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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"Artifact or Artifice?" Orson Scott Card's Brilliant 1993 Essay Still Rings True

Twenty-five years ago a famous name among fiction writers, Orson Scott Card, gave a speech at BYU that provided a novel way of evaluating Book of Mormon claims. The speech was “The Book of Mormon – Artifact or Artifice?” at the 1993 BYU Symposium on Life, the Universe, and Everything; see his transcript at The Nauvoo Times. Card applied his profound skills to examine the artifacts of fiction we should find if the Book of Mormon had been fabricated and not merely translated by Joseph Smith.

Upon reading this article today, one familiar with Book of Mormon studies may be impressed with how well Card’s analysis has stood the test of time. So many of the points he made have become more relevant or strengthened by subsequent explorations into the text of the Book of Mormon, the details of its translation and publication, the scholarship into the lives of the witnesses, and many new studies relevant to evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon and the meaning of the text.

When Card spoke in early 1993, he did not have the benefit of the major discoveries related to Lehi’s Trail from the work of Warren Aston that highlight numerous details such as the existence and location of an ancient place with the name like Nahom or the existence of a fully plausible site for Bountiful exactly where it should be. Card did not have the benefit of the field work of George Potter examining the prospects for what was once said to be impossible, the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel three days south of the beginning of the Red Sea. He didn’t have the body of evidence from John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex or the insights about the Mesoamerican perspectives in the Book of Mormon uncovered by Brant Gardner in his Traditions of the Fathers. He lacked the revolutionary insights from the study of the earliest Book of Mormon texts by Royal Skousen or the analysis of the language of the Book of Mormon by Stanford Carmack.

Card’s speech was also before LDS scholars became familiar with the work of Scottish researcher Margaret Barker and before she became familiar with the Book of Mormon. Barker has sought to reconstruct the early Jewish religion before the reforms of Josiah and before the major changes of the Second Temple period. Barker was impressed with what she found in the Book of Mormon, for it seemed to reflect an ancient environment and ancient worldviews consistent with her research, and again, quite foreign to the knowledge available to scholars in Joseph Smith’s day.

Much has changed since Card tugged at the text from the perspective of a master of science fiction, but for the most part the added knowledge twenty-five years later only increases the value of Card’s approach. Card looked for telltale threads of modern fiction, revealing instead that the text was of quite a different weave. Card sees it as the tapestry of multiple authors from an era far removed from modern fiction, a work impossible for even a skilled writer of fiction in our day or Joseph’s. Using the lens of a science fiction writer, Card reveals patterns woven into the text that defy explanation based on Joseph Smith as author. Today I'll just mention two of the many issues Card mentions and consider what we can learn from further research since his speech.

Voices and Viewpoints of Authors, Ancient and Modern

Card points out that authors write with a vast network of assumptions from their environment coloring the way they perceive and describe events. The environment the author has inherited provides numerous views on life and society that are easily taken for granted without realizing that it may not be this way at other times or in other societies. The environment that influenced the author can often be revealed by examining that which the author recognizes as unusual and in need of explanation in the text versus what the author sees as normal and requiring no explanation.

One of the first points Card mentions to illustrate such subtleties is the contrast between the attitude toward valuable documents showed by Book of Mormon characters and Joseph himself. He mentions Amaleki’s statement in Omni 1:25 wherein he justifies his decision to turn over the records he has inherited to King Benjamin:
Which, by the way, is something that would certainly not be a cultural idea available to Joseph Smith. You don't turn ancient records over to kings in the world of the 1820s in America. Kings would have nothing to do with ancient records. You would turn ancient records over to a scholar. We know that that was Joseph Smith's personal attitude because when he wanted to find support for his translation in order to encourage Martin Harris's continuing support, he sent Harris, not to a king or a president or a political leader, but to a scholar.
This is one of many indications of implicit cultural views consistent with the ancient world of the Book of Mormon and highly divergent from Joseph Smith’s environment, and a valuable observation by Card. Indeed, the issue of the handling, preservation, and transmission of sacred records in the Book of Mormon has been a fruitful area for additional research since 1993, particularly John Tvedtnes’s book published in 2000, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness unto Light. Tvedtnes examines the authentic ancient aspects of relevant features in the Book of Mormon such as the use of treasuries to store records, the practice of hiding or sealing ancient records for a future time, the use of stone boxes to preserve records, traditions about records entrusted to the care of angels, mountain repositories, and ancient traditions about glowing stones used for revelation, all showing evidence that the world of the Book of Mormon is highly consistent with ancient Near Eastern practices and traditions.

Turning to Mesoamerica, John L. Sorenson also shows that Book of Mormon practices regarding record keeping are consistent with ancient Mesoamerican traditions, as is also true for the nature of records and writing systems, including the keeping of dates, recording of prophecies, genealogies, keeping of lineage histories, etc. (Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, Chapter 5, “The Nature of History in the Book of Mormon,” 104–108). For example, the Quiché Maya had an office of record keeper that was passed from father to son, similar to the Nephites’ practice. The records also played an important role as symbols of political and religious authority (ibid., 106).

One thing I deeply appreciate about the Book of Mormon is the great care Mormon shows for his document and for his sources. There is no sense of an omniscient narrator. Statements may be flawed or imperfect, but we know where they came from and can often gain insights by carefully considering why something is said and how it relates to what others did or did not observe in making their report. As Card pointed out, digging into the assumptions and viewpoints of the authors of the text is a fruitful exercise, and one that frequently reveals the absurdity of crediting it all to Joseph's creative dictation to his scribes. His many points in this regard are still fresh and meaningful today. 

A Rarely Attempted Feat, Or, Mormon vs. Ossian

Card also makes an interesting argument regarding the alleged forgery of the Book of Mormon, one that may motivate some to examine some interesting but apparently forged ancient poetry from Scotland, the famous Ossian works of James Macpherson from shortly before Joseph's day. 
 
Critics frequently try to defuse respect for the Book of Mormon by suggesting that the purported fraud of Joseph Smith is routinely done with even more impressive results. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy are commonly cited, showing that it is possible for a writer to concoct a beautiful, complex, and generally consistent “history” involving many places, numerous new names, great battles, political intrigues, and so forth. The fact that Tolkien had advanced education and put in a lifetime of work to produce his polished masterpiece, points often made by LDS apologists in response to critics citing Tolkien, is a minor point in light of Card’s insight.

Card’s experience as a science fiction writer enables him to make a salient observation about the alleged fraud of the Book of Mormon. If it is a fraud, what Joseph did is rarely attempted and almost certainly results in obvious failure. What he did, if the Book of Mormon were a fraud, was not simply write a work of fiction set in a different culture and remote time. Many writers stand with Tolkien in being able to write such fiction well, with a product that is clearly fiction written by a single modern author for a modern audience. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, claims to be written by multiple ancient authors over a long expanse of time within a distant and changing culture. Such a fraud, to have any hope of long-term success, would need to be written from the cultural perspective of the authors in that different culture, not one that explains or indicates what is foreign relative to our modern culture. Such a work must reflect different authorial interests of the various writers and reflect the changes in culture or perspective that occur over time. It is a breathtakingly complex project. Such a work almost never attempts to pass itself off as a genuine document from a remote culture and time.

Card then cites an important example where a fraudulent work purportedly from antiquity was passed off as genuine by a modern author. The work was a collection of Gaelic poems said to be written by an ancient poet named Ossian. The poems had been “translated” into English by a Scottish politician and writer, James McPherson. McPherson’s publication was a hit and added to his fame and fortune. He died wealthy, wealthy enough to buy a spot at Westminster Abby for his tomb. But he did not die without being denounced as a fraud by Samuel Johnson, who also was buried at Westminster Abby, but as a token of respect, not as a result of his wealth.

The poetry of Ossian inspired many influential people including Napoleon, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Selma, Alabama was named after Selma, the home of the Scottish warrior Fingal from the poems of Ossian. The work has had a significant influence in many circles, in spite of concerns about fraud.

The text is available at Sacred-Texts.com, where J.B. Hare, the website’s founder, summarizes the controversy:
James Macpherson claimed that Ossian was based on an ancient Gaelic manuscript. There was just one problem. The existence of this manuscript was never established. In fact, unlike Ireland and Wales, there are no dark-age manuscripts of epic poems, tales, and chronicles and so on from Scotland. It isn't that such ancient Scottish poetry and lore didn't exist, it was just purely oral in nature. Not much of it was committed to writing until it was on the verge of extinction. There are Scottish manuscripts and books in existence today which date as far back as the 12th century (some with scraps of poetry in them), but they are principally on subjects such as religion, genealogy, and land grants.
For this and several other reasons which are dealt with in the Preliminary Discourse et seq., authenticity of the work was widely contested, particularly by Samuel Johnson. A huge (and probably excessive) backlash ensued, and conventional wisdom today brands Ossian as one of the great forgeries of history.

In fairness, themes, characters and passages of Ossian are based on established Celtic and Scottish folklore. Much of the fourth volume of J.F. Campbell's massive Popular Tales of the West Highlands is devoted to tracking down Ossianic fragments in circulation prior to Macpherson, or elicited from illiterate Highland peasants who had never heard of Ossian.

Macpherson is today considered the author of this work. The language of composition was probably English: As Campbell determined, Macpherson wasn't even particularly fluent in Gaelic. [ J.B. Blare, “The Poems of Ossian by James Macpherson [1773],” introductory comments, Sacred-Texts.com]
What some view as a definitive work on the fraud of Ossian came out after Card’s article with the 2009 publication of Thomas M. Curley’s Samuel Johnson, the Ossian Fraud, and the Celtic Revival in Great Britain and Ireland  Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2009). I have njoyed this book, but am not sure I recommend it -- might be a bit tedious and doesn't dig into the poetry and the linguistic issues thoroughly enough, IMHO. In summarizing his survey of the Ossian fraud, Curley praises Samuel Johnson for recognizing the nature of the fraud, a conclusion that has withstood the test of time and Curley’s own extensive detective work:

Johnson’s sense of  the falsity of the  Ossian works was  correct, despite professions to the contrary by some modern scholars. Twenty-eight out of Macpherson’s thirty-nine  titles—72 percent of all the individual works comprising Ossian—have no  apparent grounding in genuine Gaelic literature and are therefore entirely his own handiwork. The remaining 28 percent of the titles have but generally  oose ties to approximately sixteen Gaelic ballads. Contrary to his assertions, Macpherson was no editor or translator of ancient poetry. He was the author of new, largely invented literature in violation of true history, legitimate Gaelic studies, and valid national identity in Scotland. As Johnson had charged, Macpherson committed literary fabrication. [Thomas M. Curley, “The Great Samuel Johnson and His Opposition to Literary Liars,” Brgewater Review, 28(2), article 6 (Dec. 2009), http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1253&context=br_rev.]
Macpherson claimed to have original Gaelic manuscripts that he translated. Samuel Johnson, recognizing the many indications of fraud in the translation, demanded that Macpherson present the originals for review. One can easily draw a parallel to Joseph Smith who was also asked to show his gold plates to the world, if such existed. But unlike Joseph Smith and the gold plates, Macpherson provided no extract of copied characters from the manuscripts, sought out no independent scholarly examination of a portion of his translation, had no witnesses to support the existence of the original manuscripts, and had no witnesses of the translation process. Further, with no angel requiring that the original document be returned for divine safekeeping, Macpherson lacked any excuse for the failure to let others see the documents he had translated.

McPherson’s fraud is not without evidence of authenticity, for many of the names he uses were ancient Gaelic names that can be found in documents going back several hundred years. But as Curley and others have explained, these are names that could have been picked up from current lore that he extracted from his wanderings in the British Isles. Curley also explains that there are also 16 authentic Gaelic sources that are used in some way by Macpherson, giving it several small kernels of apparent authenticity. Some have argued that Macpherson was simply taking liberties with the existing poems and still acted largely as a loose translator, but Curley argues that such defenses are unjustified and that the fans of Ossian poetry must confront that fact that the vast majority of it is simply fabricated.

Curley argues that the evidence of fraud is clear cut and easily exposed, and most scholars today may agree. On the other hand, some scholars have sought to revive Macpherson’s Ossian, claiming that it is much more authentic than Samuel Johnson recognized. Ultimately, though, it seems that what Macpherson offered his enthusiastic audiences was his invention.  Defenders suggest that Macpherson was drawing upon authentic material but applying a great deal of his own creativity to translate in his own style, but this overlooks what Macpherson insisted upon from the beginning: that his translation was “extremely literal” and that the unusual word order in the English was often adjusted to reflect that of the original. But this was artifice, not an artifact of authentic translation. Yola Schmitz describes Macpherson’s artifice as translatese–the deliberate creation of nonstandard syntax to create the sense of a highly literal translation from a foreign language.

Compared to the Book of Mormon, what McPherson attempted was not a complex history spanning vast stretches of time and epic migrations from the Old World to the New, but mere poems, and not from a wholly unfamiliar culture, but from his own island and from his own country and ancestors though removed by fifteen hundred years. Macpherson had the benefit of being well educated, of being raised in a society familiar with Gaelic tales, with access to abundant sources of relevant information for his project. What Macpherson attempted is quite unlike the feat of, say, having a poorly-educated New York farm boy with scant resources write about travel across the Arabian Peninsula, or create ancient poetry rooted in ancient Hebrew, or describe battles, cities, natural disasters and other events in an unfamiliar New World setting. What Macpherson attempted was kid stuff compared to the Book of Mormon, and yet his Ossian project failed, in spite of some hopeful supporters seeking to overlook its flaws. It was successful enough to add to his wealth, but he had already been vocally denounced as a fraud by Samuel Johnson and remains widely recognized as a fraud who got very much wrong. It has certainly not withstood the test of time. From the beginning, basic questions about the existence of the original documents could not be answered nor could witnesses be provided.

The Book of Mormon was a surprise bolt from the blue from a poorly educated, impoverished farm boy not known to be a bookworm or a writer, unexpectedly announcing he had received an ancient record, then daring to show the plates to numerous people, and then translating it by dictation at a prodigious rate apparently without the use of any manuscripts. Consider the contrast we find in Macpherson’s preparation for his work, as described by Yola Schmitz in her 2017 chapter on the Ossian fraud. See Yola Schmitz, “Faked Translations James Macpherson’s Ossianic Poetry,” in Faking, Forging, Counterfeiting: Discredited Practices at the Margins of Mimesis, ed. Daniel Becker, Annalisa Fischer, and Yola Schmitz (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag, 2017), 167–180; http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxr9t.13:
Macphersonʼs upbringing put him in the perfect position. He was born in Ruthven, in the Scottish Highlands where he was brought up in a Gaelic-speaking community and accustomed to the oral tradition of the bards of the clans. Yet, he also experienced first-hand the serious effects of British oppression. In 1745, the nine-year-old Macpherson witnessed the Jacobite Rising with all its devastating consequences for the collective identity and the heritage of the Scottish clans. In its wake, many customs and traditions, such as the tartan plaid and playing the bag pipes, were prohibited.
However, one of the worst consequences must have been the subsequent ban on using the Scottish Gaelic language. Therefore, Macphersonʼs forgery can also be considered an attempt to recuperate what was left of the literary tradition of the Highlands and to rehabilitate a people, thought to be uncultured and uncivilised.

These circumstances provided Macpherson with all he needed to produce a successful forgery. He was an insider of Scottish traditions and, at the same time, he had profited from an academic education. He had not only learned how classic works of poetry were studied, but also how they were supposed to be presented. When the scholars in Aberdeen showed interest in this kind of poetry and offered to sponsor an excursion to the Highlands, Macpherson seized the moment and delivered. [emphasis added]

Card’s comparison with Macpherson’s fraud makes valid points that have only become stronger in light of further research both into the Ossian fraud and into the origins of the Book of Mormon, including the translation process, for which there were multiple credible witnesses.

Macpherson’s fraud could also be considered in light of a few other attempted forgeries, including Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley papers, purporting to be poems from a 15th-century monk named Rowley. The poems were initially accepted due to a general lack of attention at the time of publication to the details of the English language and its changes over the centuries. Chatterton used antique paper for his poems, but was unable to properly reflect the language of the time he sought to mimic, ensuring that the fraud would be detected.

Failure to appreciate linguistic change over time was a key weakness in the Ossian fraud. Macpherson claimed that the Erse language (ancient Gaelic) of 300 A.D. had remained pure and unchanged over the centuries, allowing him to read and understand ancient Erse and translate Ossian’s poetry into English. In spite of Macpherson’s outstanding education, this was a monumental blunder, one easily picked up by critics in his day. Some observed that Gaelic in Scotland showed obvious variability just from one valley to the next. With such obvious change across short distances, how could the language remain unchanged over more than a thousand years?

On the other hand, the challenges of linguistic change over time is an area where the Book of Mormon shines and far surpasses what Macpherson and presumably Joseph knew. Linguistic change is implicit as a fact of life in the Book of Mormon narrative. Nephi’s scribal work may already be blurring the lines between Egyptian and Hebrew (1 Nephi 1:1-3; see Neal Rappleye, “Nephi the Good: A Commentary on 1 Nephi 1:1–3,” Interpreter Blog, January 3, 2014; http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/nephi-the-good-a-commentary-on-1-nephi-11-3/.). We see the Mulekites, immigrants without written records to help maintain their language, have lost much of their language (it had become “corrupted”) and need to be taught to understand the Nephite’s Hebrew after just a few hundred years of separation (Omni 1:17–18), with their rapid linguistic drift presumably accelerated by contact with local peoples in the New World. We see Nephites treasuring their written records as a means of helping them maintain their scriptural language system (Mosiah 1:2–6). We see the Lamanites losing their written language and later needing to be taught the Nephite writing system (Mosiah 24:1–7). And in spite of their written records, centuries later Mormon acknowledges that their Hebrew had been altered (Mormon 9:33) and that their script for recording scriptures, now called “reformed Egyptian,” had been altered over time and was unknown except to them (Mormon 9:32, 34). These are realistic views on linguistic change, in contrast to the much less reasonable claims from the highly educated Macpherson.  

Card's comparison of Ossian and the Book of Mormon remains a fruitful exercise and one that I'll mention in some more detail in the future. 

I highly recommend Orson Scott Card's "Artifact or Artifice." There's much of value there to contemplate, in spite of a great deal of new research since that day. 
 

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Committed Mormons might find Card's essay "brilliant," but to everyone else the Book of Mormon is obviously not an ancient text. It's probably best understood as a kind of extended 19th-century midrash on the Bible.

-- OK

Raymond Swenson said...

Card's essay is an example of Latter-day Saints bringing their own skills and experience to tbe study of the scriptures. Card's own academic study of literature and experience as an author and teacher of creative writing gives him a valuable perspective. He explains why the Book of Mormon does not fit into the literature of 1829 America, because it does not contain the assumptions and viewpoints that were assumed by authors to be in the minds of their readers. No educated author of that day would write this. And yet only a supremely educated author in 1829 could produce so many authentic details about Arabian geography and Hebrew literary forms. Once again, the secular theories about how the narrative was created fail to explain the known facts.

Anonymous said...

Among the known facts: Joseph Smith was a voluble raconteur. He was a money digger who defrauded people by claiming he could locate buried riches by staring into the very same "peep-stone" he later used to "translate" the Book of Mormon. He was well enough versed in the Bible to have absorbed its characteristic literary forms. The idea that Native Americans were stray Israelites was very much in the air in his time and place. So was the idea that these stray Israelites split into two groups, one civilized and the other savage, with the latter ultimately exterminating the former. Smith developed the strangely Masonic temple rituals shortly after becoming a Mason himself. Etc. All these facts fit very well with the idea that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century production built out of the cultural bric-a-brac of 1820s upstate New York. There's absolutely nothing in the book that could not have come out of Smith's cultural mileu or his imagination.

Believe what you want, Raymond. Just be aware that everyone outside the Church (and many, many people within it) finds any of your apologetic arguments the least bit persuasive. You might as well try to convince people of the prophetic status of L. Ron Hubbard and the reality of Xenu, or the deification of Sun Myung Moon, or the existence of that spaceship lurking behind the comet Hale–Bopp.

Amazing is the power of religious indoctrination.

-- OK

Glenn Thigpen said...

Anonymous, you said: "Joseph Smith was a voluble raconteur." Orsamus Turner of the same juvenile debating club as Joseph said that he was a "passable orator." However, that says nothing as to his education level nor authorship abilities. The critics of his day were quick to look elsewhere for a possible author, judging very quickly and forcefully that Joseph was too ignorant to produce the Book of Mormon. Subsequent research has only deepened that conviction.

Please provide your reference for the idea that some Americans in the eighteenth century believed that the American Indians were descended from stray Israelites that split into two groups, one civilized and one savage. It was a fairly common belief among American clergy that the American Indians were the lost tribes, etc. but I do not recall the split into two groups theme.

The masonic elements are not from the Book of Mormon.

And you said: "There's absolutely nothing in the book that could not have come out of Smith's cultural milieu or his imagination." I am afraid that you have not read much of the research that has been done on the Book of Mormon> There are so many elements that could not have come from a fertile mind, no matter what the (now supposed) genius level. The Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon is one such.

And you said: "Amazing is the power of religious indoctrination." There are many converts to the church that have not gone through an LDS religious indoctrination but are converted through the ministering of the Holy Ghost.

You may believe what you wish also. It has been shown by neuroscience that people do not make decisions and come to conclusions based primarily on facts and logic but emotion. So, you may claim that LDS are basing their views on emotion, but the reverse position is just as valid, i.e. that critics are too emotionally invested in their positions to look at the facts of the matter rationally. Just saying.

Glenn

Jeff Lindsay said...

OK, what is your basis for Joseph being well-known as a voluble raconteur? I suspect your only source is the one endlessly expanded upon by anti-Mormons, Lucy Mack Smith's late recollection of Joseph discussing Book of Mormon peoples with the family. Perhaps you missed my recent post on that highly-abused account, "Joseph the Amusing Teller of Tall Tales: Lucy Mack Smith's Puzzling Statement in Perspective" (April 2018). Her account indicates that such discussions occurred after Joseph was introduced to the Book of Mormon, not before. There is no track record to show that he was a great story teller before then. And just as importantly, there is no evidence apart from Lucy's account that Joseph told such stories later in life. His voluble stories about Book of Mormon people's just don't show up in his sermons, his articles, his interviews, or the recollections of others about what he said.

Lucy is quoted as saying, "During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship." Curiously, this kind of information is not only absent from anyone else's accounts of Joseph's statements and stories, it is also largely absent from the Book of Mormon. There are no animals being ridden there. No details on dress or building design. Warfare is described in detail, when Mormon is writing, but otherwise Lucy's statement doesn't fit the Book of Mormon as we have it.

But Lucy's puzzling and perhaps not highly dependable statement about what Joseph discussed after he learned of the Book of Mormon has been magically transformed by our critics into evidence that Joseph was well known as a great story teller before his encounter with Moroni and the gold plates. Such is the power of religious indoctrination, as you said. It is also used to trivialize the obvious miracle of dictating the complex text of the Book of Mormon without notes, without a manuscript, hour after hour in his extremely rapid and consistent translation work. Ah, the power of indoctrination.

Anonymous said...

Is there any particular reason why "voluble raconteur" is better than just saying "capable storyteller" or something like that? Why do so many academics insist on using obscure words when well-known, easily understood words will do?

I like how Bill Watterson put it (sarcastically) in Calvin and Hobbes: "the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!"

Anonymous said...

"It is also used to trivialize the obvious miracle of dictating the complex text of the Book of Mormon without notes, without a manuscript, hour after hour in his extremely rapid and consistent translation work."

Says the man who just stated Joseph had nearly a decade to memorize the stories told to him by Moroni. Ah, the power of indoctrination.

"Lucy's account that Joseph told such stories later in life." Say the man who apparently never heard of Zelph.

Anonymous said...

Or Mohonri Moriancumr. . .

Joseph indeed guilded the Book of Mormon lily later in his life. I think however, that he saw the real draw of his religion was his claim of continuing revelation, so he chose to look forward rather than backward. As evidence, we have the books of the Pearl of Great Price, the JST of the bible, and the never completed translation of the Kinderhook plates. Joseph continued to find sources to draw him into delving into the Hebrew historical milieu--a fascination that was first evidenced in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Of course his grammar got better in his latter attempts.

Anonymous said...

I remembered also that Joseph dangled the carrot of the sealed portion of the plates in front of his followers for years as well (Mormons are still told that the sealed portion will someday be translated when they are righteous enough). I suspect he was planning to revisit the Book of Mormon at some point when the well for his other continued revelations ran dry. Just like any other "voluble raconteur" worth his salt, he chose not to reveal the contents of that story before their time--George Lucas did this for years with the Star Wars franchise.

Anonymous said...

... George Lucas did this for years with the Star Wars franchise.

Great observation, ending with just the right word, franchise. Instead of thinking of the LDS canon as revelation, we should think of it as an early, religious precursor to what we now recognize as a media franchise.

-- OK

jonathan3d said...

As a faithful, believing LDS, I find a lot to like in this post, but also a lot that comes off as pure confirmation bias. For example, the idea that Joseph wouldn't have associated ancient records with kings ignores the fact that he read the King James Bible and that kings in the Old Testament maintained records. Joseph sent Harris to scholars because Moroni had told him about the Isaiah prophecy regarding the learned, as President Cowdery explained in Letter IV (an oft-overlooked detail).

The worst confirmation bias, of course, is the Mesoamerican theory. Jeff writes, "He didn’t have the body of evidence from John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex or the insights about the Mesoamerican perspectives in the Book of Mormon uncovered by Brant Gardner in his Traditions of the Fathers."

The "evidence" presented in those books is illusory because it consists of ordinary attributes of most human cultures, combined with the authors' proprietary interpretation of the text. The Nephites were Hebrews; they followed the model of the keepers of the brass plates according to the Biblical model, not some Mayan practice. E.g., the Nephites never mention recording their history on stone walls or stella, and they certainly didn't write in the Mayan language. Gardner finds parallels or correspondences between carefully selected details of Mayan history/culture and his contorted interpretation of the text, but this type of confirmation bias is completely unpersuasive to anyone who doesn't already share his bias--or to anyone who considers the text as written and the entire body of Mesoamerican history/culture.

Language problems were well known in colonial America. Few Europeans could communicate with the Indian tribes, who, like the Lamanites and Mulekites but unlike the Mayans, did not have a written language. The tribes themselves had different languages. Teaching Indians to read and write was a major effort toward "civilizing" them, just as Mosiah taught the people of Zarahemla how to read and write. The parallels between the Book of Mormon and the history/culture of the North American Indians are much closer than any illusory correspondences to Mayan culture, a reality that critics have always used to support their claim that Joseph wrote the book. The Mesoamerican theory developed partly to thwart this criticism, but the more we learn about Mesoamerica and ancient North America, the more we see the Book of Mormon fits the latter, not the former.

In my view, these elements serve to corroborate what Joseph and Oliver said about the Book of Mormon; i.e., that the hill Cumorah was in New York, that the plains of the Nephites were in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and that the Hopewell ruins were evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The fact that all the modern prophets who have ever addressed the issue have affirmed the New York Cumorah is yet another reason to jettison the Mesoamerican theory.



Anonymous said...

Now all we need to do is check the geographic record for a cataclysmic event that happened in North America at the time of Christ's death and we have some good physical proof.

wa1den_b@yahoo.com said...

In response to johnathan3d and Mesoamerican versus "heartland America" setting for the book of Mormon, I would inquire, where in the north American continent do you find a "narrow neck of land" that people on foot (or even perhaps mounted on some sort of animal transport, would have been able to traverse in a day or two? And, as even the "anti" in the room pointed out, where in north America do you see evidence of massive destruction such as cities swallowed up, cities sunk in the sea, and things such as that? I don't know what kind of cool aid you're drinking to imagine that the north American continent matches up with the discriptions given in the book of Mormon text. Conversely, the Mesoamerican area does match up well.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Joseph Smith say that the Book of Mormon lands were basically what is now the continental United States? If anyone were to know, wouldn't it have been him?

Don't all the other geographical models amount to throwing the Prophet under the bus?

-- OK

Anonymous said...

Has anyone here read the BYU study that confirms Joseph's translation of the bible is plagiarized from contemporary sources? Look it up!

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:33:

Oh, that's a great article. Shows clearly that Smith was a bricoleur, building his "revelations" out of the cultural materials he had at hand. And from BYU, no less.

-- OK