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

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Book of Mormon's Interesting Uses of Isaiah 25:8, "Death Swallowed Up"

There's no question that the Book of Mormon has great intertextuality with the Bible, frequently drawing upon its language to convey its stories and concepts in familiar sacred language. The subtle allusions and variations that occur can often lead to significant insights into how we can better understand and apply the text of the Book of Mormon.

An interesting example of such intertexuality (a.k.a. "blatant plagiarism" if your goal is the easy one of finding fault above all) was recently discussed at Book of Mormon Central in the post, "'Swallowing Up' Death in Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and the Book of Mormon," Sept. 3, 2019. Here the post draws upon an outstanding publication by Dr. David Larsen of BYU, “Death Being Swallowed Up in Netzach in the Bible and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly, 55/4 (2016):123–134.

The Book of Mormon, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, draws upon a beautiful and hopeful Old Testament passage, Isaiah 25:8, where we read that death will be "swallowed up in victory." The interesting thing is the Hebrew word that was translated as victory in the KJV of Isaiah 25:8: netzach (Strong's H5331). This fascinating word can be translated in other ways, and some of these other ways are consistent with subtle variations in the 3 instances of the Book of Mormon that allude to that passage.

Abinadi in Mosiah 16:7–8 speaks of death being swallowed up in Christ, consistent with other times in the Bible where the netzach of Israel is the "strength" of Israel or the “Triumpher” or “Overcomer,” a great title for the grand Victor, Jesus Christ.

Next Aaron in Alma 22:14 teaches that "the sting of death should be swallowed up in the hopes of glory” (Alma 22:14). According to Book of Mormon Central,
It is therefore fascinating that netzach can also mean “splendor, glory.” In addition to the translations of 1 Samuel 15:29 already mentioned, in that passage netzach frequently gets translated as “Glory of Israel” (see, e.g., NRSV, ESV, NIV), and at least one translation even renders it “Hope of Israel.” The term netzach, translated as “strength” in KJV, but more commonly as “glory” in modern translations (e.g., NRSV, LEB), appears closely with “hope” (tohal) in Lamentations 3:18.
Finally, Mormon in describing the willingness of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites to sacrifice their lives states that to them “death was swallowed up … by the victory of Christ” (Alma 27:28).
Here, Mormon, perhaps drawing on language from Alma’s record, brings the expressions of Isaiah and Abinadi together by adding that it was the victory (netzach) of Christ, rather than replacing netzach with Christ. This fuller articulation may have emerged among the Nephites as an effort to harmonize both Isaiah and Abinadi’s teachings and clarify how death is swallowed up both in victory and in Christ
Sometimes there's much to be learned by considering how the Hebrew of Isaiah or other writers may have been applied in the Book of Mormon. These subtleties suggest the Book of Mormon authors were aware of the range of meaning available for netzach. 

Further Notes:

"Swallowed up in Christ" is not unique to the Book of Mormon. The Scottish pastor Samuel Rutherford's writings have it in 1803 on pp. 411-412 of his 739-page tome, Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself (Glasgow: Samuel and Archibald Gardner, 1803), though his context may have little to do with Isaiah 25:8, but speaks of how our earthly desires can be swallowed up in Christ as we follow him:

Google Books does not show any pre-1830 instances of "swallowed up in hopes of glory," or "swallowed up in hope." But a search of Early English Books Online (EEBO) shows "swallowed up in hope" does occur in some Early Modern English sources such as a 1605 poem that also links "glorious realm" to the word "swallow."

One of many early examples of a discussion of death being swallowed up is from the 1654 book, Thanatoktasía, or, Death disarmed: and the grave swallowed up in victory by Anthony Tuckney.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Bad Math and the Premature Dismissal of Brian Stubbs' Work on Uto-Aztecan Languages

In my previous post on the negative review by BYU professor Chris Rogers regarding Brian Stubbs' work on ancient connections between Uto-Aztecan languages and three Old World languages, some comments point to Rogers' Table 6 as key evidence for dismissing the correspondences detailed by Stubbs. Table 6 appears to present evidence that chance similarities could account for what Stubbs has found.

As a reminder, the key to establishing genuine connections between ancient languages is not finding a bunch of random words that can appear to be related, but establishing meaningful relationship with many examples of consistent sound changes. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia's article on the "Comparative Method" describing how to establish legitimate connections:

Step 2, establish correspondence sets

The next step involves determining the regular sound-correspondences exhibited by the lists of potential cognates. For example, in the Polynesian data above, it is apparent that words that contain t in most of the languages listed have cognates in Hawaiian with k in the same position. This is visible in multiple cognate sets: the words glossed as 'one', 'three', 'man', and 'taboo' all show this relationship. This situation is termed a regular correspondence between k in Hawaiian and t in the other Polynesian languages. Similarly, in those data a regular correspondence can be seen between Hawaiian and Rapanui h, Tongan and Samoan f, Maori ɸ, and Rarotongan ʔ.

Mere phonetic similarity, as between English day and Latin dies (both with the same meaning), has no probative value.[31] English initial d- does not regularly match Latin d-[32]—it is not possible to assemble a large set of English and Latin non-borrowed cognates such that English d repeatedly and consistently corresponds to Latin d at the beginning of a word—and whatever sporadic matches can be observed are due either to chance (as in the above example) or to borrowing (for example, Latin diabolus and English devil—both ultimately of Greek origin[33]). English and Latin do exhibit a regular correspondence of t- : d-[32] (where the notation "A : B" means "A corresponds to B"); for example,[34]
 English   ten   two   tow   tongue   tooth 
 Latin   decem   duo   dūco   dingua   dent-  

If there are many regular correspondence sets of this kind (the more the better), then a common origin becomes a virtual certainty, particularly if some of the correspondences are non-trivial or unusual.[21]

This is at the heart of what Stubbs has done, presenting extensive data on widespread, consistent sound changes that link cognates between Uto-Aztecan languages and three Old World languages (that happen to have Book of Mormon ties). Many are non-trivial, detailed, involve lengthy words and sometimes surprising parallels in meanings and multiple meanings. But Rogers seems to treat this work as amateur excitement over chance parallels.

Suppose, for example, that the German had gone completely extinct a couple hundred years ago and only now had scholars recovered and deciphered a handful of texts. Suppose you are working on the language and begin to notice parallels with English, such as "das Buch" = book, "kochen" = to cook, and "suchen" = to seek. These show a consistent relationship between German "ch" and English "k," which is far more meaningful than if book, cook, and seek seemed to align with, say, "ubakr," "kouki," and "zeqqol." With chance finds, of course, it is unlikely that consistent patterns will arise. So even if your list of cognates was still small, the pattern of sound changes could help you realize that perhaps more than chance was at play.

But chance is always a possibility. In fact, false cognates due to chance can be found without too much trouble. In Chinese, "fei" can mean "fee," but there's no evidence that any legitimate relationship is behind this and many other chance parallels. How often can chance lead to a false cognate? Stubbs suggests it is 1% to 3% of the time. OK, but I think it would be very hard to contrive English-Chinese parallels for 1% of either language. But accepting that range, Rogers crunches some numbers to suggest that the 1500+ cognates presented by Stubbs are meaningless. To do this, he considers that the Uto-Aztecan language family has 30 languages and that Stubbs is scanning 3 Old World languages, which greatly increases the potential for finding parallels. Rogers argues that at a 3% rate of chance cognates, we might expect nearly 5,000 chance parallels, making 1,500 completely pathetic. Here's the relevant portion of his paper from pages 255-256 (click to enlarge):

There's clearly something wrong when he reports that 2,598 similarities are expected by chance alone, for that number is the number with a minus sign (i.e., 2,598 less than zero) is the number Table 6 shows remaining after subtracting the actual calculated number of possible false cognates, 4,126, from the number of cognates presented by Stubbs, 1,528. But much more trouble is occurring here than just reporting the wrong sum. This number of over 4,000 false cognates is based on rather spurious math, IMO.

The first additional problem is that Rogers is using the wrong base in calculating potential false cognates. He treats 1,528 as that base, but the base should be the number of words in the language family being considered, which is an even bigger number. But let's assume that Rogers math is correct and that there's a base of only 1,528 Uto-Aztecan words, incorrectly implying that Stubbs is proposing that 100% of the UA vocabulary is related to Egyptian and Semitic. Even in that case, Rogers obliterates any cause for excitement by multiplying the upper limit of 3% chance of a random correspondence by 30 Uto-Aztecan languages and by 3 Old World languages, in other words, 0.03 * 30 * 3 = 2.70, giving 270% of the entire vocabulary being subject to false cognates with Stubb's 3 Old World languages by chance. That's how 1,528 cognates from Stubbs becomes a potential 4,126 false cognates in the crazy math of Table 6. Something is out of touch with reality here.

Part of the problem here is that the 30 languages of Uto-Aztecan are all related, and that Stubbs is not creating an additional entry and claim for each related cognate in each language. Worse than double jeopardy, Rogers would give a false cognate a penalty of 30 * 3 = 90 words to deduct from Stubbs' list. Note that almost each of the 1500+ cognates from Stubbs involve multiple languages and usually involve reconstructed Proto-Uto-Aztecan words; he's not counting a cognate as, say, 15 cognates when half of Uto-Aztecan languages seem to share it, but lists it as one entry.

Further, great weight should be given to cognates that involve Proto-Uto-Aztecan, which would naturally tend to involve multiple modern UA languages. Rogers should consider the high number of cognates that are related to Proto-Uto-Aztecan, where it makes even less sense to conjure up huge numbers of expected false cognates with the multiply-by-30 tactic.

To get a feel for what Stubbs is reporting and how he counts multiple related hits in multiple languages, below is a randomly selected section from Stubbs' more technical book (I scrolled to a random place and then picked a contiguous section that included discussion of the sound change rule under consideration), where you can see for yourself. Many of those two- and three-letter abbreviations in his explanations are abbreviations referring to specific languages, and UACV followed by a word with a leading asterisk refers to a reconstructed Proto-Uto-Aztecan word from his definitive publication on the language, which is used in each of these entries and I believe the majority throughout the book. Here's the excerpt from pages 80-81 of Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan, which can be downloaded at BMSLR.org for free, courtesy of Jerry Grover (click to enlarge):

Sadly, even some highly educated people have jumped on Table 6 and feel that Rogers with his reported gargantuan numbers for expected false cognates (up to 270% of the vocabulary) has provided compelling reasons to dismiss Stubbs' work as meaningless garbage all due to chance alone. You can always find a reason to dismiss something you don't like, but relying on preconceived notions coupled with bad math is not the most accurate way to reinforce your views. These kind of math errors are easy to make, I'll admit, but it's unfortunate that they survived peer review for the Maxwell Institute's publication. What Stubbs gives us requires more thoughtful attention that this. Yes, it's counter to so much that we think we know so it's easy to want to dismiss it, but the data is not readily explained by chance cognates, and the patterns of consistent sound changes add a great deal that Rogers is missing. I hope Rogers will give Stubbs a closer look! I think he missed some significant aspects of the work he criticizes. Hoping for a round 2!

I also have to point out that Rogers' comment on pp. 255-256 about not accounting for the impact of borrowing is quite puzzling. Stubbs is arguing that there was an infusion of ancient languages, not a genetic relationship. Read Stubbs' response on my previous post to get into that issue more fully. But for today, I'm just addressing the issue of Table 6 and its faulty math.

Further Thoughts on John Gee's Article at The Interpreter

John Gee's recent article at The Interpreter on the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham points to some genuine problems that merit attention. On the other hand, portions of that review strike me as perhaps too harsh, though others could say the same thing of my critical article on the same volume, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter JSPRT4.

It's difficult criticizing a work one feels is seriously flawed without sounding harsh. But let me remind you of the remarkable positives in that work and throughout the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP) series. The fact that I was able to use the book and the JSP Project website to dig into the details regarding the documents related to the Book of Abraham confirms that the JSP Project has clearly delivered on one of their key objectives: making historical documents relevant to Joseph Smith and his work available for others to study in detail. So while I disagree with some of the editorial decisions including explicit statements, implicit suggestions and omissions, the work still stands as a precious resource for which many of us can be grateful. Pointing to the possible errors, as I have done, may be all that is needed or all that can be reasonably hoped for to provide balance for those interested in finding it.

Apart from possible defects in the volume on the Book of Abraham, Dr. Gee makes an important observation about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers that might merit further attention:
The characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts come from Papyrus Joseph Smith XI. The characters in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Alphabet and Grammar come from Papyrus Joseph Smith I. Because to the editors the characters are meaningless marks on the page, they pay no attention to their origin or the implications of their origins, which explains why they lump different characters from different sources indiscriminately together in their appendix and misplace some of the photographs. If the Egyptian Alphabet documents were the direct source of the Book of Abraham, we would expect that the characters would coincide and have the same source, but they do not. Because the characters do not match, the efforts to match up characters in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Book of Abraham manuscripts have to be seen as independent efforts. It also suggests that both efforts are attempts to match a previously existent Book of Abraham with different papyri rather than stumbling attempts to decipher a particular Egyptian text.
As I understand, Papyrus Joseph Smith XI and I, both shown on page 9 of JSPRT4, were originally part of the same scroll that were separated and separately mounted. But whether the two projects Gee refers to (work with Book of Abraham manuscripts with some characters in the margins and work with the Grammar and Alphabet document and the related Egyptian Alphabet documents) involved work with already separated fragments (as I believe could be the case) or with just different portions of the original unseparated papyrus, I think Gee's point merits attention: these two projects don't have the close relationship one would expect if the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are a window into Joseph's translation to product the Book of Abraham. Rather, it looks like two different efforts, with only minor overlap, and in both cases, there is abundant evidence that the Book of Abraham translation came first, as discussed in my article for the Interpreter, with further evidence in my discussion of the twin manuscripts for Meridian Magazine.

Gee's observation is important. Different characters are (generally) used in the Book of Abraham manuscripts and the Grammar and Alphabet plus Egyptian Alphabet documents. I believe that there is a touch of overlap in that 2 characters from Joseph Smith Papyrus XI (the characters are labeled as 5.27 and 5.28 in JSPRT4) were used by Phelps in Book of Abraham Manuscript C and also occur in the GAEL and the Egyptian Alphabet documents, though these characters have fallen off the mounted papyri fragments as shown in the recent photographs for the JSP Project. It does seem plausible that we are seeing not a window into how Joseph created live translation of a particular Egyptian text, but a window into how the scribes worked with bits and pieces of existing revelatory text (surprisingly, including some portions of the Doctrine and Covenants in addition to portions of the Book of Abraham text and perhaps commentary on Facsimile 1 and 2) in attempts to match up various concepts with Egyptian characters from Papyrus Joseph Smith XI and I, as well with non-Egyptian "Egyptian" characters from a variety of sources, apparently including some archaic Greek, a few Masonic ciphers, etc. It's all thoroughly puzzling and certainly doesn't fit the narratives that critics like to offer about how we are seeing Joseph's translation taking place.

What was the purpose of the Egyptian and non-Egyptian characters being matched up to English text in the Book of Abraham manuscripts? As previously pointed out (see "The Twin BOA Manuscripts: A Window into Creation of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language?"), the header of the twin documents gives us a loud declaration that the critics continue to ignore: "Sign of the fifth degree of the Second part" clearly refers to an unfinished section of the largely unfinished  Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, a bound book with far more blank pages than written pages in its sparse text. The two scribes preparing Book of Abraham Manuscripts A and B were apparently continuing the work of W.W. Phelps, who already covered Abraham 1:1-3 in Book of Abraham Manuscript C, apparently drawing upon an existing text of the translation, as the other scribes continued to do for Manuscripts A and B. Phelps had become unavailable for the Book of Abraham project due to other demands, necessitating the hiring of a new scribe, Warren Parrish, on October 29, 1835 (this raises serious questions about JSPRT4's dating of manuscripts written by Parrish as a scribe for the Book of Abraham effort -- the editors of JSPTR4 claims that these documents may have been written as early as July 1835, which I feel is unreasonable). Joseph hired Parrish and was clearly interested in this work, but we should know that he did not need and Alphabet and Grammar to receive revelation, but was certainly interested in understanding ancient language, however futile that intellectual that quest was for him and his team as far as Egyptian was concerned.
Parrish and Frederick G. Williams continued where Phelps had left off. Their title of "Sign of the fifth degree of the Second part" means not that they are writing down fresh scripture dictated from Joseph's lips, but were preparing further entries for the section of Phelps' GAEL with that same title, but which was never completed and which never received the additional entries that could have been worked out from the recent attempt at linking characters to the text. We don't know the purpose of the GAEL -- to me there are too many puzzles to fit any one theory comfortably, whether it's reverse engineering the decipherment of Egyptian, creating a reverse cipher to encode English, or compiling the "pure language" of the ancients. Whatever it was, the project behind the Kirtland Egyptian Papers was quickly abandoned and left incomplete. I would say the KEP's purpose certainly wasn't creating the translation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian characters. That assumption requires ignoring far too much data.

So when Gee writes, "Because the characters do not match, the efforts to match up characters in the Egyptian Alphabet documents and the Book of Abraham manuscripts have to be seen as independent efforts," I think I largely agree. Not completely independent, but perhaps two different aspects of an ongoing and futile project. And I also generally agree with the next sentence:  "It also suggests that both efforts are attempts to match a previously existent Book of Abraham with different papyri [or possibly different sections of a single original papyrus fragment] rather than stumbling attempts to decipher a particular Egyptian text." Overall, his perspective on the relationship between these documents is a valuable one, with the kind of insight that I wish had been provided from time to time in JSPRT4.

To be fair to JSPRT4, I should note that there is some language in there (as quoted in my articles) recognizing that the twin manuscripts might have been created using an existing text, but the additional possibility that is recognized, that they may represent live dictation by Joseph Smith, faces massive problems in light of the textual data and other data and these problems should have been noticed and noted. The failure to consider the implications of the textual evidence is one of many unfortunate omissions and missed opportunities for more accurate understanding of these manuscripts in JSPRT4. But in spite of such flaws, it's still a remarkable book that can help students of the Book of Abraham dig in and learn more about a mysterious adventure in the history of the Church, the story of the Book of Abraham and its related documents.