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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Ignore Complexity: A Broad Look at a Basic Book of Mormon Issue

The more complex a machine is, the more beautiful and awe-inspiring it can be. Great Swiss watches, though far beyond my budget, inspire me with their craft and brilliance. In my mission in Switzerland, I often enjoyed looking at them through shop windows. How can so much be so reliably and accurately executed in so little space? They are modern marvels.

The machinery of a cell is even more inspiring, with the endless array of machines within the machine that build, transport, repair, verify, and disassemble to keep the intricate gears of life rolling in mind-numbing order. Then the products of the numerous differentiated cells of the human body leave me simply overwhelmed. Just looking at any of the minute mechanisms within, such as the complex of about 25 proteins in the plasma of our blood that can self-assemble on demand to form blood clots. Cooler and more practical than the Transformer robots of modern movies.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon is something else to consider. It is complex in much the same way that the Bible is, for it reveals many different sources and authors that have been brought together to tell a grand story. We should respect the complexity of Bible origins clarified through the scholarship related to the Documentary Hypothesis, regardless of how accurate the specific conclusions and dating of the individual sources may be. If the Bible as we have it today had been lost for centuries and were to be regenerated by a single man stepping forward with what he claimed was a legitimate Bible text, the complexity of that document would be difficult to explain as a modern fraud. Even if all we had to work with were an English translation such as the KJV text, we could see the evidence of many different source documents and different voices that gave us a complex text.

A great overview of the issue of complexity in the Book of Mormon comes from this recent video at Book of Mormon Central:



The Book of Mormon is much like the Bible in this regard. It has complex origins with many writers from across a broad period of time, documents from multiple sets of plates, with many different genres and styles of writing, and distinct voices in spite of a unifying English language style. The deep intertextuality, the consistent geography, the stories within stories that remain consistent, the clean and consistent details about sources, the abundant Hebraisms and ancient poetical elements, all demand much more respect than it has received from the world.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon would demand respect if it had been a lifelong project with many careful revisions over a period of years, but what can we say when we consider that this massive and complex book was dictated over about 70 days by an unschooled farm boy not reading from some scholar's manuscript, but dictating words orally at a breakneck pace while staring in a hat? This is a miracle that remains unexplained in spite of all the efforts of critics to find potential sources, maps, scholars, anything that could help. Yet it was created in an information vacuum far from a library and, again, simply dictated to scribes by a man without a manuscript or even a Bible to quote from when dealing with Bible-relevant passages.

How does such clock-like precision in the text arise from chance mutterings from a hat unless what was happening is what Joseph and his witnesses said: a marvelous work and a wonder from God, divinely aiding Joseph in delivering the translation of an ancient text almost as complex as the Bible?

12 comments:

C T said...

I'm a voracious reader. One thing I notice over and over in fiction is that authors seldom master giving different ways of speaking to different characters. Yet the Book of Mormon has very clear differences between its characters' ways of speaking. I even recognize those differences through a translation into another language like German or Polish. It's fascinating evidence of either Joseph's literary genius or the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an amalgamation of many people's words. I think Joseph Smith was great, but he has never seemed like a genius to me.

Anonymous said...

I had a thought in regards to this today:

“but what can we say when we consider that this massive and complex book was dictated over about 70 days by an unschooled farm boy not reading from some scholar's manuscript, but dictating words orally at a breakneck pace while staring in a hat?”

The assumption in this statement is that Joseph dictated the BoM in this short amount of time out of thin air—that he was either translating or fabricating the story in real time as his scribes wrote it down. There is evidence from Lucy Smith that Joseph workshopped his tales for years in front of his family, which information I have shared in previous posts. I realized today that there is corroborative evidence of this in the experience of Oliver Cowdery when he tried, and failed, to translate. Consider this language from the D&C (emphasis added by me):

7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

These passages provide us with a glimpse into Joseph’s translation process. To me it’s obvious from this language that he thought beforehand about what he was going to have his scribe write down—enough so that he was able to feel he had received confirmation from God that what he was to say was correct. I’m not sure how one could have such confidence without some form of preparation. Combine this with Lucy’s description of him relating the Nephite’s dress, mode of travel, etc, and it’s pretty clear that the book wasn’t created in a mere 70 days out of a hat.

Glenn Thigpen said...

"it’s pretty clear that the book wasn’t created in a mere 70 days out of a hat."

Of course not. It was created over the course of about a thousand years. (Insert smiley here)

The actual dictation process has been pretty well described by the witnesses. However there are several things that provide mute arguments against Joseph being the author himself. Are you aware of the work that Stanford Carmack is doing on the presence of Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon?

Glenn

Jason Robertson said...

Anonymous I’m going to need to correct your assertion that Joseph had been telling stories for years. Here is the full quote from the journal of Lucy Mack Smith:

“From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time and every evening we gathered our children togather I think that we presented the most peculiar aspect of any family that ever lived upon the Earth all seated in a circle father sons and Daughters listening in breathless anxiety to the religious teachings of a boy 19 years of age who had never read the Bible through by course in his life for Joseph was less inclined to the study of books than any child we had but much more given to reflection and deep study We were convinced that God was about to bring to light something that we might stay our minds upon some thing that we could get a more definite idea of than anything which had been taught us heretofore and we rejoiced in it with exceeding great joy the sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house no jar nor discord disturbed our peace and tranquility reigned in our midst In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most ammusing recitals which could be immagined he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress thier maner of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship as particularly as though he had Spent his life with them it will be recollected by the reader that all that I mentioned and much more took place within the compass of one short year”

Note that Joseph was 19 so this was in 1825. Immediately prior to this she recounts Moroni’s visit to Joseph, him passing out in the field after his first visitation, him going to the hill where the plates were deposited twice (in 1823 and 1824) and receiving further instruction from Moroni about keeping the commandments to be worthy of receiving the plates.

Critics like to use her quote about Joseph’s stories of the Nephites but they leave out the part where he was 19 and had been receiving visitations by Moroni for a while. So for the sake of intellectual honestly I need to correct you.

Anonymous said...

Jason, if we trust your reading of Lucy Mack Smith's journal, we can say that Joseph Smith had been telling stories since 1825. IIRC, the Book of Mormon was completed in June of 1829. So, let's see, 1829 minus 1825 ... I come up with four years. So in what sense is it wrong to say that "Joseph had been telling stories for years"?

I suppose you could argue that Joseph was not fabricating these stories himself but rather retelling what he had been told by Moroni, but I don't see how you can deny that he was indeed telling stories for years prior to completing the BoM.

What am I missing here?

-- OK

Anonymous said...

P.S. If it's any consolation, it took Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone seven years to write The Book of Mormon musical.

-- OK

Jason Robertson said...

OK, It is a common assertion by critics that Joseph was telling Book of Mormon type stories years before the Moroni visits. Even in Mormon circles I hear it at church sometimes. It stems from a certain critic’s handling of this journal entry with context removed as to his age, year and the mention of the Moroni visits. They then add the fact that he didn’t receive the plates from Moroni until 1827 as “proof” he was making up these stories years before he should have been. Both Joseph and Lucy mentions that these accounts came from Moroni.

It’s a pet peeve of mine when citations are applied improperly and inaccurate ideas are perpetuated. The issue for me is not that Joseph was reciting these stories 2 years before he received the plates the issue depends on if people assert that he was doing this long before 1823. It wasn’t clear if this was the intent above but it’s a claim I hear often so felt the need to correct the assertion.

Anonymous said...

Jason,

Here’s a qote from my post:

“Combine this with Lucy’s description of him relating the Nephite’s dress, mode of travel, etc,”

Here’s a qote from your post about the journal:

“he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress thier maner of traveling”

And then your most recent post:

“It’s a pet peeve of mine when citations are applied improperly and inaccurate ideas are perpetuated.”

It seems you have a misplaced peeve in my handling of the information.

Jason Robertson said...

It depends on what you are trying to say with your quote. Do you subscribe to Joseph relating these stories before the Moroni visits or after the Moroni visits? There is not enough context there for the reader to discern either way.

Anonymous said...

This is unclear?

"There is evidence from Lucy Smith that Joseph workshopped his tales for years in front of his family"

"Combine this with Lucy’s description of him relating the Nephite’s dress, mode of travel, etc,"

I think there may be some inattentive reading on your part.

Jason Robertson said...

I think the inattentive reading is coming from you. You are ignoring the account by Lucy that Joseph received instructions and accounts from Moroni:

“Joseph rehearsed to him all that he had and seen and heard When Joseph came in the evening he told the whole family all that he had made known to his father in the field. we sat up very late and listened attentively to all that he had to say to us but his mind had been so exercised that he became very much fatigued When Alvin will get our suppers early we will then have a fine long evening and all set down and hear you talk The next day we worked with great ambition * by sunset were ready to be seated and give our undivided to Josephs recitals. before he began to explain to us the instructions which he had received he charged us not to mention what he told us out of the family as the world was so wicked that when they did come to a knowledge of these things they would try to take our lives and as soon as we obtained the plates our names would be cast out as evil by all people and were ready by sunset to give our whole attention to the discourse of my son pertaining the obtaining of the plates the goodness of God his knowledge and power our own liabillity to error and transgression and the great salvation that lay before the faithful”

Then she adds:

“From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time and every evening we gathered our children togather I think that we presented the most peculiar aspect of any family that ever lived upon the Earth all seated in a circle father sons and Daughters listening in breathless anxiety to the religious teachings of a boy 19 years of age who had never read the Bible”

Anonymous said...

How does what you shared change what I shared? It's obvious I was referring to this excerpt from Lucy's journal when I stated he had been workshopping his stories for years, else why would I reference her and the language from her journal? What evidence do you have that my claim is proof of inattentive reading on my part?