Abstract: A novel theory for the origins of Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life has been offered by Rick Grunder, who argues that the story was inspired by a June 1829 visit to Rochester where Joseph could have seen a “great and spacious building,” a river, an iron railing, and even fruit trees. The purported source for the great and spacious building, the Reynolds Arcade, has even been suggested by one critic as a place where Joseph might have found “rare maps,” such as a map of Arabia that could have guided his fabrication of Lehi’s trail. As beautiful as such theories may be to their champions, they utterly fail to account for Nephi’s text.Someone commented that I pointed to pretty much out all the evidences for authenticity of the writings from the small plates of Nephi, but this is certainly not the case. There are many more issues that could be raised. For example, given that the translation of 1 and 2 Nephi apparently came near the very end of the translation process, I show several instances in which Nephi's words and images, especially from the tree of life account, appear to influence the later writers for whom the translation came first. This contradicts the idea that Nephi's words were being crafted on the fly as a very late addition. But the examples I give are not comprehensive.
Among the shortcomings of Grunder’s theory and creative extensions of it, the timing is problematic, for Joseph’s visit to Rochester likely occurred well after 1 Nephi was dictated. The proposed parallels offer little explanatory power for Book of Mormon creation. (For comparison, two online appendices for this article have been provided to illustrate how interesting random parallels can be found that may be more compelling than those Grunder offers.) Further, any inspiration from a visit to Rochester as the plates of Nephi were being translated fails to account for the influence of Lehi’s vision and Nephi’s text on other portions of the Book of Mormon that were translated long before Joseph’s trip to Rochester. Finally, Nephi’s account of the vision of the Tree of Life and surrounding text cannot be reasonably explained by Grunder’s theory of last-minute fabrication inspired by Rochester or by any other theory of modern fabrication, as it is far too rooted in the ancient world and far too artfully crafted to have come from Joseph Smith and his environment.
An example I did not mention is the wording of Lehi's address to his sons in his final speech. In 2 Nephi 4:3-4, Lehi says, "Behold, my sons, and my daughters, who are the sons and the daughters of my first-born, I would that ye should give ear unto my words. For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence." These words are echoed in Alma's carefully composed chiasmus that refers to Lehi and subtly draws upon themes in Lehi's speech (see my article on "rising from the dust" in the Book of Mormon. In Alma 36:1-2, Alma say, "My son, give ear to my words; for I swear unto you, that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land." Three elements are shared in order: my son, give ear to my words, and then the foundational quotation from Lehi on prospering in the land. Alma does that again in Alma 38:1. To me it makes much more sense that these words and themes from Lehi influences later writers rather than Joseph managing to speak these words from a hat on the fly to create that sense of unity in the text.
A more dramatic series of examples comes from new analysis from Matthew Bowen on biblical wordplay on the name Joseph used expertly in the writings on the small plates. Impressive for someone who had not yet studied Hebrew, doing it on the fly, no less. One of many interesting features in the writings of Nephi that defy easy theories of Joseph as fabricator. The growing number of identified plausible Hebraic word plays in the translation of the small plates is worthy of careful consideration.
I hope you'll take a look at my article and share your feedback. It has several tangents -- perhaps one or two might be interesting to you.