book of Mormon scholars, as the editor claims to have found this work that was hidden away in past centuries and that required a designated translator to reveal its important meaning for an American audience. These contemporary accounts are not meant to serve as potential sources for the Book of Mormon’s narrative—indeed, Shalev admits such an endeavor would be impossible—but they reaffirm the important lesson that the Book of Mormon is best seen as one of many examples that embody the same cultural strains and that its importance for American intellectual historians is best seen as part of a tapestry of scriptural voices that speak to a culture’s anxieties, hopes, and fears....
Shalev’s book offers a new context and asks new questions concerning the Book of Mormon’s linguistic and political context—issues that will certainly be taken up by future scholars
What is interesting now is that this entire debate may have been based on a faulty assumption, the assumption that the language Joseph dictated is KJV Elizabethan.
The recent work of Carmack, building on Royal Skousen's detailed analysis of the original text of the Book of Mormon, reveals a surprise that may turn the tables on the critics and some scholars: it isn't Elizabethan dating to the 1600s, but Early Modern English from a century or so before.
Why would the translation of the Book of Mormon somehow be dialed into an earlier version of English than that which Joseph knew from the KJV? I asked this question of Brother Carmack in the comments section at the Mormon Interpreter, and obtained this interesting response:
The Book of Mormon contains old, distinctive syntax that is nevertheless plain to the understanding. In view of Moses 1:39, the Lord wants us to take the Book of Mormon seriously. Many have begun to doubt the historicity of the book in part because they have decided that Joseph Smith is the author of the English-language text.
Ample syntactic evidence tells us that he could not have been the author. I am confident that the Lord knew that we would eventually find this out, and that we would learn about it at a time when we had a strong need for solid empirical evidence that the book was divinely translated, which points ineluctably to historicity.
One thing I especially agree with in Park's essay and in Carmack's comments is the need for further scholarship in this area. It is a puzzling but intriguing vein that needs to be mined much more deeply using the tools and knowledge we now have that simply was not available a few years ago.