long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New Translation of the Book of Mormon

Most members of the Church don't realize there is a new translation of the Book of Mormon available. This is not merely a translation into another new language.

It's in English.

The new translation did not originate with the discovery of more plates in Cumorah or the manuscript Martin Harris lost. It is purely the product of the imagination of scholars such as Mike Ash, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson and Matthew Roper.

I'm going to call it the RAGS translation (Roper, Ash, Gardner, Sorenson*).

The RAGS translation is the last resort of proponents of a Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. (The name RAGS also evokes the tattered state of the Mesoamerican theory.) Because the Mesoamerican theory does not align with Joseph Smith's translation, these scholars felt a better translation was needed. They don't even bother with Joseph's translation, actually. They invent an entirely new text.

RAGS is being promoted by people such as Scot Proctor at LDSMag. The latest example is an article by Michael R. Ash, here.

[BTW, Meridian is an ideal venue for the RAGS translation. Meridian is "Latter-day Saints Shaping their World." The RAGS translation is "Latter-day Scholars shaping their own Book of Mormon."]

The RAGS translation adds an entirely new section that explains how "the Lehites were a small group who migrated into a land full of already existing populations. When the Lehites intermingled with these larger populations, their DNA disappeared."

Do not look in Joseph Smith's translation for this passage. Anyone who reads Joseph's translation can see that Lehi landed in a promised land that was "kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance." (2 Ne. 1:8). A reader can also see that the Nephites were a distinct nation: "And it shall come to pass that except they repent I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth; yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them for other nations which shall possess the land; yea, even this will I do that I may discover the abominations of this people to other nations." (Mosiah 12:8)

To be clear, there is room within the text for some other occupants of the promised land, such as distant descendants of the original Jaredites. Moroni explicitly stated his account was only about the "ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country." This leaves room for ancient inhabitants outside "this north country."

Actually, Lehi said nothing about land that was outside his inheritance. Assuming as I do that Cumorah was in New York and the main setting for the text was between New York, Missouri, and Florida, Lehi's statement and the other prophecies in the text have nothing to say about lands to the west and south of this area. IOW, the "other nations" to which Lehi referred inhabited what we now call Latin America, as well as western North America. The Book of Mormon text is therefore fully consistent with the the archaeology, the DNA, etc.

But the RAGS translation doesn't like what Joseph's translation says.

And why is that?

Essentially, the RAGS translators have decided that the Book of Mormon took place in Central America (Mesoamerica). Inconveniently, that setting conflicts with Joseph's translation in the following respects, among other things:

1. Cumorah in New York.
2. Nephites practicing the law of Moses and retaining Hebrew identity
3. DNA evidence that everyone in Mesoamerica was Asian
4. "Many nations" existing there before Lehi arrived
5. Prophecies that Lehi's descendants would not utterly be destroyed.

So rather than adjust their preferred setting to match the text, the RAGS translators have adjusted the text to match their preferred setting. 

It's a clever approach, actually.

You take a slim thread of possibility--that there were remnants of Jaredites within Lehi's land of inheritance--and explode it into a complete contradiction to the text.

In the RAGS translation, instead of Lehi obtaining a land of promise and inheritance that was kept from the knowledge of other nations, Lehi landed smack-dab into a vast, well-established Asian civilization that completely absorbed his people.

IOW, Lehi's descendants didn't inherit anything but the customs and genes of the "other nations" Lehi said didn't even know about his land!

What makes this all the more perplexing is the RAGS translators purport to be helping people who have on-going faith crises. In what way does coming up with a new, flexible version of the Book of Mormon build faith?

The entire premise of the RAGS translation is that Joseph didn't do it right. Either he missed something, or Oliver didn't write it down, or maybe Nephi, Mormon and Moroni overlooked it. Or, maybe, it was Lehi who made a mistake.

So far, the RAGS translation is only cultural; they haven't taken the next obvious step of issuing their own version of the text. But believers in the RAGS translation such as Scot Proctor surely cannot be satisfied with that. Here's the kind of specificity I expect to see in the next issue of Proctor's LDSmag: a more correct text, starting with 2 Nephi 1:8:

RAGS translation:

"And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be densely occupied by other nations; for behold, many nations will absorb your people, that there would be no chance for an inheritance."

Compare to Joseph's translation:

"And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance."


The RAGS translation is not a response to critics of the Book of Mormon; it's a response to critics of the Mesoamerican theory.

Here is how Ash explains his rationale, with my comments in red.

Critics reluctantly agreed with the basic LDS scholarly position—that if the Lehites were a small group who mingled with a larger Native American population, that Lehite DNA most likely would have disappeared. 
[Here Ash claims the RAGS translation has succeeded; i.e., unnamed "critics" have conceded that the "basic LDS scholarly position" must be correct. This is appalling on several levels. First, it is circular reasoning--the RAGS translation was invented specifically to defeat the argument of these unnamed critics. Second, the "basic LDS scholarly position" is not actually a position; it's merely a hypothetical. And it's not even really a hypothetical; it's an axiom. By definition, if a small group (by small, Ash means around a dozen) mingles with a larger group (by larger, Ash means in the millions), the DNA will mathematically disappear. That's not an LDS position; it's a universal position, based on genetic science. Third, what Ash represents as a "basic LDS scholarly position" is held by only a tiny minority of LDS scholars; i.e., the few who still adhere to and promote the Mesoamerican setting.]
In order to salvage the argument, however, critics try to attach the DNA argument to the beliefs (not doctrinal beliefs, mind you) of early Latter-day Saints. 
[This is a diversion. Ash doesn't name the critics, so it's impossible to assess whether these are actual critics or merely foils for his argument, but critics I can think of, such as Earl Wunderli, focus on the text specifically, not what early LDS thought.]
Most early Mormons, for example, believed that the Book of Mormon peoples were responsible, entirely, for populating the Americas. 
[There is no way to tell what "most early Mormons" believed. All we have are the writings of a dozen or so men who described a hemispheric model. By comparison, someone reading LDS Magazine might conclude that "most Mormons in 2015" believed in the RAGS translation, but that's not the case. I doubt even most readers of LDS Magazine accept the RAGS translation. More importantly regarding "early Mormons," we have Joseph Smith expressly rejecting Orson Pratt's hemispheric model when he wrote the Wentworth letter. We have Joseph Smith embracing Oliver Cowdery's detailed discussion of the final battles taking place in New York, identifying Ohio, Indiana and Illinois as the "plains of the Nephites," etc. The one early Mormon we know who never expressed belief in a hemispheric model was Joseph Smith.]
Well, if this was true, than the DNA argument would have some teeth (not a full set of teeth, but possibly a few incisors).
[Not even Lehi claimed his people were responsible, entirely, for populating the Americas. He spoke only of the promised land he occupied. Nothing in the text excludes extensive population and civilization outside Lehi's promised land. So the DNA argument can only have teeth in a Mesoamerican setting.]
By the early twentieth century, however (long before DNA science came on the scene), some LDS leaders and scholars were already moving away from the faulty position that Book of Mormon peoples were the sole progenitors of all Native Americans—a position that is based on an erroneous reading of the text.
[This is another straw man argument. At most, Joseph claimed the Book of Mormon was the history of the ancestors of the Indians living in what was then the United States. He never said or implied that "Book of Mormon peoples were the sole progenitors of all Native Americans." To the extent there was a "faulty position" to be moved away from by LDS leaders and scholars, that faulty position did not originate with Joseph Smith. In that sense, Ash makes a good point. The problem with the RAGS translation, though, is they kept the faulty part of the position; i.e., they adhered to the faulty Mesoamerican setting and rejected the correct New York/North American setting.]


*I've previously discussed the "Sorenson translation," in which Mesoamerican proponents insert their own terminology, such as "headwaters of Sidon" instead of Joseph Smith's translation that reads "head of Sidon," volcanoes and huge mountain ranges, new "equivalent" animals and directions and so forth. The new RAGS translation is more comprehensive than the mere substitution of a few terms. 


  1. This has to be a joke... This is too weird. Why would people do this?

  2. I am stunned! Can these people actually believe they can alter the reveled Word of God so it coincides with a faulty idea that is based on erroneous information with no substantial evidence of any kind? They have the audacity to claim that Joseph Smith was not a true prophet, or the translation process was faulty? Are these people really members of the Church? Have they been called in by their Bishop? This is not just stating an opinion or a possibility! These actions cast a serious and sinister pall of doubt over all of their thinking processes!