Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

It Depends on What the Meaning of "It" Is: Reconsidering the "Burning in the Bosom" and "Studying It Out" in Doctrine & Covenants 9

For years many of us have read about the "burning in the bosom" in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9 and interpreted it to mean that Oliver Cowdery, in a failed attempt to perform translation of the Book of Mormon, was being told that he needed to first apply himself to study and work out a tentative translation on his own before getting a "yes, that's right" answer via the "burning in the bosom." It's a model that has been used for decades to explain how revelation works, but is one that may be based on a misreading of scripture and one that might not provide a useful description of how most people experience revelation in their lives. The concept of studying and doing our part in seeking divine guidance is certainly reasonable, but there may be significant gaps in how many understand the context and primary message of Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9. Of particular importance to me is what this passage probably doesn't say about how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done.

Stan Spencer offers careful analysis of the revelation in question to help us answer critical questions about revelation (yikes -- there I go, accidentally showing that chiasmus can show up by accident, but that's another story). Leading with a gentle, understated abstract, Stan Spencer begins a vitally important essay in "The Faith to See: Burning in the Bosom and Translating the Book of Mormon in Doctrine and Covenants 9," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 219-232:
Abstract: Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9 is conventionally interpreted as the Lord’s description of the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated. A close reading of the entire revelation, however, suggests that the Lord was not telling Oliver Cowdery how to translate but rather how to know whether it was right for him to translate and how to obtain the faith necessary to do so. Faith would have enabled Oliver Cowdery to overcome his fear and translate, just as it would have enabled Peter (in Matthew 14) to overcome his fear and walk on water.
Spencer's mention of faith is based in part on verses in the preceding section, where we learn of Oliver's desire to also translate the Book of Mormon. In response, the Lord tells him this:
Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith. Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate … and according to your faith shall it be done unto you. (Doctrine and Covenants 8:10–11).
Oliver is being told to ask in faith if he wishes to be able to translate. That may be an important precursor to understanding the Lord's response to Oliver's failure in some kind of translation attempt, a response given in Doctrine and Covenants 9, where we read that he "began to translate" (vs. 5) but failed. Then comes additional instructions, shown here with emphasis from Spencer:
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 be 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.
Spencer argues that a critical question for understanding this passage is what "it" refers to. He notes that traditionally, Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage to describe how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done, suggesting that one had to study the plates and come up with a proposed translation, then verify it with a burning in the bosom experience. But that is clearly not how Joseph did the translation, based on every account from various witnesses. The plates were not open and exposed during the translation. He was not poring over the text and figuring out what the characters meant, but looking into a seerstone (or into the Urim and Thummim early in the process),  to see something, using a hat to shut out extraneous light, and then based on whatever he saw or experienced, he dictated text to his scribes. This process was rapid, giving us the large text of the Book of Mormon over a remarkably brief period of time. It did not seem to involve the slow, tedious practice of trying to figure out each character one by one and seeking confirmation for proposed translations. So what is meant by "study it out" in Doctrine and Covenants 9:8?

Spencer explains that "Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 indicates the need to 'study it out' and ask 'if it be right,' but there is no obvious antecedent for the pronoun it in the revelation that is consistent with the conventional theory." Through analysis of the context of this verse, Spencer offers and evaluated an alternate interpretation:
A more conservative interpretation of verses 7–9 would be in accordance with the predominant theme of the entire revelation — namely, whether and when it is right for Oliver Cowdery to translate. Perhaps, in these verses, the Lord is telling Oliver Cowdery that before he asks for the privilege to translate, he must find out if translating is the right thing for him to be doing at the time.
In other words, "it" refers to the privilege of translating, and is not meant to say anything about the way the translation was actually done.

I can't imagine how Joseph would have worked out a proposed translation of anything on the gold plates by himself. The translation, if indeed through the power of God, surely must involve information being delivered to Joseph.

Now there are still two schools of thought that can contend over how this happened, one holding that what was delivered was an impression about the meaning that Joseph had to formulate in his own words, while another view is that actual words may have been delivered that Joseph could read or dictate directly.

The first view, the "loose translation" school, is what many of us have assumed for years, but increasingly, in my opinion, analysis of the dictated language suggests it was not Joseph's words nor in his Yankee dialect. Further, the tight textual relationships within diverse portions of the Book of Mormon and its extreme intertextuality with the Bible also suggest some form of tight control in verbiage rather than Joseph constantly looking for his own words to express impressions. These are issues we've addressed elsewhere here, but for now what I wish to emphasize is that the most plausible meaning of "it" in Doctrine and Covenants 9 leads away from the widely repeated assumption that it is telling us something about how Joseph did the translation, or how Oliver should have done it.

If Joseph was indeed seeing text and not just getting impressions, this helps explain the rapid pace of dictation, the distance between his language and the language of the dictated text, the tendency for highly precise allusions and citations within the Book of Mormon and relative to the Bible, and the ability of many intricate word plays and Hebraisms such as chiasmus to survive the translation. What was dictated was an incredible miracle, done without manuscripts or notes or even a Bible to cite, and it was done right before our eyes (or rather, the eyes of multiple witnesses), with evidence that remains visible right before our eyes today.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

All Shook Up Over the Elvis Book of Mormon News

It's Heartbreak Hotel time for any of you who have been inspired by the story of Elvis Presley's deep appreciation of the Book of Mormon, supported by a copy of the book that contained his signature and extensive notes. Sadly, the Elvis edition of the Book of Mormon, upon closer examination, has been ruled an obvious forgery. See the LDS.org story by Keith A. Erekson, Church History Library Director, "Elvis Presley–Signed Copy of the Book of Mormon a Forgery, Historian Says," also available at Meridian Magazine.

It's a warning to not give much weight to faith-promoting stories that are not adequately substantiated. It's also a warning that believers can be too eager to accept questionable evidence that we find comforting. What a shame that someone created this forgery in the first place. Come on, people, don't be cruel!

I'm happy to report, on the other hand, that extensive, word-by-word, line-by-line examination of the Original Text of the Book of Mormon, the Printer's Manuscript, and analysis of numerous statements of witnesses of the translation process and of the text itself continue to add growing evidence that the translation of the Book of Mormon was not a fraudulent story but truly was a miraculous fruit of oral dictation, hour after hour at an amazing pace, giving us the intricate text we have today, loaded with growing evidences of ancient origins beyond anything scholars or farm boys could have fabricated in 1830. Stick with the original and don't be bothered or misled by peripheral issues like Elvis' alleged infatuation with the the book. 

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Last Section of the Words of Mormon May Be Part of the Book of Mosiah

The Book of Mosiah begins in a puzzling way relative to the other books before it. For a book that is supposed to be connected to Mosiah, it starts with a reference to King Benjamin, not Mosiah. Further, right before the Book of Mosiah, there is also a strangely sudden transition in the Words of Mormon that also makes reference to King Benjamin. Both the ending of the Words of Mormon and the beginning of the Book of Mosiah seem awkward or unusual. However, recent examination of the manuscripts from the Book of Mormon translation leads to the possibility that both of these awkward sections were affected by the loss of the 116 pages, and in fact, the ending of the Words of Mormon may actually be a fragment from part of the Book of Mosiah, whose opening words are missing.

What is now our beginning of the Book of Mosiah apparently was labeled as Chapter 3 in the original text. Understand the loss and its influence on the text can be meaningful in several ways. See Jack M. Lyon and Kent R. Minson, "When Pages Collide: Dissecting the Words of Mormon," BYU Studies, 51/4 (2012): 121-136. This is also available at the Scholars Archive at BYU. The authors explore details from the original manuscript and the overall composition of the Book of Mormon, and extract interesting insights that lead to the following conclusions:
Without the benefit of Royal Skousen’s landmark publications on the original Book of Mormon text, scholars have previously described Words of Mormon verses 12–18 as a “bridge” or “transition” that Mormon wrote to connect the record of the small plates with his abridgment from the large plates. Based on the now-available documentary evidence, that analysis can be seen as faulty—an attempt to explain what should never have needed explaining. There is no “bridge” between the small plates and the rest of the Book of Mormon. There is only the Words of Mormon itself (consisting of verses 1–11), where Mormon simply explains why he is including the small plates with the rest of the record.19 The verses that follow (12–18) belong in the book of Mosiah.

So, in conclusion, here is the text of the Words of Mormon and the beginning of Mosiah as it should be (and originally was):
The Words of Mormon

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites. . . .

And they were handed down from king Benjamin, from generation to generation until they have fallen into my hands. And I, Mormon, pray to God that they may be preserved from this time henceforth. And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

[The Book of Mosiah]

[Chapter 1: In lost 116 pages]

[Chapter 2: First part in lost 116 pages]

. . . And now, concerning this king Benjamin—he had somewhat of contentions among his own people. . . .
Wherefore, with the help of these, king Benjamin, by laboring with all the might of his body and the faculty of his whole soul, and also the prophets, did once more establish peace in the land.

Chapter 3

And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla among all the People which belonged to King Benjamin . . .
Unless the original manuscript pages for the Words of Mormon and the beginning of the book of Mosiah someday come to light, we may never know precisely what happened to this text during the translation of the Book of Mormon. However, this paper provides a new explanation of what may have occurred—one that makes sense based on the documentary and textual evidence. This may seem like a small matter, but it could have important ramifications for study and scholarship, and the closer we can get to the original text of the Book of Mormon, the better we will understand the meaning and history of that sacred record.