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

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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Evolution of Language and the Book of Mormon

Friday, if all goes well, I'll have an article published at The Interpreter that evaluates the current status of fascinating status Orson Scott card made about the Book of Mormon 25 years ago in a speech at BYU, available online as “The Book of Mormon — Artifact or Artifice?,” Nauvoo Times, February 1993. Today I'd like to share one minor aspect of that article regarding linguistic change. This issue came up in the process of evaluating Card's comparison of the Book of Mormon to an apparently fraudulent ancient word of poetry, the poems allegedly written by Ossian and "translated" by the highly educated James Macpherson. One of Macpherson's most serious blunders was the failure to consider how much language changes over time. It was a blunder also made in another poetical fraud, the Rowley papers.
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 ad 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 ). 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 language 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.
In light of the easy blunders educated people have made on this issue, I really appreciate the sophisticated understanding of linguistic change that is implicit in the Book of Mormon's treatment of language across the centuries.

Linguistic change is also a fascinating consideration in understanding the English translation of the Book of Mormon and the many interesting remnants of Early Modern English in the translation that cannot be easily derived from imitating the KJV Bible. Reading the Book of Mormon and thinking about the grammar, the English, and its archaic flavor yet readily understandable modern meaning adds a little more fun to regular scripture study and can lead to a number of healthy explorations.

Do you have a favorite issue related to change in language from the Book of Mormon?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Elijah in the Book of Mormon

 Giuseppe Angeli, Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire,
c. 1740/1755. From the National Gallery of Art.
I am increasingly touched by the way in which subtle elements from ancient Judaism can be found in the Book of Mormon in ways that don't fit the popular model of Joseph as a sponge soaking up all things biblical from his immediate environment and squeezing it back onto the pages of his own book. The existence of artfully executed biblical themes in the Book of Mormon also doesn't fit the oft-employed model of Joseph the ignoramus who didn't know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, didn't understand that no temple could be built outside of Jerusalem, and was so bad at making up Jewish names that he blundered with crazy names like the Latin woman's name Alma for a Hebrew man -- all serious blunders in 1830 which now have impressive evidence from antiquity supporting their plausibility.

A somewhat improved or more plausible model is that of "Joseph the well-versed Bible student who got lucky on some things but was still an ignoramus on many basic issues," issues like the importance of David and the Davidic covenant, a matter which allegedly proves the "mormonic" book could not possibly have come from ancient Jews. This was the novel argument of the 2016 graduate thesis of Kevin Beshears at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which I treat at length in "Too Little or Too Much Like the Bible? A Novel Critique of the Book of Mormon Involving David and the Psalms," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 29 (2018): 31-64.

Beshear's basic premise is that someone who really understood the Bible would know that a genuine ancient civilization derived from Hebrew people would have followed the Bible's emphasis on David and the Davidic Covenant, and would surely have constantly evaluated the success and righteousness of their kings through comparison to King David. The Book of Mormon, however, falls short for it largely neglects David and actually criticizes him for his unauthorized polygamy. In light of Beshears' interesting critique, I must agree that someone closely imitating the Bible to describe an ancient Hebrew civilization probably would have given much more emphasis to and favorable treatment of David. However, a closer looks shows that the favorable treatment of David that Beshears demands is a characteristic of the ancient tribe of Judah in the southern Kingdom, and ancient Hebrews from the northern kingdom and its tribes, such as Lehi and his tribe of Joseph, could easily have held less favorable views of the fallen king and the security of his kingdom. In fact, recent scholarship puts the Book of Mormon's attitude toward David upon a firmly plausible foundation, showing that the Book of Mormon reflects a more thorough knowledge of ancient Israel than even advanced Bible students like Beshears can be expected to have. The weaknesses that Beshears highlights in what he calls the "mormonic" book actually prove to be surprising strengths that add to the remarkable case for ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

Those who look at the intricate and extensive references to the Exodus in the Book of Mormon and to its heavy and artful use of Isaiah must recognize that the Book of Mormon shows strong affinity with ancient Jewish thinking, where the Exodus was woven into many aspects of Jewish life, and where Isaiah was an especially prominent influence that continued to be a major influence into New Testament times. But one can argue that anyone reading the Bible carefully can readily notice the significance of the Exodus for many writers and the beauty and influence of Isaiah, so Joseph as a sponge may be a reasonable model for those aspects.

Evaluating models for Book of Mormon origins may get especially interesting,  in my opinion, when we consider the prominent Jewish prophet Elijah and the influence of Elijah on the Book of Mormon. Like David, Elijah is barely mentioned in the text. In fact, his name occurs once and that is only when the final chapter of Malachi is quoted (3 Nephi 25:5). Modern scholarship, however, shows that ancient Jews gave great emphasis to Elijah, and thus we can find many interesting though often easily overlooked allusions to Elijah in the New Testament. Is it time for a new graduate thesis from some seminary to criticize the paucity of Elijah references in the Book of Mormon? Before some professor of divinity and his or her graduate students get their hopes up, let me warn that disappointment awaits such an effort. Yes, a superficial analysis shows a serious lack of attention to Elijah in our "mormonic" text, but as with the case of David, modern Bible scholarship gives us tools to reveal surprising subtleties that place the Book of Mormon once again on firmly ancient ground. In fact, it turns out that Book of Mormon writers appear to have been highly skilled in weaving Elijah themes into the text, though it was done with such subtlety that the noteworthy role of Elijah in the text has often gone unnoticed. My exploration of such issues began after reading an especially fascinating work of scholarship: Nicholas P. Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for the Authenticity of Mark 16:9–20 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014),

Students of the Book of Mormon may be hard-pressed to think of any obvious Elijah themes woven into that text. I suggest it is only by looking at modern scholarship on the subtle use of Elijah themes in the New Testament that we can see the Book of Mormon in a new and impressive light. For me, it was after reading recent biblical scholarship elucidating the use of Elijah themes in the New Testament that I was surprised to see some of the concepts had been woven into the Book of Mormon. I discuss this with several examples in "The Book of Mormon Versus the Consensus of Scholars: Surprises from the Disputed Longer Ending of Mark, Part 2," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25 (2017): 323-365.

One of my favorite examples where modern scholarship helps me better appreciate the subtle use of Elijah themes in the Book of Mormon involves the issue of "intensification," in which miracles worked by Elijah are echoed in the accounts of miracles done by Christ, but amplified to make the ministry of Christ clearly more impressive. For example, in 2 Kings 4:42-43, Elijah, starting with just 20 loaves, miraculously provides food to feed about 1oo people. Intensification of this miracle can be found in the New Testament accounts of Christ feeding the multitude, according to Adam Winn in Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), Kindle edition, p. 83. Elijah feeds a hundred, while Christ feeds 5,000 in Mark 6. Intensification.

Winn also finds it significant that in the miracles of Mark, Christ begins with a smaller amount of food than Elisha did: five loaves and two fishes in Mark 6:41 and seven loaves in Mark 8:5 versus 20 loaves in 2 Kings 4:42.

The Book of Mormon, of course, also includes a miracle in which Christ feeds a “multitude,” probably even more than the 5,000 in Mark 6. The account of day one of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites ends with a count of 2,500 people as eyewitnesses (3 Nephi 17:25). They then labor tirelessly throughout the night to spread the word and gather even more people for the next day, and when they gather, there are now too many to be taught in one single group, so the 12 disciples break them up into 12 groups to rehearse the words of Christ from day one (3 Nephi 19:2–5) before Christ comes and ministers to them and feeds them miraculously. This is a logical intensification: the minor miracle of Elisha is magnified by the mortal Messiah among the Jews and then even further by the resurrected Lord among the Nephites

Winn also finds it significant that in the miracles of Mark, Christ begins with a smaller amount of food than Elisha did: five loaves and two fishes in Mark 6:41 and seven loaves in Mark 8:5 versus Elijah's 20 loaves in 2 Kings 4:42. The intensification trend continues: Christ’s miraculous feeding of the Nephites is done with no bread or wine to begin with (3 Nephi 20:6–7), the ultimate intensification of this aspect of the story.

Another feature in the Elisha story noted by Winn is that the command to give to the people is given twice, which has a seemingly weak parallel in Mark with the command to the people to be seated (a second command) in Mark 6:39 and 8:6 (Winn, p. 82). But in 3 Nephi 20, the command to give to the multitude is explicitly stated twice, once for the bread and once for the wine (vv. 4–5). Another parallel from Winn is that Elisha’s servant gives the bread to the crowd, as the apostles give to the crowd for Christ (ibid.) Likewise, it is the Nephite disciples who distribute the miraculously provided bread and wine to the multitude.

Further, Winn notes that extra food remains after Elisha’s miracle (2 Kings 4:44), just as baskets of extra food remain after Christ feeds the crowds (Mark 6:43 and 8:8) (Winn, p. 82). Whether food remained among the Nephites is not mentioned in the text, but the word remnant is used immediately after the miracle: “when they had all given glory unto Jesus, he said unto them: Behold, now I finish the commandment which the Father hath commanded me concerning this people, who are a remnant of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 20:10). Christ again speaks of gathering the scattered “remnants” of Israel in v. 13.

Finally, Winn notes that the Elisha account occurs in a time of famine (“a dearth in the land,” 2 Kings 4:38), in parallel to the hunger from going a day or longer without food in Mark 6:31 and 8:1–2 (Winn, p. 82). The hunger is implicit in 3 Nephi 20, since the Nephites who were present on day one of Christ’s ministry have been laboring apparently nonstop through the night to spread the word of the Messiah’s appearance to bring crowds to Bountiful the next day and naturally may have neglected food with so much work to do and so great a miracle before them. Their hunger may be alluded to when Christ explicitly mentions hunger and thirst after He leads the sacramental rite, saying, “He that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled” (3 Nephi 20:8).

Overall, Winn proposes eight parallels that relate the Elisha story to the miraculous feeding accounts in Mark. Similar parallels in 3 Nephi 20 occur for all but one, the expression of doubt or hesitation by the servants involved (2 Kings 4:43 and Mark 6:37, 8:4). However, this missing element is consistent with the emphasis on the greater faith of the Nephites at this stage. Among this tried and faithful people, Christ is able to work greater miracles, as Christ tells them in 3 Nephi 19:35. The absence of doubt as a parallel is a reasonable and appropriate reversal of the pattern apparently alluded to in 2 Kings 4. Winn observes that reversals of themes are often used in ancient literature when building on a previous text (Winn, pp. 13–14, 29, 79–81, 112). Thus one can argue that Mark’s use of Elisha’s miraculous feeding in the account of two of Christ’s miracles is used with equal detail and resonance in 3 Nephi 20, while differing from Mark in some significant and appropriate ways rather than being a clumsy copy.

I suspect most readers of the Bible have no idea that the Christ's feeding of the multitude has many subtle parallels to a miracle of Elijah. It is through modern scholarship that this possibility is revealed, and it is rather surprising that the same cluster of subtle parallel elements are employed appropriately in the Book of Mormon, with even further intensification.

Other intriguing elements from Elijah and Elisha in the Book of Mormon are considered in my article at The Interpreter,  "The Book of Mormon Versus the Consensus of Scholars: Surprises from the Disputed Longer Ending of Mark, Part 2. These include:
  • The miracle of being "taken up." The Assumption of Christ, of course, has intriguing parallels to the taking up of Elijah at the end of his ministry. Book of Mormon parallels include the apparent taking up of Alma2 (Alma 45:19) and Nephi3 in 3 Nephi 1:2.
  • The role of fire in Elijah's departure (via a chariot of fire) is reflected and in various scenes in 3 Nephi.
  • The transfiguration of Christ, an important Exodus and Elijah theme in Mark 9, which has parallels in 3 Nephi, where transfiguration occurred for Christ and His disciples (3 Nephi 19:14, 24–25) and also in the "transfiguration" of the Three Nephites (3 Nephi 28:1–17). Interestingly, subtle allusions to Exodus themes in the transfiguration elements in Mark, uncovered in modern scholarship, are also found in the Book of Mormon. 
  • Elijah's miraculous work of ministry in opposing the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18) and possible parallels in the ministry of the Twelve Disciples as they prepare the people for the second day of Christ's work among the Nephites (3 Nephi 19-20).
  • The use of the word tarry in both Elijah's final interactions with Elijah and in the calling givenn to the Three Nephites (3 Nephi 28:12; 4 Nephi 1:14, 30 ,37; Mormon 8:10 and 9:22).
  • The blessing the Three Nephites received from the Savior (3 Nephi 28) with parallels to the blessing Elijah gave to Elisha before passing on his mantle in 2 Kings 2.
  • The role of Elijah as a forerunner or an “Elias” to prepare the way for the Savior, like John the Baptist, which is paralleled in the Book of Mormon by Nephi2, the son of Helaman and father of the prophet Nephi3, another worker of miracles. Nephi2 was ministered to by angels and like Elijah, disappeared without a known burial (3 Nephi 1:3), and offers several other important relationships to Elijah and Elisha, including sealing powers, use of famines, etc. See also "How Did Nephi Use the Power to Seal on Earth and in Heaven?," Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #182, Sept. 7, 2016.
  • The miracles of Helaman 5 as a prefigurement of the ministry of Christ that invokes Elijah themes in multiple ways. 
  • The role of clothing as a symbol of authority in both the story of Elijah and the Book of Mormon.
Modern scholars have argued that Christ is depicted as the “new Elijah/Elisha” in the Gospel of Mark. In the Book of Mormon, His elect Three Disciples also seem to play that role. Like Elijah, they are “caught up into heaven,” though not permanently. Like Elijah and Elisha, they work great miracles after having received divine authority. Like Elisha, they are associated with the word tarry multiple times, as they are the ones who will tarry following the physical ascent of their Master.

3 Nephi may thus display not only intentional allusions to Exodus themes but also make references to Elijah in ways similar to Mark’s subtle but pervasive themes that unify his Gospel, as elucidated by Nicholas P. Lunn in his above-mentioned work, The Original Ending of Mark.

An objection to Christ as Elijah in the Gospel of Mark is that Mark identifies John the Baptist as a type of Elias/Elijah. Mark 1 introduces John the Baptist as the messenger preparing the way for Christ, “clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins” (Mark 1:6), an allusion to 2 Kings 1:8, where we read that Elijah was a “hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins,” a visual link. Elijah is mentioned several times in Mark 9 in the middle of that Gospel, where in v. 13 Christ states that “Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him,” referring to the recent martyrdom of John the Baptist. If John is Elias, how can Elias be Christ?

The issue is resolved by recognizing that Elias can be a role or an archetype who can involve more than one agent or more than one aspect of the role. Christ, in working miracles, showing divine authority, and ascending majestically to the Father, acts as an Elijah/Elias.  A similar issue is found in the Book of Mormon. Christ ascends to heaven and displays the miraculous powers of Elijah, but His successors in a miraculous ministry, the Three Nephites, take up the mantle and work wonders like Elisha, while they themselves are “caught up” into heaven for a while.

Just as the Gospel of Mark subtly draws upon many Exodus and Elijah themes in depicting Christ’s ministry, similar themes appear to have been woven into the Book of Mormon account in ways that make sense for ancient lovers of the Hebrew scriptures who understood the majesty of the ministry of Christ. Modern scholarship such as that of Nicholas Lunn and Adam Winn gives us tools to better appreciate the ancient beauty of the Bible, and these tools also reveal hidden richness in the Book of Mormon text. As always, there is more to the Book of Mormon than meets the eye.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

To the Temple and Back: The Journey of Two Faithful Peruvians

Yesterday in sacrament meeting in the Shanghai Branch (one of three meeting in Shanghai) a friend of mine shared the story of how his parents were married in the temple. It's one of those stories where it seems like everything goes wrong at first for someone trying to get to the temple for the first time.

It was about 40 years ago when his parents-to-be fell in love and decided to get married in the temple, a goal that his mother especially insisted on, though it would be difficult. At the time the nearest temple was in Sao Paulo, over 3500 kilometers away. They were not wealthy, but both began saving diligently. Soon they had just enough to fly to Sao Paulo, when a huge currency devaluation occurred that suddenly put them far from their goal. They began saving again, and as they neared their goal, another currency devaluation set them back. They eventually had to settle for a lower cost route that involved many hardships and set backs. They finally got to the temple, but 3 days later than they had scheduled. But they were thrilled to finally be sealed for time and eternity in the House of the Lord. They were alone, without family or friends, but so grateful.

The way back was especially difficult, for they ran out of money completely in Bolivia. With his last bit of cash, the new husband paid for a room for the night, left his wife there, and then went to a private place outside and cried. He plead with the Lord for help to somehow find a way home. Both he and his bride were ill from the hardships of their journey. After his solemn prayer, he felt a rush of inspiration: go to the public square to beg for money. Ashamed at the thought of having to beg, he nonetheless went to the square, prepared to do what he could. As he entered it, he heard a voice call him: "Juan!" It was an old friend from Peru, another member of the Church. The friend had been backpacking around South America, taking odd jobs every now and then. When he learned of Juan's story, he said, "Juan, I know what it's like to be away from home with no money. I was just paid today. Here, take my money and return home with your wife." And just like that, in his extremity, Juan received the assistance he needed to return home safely.

My friend bore testimony of the blessings of the temple in his life and in the life of his family, and said that the sacrifices it takes to receive those blessings are completely worth it. From my experience, I have to agree. The House of the Lord is such a wonderful blessing in my life as well.

Monday, November 05, 2018

"Arise from the Dust": The Transcript and Slides for My 2018 FAIRMormon Presentation Are Now Available

For those who listened to my presentation live at the 2018 FAIRMormon Conference or the streaming video, the speed of my delivery may have been a bit too high for those of you who don't listen to audio recordings at, say, twice the normal speed. Fortunately, you can now read the transcript at your leisure. The transcript and the slides are now available at FAIRMormon.org for "'Arise from the Dust': Digging into a Vital Book of Mormon Theme."

The Conference was such a marvel to me -- so much content and thought behind. I was wildly happy to have this chance to share my thoughts, and really enjoyed hearing some excellent questions as well. Many thanks to all the people and organizations that make this event possible!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Moving Away from Big Pageants: New Announcement

In a brief announcement at the LDS Newsroom, the Church has indicated a desire to move away from big pageants, the most famous of which is the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Here is the statement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing across the earth. As this occurs, local Church leaders and members are encouraged to focus on gospel learning in their homes and to participate in Sabbath worship and the Church’s supporting programs for children, youth, individuals and families. The goal of every activity in the Church should be to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to share His gospel message throughout the world. Local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate. Larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged. As it relates to existing pageants, conversations with local Church and community leaders are underway to appropriately end, modify or continue these productions.
On the same day, a Deseret News story gave more specific information: "The Hill Cumorah Pageant of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will cease its 81-year run after its 2020 season."

If you think the real reason for this change is that the real Hill Cumorah must be in Mesoamerica, you'll be disappointed that there are no plans to move it to, say, the Hill Vigia in Veracruz State in Mexico, or the nearby Cerro San Martin, both possibly plausible candidates that could provide the military advantage and access to water required by the Book of Mormon.

Many of us will miss the Hill Cumorah Pageant, but in an increasingly complex and turbulent world, the Church's emphasis on family and local learning and simplification is probably a very wise thing, in spite of the fabulous tradition that this and other pageants have been over the years.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Primed by a Mosquito for a New Ministering Assignment

Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, mosquito expert, with Jeff and Kendra
Earlier this week I lost some sleep here in Shanghai when a mosquito viewed me as an all-you-eat buffet. Mosquitoes seem to be more strongly attracted to me than anyone else around, but it's largely unrequited affection, though I do marvel at their design. In fact, I am one of the few Americans to not only set foot in the easily overlooked Mosquito Museum (officially the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but to also spend time discussing mosquitoes with the charming woman scientist who built that amazing, quirky place, Dr. Rampa Rattanarathikul, arguably the world's leading expert on mosquitoes. She is far more positive about the overall role of mosquitoes in the ecosystem than I am.

Although I was convinced that our Shanghai apartment was mosquito free when I turned the lights out, I awoke at about 4 AM with an itching arm that had about three bites. I reached for one of the greatest inventions known to mankind, the mosquito racquet, a bug zapper that looks like a tennis racquet. Eventually I grabbed two to double my killing power, yearning for a soul-satisfying zap. With no luck yet, on went my LED flashlight to support a meticulous scan of walls, the ceiling, the headboard, pretty much everywhere, always waving the wand in random places while I searched for signs of a resting or flying mosquito. I was successful in my secondary goal of not waking my wife, but my zap-and-nap strategy never reached the zap phase.

After 20 or so minutes of waving and searching, I wondered if I may have scored a silent kill, and decided to go back to sleep. But first I applied some DoTERRA grapefruit essential oil, containing a small but possibly effective amount of nootkatone, the amazing compound that is vastly more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes (though my friends at DoTERRA didn't know that). In fact, it can even kill mosquitoes (though the essential oil I used may not have enough nootkatone to kill) due to a surprising interaction it has with a mosquito's wing regulator system. It causes the regulator system to go out of control and make the mosquito buzz way too fast until it just drops dead. Sweet! (Sorry, Dr. Rampa. I still think you are fabulous and admire your lifetime of research on the critters I despise.)

Grapefruit oil is relatively safe on humans but don't get it in your eyes or lungs. Like many citrus essential oils, it can be painful or harmful in the eyes. I can testify of the pain that grapefruit essential oil causes: a very small amount touched near my eye caused long-lasting pain the other day that was not quickly reduced by heavy rinsing with water. Ouch, ouch, ouch! But I still love the smell and it seems to be effective in warding off mosquitoes, though it is fairly volatile and might not last terribly long. That's also a challenge for nootkatone, not to mention its terribly high price (though two companies have developed techniques to make it cheaper, one using bacteria to produce it and another using catalysts to make it from a low-cost orange oil compound).

When I awoke later, I found that critter on the ceiling. I got it this time. Where had she been hiding during all my earlier searches?

But the point of this is what happened after I tried to go back to sleep. At about 5:15 AM, as recorded by my Pleco Chinese dictionary app's history function, I was troubled by an important thought: "You don't know the Chinese word for PRIME NUMBER." Yikes, prime number -- I need to know that word, I thought. Now if you're like me and enjoy hanging out with geeks and science fans and people who love to read and learn, you've probably had discussions about prime numbers with other people, oh, about twice in the past 5 years or so (excluding my wife, a math teacher, who really enjoys chit chat on all sorts of math issues, including prime numbers which came up about a month ago when I told her about the news of a possible but controversial proof of the Riemann Hypothesis).

Really, almost nobody talks about prime numbers in casual conversation. Why would I ever need that word in Chinese? But I did want to know. "I'm curious, but I can just look it up in the morning. Time to sleep now." And then came the thought: "If you don't look it up now, you might forget to do it later. Why not just do it now?" I've justified numerous lengthy departures from sleep with that kind of reasoning and have been trying hard to resist that path, but this time seemed different. "It will just take a second, if I'm careful." And so I looked up the word for prime number. Two different terms, actually, but apparently zhishu (质数) is the more commonly used one. It could be translated as "number of substance." Interesting and logical. Cool. And then I kept my promise to myself and tried, with eventual and brief success, to go back to sleep.

A few hours later that morning, I would get a call from the executive of one of China's finest private charities (in my biased opinion), the Huang Yicong Foundation for which I am delighted to have been recently added as a board member. The executive director wanted to talk to me. I rushed over to her office on the same floor where I work. As I sat down, I was touched with a beautiful Buddhist image attached to the lower portion of her computer screen. I was struck with this thought: "This faithful Buddhist woman is serving the same God I worship in her devotion and service to others." I reflected briefly upon the goodness in so many faiths and in those who seek to live higher laws learned through their faith.

She began by telling me about a challenge among some outstanding students in one of the schools we support. As she was interacting with these students recently, she told me, she was asking what their biggest challenges are in education. English was a key issue. And in her discussion, she realized that there is vocabulary in English related to many of the areas that they need to study that they really don't know. "For example," she said, "I asked the students if they knew the English word for 质数, which is prime number." "Whoa!" I said. "This morning I had a strange feeling that I needed to look up the word for prime number. Look, here it is in my Pleco dictionary. There is the search for prime number at 5:15 AM. Zhishu. Never needed it once in my seven years here, and now after that strange experience, here you are talking to me about prime numbers. So strange. Anyway, whatever you are about to ask me, I think it's going to be important." And it was.

She wanted to ask me and my wife if we could spend some time at least monthly or more often if possible doing a videoconference with those special students to help them improve their English while also using helping them with vocabulary related to math and other fields they are studying. We also may be going there to visit them. Time has been tight recently, but I think we can do this and we both would love to help, and now my Chinese teacher, touched by this story, has also volunteered to help. I saw the class today in a brief initial videoconference and was impressed with the sharp, sweet, and well-behaved group.

Of particular significance to me was the way she presented this assignment to me. It was done it a personal interview. It began with a discussion of the particular strengths and needs of the people I would be assigned to. It was done with love, respect, and charity. I should have asked that fine leader if she had been reading the new LDS materials on ministering, because she delivered the assignment in exactly the right way. Those materials, available in the Ministering section of the LDS Library App, emphasize that assignments to minister should be given in a personal interview that includes discussing not just the needs of those involved, but also their strengths. She did it perfectly, lovingly, and so effectively. What a great example to follow. I marvel at her natural leadership and ministering skills.

I look forward to seeing where this assignment leads us. How interesting that an annoying sleep-depriving critter and a coincidence involving prime numbers could play a role in awaking me to the significance of a leader's thoughtful assignment. I hope I can live up to this opportunity.

Related post: "Two Words that Finally Helped Me Grasp the Genius of the New Ministering Program"

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Surprisingly Modern Book of Mormon: The Perspective of an Archivist

One of the most astounding aspects of the Book of Mormon is the intricate detail it provides regarding its sources. As largely compiled by the military leader and master historian, Mormon, and concluded by his son, Moroni, the Book of Mormon relies on numerous documents, including the brass plates brought from Jerusalem around 600 BC, Nephi's small plates with many authors, the large plates, the Jaredite record, and then a host of sources drawn upon by Mormon or others such as the record of Limhi, military reports, epistles, etc. Through it all, we are frequently told where the information came from and who is writing or editing it.

Far more than just acknowledgement of sources is involved. The Book of Mormon gives us intricate details on the creation, transmission, preservation, and reliability of those sources--in other words, abundant details on provenance.

In this way, the Book of Mormon is quite different than the Old Testament, where we are often left to wonder who wrote which parts of the various texts. For those interested in the Documentary Hypothesis and the various ways ancient scribes and editors may have compiled and redacted their texts, the data from the Book of Mormon should be a welcome reference point for detailed study.

But not only does the emphasis on record keeping and provenance in the Book of Mormon differ strongly from what we have in the Bible, it also differs radically from record keeping practices in Joseph Smith's day. The record keeping aspects of the Book of Mormon often seem fairly normal to modern readers because it reflects our modern understanding of good practices in dealing with historical records, but those practices were largely absent in Joseph Smith's day, as an archivist, Anita Wells, has explained. Anita has a master's degree in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, and recently published an outstanding examination of the record keep issues in the Book of Mormon that many of us gloss over or take for granted. See Anita Wells, "Bare Record: The Nephite Archivist, The Record of Records, and the Book of Mormon Provenance," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 24 (2017): 99-122. An excerpt follows (see the original for the references deleted here):
Some historic tablets and scrolls indicate that scribes signed their work and noted the lineage of copy transmission.Yet the idea of record provenance, which traces the chronology of ownership and custody of records to document their authenticity, was a nineteenth and twentieth century development by European archivists. In the mid-nineteenth century, American interest in the past grew with the formation of historical societies (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) to honor the dying colonial generation. However, American society experienced a slow beginning in organizing historical records. As a historian noted, “the handwritten world of colonial records did not adopt a sophisticated recordkeeping system. Discussions on colonial records and recordkeeping mostly focus on individual or organizational negligence or natural damage by fire and water.” It was not until the twentieth century revolution of typewriters and duplicators (and further digital transformations) that record keeping changed dramatically.

The resources for a historian in Joseph Smith’s era would have been limited, insofar as library access, organization, and retrieval went. A nineteenth-century frontier historian searching through volumes of early Plymouth history or Harvard College’s records would not have the benefit of alphabetical arrangement, indices, cross-references, and topical searches, as these concepts were in their infancy. Additionally, more advanced archival principles like chain of custody, keeping fonds (an archival group of papers) together (officially known as “respect des fonds”), and archival integrity were nascent at the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.

While archival methodology began to move in new directions around 1830 (interesting coincidence of date) in Europe, it was not until the early twentieth century that these ideas became accepted on a widespread level in the United States:
Although archives have existed for thousands of years, much of the archival paradigm — not unlike that of library science — coalesced between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several key treatises and manuals codifying archival theory and practice were published between 1830 … and 1956. … The most influential of these was the Manual on the Arrangement and Description of Archives, written in 1898 by Dutch archivists … which brought together the French and Prussian ideas of respect des fonds and provenance. The translated manual was widely disseminated and was a major topic of discussion when librarians and archivists met for the first time for an international congress at the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. As a result, the concept of provenance was adopted by the congress as the basic rule of the archival profession.
Consider how the above information affects our understanding of Book of Mormon studies: the archival profession as we understand it now did not exist in Joseph Smith’s time. The concept of provenance (a record of ownership to guide claims of authenticity) and chain of custody (documenting that record of ownership) was not identified. The Bible, Joseph’s main resource for an example of ancient writing at the time he translated the Book of Mormon, gave very little indication of who wrote it and how its records were copied and transmitted throughout the ages. These ideas were not something anyone in the mid-nineteenth century could have held a working conceptual knowledge of that would allow their incorporation into the Book of Mormon. Provenance is a modern convention used today and developed in the past century to validate claims (notably in art auctions); Mormon made the chain of custody and provenance of his record abundantly clear from millennia prior. As “questionable provenance can still create an atmosphere of distrust,” conversely a secure, credible provenance can foster belief. The Nephite authors were doing something unknown from biblical texts, and unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day.
Anita makes the point that the treatment of provenance in the Book of Mormon fulfills the modern expectations associated with that term, including these issues pertaining to evidence for provenance: "Is the record (1) what it says it is, (2) in continuous possession by each individual who had possession, and (3) in substantially the same condition until it passed into the next person’s custody?" Analysis of the information provided in the Book of Mormon account, including its final transmission to Joseph Smith and its translation, provides a powerful and very modern "yes" to each of these questions. Thus, the Book of Mormon provides evidence for its provenance and reliability in a surprisingly modern way that was not part of the paradigms used by either farmers or professional record keepers in Joseph Smith's day. And while that paradigm is not found expressed in the Bible, it is a reasonable paradigm for an ancient, literate society highly reliant on and dedicated to preserving ancient sacred records.

Perhaps we will find more of the archivist's attitude as we recover more preserved records from other ancient Americans in the past, where in Mesoamerica we can see remnants of several ancient literate societies, most of whose ancient books and documents were destroyed by the Spaniards.

A final except from Anita Wells:
Richard Bushman noted that “in between Nephi and Moroni, we never lose sight of the records. Their descent is meticulously accounted for … [and] the Jacobean record tells us step by step of the passage from one record-keeper to another. For a time in Omni, the transmission of the records was nearly all that was written about. Throughout the Book of Mormon, there is a recurrent clanking of plates as they pass from one record-keeper to another. To my mind, it is noteworthy that there is nothing like this explicit description of records and record-keeping either in the Bible or in books current in nineteenth-century America” [Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 68-69]. Science fiction author Orson Scott Card explained that written hoaxes are a product of their time, easily unmasked by later scientific understanding. If the Book of Mormon was purely a Joseph Smith creation, how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers. Yet the more we learn about archival provenance and chain of custody, the more remarkable it is to discover the precise documentation of such practices in the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

It Took Two Typhoons, Two Kind Italians, and a Strange Computer Glitch to Get Us to the Temple in Seoul, Korea

The Seoul, Korea Temple
My wife and I just returned from a marvelous vacation in Seoul, Korea, where we unexpectedly ended up staying in a wonderful part of town within walking distance from the beautiful Seoul, Korea Temple. Being so close allowed us to attend several sessions easily. To our surprise we also learned that Sunday Church services were being held there in a building next to the Temple, so we could attend regular services there, too instead of just watching Conference from our hotel room as we had planned (Korean units will dedicate the following week to Conference). This was during China's "Golden Week," a week-long holiday that we had been looking forward to for a long time.

The strange thing is that Korea was not part of our plans at all. We were going to spend the entire time in Okinawa and on nearby Aka Island, where we planned to meet our favorite diving instructor, Maiko, a woman from Japan, whom we first met in Thailand, formerly an engineer who grew tired of corporate life and is now living her dream as a very competent dive master working all over the world, but with Okinawa as her hase. Our primary goal was to explore the pristine reefs around that island with Maiko's help.

Our plans faced severe headwinds, you could say. It took two typhoons, two Italians, and a strange computer glitch to get us out of paradise in Okinawa and move us close to the Temple in Korea.

As Golden Week neared, we were worried that Typhoon Trami that would hit Okinawa right before we were to fly there (we would fly from Shanghai to Naha, Japan via Seoul, Korea, and our return flight would be on the same out). Fortunately, the typhoon ended the day before our flight, and the resilient people in Naha, Okinawa had things back to normal by the time we arrived. Sturdy buildings, great drainage systems, effective clean-up crews.  We were worried that the typhoon would make the water muddy, but decided to go anyway and make the best of our planned trip. With a couple of lucky breaks, things turned out remarkably well.

The first big break for us was meeting two Italians from Shanghai. After we arrived in Naha, we went through a slow taxi line. When we were at the front, I noticed a couple of people at the read of the line who seemed agitated and concerned. Figuring they could speak English, when our taxi pulled up, I called to them and said if they were going near the ferry, they might want to ride with us. They were more than happy to share a taxi and jumped in. This good Italian man and his wife turned multiple potential disasters into blessings for us, and would spend most of the next two days with us.

The first potential disaster was learning that that the Tuesday morning express ferry to Aka Island, where we were supposed to go diving on Tuesday and Wednesday, was sold out. Our dive shop had not told us of the need to book it in advance, just that it was essential to take that ferry in order to team up with them for Tuesday diving. Fortunately, the dive shop suggested that if we went a little early, there might be no-shows making it possible to get a ticket after all. Our Italian friends wanted to go there also, so we planned to meet at the ferry ticket office about 45 minutes early to seek stand-by tickets. Fortunately, our friends showed up over an hour early and were near the front of the line for standby tickets, and obtained two for us as well.

Our Italian friends helped us make the best of the next disaster. When we arrived at Aka Island, excited at the prospect of diving and spending two days at that beautiful spot, we were greeted by our former dive instructor who came onto the ferry and immediately told us to go back because the whole island was closed, our hotel there was cancelled, and there would be no diving due to a new typhoon on its way. What?

Our weather forecasts from US-based services said nothing about a new typhoon, but that didn't change the fact that a serious storm was coming. So we were about to just wave good-bye to our good friend, when our Italian friends pressed for more information and asked if there was someway we could still see the island. It was then about 10:15. Our dive master explained that the last ferry would leave at 2:30 PM, so we could stay until then. But there was no diving and no food. I was thinking, "Why bother? Let's go back to Okinawa and do something." But since our Italian friends wanted to stay, and since there might be a chance to talk a little more with Maiko, we decided to stay also. What a blessing that was!

Maiko was able to drive all four of us to a spot where swimming and snorkeling was allowed, and about the only thing still open on the island was a little shop there that rented snorkeling gear and even had some local food ("taco rice," a specialty like taco toppings on rice derived from the tastes of American soldiers). So we all went snorkeling and while it was not as spectacular as a typical scuba dive, the reefs we saw were beautiful and there were many species of fish there. Delightful.

Maiko met us for lunch and took us to the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the island and the pristine water around it. It was surprisingly clear for having just been hit with a typhoon. We had just enough time for fun snorkeling, a good taco rice lunch, some photos, and some warm good-byes before leaving our sweet dive master to catch the departing ferry. Disaster turned into blessing, thanks to our Italian friends.

Aka Island was so beautiful, in spite of not being able to dive. But perhaps the best part was the reunion with a kind friend, Maiko, though only for a short while. 

A view of Aka Island from a hill overlooking the beach and snorkeling area.
With our diving cancelled, we figured we would be able to see what we wanted to see on Okinawa faster than expected, so maybe we could take an earlier flight to Seoul and spend some time there. At the last minute in Shanghai I had packed a white shirt in my bag just in case something would give us some time in Seoul, where there is a temple I had not yet seen. Now I was thinking that might come in handy. Checking weather forecasts while on the boat back to Naha, I finally found one that recognized the approach of a typhoon, and based on that, it looked like Friday would be a good day to leave Okinawa. Our friends were also planning something to change their flights to Friday for a return to Shanghai. Great. We would meet again for dinner that night, after I spent a couple of hours on Skype to get our flight to Seoul move up a couple of days to Friday. Yay! We would have a chance to see Seoul and the Temple on Saturday, so we thought.

The Italians helped us avert yet another problem. Minutes after completing all the work it took with Travelocity and Korean Area to change our flight plans to Friday, we rushed out of our hotel and met our friends at a fun local Okinawan place. The first words out of their mouths were a complaint about how they had just changed their travel to Friday, and now they discovered that was the worst possible time. Based on the newest forecast, the typhoon would be intense that day and flights would likely be cancelled. I, too, had made a serious mistake and now faced the risk of being stuck without the original return flight available. Travel in Asia during Gold Week involves huge numbers of Chinese travelers making flights very crowded and expensive, and making changes more difficult. Now we risked missing some work and having to eat up precious vacation days waiting to off Okinawa.

With that early warning of trouble from our friends, I got back on the phone right after dinner and found Korean Airlines to be very helpful. They were able to rebook us again at no extra charge on earlier flights on Wednesday night that would avoid the typhoon. We were so lucky there were any seats at all! Our friends would do the same. In fact, we would meet them again at the airport, unexpectedly, and have yet another meal together before parting. In addition, we would spend Wednesday morning together visiting some significant sites in Okinawa, including Hacksaw Ridge. Such good people. We look forward to ongoing association in Shanghai.

The final surprise that got us closer to the Temple in western Seoul was a strange computer glitch. Finding a hotel in Seoul was difficult since nearly everything was fully booked already. I did find one place (Roi House) not far from the Temple but it looked like a hostel, though they had a room with a private bath that looked possible. But I decided to go with another hotel near the center of Seoul, one that included breakfast and was more of a regular hotel, though maybe not in such a great setting. I first ordered that hotel (Chisun Hotel Seoul Myeongdong) on Ctrip (Trip.com). After one hour, it still said it was awaiting confirmation. I finally called Ctrip and learned that there had been some kind of glitch and they would not be able to even try to confirm it until the next day. I wasn't willing to wait, giving how few rooms there were and the fact that many others might be doing the same thing we were, fleeing typhoons and heading for better weather. So then I went to Hotels.com. I had a page open for the Roi house, but since I didn't want that, I opened a new page for the other hotel, and then clicked on "book now." The order went through right away. Great! That was at midnight. I went to sleep, happy to finally have secured the hotel I wanted.

The next day, on the way to the Naha airport for our flight to Seoul, I was looking up the address of the hotel I had ordered so I could tell a cab driver where to take me. That's when I saw a shocking notice in my confirmation email from Hotels.com: the reservations I had were for Roi House, not the downtown place I wanted. I am sure (really? well, I think so!) that I had clicked on the button to order the downtown hotel, but what was ordered was Roi House. Perhaps it was because the Roi House page was loaded in memory somehow? Must be user error and just lack of attention late at night, but it was really a surprise. No refund possible, so we went with the Roi House -- and what a perfect blessing that was. It was comfortable, spacious, and surrounded with pleasant places to walk and some of the best food we've had, including the best gelato we've seen outside of Italy (Gelati Gelati at the mall next to the Hongik University station) and the best Italian restaurant we've experienced outside of Italy (Al Choc), right around the corner from Roi House (best gnocchi ever!) and surprisingly affordable. But most important was the proximity to the Temple, allowing us to go there easily without the stress of long travel or long waits for taxis. Just a pleasant stroll.

This ended up being a beautiful, uplifting, relaxing, and delicious vacation, with new friendships made and an important old friendship renewed. We were booted from paradise in Okinawa, but guided to something even better, featuring a marvelous celestial room in Seoul. (Imagine a clever but mercifully resisted pun here.) We could have gone to the Temple had we stayed at the downtown place, but it would have been harder and probably less frequent. Two typhoons, two Italians, and bizarre computer glitch -- that was our pathway to truly rich blessings.

I came away with a real love for Korea and a respect for the many good Saints there who make Korea an even better, happier country and who do so much to make the blessings of the Temple available there. I also realized that active steps to cope with risk and apply mercifully provided information is important for coping with complex situations. We could easily have been stranded in Okinawa, where many services were being shut down for a day or two due to the new storm and where travel was becoming problematic for many.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Fabulous Content in the New Church History Book, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days

One of the most important works of scholarship related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the Joseph Smith Papers project, where an extensive collection of papers are being made available for the world to examine and search. The rise of this vast project has been instrumental in enabling one of the most remarkable resources the Church has made available, the multivolume history of the Church, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days. This is a careful work of scholarship that makes details of Church history readily available to members of the Church and anyone else, with a readable text rich in links to original sources allowing readers to dig deeper and evaluate the materials on their own. The close relationship between the Joseph Smith Papers and this work of history adds much to its depth and usefulness.

The Joseph Smith Papers website has this to say about Saints:
For the first time in nearly one hundred years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is releasing a new multivolume work about its history. The first volume of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, which covers key events in the early history of the church, is now available in print, online, and in the Gospel Library app. Subtitled “The Standard of Truth,” the first volume tells the story of the church beginning in 1815 with Joseph Smith’s childhood and concludes with Latter-day Saints worshipping in the Nauvoo temple in 1846 before their exodus west.

When the Joseph Smith Papers Project was launched more than fifteen years ago, its founders envisioned that the project’s publications would be cited and relied upon by scholars and other writers of both academic and popular works. The first volume of Saints is one example of how the project’s publications are finding widespread acceptance and influencing how history is understood and told. Some project scholars assisted with reviewing Saints materials for historical accuracy.

Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church History Department, stated, “Saints relies heavily on the groundbreaking research of the Joseph Smith Papers. The reliance can be seen in almost chapter as evidenced by the hundreds of endnotes that cite to the Joseph Smith Papers and that link directly to the Joseph Smith Papers website in electronic versions of Saints. The new narrative history is one more evidence of the growing influence of the Joseph Smith Papers.”

Saints features the true stories of the women and men who established the church around the globe. Church historians researched and wrote the volume using the records left behind by early church members, and creative writers and editors helped make the history engaging and accessible.
Written in a narrative style, Saints is designed to appeal to readers of various ages and backgrounds. While the English print book is already available in retail outlets, the printed publication will be available in thirteen other languages by the end of the year. Readers can also find the content in fourteen languages on the Church History website and in the Church History section of the Gospel Library app. The audiobook is currently available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
I've been greatly impressed with the style, the content, and the depth of additional resources provided in volume 1 of Saints that is easily accessible in my LDS Library App, online, and elsewhere. This work lets the Church tell its story, warts and all, without running away from complex issues but while also clearing explaining our views and faith. It's a resource that all of us should explore and appreciate.  It's written in language that will be accessible to many readers, with added depth available in its many footnotes.

As one example, volume 1 provides some interesting details about Joseph's receipt of the gold plates. He was told to bring someone trustworthy with him. Alvin originally was intended, but after Alvin passed away, Joseph was confused when told again to bring someone with him to the hill to receive the plates. As we read in Chapter 4 of Vol. 1, by consulting his seer stone, Joseph learned that this trustworthy person should be Emma. This was before they were married. An intriguing detail that many of us didn't know about before.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Matthew Bowen's New Name as Key-Word Offers a Stunning Surge in Book of Mormon Word Plays Related to Names

While attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference in Provo this summer, I was fortunate to be able to get a copy of a popular new book that sold out on its first day there: Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essay on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation and Salt Lake City: Ehorn Books, 2018) [i]. It's a book rich in hidden gems from the Book of Mormon (primarily) and other parts of the LDS scriptures that can help us better understand the meaning of our scriptures and also better appreciate the skill and craftsmanship of their ancient authors.

In our modern English-speaking culture (and Joseph Smith's culture), many of us give names to our children and mention the names of others in our speech and writings often without knowing or reflecting upon what those names originally meant. For ancient Hebrew writers, however, names were highly significant and their meanings, based on various roots the words might derive from, were frequently the subject of puns or other literary tools that drew upon the meaning of names.

The extensive literary devices tied to names in the Old Testament are much easier for Chinese people to grasp because Chinese culture is much closer to ancient Hebrew culture in its treatment of the meaning in names. In China, almost every Chinese name has noteworthy meaning that may reflect upon a parent's wishes for the child or relate to an ancient tradition in the family line. One of my first friends from China that I met just days after my mission in Switzerland had a given name that can be literally translated as Book Diligent. He became a famous professor through his diligent study and was one of the first Chinese citizens sent to America after the cultural revolution ended to pursue advanced studies and research. He helped fuel my interest in China and blessed my life in many ways over the years until his recent death. He was a credit to his country, to his family, and to his Maker, in my opinion. Such a good and diligent man.

If the Book of Mormon has ancient Hebrew roots, it would make sense that names would be significant to its writers and that word plays might be attempted in some cases. The challenge, of course, is that we don't have the ancient text to see which words were used. In fact, there is some uncertainty as to which language was used as Nephi and others wrote on metal plates. Were they writing Hebrew using some form of an Egyptian script, or writing Egyptian in an Egyptian script with Hebrew influence?

While the debate continues on the nature of the underlying language(s) and script(s) that were on the gold plates, Bowen's investigation suggests that the Book of Mormon authors were aware of the Hebrew and sometimes Egyptian meanings behind many Book of Mormon names, and built word plays into the treatment of those names to give emphasis or added meaning. Bowen’s detailed work shows that when a variety of Book of Mormon names are considered in light of their plausible ancient meaning, clever and pervasive word plays appear in the way these names are used.

The name Alma, for example, now known to be an authentic ancient Jewish man’s name (after so many decades of mockery from critics for Joseph’s “blunder” of not recognizing Alma as a common Latin female name),[ii] is introduced in Mosiah 17:2 with an apparent word play on the Hebrew name: given that Alma name can mean “young man” in Hebrew, the statement that Alma “was a young man” suggests a knowing word play in Mosiah 17:2. A word play with the Hebrew root *‘lm, “to hide,” to be “hidden” or “concealed,” may also occur in the story of Alma being “hidden” and “concealed” while writing the words of Abinadi and “privately” teaching those who would listen. The abundance of word plays involving his name in Mosiah 17–18 “accentuates his importance as a prophetic figure and founder of the later Nephite church.”[iii]

Finding word plays, like other Hebraic elements including Hebrew poetical elements, in an English translation faces the obvious problem of lacking the text in the original language from which one might more fully evaluate the nature of the literary device. However, with names in particular, there is a reasonable chance that evidence of a word play can survive translation if the name is transliterated well and if the associated text has been translated well. An example is the name Jesus in Matthew 1:21: “thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” In spite of the Hebrew having been written in Greek and then translated in English, and in spite of not having the original Aramaic or Hebrew words that were actually spoken in Matthew 1, we can still see a connection between the name of Jesus and the Hebrew word yosia meaning “to save.”

Still, even when working with the original language, an apparent word play may be unintended and arise from chance. However, when the word play relates well to the text or has explanatory power, and when the word play is applied more than once or in creative, artful ways, the probability of intent is higher. Bowen makes the case for most of his finds that multiple factors point to intentional and clever word plays rather than mere chance. Word plays involving Book of Mormon names in Bowen’s book (which also considers some newly proposed Biblical word plays) include the following:
  • Nephi’s name. Proposed to be from Egyptian nfr meaning good or goodly, Nephi appears to have multiple meaningful connections to the word “good” in the text, beginning with Nephi’s declaration at the very beginning of our text that “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….” Bowen suggests this relationship is at play in not only the opening but also the closing chapter of Nephi’s writings, forming an “inclusio” that appropriately brackets his two-book work and underscores his mission of helping readers know the goodness of God and helping them to choose do good and follow Christ.[iv]
  • The name Mary, related to the Egyptian root mr(i), “love,” “desire,” or “wish.” It is only after seeing Mary in vision that Nephi recognizes the significance of the tree he saw in his vision: “it is the love of God which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things (1 Nephi 11:22). Others possible word plays with other occurrences of the name Mary are also discussed.[v]
  • Mormon’s name and the related place name, the Waters of Mormon, for which Mormon appears to show awareness of a relationship to the same root as Mary for first syllable, apparently resulting in creative links with the words “desire” and “love.”[vi]
  • The name Joseph, which involves evidence of particularly extensive and creative word plays related to a Hebrew root meaning “gather,” “assemble,” etc., and a root meaning “to add” or “increase.” These word plays are primarily made using an ancient Hebrew literary technique known as Gezera Shawa, in which two scriptural passages are brought together based on a shared word in both passages, thereby adding to or reinterpreting the meaning in a creative way. After Bowen’s book went into print, he published another study investigating a further set of word plays related to the name Joseph.[vii] There Bowen makes the case that Nephi’s heavy application of the Isaianic use of yāsap (“to add, to proceed”) in 2 Nephi 25–30 is “a direct and thematic allusion” to a latter-day Joseph who would have a role in in bringing forth additional scripture. “This additional scripture would enable the meek to ‘increase,’ just as Isaiah and Nephi had prophesied.”[viii]
  • The name Benjamin, which is also used artfully with Gezera Shawa by Benjamin himself. In the covenant-making context of King Benjamin’s speech, he seeks to make his people become sons and daughters of God (Mosiah 5:17), with language drawing upon language in 2 Samuel 7:14 which employs the Hebrew leben (“for a son”), and also Psalm 2:7 and Deuteronomy 14:1–2, employing the Hebrew word ben (“son”) or banim (“children”) and to be able to be at the right hand of God. Those who accept the Lord will be at the “right hand” (Hebrew yamin) of God (Mosiah 5:9)[ix], possibly invoking Psalm 110:1. The verses that Benjamin brings together shows further usage of Gezera Shawa resulting in a clever word play on his own name that emphasizes that through making a keeping the covenant with God, Benjamin’s people can become sons and daughters of God and be enthroned at his right hand, each becoming “a Benjamin.”
  • The name Judah and the Jews, with Judah being related to Hebrew roots which can mean “to offer praise out of a feeling of gratitude” or to “praise,” “thank,” or “acknowledge.” In his chapter, “‘What They the Jews?,’” Bowen shows how Nephi applies these meanings as he urges the future Gentiles to grateful to the Jews for the scriptures they have preserved for the world and to resist the temptation to despise and persecute the Jews (2 Nephi 29:3–6). “What thank they the Jews?” in 2 Nephi 29:4, the Lord’s condemning question of future anti-Semitic Gentiles, appears to provide a direct word play between the words for “Jews” and “thank.” To say that the Jews have helped bring forth “salvation” to the Gentiles (also 2 Nephi 29:4) may also be a word play on the name of Jesus. Bowen also observes that Nephi’s closing words which call upon us to “respect the words of the Jews” (2 Nephi 33:14) further underscores the revealed message shared in 2 Nephi 29.[x] Bowen also notes that the Book of Mormon offers the strongest condemnation of anti-Semitism found anywhere in the scriptures.[xi] How appropriate that it would be done with Hebraic wordplays.
  • The names Enos and Jacob, as used by Enos to relate his experiences to those of his ancestor Jacob in Genesis 32–33. Enos appears to employ a Hebraic word play between the name Jacob and “wrestle” in addition to a word play on his won name.[xii]
  • Abish, a woman servant among the Lamanites whose name is given, strangely, while most Book of Mormon women go unnamed. In this case, however, her name fits the story with a straightforward wordplay, and also fits an important theological agenda. “Abish” can mean “Father is a man,” an apt name for a woman who, in the same verse that names her, is said to have been secretly converted due to a “remarkable vision of her father.” But since names beginning with “Ab-” in the Old Testament often make a reference to God, “Father is a man” has a very appropriate reference to the nature of God, particularly Christ. Ammon was seeking to teach the Lamanites who the Great Spirit was and how Christ would come to earth as a mortal to redeem all mankind. The name Abish is meaningful in more than one way in this account, and we can be grateful that it was included.[xiii]
  • The place names Zarahemla and Jerson. Jershon was one of the first potential word plays noted in the Book of Mormon, with an easily discernible relationship to the word “inheritance,” the perfect name for the land that was given as a land of “inheritance” to the newly converted and exiled Anti-Nephi-Lehites fleeing their Lamanite homelands. But Bowen reveals more in the literary devices involving Jerson, including intriguing parallels between how Jershon is consistently with the way in which word plays are done with the name Zarahemla relying on its apparent Hebrew meaning of “seed of compassion” or “seed of pity.”[xiv]
  • The names Zoram and Rameumpton. Both names share a common syllable that in Hebrew can describe something that is “high” or “lifted up.” These names may be involved in word plays in descriptions of the Zoramites and their peculiar, prideful religious practices involving standing on an elevated tower or stand called the “Rameumptom” from which they boasted of their elite status. Similar word plays may have been used in Alma’s counsel to his son Shiblon and in Mormon’s description of the corrupt chief judges Cezoram and Seezoram, both with Zoram-dervied named, to emphasize that the proud and wicked Nephites had become lifted up like the Zoramites.[xv]
  • The name Aminadab, which Bowen sees as a Semitic/Hebrew name meaning “my kinsman is willing” or “my people are willing.” Aminadab is the Nephite dissenter among the Lamanites who helps them recognize what is occurring during a miraculous event in Helaman 5 in which the Nephite brothers and prophets Lehi and Nephi are spared in a Lamanite prison. Aminadab, remembering his religious roots, tells the terrified Lamanites that “you must repent and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ” (Helaman 5:41). They are converted and their witness leads to many more converts. Mormon, in concluding this story, notes that it was the “willingness” of the Lamanite people that led to their conversion (Helaman 6:36).
There are many more word plays that have been proposed for various passages in the Book of Mormon, but Bowen’s focus on the significance of names appears to be especially fruitful and generally plausible, and frequently brings out added meaning or answers meaningful questions about the text. In most of these cases, it would be difficult to ascribe the word plays identified to just chance and clever argumentation, though false positives in general cannot be completely ruled out.

As Bowen observes, whether the text was written in Hebrew or Egyptian, the underlying meanings of names and relevant word plays drawing upon Hebrew roots could have been recognized by readers familiar with the brass plates and the Nephites’ (evolving) spoken language with its Hebrew origins, reducing the impact of uncertainty on the written language on the relevance of word plays based on names with recognized meaning in Hebrew or Egyptian. In spite of such uncertainties, Bowen’s work leaves us with a much richer appreciation of the genuinely ancient literary nature of the Book of Mormon, filled with gems that are only being noticed now nearly two centuries after the Book of Mormon was dictated by a young man who had not yet studied Hebrew and could not have studied Egyptian.

Mercifully, Bowen does not require readers to be familiar with Hebrew or Egyptian, but it is still a book that might be challenging for some readers because of its rich detail and technical content. It's not for everybody, but I think it is somewhat more accessible that some of the original papers upon which it is based (e.g., some highly technical terms have been replaced with more generally understandable terminology). For those interested in digging into the Book of Mormon and exploring the miracle that this rich and ancient text represents, Bowen's work should definitely be on your shopping list and your reading list. Strongly recommended.


[i] Matthew Bowen's Name as Key-Word contains 16 essays treating names in the Book of Mormon as well as some from the Bible. Readers of Bowen's many publications at The Interpreter (https://www.mormoninterpreter.com) will recognize that much of the content in these essays is drawn from his peer-reviewed publications there, but with some differences, including added insights, strengthening of arguments, a great bibliography, a helpful index, and good introductory material, including an excellent and detailed foreword from Jeffrey Bradshaw.

[ii] Paul Hoskisson, "What's in a Name?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 7/1 (1998): 72–73; https://publications.mi.byu.edu/pdf-control.php/publications/jbms/7/1/S00011-50be297b720ea9Hoskisson.pdf. See also John Tvedtnes, “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon,” presented at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, August 2001; https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/tvedtnes-HebrewNames.pdf and Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name 'Alma' at Ebla," Religious Educator, 1/1 (2000): 53–56; https://rsc.byu.edu/es/archived/volume-1-number-1-2000/personal-name-alma-ebla.

[iii] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, lii–liii and 91–100. See also Matthew L. Bowen, “Alma — Young Man, Hidden Prophet,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 19 (2016): 343–353; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/alma-young-man-hidden-prophet/ and Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Did Go About Secretly’: Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma’s Name,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 197–212; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/he-did-go-about-secretly-additional-thoughts-on-the-literary-use-of-almas-name/.

[iv] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 1–15.

[v] Ibid., 17–47.

[vi] Ibid., 24–47.

[vii] Matthew L. Bowen, “‘And the Meek Also Shall Increase’: The Verb YĀSAP in Isaiah 29 and Nephi’s Prophetic Allusions to the Name Joseph in 2 Nephi 25–30,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 30 (2018): 5–42; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/and-the-meek-also-shall-increase-the-verb-yasap-in-isaiah-29-and-nephis-prophetic-allusions-to-the-name-joseph-in-2-nephi-25-30/.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 49–68.

[x] Ibid., 69–81.

[xi] Ibid. liii.

[xii] Ibid., 83–90.

[xiii] Ibid., 101–118.

[xiv] Ibid., 119–140.

[xv] Ibid., 141–175. See also Matthew L. Bowen, “‘See That Ye Are Not Lifted Up’: The Name Zoram and Its Paronomastic Pejoration,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 19 (2016): 109-143; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/see-that-ye-are-not-lifted-up-the-name-zoram-and-its-paronomastic-pejoration/.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Two Words that Finally Helped Me Grasp the Genius of the New Ministering Program

I have to admit that I was a little puzzled by the new ministering program in the Church, where home teachers and visiting teachers have been replaced with "ministering brothers" and "ministering sisters." When it was first announced, to me it looked a little like a name change with a welcome decrease in statistics, but still seemed essentially the same, or maybe even watered down. Was this really an important step for the Church? Today, while nominally fulfilling an assignment to give some training to others on the topic of ministering, lights went off in my head that were triggered by two words: "strengths" and "scheduling."

That second word was used by a member from Ghana as he answered a question I posed and explained his view on the ministering program. In the old system, the emphasis in his mind in his work as a home teacher was on scheduling. "Can I get my schedule to align with my assigned families' schedules so that I can get into their home and visit them?" The difficulties of scheduling to get into a home were a major part of home teaching for many of us. Now that's a much smaller issue. The emphasis is on what we can do to help and to be friends. Ministering can include visiting, but it can also include meeting for lunch, going to an activity together, talking on the phone, sending an inspirational thought, spending time praying for the welfare of others and thinking of creative ways to help, etc. For a great discussion of what ministering looks like, see the inspiring talk of Jean B. Bingham from the April 2018 General Conference, "Ministering as the Savior Does."

Whether you can successfully make a visit before midnight of the last day of the month is a non-issue now. The only real issue is ministering. Less structured, more flexible, and more loving. Scheduling is no longer the key. A subtle difference, but crucially important.

My wife points out that visiting teaching was also highly centered around scheduling. In fact, the issue of scheduling was often at the forefront in selecting assignments for visiting teachers. The scheduling issue revolved around evaluating whether groups of sisters were free during the day or only free during the evening or weekends in order to make appropriate matches based on the potential for overlapping schedules that could permit visits. But now that the scheduling of visits is less important, leaders and members may be more free and more creative in making assignments and in making ministering work to really bless lives and not just foster visits. Yes, visits are still important and desirable, but not the key goal that we need to achieve and report on.

The other word, "strengths,"  instantly opened my eyes to another subtle but important aspect of the new program. It hit me this morning about 10 minutes before I heard the comment on scheduling. While reading some of the resources on ministering for stake and ward leaders (available at LDS.org or in the Ministering section of the Gospel Library App), I saw the word "strengths" in the Frequently Asked Questions document. I noticed this in Section 15:
As needed, elders quorum and Relief Society leaders counsel with the ward council regarding strengths and needs identified in ministering interviews and make and enact plans to serve and bless ward members. [emphasis added]
I would see similar language in other parts of that document and in other new resources.

That word "strengths" touched me: when discussing the people being ministered to, we aren't just focusing on problems. We are being encouraged to see the whole person, including strengths as well as needs. Understanding the positives, the goodness, the talents and capabilities of our people can help us understand them more fully, and also help us recognize opportunities where they can help or inspire others and grow more fully by using their strengths. I really like the idea of actively considering the strengths of others when we seek to minister.

This theme of also considering strengths came up later today when my wife and I watched the video below, "Ministering Interviews," on the issue of interviews with ministering brothers and sisters. So simple, yet to me so inspiring. Within the discussion once again is the recognition of the need to look at and consider strengths as well as needs. That subtle but emphatic guidance is healthy, holistic, and healing. It's there because the work of the Church is now even more effectively oriented at truly ministering to others. The changes announced this year represent one of the Lord's many "small means," but through this revealed guidance great things can come, even miracles, if we will accept this direction with energy and faith and do more to bless the lives of others around us. Less scheduling, more discovery of the goodness and strengths of others, and more Christlike ministering. I'm slowly beginning to see the power and the revelation behind what I initially misunderstood as minor adjustment.

Related resource: see the videos on ministering at LDS.org.