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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

My Uninspired "Translation" of the Missing Scroll/Script from the Hauglid-Jensen Presentation

While I have expressed disappointment with what was said, or rather, what wasn't said, at the Maxwell Institute's recent presentation, “A Window into Joseph Smith’s Translation” of the Book of Abraham by Professors Brian Hauglid and Robin Peterson, I recognize there must have be good reasons why those reputable men failed to provide any "first aid" to their large audience as they presented arguments that could wound the faith of some unprepared listeners. Perhaps they had initially prepared a careful review of how other LDS scholars had responded to the old questions they were raising anew, but then learned they just wouldn't have time to cover that. Perhaps a second event was already in the works at the Maxwell Institute to remind people of the many evidences supporting the antiquity and revealed nature of the Book of Abraham (if so, I greatly look forward to it!).

I'm not sure what happened, but I think something was lost in the translation of Book of Abraham knowledge to the information shared to a group of students and, via the Internet, to many others. As I pondered this issue, it suddenly hit me: if portions of our own scriptures can be temporarily unavailable (like the sealed portion of the gold plates, and, well, the plates themselves) or lost (like the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon) or burned (like a major part of Joseph Smith's collection of scrolls, apparently burned in the Great Chicago Fire), then of course there can be a missing portion in the presentation of two professors. So I'd like to share my own uninspired "translation" of what I think was lost from the script/scroll that they might have prepared, or that I wish they had prepared and shared if only they had been given more time.

Excerpts from the "Missing Script"

[Concluding remarks to be made by Brian, if time permits.]

Now let me point out that if anything we've said is making you think that the Book of Abraham was just made up and is a fraud, then you are making unwarranted assumptions and need to look at this inspired work of scripture more carefully. What we've addressed are some genuine puzzles to us regarding how the translation was done. But there's much more to the Book of Abraham than just the translation method, for which most of what we have is a question mark.

Indeed, what some of you might be hearing so far in this presentation may sound similar to what many critics of the Book of Abraham have observed long ago: looking at the Kirtland Papers and the Joseph Smith Papyri, it is easy to assume that Joseph Smith and his associates were trying to translate Egyptian in a very strange way, where a single Egyptian character or even a portion of a character could give a paragraph or two of English text. And of course, all the apparent translations in the Kirtland Papers are just wrong and even a bit crazy. So does that mean Joseph Smith was just making stuff up and was dead wrong? Not necessarily, for several reasons.

Just as the apparent problems with the Book of Abraham have been discussed for decades, so, too, have LDS scholars provided evidence, analysis, and alternate theories or frameworks to cope with these problems. Here are some important points and approaches to consider. I may not agree with all of these points, but as a responsible scholar, I need to acknowledge prior scholarship in this field, and the work of faithful LDS scholars like Hugh Nibley, John Gee, Kerry Muhlenstein, Matthew Roper, John Tvedtnes, Michael Rhodes, H. Donl Peterson and others should be carefully considered.

Regarding the "natural" but possibly incorrect assumption that Joseph was using the pagan Joseph Smith Papyri to create a "translation," here are just some of the points that various LDS scholars have made in their extensive treatments of the well-known problems we rehashed today. We may not agree with every point, but there are some serious arguments might be made to be weighed against rejection of the Book of Abraham as an authentic, ancient, and divinely inspired text:

1. A divine translation may have occurred first, followed by secular attempts to crack Egyptian. While we have pages in the Kirtland Papers with Egyptian characters on the left and translated English text from the Book of Abraham on the right, this does not mean that we are really getting a window into Joseph's translation process, in spite of the title of this presentation. There are good reasons to believe that the translation on those sheets had already been composed, and now somebody was trying after the fact to explore relationships between the Egyptian characters and the text, or add Egyptian for other purposes. For example, analysis of the writing shows that the English text was probably written first, followed by adding the characters on the left. See John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), pages 21-23. [Note: the color images of the printed book are not in the free online edition which is text only.] Other details strengthen the conclusion that the Kirtland Papers are not at all showing the work of translation in progress.  Kerry Muhlenstein explains this well (see Kerry Muhlestein, "Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: Some Questions and Answers," Religious Educator 11, no. 1 (2010): 91–108):
Supposedly the translator looked at a few characters from the Book of Breathings and derived the Book of Abraham from them.[22] This premise assumes that the characters were written first and that the text written next to them was created afterward as an attempt to translate the characters’ meaning.

There are, however, a number of problems with this assumption: (1) Scribal errors and other critical textual clues make it very clear that these papers represent later copies of the text of the Book of Abraham, not the original translation; they were probably not even first- or second-generation copies. Thus the characters at the right were not characters they were trying to work through on these papers; they must mean something else. (2) The Egyptian characters appear to sometimes overwrite the English. If this is the case, then it is clear they were later additions. (3) The first Egyptian characters are written in the order they appear in the Book of Breathings, but some characters in one of the manuscripts skip characters and lines and are even from two different papyri, exhibiting no system or method. It is hard to believe that Joseph thought he was to translate from random parts of the text instead of systematically going from line to line.[23] (4) We have reason to believe that while Joseph Smith was involved in creating some of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (two of the sixteen pages contain Joseph’s handwriting), at other times his associates did this work without him. The pages whose composition we can date come from a period when the Prophet was out of town and the School of the Prophets seemingly went on without him. Adding up all these scraps of evidence, it seems highly improbable that this collection of papers represents Joseph’s original translation.

So what are these papers? Do they represent an attempt on the part of a group who was very interested in ancient languages to create an Egyptian grammar after Joseph had translated the Book of Abraham? Do the Egyptian figures serve as fanciful and archaic bullet points? Were the Egyptian characters placed beside the text to excite the minds of potential readers in hopes of increasing the book’s circulation? At the present, we do not have enough evidence to discern what these papers represent, but it seems unlikely that they represent an English translation of the Egyptian characters written on the side. The evidence points away from this conclusion. Thus, while we cannot present an answer as to what these papers are, we can say the evidence does not support the critics’ claims.
2. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers may primarily reflect the views of W.W. Phelps, not necessarily Joseph Smith.  According to John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 427–48, the various manuscripts grouped together as the Kirtland Papers are largely from, and came into possession of the Church via, W.W. Phelps, not Joseph Smith:
The vast majority of the manuscripts were brought to Utah by Willard Richards and W. W. Phelps. But one of the documents was given to the Church by Wilford Wood. He in turn obtained it from Charles Bidamon, who, in turn, got it from his father, who was Lewis Bidamon, Emma Smith’s second husband. So we know this document belonged to Joseph Smith. The others did not. To whom did the other documents belong? They arrived at the Church Historian’s Office through Willard Richards and W. W. Phelps. Four of the documents are in the handwriting of Willard Richards and can be safely said to belong to him. Most of the rest of the documents are in Phelps’s handwriting and seem to have belonged to him.
Further, the format of these papers reflects what Phelps was already doing in his own project to figure out the "pure language" of Adam, a futile project he started before he ever heard of the Egyptian scrolls. The format, the handwriting, and other details indicate that this was Phelps' project and that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers can best be called a "window into what W.W. Phelps thought," not really a "window into Joseph Smith's translation." Perhaps we might need to, um,  revise today's title -- but of course, I recognize you all might not have come today to hear about Phelps' errant views. In any case, John Gee made some interesting points about how these documents actually don't give us a window into Joseph's thinking at all, in his view, and to be fair, here it is from Gee's “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt”:
Format. As William Schryver has pointed out, the format of many of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers follows that format established by W. W. Phelps in work he did on the pure language in May 1835 before anyone in the Church had heard of the papyri. All of them are from his collection of manuscripts. Kirtland Egyptian Papers show the influence of his thinking and were begun in his handwriting. They show what W. W. Phelps thought. They include the famous “Grammar and aphabet [sic]” book, which has been incorrectly included as the work of Joseph Smith on the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Contrary to the date provided on the Joseph Smith Papers website, the book cannot date to 1835. How do we know that? The system of transliteration that Phelps used in the book follows the transliteration system taught by Josiah Seixas beginning in January of 1836. Words with long final vowels end in an “h.” The transliteration system used before that does not have the “h” and this can be seen in the transcriptions of the same words made in October 1835. Since the book has the later system, it must date after the later system was taught and thus must date after its introduction in January 1836. Joseph Smith’s journal entries indicate that within a week of receiving Hebrew books, Joseph dropped working on Egyptian in favor of Hebrew.[77]

We have no record of Joseph Smith working on Egyptian materials from November 1835 until the beginning of 1842. Although Joseph Smith’s journals have numerous gaps starting in the spring of 1836, from October 1835 to April 1836, we have good records of what he was doing, and he was working on projects other than studying Egyptian after November 1835. This means that he was not working on the so-called Grammar and Alphabet, with its 1836 transliteration system. That work, instead, should be attributed to the man in whose handwriting it is and whose format it follows: W. W. Phelps.

Journal entries. Joseph Smith’s journal also seems to indicate that the documents in Phelps’s archive belonged to Phelps. After Joseph Smith heard W. W. Phelps read a letter that Joseph Smith had him write for him that quotes from the documents, afterwards Joseph Smith “called again and enquired for the Egyptian grammar.”[78] Yet two days later he “suggested the idea of preparing a grammar of the Egyptian language”[79] apparently because he did not agree with Phelps’s treatment.

Thus the provenance, the format, and Joseph Smith’s treatment in his journals indicate that the majority of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers belonged to Phelps. So they cannot be used to reconstruct Joseph Smith’s knowledge of Egyptian, only that of W. W. Phelps. [emphasis added]
Obviously, since we list 1835 as the date for the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, we don't fully agree with Gee's assessment and his interpretation of transliteration data, but if he is correct, that's a devastating blow to any theory that the Kirtland Papers are somehow a window into Joseph's translation methodology. I think more study of that issue is needed, and if our 1835 date is wrong, of course we'll revise that. I welcome further analysis here.

3. Facsimile 1 was not necessarily attached next to the text Joseph called the Book of Abraham.  Some argue that Facsimile 1 being attached to a version of the Book of Breathings in the Joseph Smith Papyri does not necessarily mean that the text Joseph was seeking to translate was the Book of Breathings. Kerry Muhlenstein, in fact, argues that in the time and place where Joseph's papyrus collection originated in Egypt, vignettes on a scroll often were not placed directly with the text they were related to. It could have been in another portion of a long scroll containing an Abrahamic section, for example. Several scholars have made similar arguments. Here's an excerpt from Kerry Muhlestein's "Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: Some Questions and Answers":
To begin with, we must ask if vignettes are always associated with the adjacent text in other Egyptian papyri from this time period. We know with some degree of precision the dating of the Facsimile 1 papyrus (also known as Joseph Smith Papyrus 1, or JSP 1), because we know exactly who the owner of this papyrus was. He lived around 200 BC and was a fairly prominent priest in Thebes.[4] (Incidentally, this priest is not alone as a practitioner of Egyptian religion who possessed or used Jewish religious texts. We can identify many others, particularly priests from Thebes).[5] During this period, it was common for the text and its accompanying picture to be separated from each other, for the wrong vignette to be associated with a text, and for vignettes and texts to be completely misaligned on a long scroll.[6] Frequently there is a mismatch between the content of a vignette and the content of the text, or the connection is not readily apparent.[7] This is particularly common in Books of Breathings, the type of text adjacent to Facsimile 1 on the Joseph Smith Papyri.[8] Incongruity between texts and adjacent vignettes is endemic to papyri of this era.[9] Thus, the argument that the text of the Book of Abraham had to be translated from the hieroglyphs next to the vignette is not convincing when compared with ancient Egyptian texts from the same period.
Also see Dr. Muhlestein's discussion in "Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Introduction to the Historiography of their Acquisitions, Translations, and Interpretations," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 17-49.

4. The descriptions of the scroll Joseph was translating, based on eyewitness reports, do not match the surviving Joseph Smith Papyri. Hugh Nibley, of course, has made this point at length, as has John Gee and many others. Even amateur apologists can provide help on this issue.

5. The Joseph Smith Papyri form only a small portion of the collection of scrolls Joseph Smith had. There is no doubt that significant documents other than the surviving fragments were sold to a museum. These were presumably were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. This at least raises the possibility that the missing documents could have dealt with Abraham. For some details, see John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri.

6. Significantly, the scrolls Joseph had came from the precise time and specific place where Egyptian interest in Hebrew texts and figures like Abraham was high, making it possible for something like the Book of Abraham to have been in that collection. John Gee treats this in detail in his useful book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017).


Ancient Roots and Modern Evidence
LDS scholars have proposed several theories for how the translation may have been done, besides the antagonistic view that "Joseph was just making stuff up and got everything wrong as he worked with pagan materials that had nothing to do with Abraham." Those other views include (1) translation from a now missing scroll that contained the Book of Abraham, or (2) revelation largely independent of whatever was on the scrolls, perhaps "catalyzed" by the scrolls, restoring an ancient document. But regardless of how the translation was done and what specific relationship it has to any of the scrolls, whether missing or surviving, analysis of the text and the facsimiles raises many issues that point to ancient content that would be beyond Joseph's abilities to fabricate.

One important source of such evidences comes from a publication that I edited with John Gee: Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and John Gee. In that volume, we compiles many dozens of ancient documents from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources that support many of the elements in the Book of Abraham that are not found in the Bible and would have been highly unlikely for Joseph Smith to have known of. Most of these documents were not known in Joseph's day or at least not translated into English. And while one detail, that of Abraham talking about astronomy, can be found in one part of the extensive writings of Josephus, there is no evidence that Joseph had access to Josephus when he began the translation of the Book of Abraham, making it unlikely that he knew this tiny detail.

Regarding the sacrifice of Abraham, while many ancient traditions speak of it, the long-standing consensus of scholars has been that human sacrifice was pretty much unknown in the peaceful society of ancient Egypt, raising serious questions about the key story that opens the Book of Abraham. I say "has been" regarding that consensus, but this apparent consensus has been shaken now in light of abundant data that ritual violence was in fact practiced in Egyptian religion and for precisely the kind of issues suggested in the Book of Abraham. What was once a glaring weakness in the Book of Abraham is now one of its many strengths.

The key work that has overturned the consensus came from the Ph.D. study of Kerry Muhlestein, now a professor here at BYU. This work led to a scholarly book: Violence in the Service of Order: The Religious Framework for Sanctioned Killing in Ancient Egypt  (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011), which is available at Amazon, distributed by BAR Publishing, provided at Academia.edu, or can be directly downloaded for free online. It's a thorough and fascinating book that fills a gaping weakness in our understanding of ancient Egypt and also shows that ritual sacrifice of a religious rebel like Abraham, an opponent of idol worship, would, in the time of Abraham and in a place under Egyptian control, be highly plausible. A more recent scholarly publication on this topic is his “Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings,” Near Eastern Archaeology, 78/4 (2015): 229-235, where he finds that from the Old Kingdom through the Libyan era of ancient Egypt, “disturbing either the divine or funerary cult is the most likely crime to elicit ritual slaying as punishment.” Also see his paper,  "Royal Executions: Evidence Bearing on the Subject of Sanctioned Killing in the Middle Kingdom," in The Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 51/2 (2008): 181-208.specifically on the Middle Kingdom, especially relevant for the Book of Abraham.

It turns out that there are numerous details in the Book of Abraham that are suggestive of ancient, mot modern origins. While some things Joseph says about, say, the Facsimiles, are puzzling to us, some are simply bulls-eyes such as properly identifying the four upside-down figures on Facs. 2, labeled as figure #6, as the "four quarters of the earth," an entirely appropriate description of the four sons of Horus who take messages to the four quarters of the earth and who each represent a cardinal direction. There are many other strengths to consider in the statements Joseph makes about the facsimiles.

In terms of the text itself, there are numerous issues that defy the notion that Joseph just made up the Book of Abraham based on what little he knew at the time. One of many examples is the name and location of a place mentioned in Abraham 1:10, Olishem. It turns out that there is in fact such a place name from the ancient Levant in a plausible location. Here is what John Gee writes in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017), pp. 98, 101:
Biblical scholars have not agreed on the time and place that Abraham lived, but the Book of Abraham provides additional information that specifies both. In the Bible, Abraham must flee his homeland (môladâ) in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 12:1). Later he sends his servant back to his homeland (môladâ) to find a wife for his son (Genesis 24:4, 7). The servant is sent to Aram-Naharaim in modern-day northern Syria or southern Turkey (Genesis 24:10) and not Mesopotamia as the King James translators rendered it. This location of Aram-Naharaim must have been the location of Abraham's homeland. The Book of Abraham also indicates that Abraham's homeland was in that area. Olishem (Abraham 1:10), one of the places mentioned near Ur, appears in Mesopotamian and Egyptian inscriptions in association with Ebla, which is in northern Syria. (pp. 98, 101)
Many readers may not notice how interesting or even sensational this issue may be. It was already interesting when Akkadian documents were noted that mentioned the place Olishem, and it got much more interesting when a Turkish team reported finding the site and noted that ancient documents indicate this was place where Abraham had lived. See the press release "Prophet Abraham's lost city found in Turkey's Kilis" in The Hurriyet Daily News, August 16, 2013. On this matter, Gee has elsewhere noted the potential value but urges patience as more work is needed. See John Gee, "Has Olishem Been Discovered?," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 104–7.

Finding the place name Olishem was interesting enough in many ways before the actual archaeological site was found and its connection to Abraham made. In a rather technical 2010 post, Val Sederholm explores the significance of Olishem and related Egyptian and Semitic words in "The Plain of Olishem and the Field of Abram: LDS Book of Abraham, Chapter One," I Begin to Reflect, April 27, 2010. "Is the place of Ulisum or Olis(h)em the plain of Olishem? Conclusions remain premature, but it would be remiss not to point out the similarity and, by so doing, show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look." Sederholm then explores the rich association of meanings related to Olishem that may make it an entirely appropriate name for a place with a hill, suggesting the possibility not only of a phonetic connection between the Akkadian account and the Book of Abraham, but also a semantic connection. Indeed, there are many such fascinating issues in the Book of Abraham, leading Sederholm to make a strong but supportable statement:
Exactly how does a book of 14 pages produce dozens upon dozens of linguistic, cultural, thematic, theological, and literary points of comparison to the Ancient Near Eastern record? The numbers are no exaggeration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with no hesitation whatsoever, not even a hint of abatement, continues to post the canonical Book of Abraham on line and to print copies by the tens of thousands in scores of languages. There is a lot of explaining to do.
These issues include:
  • Abraham's opposition to idol worship, supported now by numerous ancient documents, many of which mention the resulting attempted punishment of being sacrificed and some of which mention that his own father had become an idol worshiper, as taught in the Book of Abraham.
  • The use of an ancient astronomical model implicit in the astronomical model that Abraham used in teaching Pharaoh, coupled with an apparent Egyptian wordplay or two, as John Gee has described in his book.
  • Identifying the crocodile in Facs. 1 as the god of Pharaoh. See Quinten Barney, "Sobek: The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh Amenemhet III," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 22–27. Also see The Crocodile God of Pharaoh in Mesopotamia," FARMS Update No. 108, in Insights 16/5 (Oct. 1996), p. 2.
  • The plausibility of many aspects of the Book of Abraham in light of what we can determine about the ancient setting treated in the text. See, for example John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 63–98. 
  • Possible evidence for the authenticity of several names in the Book of Abraham. For a wide-ranging discussion, see the transcript of  John Tvedtnes, "Ancient Names and Words  in the Book of Abraham  and Related Kirtland Egyptian Papers," 2005 FAIR Conference, August 5, 2005. (See the links on the final page to watch the presentation on YouTube.) 
  • The Book of Abraham's cosmology and the theme of the divine council which fit remarkably well in the world of the ancient Near East, as detailed, for example, in Stephen Smoot's "Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham."
For further details and background, one might consider some of these references:
Be Careful About Your Assumptions

Given the rich evidences of ancient influence in the Book of Abraham, it is fair to recognize that something is going on in this story that is clearly beyond random guesses from Joseph Smith. It is a powerful account rich in beautiful doctrine that demands respect. When Latter-day Saints and our investigators become upset about some of the puzzling aspects around the Book of Abraham, it is inevitably due to expectations that aren't entirely reasonable. We cannot expect that every detail about the papryi and the mummies were instantly revealed or ever revealed to Joseph Smith. His translation, however made, was a work in progress and he did not live to see it through to completion and canonization. It is entirely possible that during this project, he brought many of his own ideas to the work as he steadily gained revelation and new insights. Amid the jewels he has given us, if there is a peripheral statement that currently seems wrong or unintelligible to us, let us be patient and not fall apart. Kerry Muhlestein explains that when we look at how other revelations such as the doctrine of baptism for the dead came, it seems to have been a process that took time for Joseph to winnow out his own thoughts from revelation and gradually come to a finished work ready to be promoted among the Saints as doctrine. There may have been a similar process going on with the Book of Abraham that was cut short by his death. See Kerry Muhlestein, "Joseph Smith and Egyptian Artifacts: A Model for Evaluating the Prophetic Nature of the Prophet's Ideas about the Ancient World," BYU Studies 55/3 (2016): 35-82.

There are other questionable assumptions that people bring to these issues when they consider the relationship of our text, the Egyptian scrolls, and the life of Abraham. Do we require the Book of Abraham text to be a document exactly as written or dictated by Abraham, including the facsimiles? Or do we recognize that like much of scripture, the original documents and accounts can go through a process of transmission over time that may introduce anachronisms or or other puzzles? Do we expect that Joseph's comments on the facsimiles must be what Abraham meant to convey? Do we expect it to be what an Egyptian in 200 B.C. might have understood when applying those figures to Abraham's story? Or could it be what a Jew in that time familiar with Egyptian themes might have understood or wished to convey? Or do we take it as what Joseph and/or the Lord wanted us to understand from those figures as applied to the Book of Abraham? These issues are complicated. Please don't let simple statements from anyone, myself included, shake you up based on a clash with a possibly unrealistic or naive assumption that you may have. Marvel at the miracle of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, but don't fall apart when facing a problem. Study these issues out with patience, with flexibility, and with the help of the abundant evidences that something fascinating and something worthy of respect and ongoing study is going on in these scriptures.

Thank you for being here today!

Other Resources:


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Friendly Fire from BYU: Opening Old Book of Abraham Wounds Without the First Aid

I was pained to receive a message from an LDS member who once had successfully overcome many challenges to his testimony. His testimony was now challenged  by serious new wounds inflicted by "friendly fire" from the Maxwell Institute and two professors at BYU. I respect the Maxwell Institute (even donating to them occasionally) and also the professors who spoke (both outstanding men and scholars), but feel a need to respond in light of the unintentional harm that may have been caused by this event.

A January 19 presentation from the Maxwell Institute, “A Window into Joseph Smith’s Translation” by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen, was given to a large body of students and others. These two men have been active in preparing the manuscripts for Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, including the Kirtland Papers and related documents, and I am very grateful for their work for that publication. But I am rather troubled by the presentation they gave to so many students. Contrary to the impression they create (my opinion) of revealing important new facts, the papers they have published and the questions they raise have been discussed for decades, including the issue of whether the Joseph Smith Papyri have any relationship to the Book of Abraham.

There are troubling issues that can catch members off guard (shook my testimony when I encountered essentially the same arguments, but from the Tanners, not BYU at that time) and too many good people have left the Church over the arguments that can be crafted. This unnecessary rehashing of old arguments against the Book of Abraham was done in the name of objective scholarship and just being honest, but they did so without mentioning the decades of work from reputable LDS Egytpologists and scholars that have addressed the very issues that were raised.  It may have been honest and fair in their view, and rehashing past apologetics may have also seemed outside the scope of their presentation, but in my opinion, it was a poor choice (perhaps lack of time or perhaps concern that others have not been careful enough in addressing the Kirtland Papers?). Sad to see it coming from the organization at BYU that once has long been known for defending the Church and its scriptures, though again, the possible problems were certainly not intentional, but may reflect a lack of experience in dealing with faith challenges caused by misunderstood data.

Many in the audience may have come away thinking they were learning about embarrassing new dirt that was just being revealed to the world through the Joseph Smith Papers project, when in fact the documents and the problems they raise have been treated in detail for many years. What was presented was not breathtaking new scholarship that forces us to rethink everything about the Book of Abraham and Joseph's status as a prophet. New wounds were opened without the first aid. Seemingly new scholarship was presented while neglecting (perhaps due to time pressures) the relevant literature and previous scholarship.

The two speakers essentially created (IMHO) the impression that the Book of Abraham was translated by Joseph Smith with nothing other than the surviving papyri fragments, the Joseph Smith papyri. The floundering member who contacted me said their work completely undermines the possibility of there being lost scrolls, etc., that may have been the source. This is simply untrue. The evidence from witnesses and other sources gives us strong reason to believe that Joseph was working with other documents, not just the fragments that remain. I treat some of these issues in my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham.

For such a sensitive issue, why was no balance provided by at least acknowledging that some LDS scholars and even Egyptologists exist who see profound evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham and dispute the argument that the translation was done from the Joseph Smith Papyri? Why wasn't John Gee mentioned? Why wasn't he invited to also speak? Where were the LDS Egyptologists? Where was the acknowledgement that these issues have already been treated for decades by scholars competent in Egyptian and the ancient Near East (John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, Hugh Nibley, and others)? Where was the reference to John Gee's analysis of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (for great color photographs and analysis, see his book, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri ) indicating that the Egyptian characters were added to the pages after the English translation had been written, suggesting that someone was trying to decipher characters using an already revealed text, rather than the other way around? Where was a mention of works like An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, the many evidences for ancient roots in the text, and so forth? If time was the problem, at least point the audience to sources that might provide tools to cope with the challenges and pain some may be facing as they cope with the toughest issues around the Book of Abraham. "There are other ways of looking at this, and a host of evidences for the antiquity of the content in the Book of Abraham. We're out of time, but please look at some of the publications of John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, Hugh Nibley, and Michael Rhodes on this topic, and look at some of the overviews at FAIRMormon.org and many related publications at the Maxwell Institute. We may not agree with all of it, but there are some profound points there to consider." That brief statement would have really helped.

What puzzles me is that some of the vital evidence relating to Book of Abraham plausibility was published by John Gee and Brian Hauglid apparently working together, so it's not like Brian doesn't know John or isn't aware of some of the most interesting evidence supporting the antiquity of at least some of the Book of Abraham material. See Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John Tvedtnes, Brian Hauglid, and John Gee. I own and love this book, by the way. It contains dozens of accounts from various ancient sources about Abraham that show remarkable parallels to the Book of Abraham, things like Abraham nearly being sacrificed for his opposition to idols, etc. Truly fascinating and quite relevant to the topic at hand. It would have been nice for Hauglid to acknowledge his own publication that some of us value for contributing to the case that the Book of Abraham is not something Joseph could have just made up based on what he knew from the Bible and his environment. Shouldn't such evidence at least be considered in weighing what the origins of the Book of Abraham are (modern, ancient, or both)?

I am looking forward to a second seminar at the Maxwell Institute to get into some of the "first aid" that may be helpful and appropriate as a follow up on the magnificent publication that Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen have edited for the Joseph Smith Papers. There's so much more to the story!




Saturday, March 09, 2019

A Surprising Non-LDS Witness of the Plates: Lucy Harris

We commonly think of Lucy Harris as a hostile critic who opposed the Church and the Book of Mormon and may have been the cause for the disappearance of the 116 pages that were entrusted to her husband, Martin Harris. But as Daniel Peterson has pointed out, it's more complicated than that. In fact, in spite of her opposition to Martin's financial support for the Book of Mormon and her later anger at the Church, she was one of several female witnesses of the reality of the plates.

The stories of these female witnesses are told by Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope in "A Multiplicity of Witnesses: Women and the Translation Process," a chapter in Dennis Largey, Andrew Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull, eds. The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company), 2015, pp. 133-153. The women discussed include:
  • Mary Musselman Whitmer, who saw the plates and details of the engravings on leaf after leaf, as shown to her by an angel (Daniel Peterson reviewed details of her witness in an article for The Deseret News);
  • Lucy Mack Smith, who handled the Urim and Thummim, saw the outline of the plates through a cloth covering, and was close to many aspects of the Book of Mormon work;
  • Katherine Smith, Lucy Mack Smith's daughter and mentioned briefly in the section on Lucy Mack Smith, who had the opportunity to lift the plates;
  • Emma Hale Smith, who traced the outline and shape of the plates through cloth, felt the metallic leaves of the plates and heard their metallic rustle, in addition to serving as an early scribe; and
  • Lucy Harris, wife of Martin Harris.
When Joseph sought support from his wealthy acquaintance, Martin Harris, he asked Lucy Mack Smith if she could speak with him. First, though, she chose to visit Lucy Harris. She reported that Lucy Harris was intrigued about the plates and offered to donate money to support the Book of Mormon project, and said that she would come visit the Smiths soon. When she came the following week, she wanted to see the plates and was disappointed when Joseph explained that he was not allowed to show them except to those who were called as witnesses by God. But that night, while staying with the Smiths, she had a dream in which a personage chastised her and showed her the plates in vision, and that morning she gave Joseph $28 from her own funds.

Fascinated by the witness she had received and grateful for the support, Joseph then allowed Lucy Harris and her daughter (one more female witness) to handle the wooden box containing the plates. Martin Harris later stated that they were surprised by the weight, and it was about as much as they could lift. "My wife said they were very heavy."

Though Lucy would later become antagonistic, she was apparently appeased for a while when she saw the 116 pages. It is not clear who took them from their home. She appeared to continue to believe in the existence of the plates, for later she tried to find them in and near Joseph's home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Though antagonistic in the end, in a sense she remains a witness of the physical reality of the plates, or at a minimum, of the physical reality of something very heavy in a box. If we reduce her experience to merely that, it is not all that trivial. As Martin Harris said in one of the more amusing statements from Book of Mormon witnesses, "While at Mr. Smith's I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead." That quote comes from "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly, 5/4 (Aug. 1859), Joel Tiffany, ed., pp. 163–170, available at Wikisource.org.

There is abundant evidence for the tangible reality of the gold plates from a variety of sources, some rather surprising. And there is an intriguing mix of the miraculous and the mundane. As for the miraculous, how do you describe an experience when an angel and ancient artifacts appear before you and you hear the voice of God? This depends on your assumptions and background. Many people might call it a vision, though it occurred while wide awake in full daylight. There was an angel, a divine voice -- can such a vision possibly be entirely mundane? Can we blame Martin Harris or David Whitmer for speaking of the supernatural experience in some interviews as a vision or as something that they perceived through supernatural or spiritual means? Yet they insisted that this was not an illusion, not imaginary, but real, and that what they experienced was clear evidence of the physical reality and divinity of the Book of Mormon. It was evidence that changed their lives and would make them boldly stand for the truth of what they witnesses until their deaths, when at times life would have been much easier if they said, "Well, I was a little over-exercised, maybe a touch hypnotized, and I guess I just imagined something that wasn't exactly real."

If you want to dismiss the many witnesses, you can dismiss those who experienced angels as suffering from imagination and hallucination, lacking any tangible reality, and you can then dismiss those who saw, touched or hefted the very tangible plates in broad daylight under non-supernatural conditions as subject to deception by carefully crafted fraudulent objects of some unexplained kind. But I don't think you can credibly explain away the combined effect of witnesses seeing the plates in both supernatural and mundane conditions, and the failure of any witness to deny what they witnessed. Collectively, their accounts and their lives compel us to recognize that real plates were involved and that there is no explanation for the existence of the plates (or the occasional angel) that is more logical than that offered by Joseph and these many diverse witnesses.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

A Hypotized Neighhor or Another Non-LDS Witness of the Gold Plates?

Recently I mentioned two unintentional non-LDS witnesses of the Book of Mormon, Michael B. Morse, the non-LDS man who saw Joseph's translation process underway a number of times, and Josiah Stowell, who was one of the first people after Joseph to heft the plates. Here's one more to consider. This comes from Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 265-6. This passage can also be viewed at Google Books. A screenshot from Google Books is below, followed by the text.






The text:

Chenango Union Interview with Mrs. Doolittle, April 12, 1877.
Source note: "Early Days of Mormonism," Chenango Union, Norwich, N.Y., April 12, 1877.

The Binghamton Republican publishes some personal recollections of Mrs. Doolittle, a lady seventy-five years old, who is now visiting with her son-in-law, Chief of Police Johnson of that city. She was personally acquainted with the first wife of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, Miss Emma Hale, whom he married near Susquehanna, Pa.

From her statement it appears that Joe came to the neighborhood of Susquehanna to dig for gold, and made several excavations for that purpose, but it never was known that his labors in that direction were rewarded. While thus employed he became acquainted with Miss Hale, whose parents opposed the proposed marriage, and the young people eloped to Windsor, where they were married.

They returned and settled down upon a farm adjoining the lands of Mr. Hale and Mr. McKune. There was already a small house upon the farm, a story and a half frame building, and Joe put on a small addition. The farm and the house is now the property of Benjamin McKune, a grand-son of Joseph McKune. This same McKune farm is again becoming somewhat famous in consequence of preparations to bore into it for oil a short distance from the prophet's first domicile.

While Joe was upon his farm he had the Mormon Bible. Whether he professed to find it before or after marriage Mrs. Doolittle does not remember. Her grandfather was once privileged to take in his hands a pillowcase in which the supposed 
saintly treasure was wrapped, and to feel through the cloth that it had leaves. From the size and the weight of the book, Mr. McKune supposed that in dimensions it closely resembled an ordinary Bible in the print of those days.

Further up the river they have also reminiscences of Joe Smith, which continue Mrs. Doolittle's narrative. In the town Alton, Chenango County, not far from the Broome County line, is a small lake nestled in the hills, and a portion of it is in sight of the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad. It is said that Joe Smith baptized his first Mormon converts there; and it is claimed that the Mormon Church was really begun there, instead of being founded at Manchester, Ontario County, the home of the Smith family, and where the first printed copies of the Mormon or Golden Bible were distributed about ten or twelve years after the prophet's first appearance in Susquehanna County to dig for money.
So whatever the gold plates were, here at least is a witness from a neighbor that Joseph had something about the size of a family Bible that had leaves he could sense through the cloth that wrapped it. This is consistent with what other witnesses experienced, including through touching, seeing, and hefting. Theories that Joseph just had a chunk of lead don't pass muster -- not to mention that Martin Harris pointed out that Joseph didn't have the resources to even acquire that much lead. Something else was going on here. Mass hypnosis of neighbors, too, perhaps?

Monday, February 25, 2019

"A Strange Piece of Work" Poorly Explained by a Non-LDS Witness of the Book of Mormon Translation

Critics of the Book of Mormon like to dismiss the detailed accounts of Book of Mormon witnesses by saying it's simply impossible to know today what really went on back then. Were there really plates? Did the witnesses really see or touch anything? Was the translation done with careful notes and manuscripts or really dictated verbally, from a hat? Who knows? We can't be sure about much of anything regarding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It's all just speculation and group-think from the faithful who may have felt compelled to save face and support the party line.

Non-LDS professor Stephen Prothero in "Revelation Revised," Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2009, says this of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon:
[T]he scripture that he [Joseph Smith] brought into the world (as translator, not writer, Mormons insist) was born in an age of newspapers and before a cloud of witnesses. In fact, before the book was typeset it was drawing defenders and detractors alike. So we probably know more about the production of the Book of Mormon, which is holy writ to the world's 14 million Mormons, than we do about any other scripture. With the Yale University Press publication of The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text last month, we know even more.
We know extensive details pointing to the existence of the plates, the means of dictation, the dates that were involved, the obviously oral nature of the dictation exactly as Joseph and his scribes claimed (made so clear through the analysis of Royal Skousen, including his The Earliest Text), the time of completion, the seeking of the copyright registration and the seeking of a publisher. Details of what Joseph dictated, what his scribes wrote, and what printers typeset have come to light through painstaking scholarship. As Dr. Prothero said, we know more about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon than we do for any other work of scripture, including detailed, reliable accounts from many witnesses who had nothing to gain over their lifetimes by lying or twisting the truth. Several of the witnesses of the gold plates left the Church and Mormon society, yet insisted to their dying day that they had seen the plates and that they were real and divine. But some witnesses were unintentional or even non-LDS. The unintentional witnesses should also count for something.

The first unintentional witness of the plates was Josiah Stowell, who apparently took the plates out of Joseph’s hands as he brought them home. He hefted them and later even stated that he saw a portion of the exposed plates. See Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” in Dennis L. Largey, et al., The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), pp. 43-59 (relevant passage at pp. 48-49), available at https://rsc.byu.edu/es/archived/coming-forth-book-mormon/hefted-and-handled-tangible-interactions-book-mormon-objects.

Another such witness was the brother-in-law of Joseph's wife, Emma Hale. This non-LDS man, Michael Bartlett Morse (1806-1893), had no affinity for the Church, yet on multiple occasions witnessed Joseph engaged in the translation process, as related in an 1879 interview with W.W. Blair, who was then President of the Reorganized Church. The interview with Blair was published in the Saints Herald, vol. 26, no. 12 (June 15, 1879), pp. 190-91, while Morse was still living. You can read the report of the Michael Morse interview in Larry E. Morris, A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 267-269, a section which fortunately can be viewed at Google Books. A key portion of the interview is shown in the screenshot below, and the text of the full report follows.


Here is the published text:

Sandwich, Illinois.
May 22nd, 1879.
Editors, Herald:

When at Amboy a few days since, I learned from Mr. Michael Morse, brother-in-law of Joseph the Seer, (he having married a Miss Hale, sister to Sr. Emma), some valuable facts in respect to Joseph the Seer and his work. It should be published that Mr. Morse is not, and has never been a believer in the prophetic mission of Joseph.

He states that he first knew Joseph when he came to Harmony, Pa., an awkward, unlearned youth of about nineteen years of age. This was in 1825. Joseph then in the employ of a Mr. Stowell, a man of some wealth, of mature age, and an active professor of religion. Joseph and others were employed by him to dig for a silver deposit, said to have been made at some time long previous. Joseph and others of the company boarded at a Mr. Isaac Hale's, whose daughter Emma he subsequently married. He states that the sons of Mr. Hale seemed opposed to and at enmity with Joseph from the first, and took occasions to annoy and vex him, and that at one of these times, when out fishing, Joseph threw off his coat and proposed to defend himself.

He states that Joseph told him that he found the gold plates, from whence it is claimed the Book of Mormon was translated, in a stone box. (Some of late have said that Joseph at first professed to have found them in an iron box).

He further states that when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon, he, (Morse), had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation.

The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating, word after word, while the scribe -- Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other, wrote it down.

Bro. Caldwell enquired as to whether Joseph was sufficiently intelligent and talented to compose and dictate of his own ability the matter written down by the scribes. To this Mr. Morse replied with decided emphasis, No. He said he [Morse] then was not at all learned, yet was confident he had more learning than Joseph then had.

Bro. Caldwell enquired how he (Morse) accounted for Joseph's dictating the Book of Mormon in the manner he had described. To this he replied he did not know. He said it was a strange piece of work, and he had thought that Joseph might have found the writings of some good man and, committing them to memory, recited them to his scribes from time to time.

We suggested that if this were true, Joseph must have had a prodigious memory -- a memory that could be had only by miraculous endowment. To this Mr. Morse replied that he, of course, did not know as to how Joseph was enabled to furnish the matter he dictated.

In speaking of Mr. Isaac Hale and his daughter Emma, he said Mr. Hale always claimed that he was converted from deism to faith in Christ as the Savior, by a secret prayer of Emma's, when she was but seven or eight years old, which he accidentally overheard when just entering into the woods to hunt. In the course of her prayer she besought the Lord in behalf of her father, and the force and efficacy of that prayer entered into his heart with such power as to lead him to faith in Christ the Lord.

We are glad to be able to say that the Amboy Saints are in the faith and love of Christ. We had large and attentive audiences to hear us, and we look for a goodly increase in that branch at no distant day.

W. W. BLAIR.

Morse's account supports what other witnesses of the translation process saw. His evaluation of Joseph's education is also worth noting, as is the shear implausibility of the only method he can propose for how Joseph did the dictation of the Book of Mormon. To his credit, his theory that Joseph memorized and regurgitated large chunks of text is still frequently relied on today, though still without a plausible explanation for where the memorized text came from in the first place. Honestly, if the book is a fraud from the nineteenth century, someone in that era had to come up with intricate details like multiple Semitic wordplays or the River Laman and Valley Lemuel three days south of the beginning of the Red Sea, then the burial place Nahom/Nehem along a south-southeast trek, and the existence of a miraculous Bountiful due east of Nahom--so who gave us those gems and how? Joseph's awesome memory regurgitating the words of a secret manuscript writer on the frontier doesn't get us past 1 Nephi 1.



Update, Feb. 26, 2019: Here are some details regarding Josiah Stowell as a witness, taken from Anthony Sweat, “Hefted and Handled: Tangible Interactions with Book of Mormon Objects,” as cited above:

Josiah Stowell, the First Unintentional Witness

Josiah Stowell claimed he was the “first person that took the Plates out of [Joseph Smith’s] hands the morning [he] brought them in.”[25] Thus Josiah Stowell would have been the first witness to validate Joseph’s claims of obtaining tangible plates. However, although Stowell’s experience hefting the plates as they were passed to him—feeling of their weight, mass, and shape—constitutes a witness in itself, Josiah Stowell also claimed that he saw (albeit unintentionally) the exposed plates as they were passed to him by Joseph. Historians Michael MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat summarize what happened:

In the summer of 1830, after Joseph Smith was charged with disorderly conduct, Stowell was called by the defense and sworn in as a witness. He testified under oath that he saw the plates the day Joseph first brought them home. As Joseph passed them through the window, Stowell caught a glimpse of the plates as a portion of the linen was pulled back. Stowell gave the court the dimensions of the plates and explained that they consisted of gold leaves with characters written on each sheet. The printed transcript of the trial read: “witness saw a corner of it; it resembled a stone of a greenish caste.” Because Stowell also mentioned in his statement that the record was made of plates of gold, it is difficult to know what he meant by this description. He may have seen the band that sealed two-thirds of the plates together, which may have been made of copper that had oxidized over the years and turned green. Alternatively, he may have seen the breastplate, which could have also been made of copper and appeared green from oxidation. In any case, the point Stowell made to the court was that the plates were real and that he had seen and felt them.[26]

Stowell thus becomes the first unintentional witness, having an experience somewhat like that of the formal Eight Witnesses later had as they were allowed to heft and see the plates.
Footnote 25 cites the letter of Martha Campbell to Joseph Smith, December 19, 1843, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. The author observes that "Because both Lucy Smith and Josiah Stowell were present when Joseph handed the plates in at the window, perhaps they both helped or carried them simultaneously."

Footnote 26 cites Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), p. 13.

Update, March 12, 2019: I initially was thinking that Josiah Stowell was also non-LDS, but I apologize for forgetting that he joined the Church in 1830, though did not migrate with the Saints when the left the New York area. He expressed a desire to go west and be with them, but circumstances prevented that. He remained a believer in the Book of Mormon. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Alma Son of Judah: The Ancient Bar Kokhba Letters from Israel Refute a Popular Argument Against the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon

One of the more popular "easy" arguments to dismiss the Book of Mormon is that the name Alma is a woman's name. Many critics have pointed out that it's a Latin female name, and some have also argued that while it may be a Hebrew name, it's a woman's name in Hebrew, making the Book of Mormon's male character of that name a dead give-away for Joseph Smith's fraud. Robert Boylan discusses a recent case of this argument being used to summarily dismiss the Book of Mormon.

The exciting news, known to many LDS readers since 1973 when Hugh Nibley reviewed a significant 1971 book by Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, is that Yadin's discovery of the ancient Bar Kokhba letters revealed that Alma actually is a Jewish male name, for one of the documents mentions "Alma son of Judah." In the Hebrew, it's spelled with 4 letters, alef-lamed-mem-alef, and Yadin transliterates it simply as "Alma." Boylan kindly provides the following image of the document bearing that name (on the right side):



The sad thing is that we could have been celebrating this find over a decade earlier, for Yadin mentioned "Alma son of Judah" from that ancient document much earlier in a 1961 publication. If LDS readers had only noticed, then today we could complain about our critics being nearly 60 years behind on Book of Mormon scholarship rather than nearly 50 years behind. Such a lost opportunity.

The earlier publication is Yigael Yadin, "The Expedition to the Judean Desert," Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 12, no. 3/4, 1961 (1962), pp. 227-257 (37 pages), which Boylan also mentions. The journal is a publication of the Israel Exploration Society. You can access it at Jstor.org. Here are images of portions of pages 252 and 253 (click to enlarge): 



As Boylan explains, Alma is also attested in other documents as a legitimate ancient Near Eastern name, but I especially like the clarity of "Alma son of Judah" from the Bar Kokhba Letters.

Many popular arguments against the Book of Mormon have had similar surprises. Not all, but many.

Alma not only goes from being a disastrously bad choice of a made-up name to a plausible ancient Hebrew man's name (something that ought to raise a few eyebrows), but the apparent meaning of the name is played upon several times in the Book of Mormon text in the manner of Hebrew word plays, something that occurs with a large number of names in the Book of Mormon, as Matthew Bowen has shown (regarding Alma, see this 2016 article and this 2017 paper). There's always more than meets the eye in these Book of Mormon issues. Always worth digging more.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Curiously Unique Book of Mormon

Latter-day Saints often say that the Book of Mormon is obviously highly unusual since this complex text was generated in such a short period of time by a relatively uneducated young farm boy. But in making these assertions, we often may be relying on what we've heard from others without considering the details of how it actually compares to other works in literature. Just how unusual is it?

Our critics these days often point to other works to show that others (e.g., Tolkien) have done similar things. So is it really unusual?

Brian C. Hales gets into solid data and considers the multiple dimensions of the Book of Mormon to help all of us better understand what is going on with the Book of Mormon. I strongly encourage you to read "Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon," just published in The Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Souls that Expand and Swell: An Intriguing But Not Unique Book of Mormon Concept

One of the Book of Mormon's many concepts not found in the King James Bible is the notion of a soul that expands. This is found in some sermons of Alma the Younger in passages using the verbs expand, swell, or enlarge:
Alma 5:9
And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved.

Alma 32:28
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves -- It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Alma 32:34
And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
Is the swelling soul a well-known term in English that Joseph could have plucked from many of the books in his vast frontier library? Actually, it is possible, but there's more to this issue to consider.

In 1988, Dr. Paul Hoskisson looked at this issue and felt that the specific Book of Mormon usage was rather unusual in English and also is not found in the King James Bible. However, he observed that in the ancient Near East, the concept of the soul expanding was well established, possibly adding credibility to the Book of Mormon's usage. See Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Textual Evidences for the Book of Mormon,” in First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 283-95.

First, while the OED might not have much to say about expanding souls, I'd like to point out that the concept of a soul expanding, swelling, or enlarging actually is found in English prior to 1830, as one can see using the expansive data we now have available at Google Books. A search of "soul swelled" (without the quotes in the search) for the years 1500 to 1830 provides a few relevant passages, all in the sense of a soul swelling with emotion of some kind, as opposed to (figurative) enlargement or swelling per se of the soul.  The relevant examples are:
  • his soul swelled with emotions, which diffused themselves over his countenance (1811)
  • The deep Sorrows of his Soul swelled, and rose, and over-flowed (1702)
  • his soul swelled with the tumultuous transports of coming renown (1806)
A search for "soul expand" over the same time frame provides significantly more examples:
  • My soul expanding gives the torrent way (in a poem by Thomas Blacklock, prior to 1791)
  • as a huge range of mountains, the ocean, the vast expanse of heaven, make the soul expand before she can obtain an adequate idea ... (1820)
  • We saw his youthful soul expand, In blooms of genius nurs'd by taste (Thomas Moore, prior to 1535)
  • While hearing an excellent missionary sermon, how did my soul expand its desires for the conversion of the human race (1817)
  • Here Fancy may her soul expand, While Betty fell and rose (1815)
  • Songs that will grow with growing Time, And with the soul expand (1817)
  • it is no wonder he should feel his soul expand in good will to men (1809)
  • but feeling his soul expand and extend in reach and aspiration beyond his avocation and circumstances (1822)
  • How did my flutt'ring soul expand (1800)
  • Oh, then, let thy soul expand whilst meditating on the grace and excellency of Christ (1671)   
  • And if such scenes the rising soul expand (1784) 
  • He feels the dimensions of his soul expand, and the powers of his intellect strengthened (1811)
  • Where liberal sentiments the soul expand (1794)  
  • his great soul swelled beyond and broke the chains that had encumbered its free action and checked its mighty impulses 
A search for "soul enlarge" (again without the quotes) gives these relevant finds:
  • For to bear this I must my soul enlarge (1692)
  • Do Thou their anxious souls enlarge (1787)
  • doth, as it were, enlarge the soul, extend the faculties (1817)
  • Thine own beneficence impart, Enlarge the soul, expand the heart (1773)
Here is an excerpt from Hoskisson:
Alma 5:9 reads in part, “their souls did expand.” The context would call for a meaning such as “they became happy,” to parallel the phrase in the same verse, “they did sing redeeming love” to celebrate their freedom from the “bands of death” and the “chains of hell.” Nowhere in the King James Bible does soul occur in conjunction with the word expand; neither does it occur with the verbs enlarge and swell, each of which accompany soul once in the Book of Mormon (Alma 32:28 and 34 respectively). This phrase appears to be unusual. Why should a soul expand? If this phrase is unique in English to the Book of Mormon, could the phrase reflect an ancient Near Eastern vorlage rather than have its origin in English?

The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter OED) under soul gives no evidence of the phrase “their souls did expand” occurring in English; neither are there usages of enlarge and swell with soul. This and other evidence appears to indicate that the phrase “expand the soul” does not have its origin in English. If it could be demonstrated that this phrase has an ancient Near Eastern Semitic analog that was not available to Joseph Smith, it might qualify as sufficient evidence of an ancient Near Eastern vorlage for the Book of Mormon.
However, he recognized in his 1988 article that there may be other English examples with similar usages that were not found in his search, but which we now have before us, thus undermining the "expanding soul" as sufficient evidence for Near Eastern influences in the phraseology of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, his discussion of the relationships in Hebrew, Ugaritic and Akkadian are interesting and show some significant relationships worthy of note.

There are additional relationship to consider. In the "rise from the dust" theme that I feel is artfully worked into the Book of Mormon almost as a foundational concept in Nephite religion. Rising from the dust represents not only resurrection, but ascension and empowerment in a covenant relationship, as Walter Brueggeman has argued (Walter Brueggemann, “From Dust to Kingship,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 84/1 (1972): 1–18; available with first page only visible at http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/zatw.1972.84.issue-1/zatw.1972.84.1.1/zatw.1972.84.1.1.xml). It means breaking off the chains of death and sin that bind us, and ascending through a covenant of grace into the Lord's present to be enthroned and live endlessly in joy (see the 3-part series at The Interpreter: "'Arise from the Dust': Insights from Dust-Related Themes in the Book of Mormon, Part 1: Tracks from the Book of Moses as well as "Part 2: Enthronement, Resurrection, and Other Ancient Motifs from the 'Voice from the Dust'" and "Part 3: Dusting Off a Famous Chiasmus, Alma 36"). The soul that rises from the dust is very much like a tree of life that sprouts forth from the ground and springs up into abundance and life. In Alma 32, as Alma uses the analogy of a seed to describe the growing and expanding effect of the word in our souls, note how he uses the word sprout in association with the expanding and swelling of the soul:
[30] But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow....
[33] And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
[34] And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand. 
A related phrase Alma uses in this context is spring up, a term that specifically describes a tree, not just the initial sprout:

Alma 32:41
But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.  

Alma 33:23
And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will. Amen.  
"Spring up" adds a dynamic expression to the tree of life imagery. This is a vigorous, rapidly growing, abundant tree--an active, living tree. This is the beginning of an incredible journey. Again, "springing up" is not just describing the initial sprouting, but the everlasting tree itself. I think that's a beautiful phrase which should be considered when we are discussing the visions of Lehi and Nephi that provide the foundation for expansions upon the tree of life theme later in the Book of Mormon.

The term "spring up" or "spring out" occurs in the KJV. For example, in Job 5:5, a reference to trouble springing out of the ground employs the Hebrew root tsamach (צָמַח, Strong's H6779) which can mean "to grow abundantly or thickly" in addition to sprouting or springing up. That might be a good candidate for the word Alma employed.

By the way, it's interesting how artfully later authors draw upon concepts from Nephi and Lehi, even though the text in Nephi's writings was dictated by Joseph at the end of the translation process. Some critics claims that the whole tree of life sequence was a very late, last-minute addition to Joseph's "plagiarism" inspired by his visit to Rochester at the end of the Book of Mormon project when he was looking for a publisher. That makes no sense for several reasons, in my opinion, as I explain in "The Great and Spacious Book of Mormon Arcade Game: More Curious Works from Book of Mormon Critics," but that's another story. 

One more related tangent: Turning again to Hoskisson's article, an intriguing point he makes is that a word often translated as "soul" can also mean "glory." Here is an excerpt:
In Akkadian, an East Semitic language related to Hebrew and Ugaritic, both libbu and kabattu (the Akkadian cognates for lb and kbd respectively in the Ugaritic passage quoted above) can be “the seat of feelings, emotions, thought.” When libbu and kabattu are used with the verb nap?šu (“to enlarge” or “make wide” in the G-stem and “to let breathe again” in the D-stem) they denote secondarily “mind, soul, heart” (italics added). Thus here in Akkadian “the soul (that is, liver) expands with feeling” would seem to be at home.
Psalm 16:9 reads, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth.” The Hebrew text, l?khen ?amah libb? wayy?gel kab?d?, translates more literally, “therefore my heart is happy and my liver rejoices.” Here, just as with their Ugaritic and Akkadian cognates, leb and kab?d are the seats of rejoicing. But the Hebrew text does not require the English rendering “soul expanding” with joy. It is Genesis 49:6 that forms the link with soul, biqeh?l?m’al tehad kevod?, “do not unite, my honor, with their assembly.” The Hebrew word in this latter passage, translated in the King James Bible as “honor,” is none other than k?b?d, the same word behind the King James Bible glory in Psalm 16:9 and the cognate of the Ugaritic and Akkadian words used with the verb “to enlarge” or “to swell.” It usually means “weight,” “honor,” “glory,” etc., but can also mean “soul.” It is not translated as “soul” in Genesis 49:6, even though the context would seem to require it, because the more common word for “soul” in Hebrew, nepheš, is the parallel to k?b?d in this verse, and good English style militates against repetition of the same word (just as does Hebrew).
In other words, one translation of the Semitic word for “liver,” etc., is “soul.” And therefore, even though the Hebrew Old Testament does not reflect it, in Semitic languages related to Hebrew (closely, Ugaritic; and more distantly, Akkadian) “the liver expands (with feeling)” can be translated “the soul expands (with feeling).”
Strong's H3519 (kabowd, כָּבו) most often translated as "glory" or "honor" in the KJV, can also refer to the soul. It raises the possibility of double meanings and perhaps may be worth considering as a candidate for tentative Janus parallelism in the Book of Mormon, though that is a speculative exercise in the absence of the original text. 

Overall, while the expanding soul is not a unique Book of Mormon phrase that necessarily points to ancient origins, it is part of a complex of related covenant themes that are thoroughly rooted  in ancient Near Eastern themes, including tree of life concepts. For those willing to take the Book of Mormon seriously, I believe there is some fruitful ground to here and hope you'll dig in and share your additional thoughts.