Friday, July 31, 2020

Chiasmus and Visions in a Seer Stone

Preliminary note: I posted some comments on a debate over the Producing Ancient Scripture book here:

https://bookofmormonconsensus.blogspot.com/2020/07/note-on-producing-ancient-scripture.html
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Readers here know that I think SITH is as much of a disaster as M2C is. Of course, others disagree.

My critics seem oblivious to the fact that I could easily make an argument in favor of SITH and M2C. One can always find information to confirm one's bias. It's easy to contour an argument to fit the evidence one chooses to accept. The proponents of SITH and M2C, as well as JDT (Joseph didn't translate) and MUST (the mysterious unknown supernatural translator) are all smart, faithful people who have their reasoning and evidence to support it.

The question is how to decide which bias is worth confirming.

In my case, I see so many downsides to SITH, M2C, JDT, and MUST that I choose not to confirm those biases.

The example we'll discuss today involves chiasmus.
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There has been a burst of interest in chiasmus again.

https://www.fairmormon.org/blog/2020/07/25/chiasmus-in-the-news

BYU Studies has a web page dedicated to chiasmus.

https://chiasmusresources.org/

This is all great. We can gain useful insights by looking at chiasmus and other parallel structures in the text.

True, there are critics of the concept. They focus on examples of chiasmus that are contrived or stretched, often by omitting parts of the text to make the rest "fit" into a chiastic structure. That debate, as do most debates, usually leaves both sides where they started; i.e., both sides confirm their bias and are convinced the other side is "wrong" in some way.

And that's fine. That's how our minds work. We can all believe whatever we want.

There is a separate problem, though. As awesome as chiasmus is, our scholars are ruining it by directly linking chiasmus to SITH. Here's an example from Book of Mormon Central (BMC):

https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/knowhy/how-much-could-joseph-smith-have-known-about-chiasmus-in-1829

Kno-why #334 considers some of the early literature about chiasmus in the Bible and explains that these references were not available to Joseph Smith in 1829. It's a good point, assuming Joseph translated the Nephite plates, as he and Oliver said he did. That would mean the Nephite authors (Mormon, Moroni, Nephi and Jacob, primarily) used chiasmus to some degree.

Illustration accompanying Kno-Why #334
But as long as our LDS scholars are teaching that Joseph didn't really translate anything, that he merely read words that appeared in a seer stone or vision, it opens the door to alternative theories such as that presented in the book Visions in a Seer Stone.

Look at the illustration of SITH that accompanies Kno-why #334. This is rapidly becoming the standard narrative in the Church. In this case, the plates aren't even in proximity. In other illustrations, the plates sit on the table under a cloth. 

Many LDS scholars today teach that Joseph didn't use the plates. They say Joseph didn't even use the Urim and Thummim, but instead just put his seer stone in a hat and read words that appeared.

In the SITH context, evidence of chiasmus supports the claims of those who say Joseph composed the text.
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Visions in a Seer Stone claims that Joseph Smith used mnemonic devices to help him "perform" the Book of Mormon as he dictated it. Here's an excerpt:

Laying Down Heads and Skeleton Outlines 

Smith’s method of using a preliminary outline, or, as more commonly termed, a “skeleton” of “heads” (an outline formed with key summarizing phrases) to organize and arrange his 1832 historical narrative, was a standard technique of composition in the early nineteenth century. The explicit use of the skeletal sketch in the opening of the history, marking each stage in the sequence of the narrative with a summarizing phrase, provides one of several expressions of the method commonly known as “laying down heads.” 

Both speakers and writers used this popular, widespread technique to designate and arrange the main topics of such compositions as sermons, public speeches, essays, narrations, and school lessons. In terms of application, this approach was quite simple and involved two basic steps: first, the speaker or author created a skeletal outline of his or her intended composition by using a sequence of key phrases (“heads”) that concisely summarized each of the main topics, issues, or divisions of an idea contained within the overall passage that followed. Second, using this skeletal outline as a reference guide, the speaker or author would then elaborate on each key phrase, expanding it into a fully developed passage of oral address or text. Smith’s familiarity with this technique comes as no surprise, given the ubiquity of this organizational and mnemonic approach in the early nineteenth century. Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 16). 

Chiasmus is also a mnemonic device.

I was a little surprised, actually, that Davis didn't include a chapter on chiasmus. It would have strengthened his case that Joseph memorized the key parts of the Book of Mormon, used mnemonic devices to keep the story straight, and improvised the rest.

Here's how chiasmus works. To keep the reference simple, here's a wikipedia entry:

Oral literature is especially rich in chiastic structure, possibly as an aid to memorization and oral performance. In his study of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Cedric Whitman, for instance, finds chiastic patterns "of the most amazing virtuosity" that simultaneously performed both aesthetic and mnemonic functions, permitting the oral poet easily to recall the basic structure of the composition during performances.[6] Steve Reece has demonstrated several ambitious ring compositions in Homer's Odyssey and compared their aesthetic and mnemonic functions with examples of demonstrably oral Serbo-Croatian epic.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiastic_structure

Here's an insightful explanation of how chiasmus aids the memory in story telling.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2017/07/26/chiasm-oral-peoples-grand-biblical-story/

The article points out that if you rotate a chiasmus 90 degrees, you get the conventional plot structure familiar to anyone who has watched a movie.

That's what makes it such an effective aid to memory.










In my view, of course, Joseph Smith actually translated the plates, using his own language, drawn from his mental language bank. In that scenario, the structure in the text, including any chiasmus, was from the plates.

Once we insist that Joseph did not actually translate anything (or we redefine the term translate to mean anything other than the mental process of expressing one language in another language), chiasmus is more problematic.

Scholars say Joseph expressed words provided by the MUST that he saw in vision or on the stone, but that is indistinguishable from Davis' theory that he recited the text from a combination of memory clues and improvisation. The evidence would confirm both biases equally.

Not so with the bias that Joseph actually translated the characters, as he said he did.

Here's another quotation from Visions in a Seer Stone that explain the thesis. You can see how easily chiasmus as a mnemonic device bolsters Davis' theory.

Jacob’s use of only two main heads to summarize his entire sermon offers another clue about Smith’s training and exposure to contemporary sermon culture. By reducing the opening outline of Jacob’s sermon to two brief heads, which nevertheless offered enough information to trigger his memory and guide the speech, Smith provided himself with two succinct mnemonic cues that could encapsulate the entire oration. Visions in a Seer Stone (p. 96)
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In my view, accepting the plain words Joseph and Oliver left us is the optimum bias.

When we accept the teachings of the scholars instead, no matter how sophisticated those teachings are, we're going to discover we are undermining faith in what Joseph and Oliver taught. The credentialed class may be more adept at confirming their biases than those of less sophistication, but the "weak and simple" are the ones the Lord said would proclaim the gospel to the ends of the world. (D&C 1:23). 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Books to Read - Vision in a Seer Stone

This probably isn't a book for everyone, but it is unusually insightful. I recommend it to those who want to understand the context of the Book of Mormon in terms of Joseph Smith's environment.

The book happens to fit in with a project I'm working on that I'll discuss more in a few weeks.

Essentially, Davis focuses on the implications of the Book of Mormon as a dictated text. The book doesn't take a position on the origins of the Book of Mormon, in terms of revelation, inspiration, translation, or composition.

I'll discuss another aspect of this book it tomorrow.
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The publisher's page lets you read some of the book.

https://uncpress.org/book/9781469655666/visions-in-a-seer-stone/

A panel of reviewers have posted comments here.

https://www.dialoguejournal.com/2020/05/dialogue-roundtable-william-l-davis-visions-in-a-seer-stone-joseph-smith-and-the-making-of-the-book-of-mormon/

Rather than write my own review, I'll post part of the review by Michael Austin, from the above citation.

Visions in a Seer Stone and the Way Forward for Book of Mormon Studies
Reviewed by Michael Austin
William L. Davis, the author of Visions in a Seer Stone, holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of California at Los Angeles. The discipline is important; it gives Davis a set of academic lenses that nobody has ever used before in studying the Book of Mormon. And by applying these lenses to the text rigorously, Davis pulls off something that I would not have considered possible before reading the book. He makes an utterly uncontroversial observation about the Book of Mormon’s origin and uses it to support a series of insightful, original claims about the way that the Book of Mormon can and should be read.
The book’s central observation is that Joseph Smith did not write the original text of the Book of Mormon; he spoke it, and other people wrote it down. LDS children learn this in Primary, and both devout believers and strident critics accept it as historical fact. We know that  Joseph dictated the text of the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdry and several other scribes and that Cowdery created a second manuscript for the printer, who copyedited it, divided it into paragraphs, and typeset it to produce the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. Over the last 30 years, Latter-day Saint scholars led by BYU Professor Royal Skousen have painstakingly reconstructed and compared these original manuscripts to create an invaluable resource, The Book of  Mormon: The Earliest Text. Davis’s simple observation, though, reminds us that this is not quite the correct title. The earliest text of the Book of Mormon is not a manuscript at all, but an oral performance for an audience of one.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

More on Producing Ancient Scripture

There are a few more things about Producing Ancient Scripture to consider.

There is a clear trend among LDS scholars to redefine the word "translation." They don't think Joseph translated anything, at least not in the ordinary sense of the word.

This book offers several variations on that theme.

One scholar who didn't contribute to this book has described the Book of Mormon as Joseph's "greatest revelation." We will undoubtedly hear more of this in the future.

Thanks to the academic cycle in the Church (CES and BYU), we have younger generations who disbelieve in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. This was easily predictable once they started teaching the Book of Mormon with a fantasy map.

M2C was bad enough. But at least it was grounded in the real world. At least M2C promoters, their employees and followers still believe that the Book of Mormon describes real people in a real place and time. Their claims may not be credible to most people, but (so far) they have not given up on historicity.

I realize that CES and BYU teachers who use these fantasy maps also claim they believe the Book of Mormon relates actual history about actual people. But can anyone imagine teaching World War II by referencing a fantasy map that has no correlation to anyplace on the actual planet? Or teaching the Bible from such a fantasy map?

Our scholars continue to lay the groundwork for an approach to the Book of Mormon that frames it as pure revelation to Joseph Smith that is more in the nature of a parable than of an authentic history.

Producing Ancient Scripture is another nudge in that direction.
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There is undoubtedly a lot of value in academic analysis and even speculation, but there seems to be no interest in exploring the traditional narratives. Everyone has jettisoned those to focus on the more exciting SITH, M2C, JDT and MUST narratives.

Sam Brown's chapter in the book, titled "Seeing the Voice of God," says "Whatever was happening to Smith subjectively, objectively he was dictating a text while looking into a hat containing a special stone."

It seems that all of the LDS scholars have embraced SITH wholesale, without critical analysis. Brown goes on to say that there is "textual evidence suggesting that Smith was not reading words in the darkness of his hat." He points out that "Skousen has clearly demonstrated that the scribes were not reading a source text. He has missed, however, evidence suggesting that no one was reading a source text for the Book of Mormon. A handful of verbal false starts and missteps, along with their associated corrections, suggest that the Book of Mormon was primarily an oral production."

This is similar to a claim made by another book we'll consider tomorrow, Visions in a Seer Stone. The gist of the argument is that Joseph gave voice to a visionary experience.

What no one seems to consider any longer is the possibility that Joseph actually translated the plates. Anyone who has translated knows that you often have different ways of expressing things. You always have false starts and missteps. If you try dictating a translation, you always say something such as "or, in other words." You might do it to clarify a meaning or to correct a mistake. That's what we would expect from a translation.

Richard Bushman's article, "Nephi's Project: The Gold Plates as Book History," starts off this way:

Joseph Smith was not particularly forthcoming about how he translated ancient scripture. In the original preface to the Book of Mormon, he said only that it was done "by the gift and power of God." The few glimpses of the translating process do not describe him looking at the plates.... He apparently did not know or even claim to know the language on the plates.... Smith copied some of the script but did not create a lexicon to explain the meaning of the characters."

Those statements fit the current narrative, but are they accurate?

In the preface, Joseph explicitly said he "took" the translation "from the Book of Lehi." He didn't say he saw a vision or read words off a stone in a hat. There are multiple accounts of Joseph looking at the plates with the Urim and Thummim. He not only copied the script but translated the characters, the first step in any translation process. If he did not know the language, how could he claim the Title Page was a literal translation?

When I read books such as Producing Ancient Scripture, I see an abundance of bias confirmation, omission of contrary evidence, and contributions to Groupthink, all with the objective of distancing the Book of Mormon to any actual translation on Joseph's part.

There is some room for the translation narrative, fortunately. Grant Hardy wrote a chapter titled "Ancient History and modern Commandments: the Book of Mormon in Comparison with Joseph Smith's Other Revelations." He makes the case that reading the Book of Mormon as a translation has implications that would not apply to alternative approaches. "It is possible to read the book as a work of myth, or as religious fiction written by Joseph Smith, or even as fiction written by God and revealed to Joseph Smith--all of which may be hypotheses worth exploring." 

That is couched in the context of considering the book as a translation, but it's a good summary for the overall theme of Producing Ancient Scripture.

He makes SITH claims such as this: "the stone that Smith most frequently used to translate the Book of Mormon is still in the possession of the leaders of the church he founded." This is theory dressed up as fact. Oliver and Joseph always said Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates--not the seer stone. At best, we can say some people saw Joseph dictate words in Fayette when he looked at a stone in a hat, but so far, I've seen no evidence of anyone saying just what those words were or where they fit into the text. (I think it was part of a demonstration, a topic for another time.)

Then he writes, "Joseph Smith never gave any details about the translation process." This is a theme, apparently. I've previously given examples of how our historians tell us Joseph said only that he translated by the gift and power of God, as they omit (censor) the references to the Urim and Thummim. As I mentioned above, Joseph said he took the translation of the 116 pages from the Book of Lehi. He provided a literal translation of the Title Page. He translated the characters before he began dictating to Martin Harris. All of these describe an actual translation.

Hardy even brings up the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles about Mesoamerica, prefacing it by the Nov. 1841 Bernhisel letter that Joseph didn't write or sign. (It was obviously drafted by Wilford Woodruff, the only person who had read the books by the time that letter was written.)









Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Books to read: Producing Ancient Scripture

This is one of several books about Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon and related topics that have been published so far in 2020. I'll discuss more of them in upcoming posts.

As I've come to expect, this book's chapters on the Book of Mormon, although written by different authors, are mostly about explaining SITH. I'm archiving some of my notes in this post. 

This post doesn't deal with M2C, so no trigger warnings this time.
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The introduction explains the book's orientation:
During Mormonism's first century, historical writing on the translation of the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures was generally marked by deep biases from both defenders and detractors, with defenders arguing for the book's antiquity and detractors for its modernity. It was not until the late twentieth century that academic scholarship began to surmount the polemics of the past, although devotional writing from Latter-day Saints and attacks from evangelicals and skeptics persist to this day.

While I applaud the concept of surmounting past polemics, that concept seems to mean nothing more than exploring the contours of SITH. One assumption all the authors seem to share: SITH is the method by which Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. Now all that's left is figuring out what words appeared on stone (or in a vision somehow related to the stone), and how Joseph interacted with those words when he read them aloud.

I made a lot of notes in the wonderfully generous margins (the book is not available in electronic form), so I'd say it's a worthwhile book. But at $45, you have to have a deep interest in this topic.

Christopher Blythe, usually one of the better authors today, wrote an insightful chapter titled "'By the Git and Power of God:' Translation among the Gifts of the Spirit." He brings out some little-known facts and weaves them into an effective discussion of his topic. Unfortunately, he perpetuates some persistent but I think historically dubious claims. After quoting D&C 9:1-12, he writes, "Smith and Cowdery likely believed this revelation was fulfilled in 1835 when Smith purchased the Egyptian papyrus..." The far more plausible fulfillment is set forth in D&C 10, when the Lord instructs Joseph and Oliver that, when they've finished with the abridged plates, they'd have to translate the "other records" contained in the unabridged small plates of Nephi, which they didn't yet have. Later, he resorts to a euphemism in the passive voice to evade the question of whether Joseph received back the Urim and Thummim after the 116 pages were lost: "Smith repented and the suspension was lifted, allowing him to complete the translation." Finally, he frames the anonymous 1842 editorial in the Times and Seasons titled "Try the Spirits" as "presumably composed by Smith." That is one of the least plausible attributions in Church history. But still, overall, Blythe does a fine job.

The next chapter, "'Bringing Forth' the Book of Mormon: Translation as the Reconfiguration of Bodies in Space-Time," seems like a word salad version of "translation" doesn't mean "translation." Here's a sample sentence: "Joseph Smith's work of translation affords the opportunity to place this historiographical trope of translatio imperii et studii in a broadly phenomenological framework and by so doing to think more strenuously about the function of language in the midst of a deeply felt desire for and lived experience of the immanence of divine power/knowledge in a particular here and now." 

Michael Mackay provided a chapter titled "Performing the Translation: Character Transcripts and Joseph Smith's Earliest Translating Practices." He starts out, like pretty much everyone lately, by accepting at face value the SITH witnesses. The absence of curiosity regarding those statements continues to puzzle me, but I can see how people get a lot of mileage speculating about SITH, and this book is no exception. Mackay makes this statement on the first page of his chapter: "During this period, Smith produced almost no translation, even though he was attempting to find a way to decipher a text from the plates." This is one of many examples of equating a paucity of documents with a declarative statement about facts. Joseph said he translated the characters. We don't have that translation, but how can anyone contradict what Joseph said and simply declare he "produced almost no translation"? We simply don't know how much he translated, but that's not the same as making this claim. And he wasn't "attempting to find a way to decipher." He said, plainly, that he translated the characters. Later in the chapter, we read this: "Though there is no evidence that Smith ever produced a traditional translation of the characters on the plates..." Yet Smith said the Title Page was a "literal translation." 

I could go on, but you get the gist by now. 

There are two essays I should note. One is the Wayment/Wilson-Lemmon chapter titled "A Recovered Resource: The Use of Adam Clarke's Bible Commentary in Joseph Smith's Bible Translation." This has attracted some attention on social media, partly because Wilson-Lemmon announced, after she graduated, that she no longer believed. Apparently some of her BYU professors tried to revoke their letters of recommendation that helped her get into Notre Dame. That's all ancillary to the point of the article, which is that many of the changes Joseph made to the Bible appear to have been taken from Adam Clarke's commentary. That's a problem for those who have come to believe that Joseph claimed these changes were revealed, but that Bible project has always seemed preliminary and tentative when I've looked into it, apart from the Moses material (which I think Joseph got from the plates, anyway).

The other one is Brian Hauglid's article on the Book of Abraham. This one also attracted attention on social media because of a podcast interview Hauglid did in which he said he thinks both the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon are 19th century works. I don't know why that's so newsworthy, but here it is if you're interested.

Not that I recommend it, because I don't, but people are discussing it.

I think this is another case of someone whose expectations were not met, just like we see in the CES Letter and other similar sources. In my view, the problem originates in the expectations and assumptions people have, not in the reality. The gap between expectations and reality causes much of the pain in life, including faith crises. This is why I think it's essential to examine one's expectations and assumptions first. M2C, SITH, JDT and other current intellectual fads are partly a reaction to someone's expectations, but they also create their own expectations and assumptions that can lead to disillusionment. The CES Letter is the best example of that. But that's a topic for another day.

Finally, FairMormon did an interview with the editors that is a good summary of the book.

https://www.fairmormon.org/blog/2020/07/24/qa-with-editors-of-producing-ancient-scripture-joseph-smiths-translation-projects-in-the-development-of-mormon-christianity?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+fairldsblog+%28FAIR+Blog%29

Monday, July 27, 2020

How much more ridiculous can it get?

LOL is overused, but I did literally laugh out loud a few minutes ago when I read another article on the Intepreter.
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M2C TRIGGER WARNING: M2C and SITH believers, including employees and affiliates of Book of Mormon Central, including the Interpreter, should be aware that this post contains commentary about M2C and SITH that may impact the mental and emotional health of certain individuals whose self-identity is closely tied to M2C and SITH.
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Readers here know that I don't agree with the currently popular idea among LDS intellectuals that Joseph Smith merely read words that appeared on the seer stone-in-the-hat (SITH) and did not really translate the golden plates.

I'm adding another acronym: JDT for "Joseph Didn't Translate."

[Notice the acronym list I've added to the menus on the right]

These intellectuals claim that an unknown translator, probably from the 1500s, somehow caused words that they should appear on the seer stone Joseph put in a hat, transforming it into a sort of supernatural teleprompter. All Joseph had to do is read the words that appeared. His scribes wrote what he dictated, and that's how we got the Book of Mormon.

That part didn't make me laugh. JDT is a serious belief, based on what its proponents think the original manuscript shows. I respect their work, although I completely disagree with their conclusions.

What made me laugh (in spite of myself, because I welcome everyone's ideas), is a new claim that this unknown translator confused Joseph Smith by omitting the italicized words from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

It's not enough that we have a mysterious unknown supernatural translator (MUST) that Joseph forgot to mention.
It's not enough that Joseph didn't really translate anything (JDT).
It's not even enough that Joseph misled everyone by taking credit for this translator's work.

Now we're speculating (mind-reading) about why he/she/it deliberately changed the KJV, leaving a hopelessly ignorant Joseph Smith to make up corrections to the text that don't make any sense.

I've discussed the article on my Interpreter blog, here:

https://interpreterpeerreviews.blogspot.com/2020/07/kjv-italics-and-joseph-as-unlearned.html

Here is the punch line from the article:

the many minor differences between Isaiah in the Book of Mormon and the KJV... are more consistent with the idea that he [Joseph] was making ad hoc edits as he read and dictated a text [on the supernatural teleprompter, aka SITH] from which he believed words were missing, and from which the KJV’s italicized words had in fact been omitted by someone else. This idea...  explains the odd way the Book of Mormon treats the KJV’s italicized words — omitting italicized words that are grammatically important in English, treating the same italicized word in parallel phrases differently, and replacing italicized words with synonyms. It also explains why many other words and short phrases have been inserted into the biblical quotations — Joseph Smith believed that words were missing but didn’t always know the precise locations, so he sometimes added words at the wrong locations or overcompensated and added words when none were in fact missing.

Okay, it was late at night when I read this and started laughing, and you probably don't think it's so funny, but seriously, think about what this means.

The MUST omitting italics from the text he's
going to send to the supernatural teleprompter,
aka the seer stone Joseph found in a well 
Imagine the MUST from the 1500s, who presumably lived in England but had supernatural access to the plates deposited in the Hill Cumorah in New York, composing his/her/its translation. Coming to the KJV passages of Isaiah, he/she/it looks at all the italicized words and thinks, "I'm just going to delete those from the teleprompter and let Joseph sort it out."

Then, centuries later, Joseph Smith is reading along and comes to the modified KJV text. Even though he supposedly is an "unlearned reader" (a key element of SITH and JDT), he recognizes something is amiss.

As the article explains, Joseph adds words at the wrong locations and adds words when none were missing.

If that's not a recipe for disaster, nothing is.

This latest theory is the inevitable result of SITH and JDT. It opens up the text for all kinds of mischief. If the MUST was free to omit italicized words from the supernatural teleprompter, there's no reason why he/she/it could not have omitted other words from the text.

Jade jaguar in the jungle
Maybe the 3 Js, jungles, jaguars and jade?

Maybe we finally have the evidence for M2C!

We can just assume the MUST, living in England in the 1500s, knew nothing about Mayan culture, so he/she/it simply omitted the 3 Js and all the other indicia of Mesoamerica that were surely on the original plates.

Sadly, Joseph failed to supply those words, but our modern M2C scholars can do it. They're eager to do it.

No doubt some M2C believer has already proposed this. It's probably written up in an article that will appear soon in the Interpreter.

This is not a new theory, after all. It really is no different that the other aspects of Mayan society that the M2C scholars "see" in the text as they provide their own interpretations to supplement the John Sorenson version of the Book of Mormon.

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Some readers have contacted me to ask why I'm talking about Church history issues on this blog about Book of Mormon geography and historicity. It's a good question.

In my view, M2C is a product of a mistake in Church history; i.e., people mistakenly believing that Joseph Smith had anything to do with the anonymous  articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons that claimed ruins in Central America were left by Nephites (even though those particular ruins post-dated Book of Mormon time frames, as it turned out).

The mistake led faithful people (starting with RLDS scholars and eventually LDS scholars) to reach two conclusions: (i) that the prophets were wrong about the NY Cumorah and (ii) that the Book of Mormon took place within a limited area in Mesoamerica. The academic cycle perpetuated those conclusions as the M2C scholars educated RLDS and LDS youth for decades. By now, it's a given--except for the few and declining number of members of the Church who still believe what the prophets have taught about Cumorah.

Naturally, the intellectuals who developed and promoted M2C have big investments in M2C in terms of time, finances, emotions, reputations, etc. Book of Mormon Central (BMC) spends millions of dollars a year trying to persuade LDS (and non-LDS) people that M2C is "evidence" of the Book of Mormon, as well as "evidence" that the prophets are wrong about the NY Cumorah. BMC employees take to social media to spread M2C. BMC censors alternative perspectives and interpretations. It's quite an industry.

To those of us outside the M2C bubble, the M2C arguments are even more irrational now than they were at the outset in the late 1800s because we've learned so much about Mesoamerican culture. Predictably, no matter what evidence is uncovered in Mesoamerica, our M2C intellectuals figure out a way to adapt it to confirm their M2C bias. But the whole idea is fundamentally flawed, as anyone who believes the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah should have known a long time ago.

Back to the question.

I discuss Church history here because I figure that one way to correct a mistake in Church history is to understand why the mistake was made in the first place.

I realize there's no chance to change anyone's mind, and as I've always said, I'm not trying to persuade anyone. People can believe whatever they want.

I'm sharing my ideas because people have asked me to and because, for me, the teachings of the prophets make far more sense than the contradictory teachings of the intellectuals.

If that hasn't been obvious before, maybe the combination of SITH, JDT and the mischievous UST are finally making it obvious enough for all but the most fervent adherents of M2C, SITH and JDT to see.
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It becomes increasingly apparent that the prophets have been right all along.

Joseph Smith did translate the engravings on the plates, using the Urim and Thummim that Moroni provided specifically for that purpose. The Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York. And the teachings of M2C, SITH, JDT, MUST, etc. cause faithful members of the Church to become confused and disturbed in their faith.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Books to read: Royal Skousen's Vol. 3, Parts 5 and 6

As readers here know, I think Royal Skousen's series on the Book of Mormon text is phenomenal. There are no other references with the degree of detail that Brother Skousen has provided. When I'm in the U.S., I get his books as soon as they come out.

Last week we were in Utah so we picked up his latest, part 6 of his Volume 3. Now we're back in Oregon so I have some time to go through it in more detail.

Here's the BYU Studies announcement:

https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/spelling-manuscripts-and-editions-history-text-book-mormon-volume-3-part-six

Brother Skousen wrote a concise but excellent summary of parts 5 and 6 which you can read in BYU Studies here:

https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/history-book-mormon-text-parts-5-and-6-volume-3-critical-text

This is the type of project that is a real credit to LDS scholarship. I highly encourage people to read these books for the accumulation and presentation of important data. For example, as Brother Skousen writes, "The final section of part 5, informally referred to as the collation, lines up the 36 biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon against their corresponding King James passages. This section takes up 143 pages." This is an exceptionally helpful resource.

Although the books are expensive, they are worth the money. They are beautifully typeset, carefully designed, and organized to be invaluable research tools.

I couldn't praise the books more highly, with respect to these elements.

[Trigger warning: to avoid emotional distress, my fragile M2C/SITH readers, as well as employees and followers of Book of Mormon Central and its affiliates, should stop reading here. Continue reading at your own risk.]
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Reading Skousen at home in Oregon
While I enthusiastically salute the scholarship in these books, I remain puzzled at some of the conclusions and theories contained in the commentary.

In Part Five, page 6, Brother Skousen sets forth his conclusion: "Based on the linguistic evidence, the translation must have involved serious intervention from the English-language translator, who was not Joseph Smith." (emphasis added)

I don't think that conclusion follows from the evidence at all. It strikes me as yet another way our LDS scholars reject what Joseph and Oliver taught. What did Joseph claim that was more fundamental and consistent than that he translated the Book of Mormon? Yet most LDS scholars seem to be accepting Brother Skousen's conclusion, the same way they have accepted M2C and SITH.

These conclusions fit the currently popular themes that Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, that a mysterious, unknown translator, fluent in Early Modern English, was the actual translator, that Joseph didn't really translate anything and didn't even use the plates, that he "read" words that appeared on a metaphysical teleprompter in the form of a stone in the hat (SITH), that he speculated about the geography and setting of the Book of Mormon, that he learned about the setting from a popular travel book published in 1841, etc.

These are all self-serving theories that elevate our current crop of scholars above the intellectually suspect and educationally deficient Joseph Smith, Jr. Thanks to the academic cycle, in a few years we'll see the claim that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon de-correlated, as well.
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Here are some of the conclusions Brother Skousen summarizes in his article (in blue), with my brief comments in red.:

In concluding the first half of this paper, which deals with part 5 of volume 3, it is worth reviewing the findings of the previous parts 1–4 and noting those ways in which the Book of Mormon text dates more to Early Modern English than to Joseph Smith’s own times:

Grammatical Variation, parts 1 and 2

The nonstandard English is found in Early Modern English, in academic and scholarly texts, from the 1500s and 1600s. 

While this may be an interesting fact, it's irrelevant to the origin of the text. 

Here are brief summaries of three reasons I disagree with the conclusion (while I accept all the data). I'm sure there are specific rationales and explanations for why I'm completely wrong. I've seen some attempts at explanations, but so far, I'm unpersuaded. 

First, people don't write the same way that they speak. People say "I ain't gonna" but write "I'm not going to." 

Second, published books are usually edited, not verbatim transcripts. The day after Martin Harris and Hyrum Smith brought the manuscript to Grandin's print shop for the first time, John Gilbert observed that the language was ungrammatical. He offered to fix it, but Martin told him to print it as written. Gilbert wasn't even an editor, but he would have eliminated any "nonstandard English" had Martin asked him to. If Joseph had dictated "I ain't gonna" Gilbert would have changed it to "I'm not going to." Every published book in the database went through some level of editing. While it makes sense to infer that Joseph learned English partly from reading books, he surely learned English from his family and peers in rural Vermont and western New York.   

Third, "nonstandard English" in America is usually archaic "standard" English, resulting from colonial lag, regional dialects, etc. "Ain't" is now nonstandard, but was once completely acceptable. If someone were to dictate a text today and used the term "ain't," would that mean the words actually came from someone living and speaking properly in the 18th century? Comparing "academic and scholarly texts" to a verbatim transcript of Joseph's spoken translation is comparing apples to oranges (the logical fallacy of false equivalency). A meaningful comparison would involve other verbatim transcripts of Joseph's peers in western NY (and Vermont), but I didn't see any of that in parts 1 and 2. 

The Nature of the Original Language, parts 3 and 4

The word meanings, phrases, and expressions date from the 1530s through the 1730s.

I've found numerous examples of the nonbiblical words, phrases and expressions in the Book of Mormon in materials easily available to Joseph Smith, so we would expect to find these things in a text he translated.

The syntax dates mostly from the second half of the 1500s and the early 1600s.

Again, the syntax dating is based on databases of published material, not verbatim transcripts of Joseph's peers. Claiming that the only verbatim transcript of Joseph's speech--the Book of Mormon--is not evidence of how he actually spoke is exactly backwards.

To these findings, we now add the scriptural language, which also dates from the 1500s and 1600s:

The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon, part 5

[here I'll just discuss two]

With only one exception, all the biblical quotations and paraphrases come from the King James Bible. The single exception is a phrase in 2 Nephi 12:16 (~ Isaiah 2:16), “and upon all the ships of the sea”, which is found in Miles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible (“upon all ships of the sea”).

This one is perplexing. The authors simply assumed that the language came from the King James Bible because much of the language is verbatim, or close to verbatim. Undoubtedly, the long quotations of Isaiah, Malachi, and Matthew come from the KJV, but the but I've found many examples of what Brother Skousen properly calls "blending" in the works of biblical commentators, preachers, etc. that were easily accessible to Joseph Smith. I think what Joseph read became part of his mental language bank and, naturally, came out in his translation.  

The numerous examples of mistranslation and cultural translation in the King James literal quotations almost always date from the 1500s and 1600s, and it is not likely that they derive from the original language on the plates. This finding argues that the Book of Mormon translation is not always a literal translation, but is sometimes a creative and cultural translation, one that can be dependent upon Early Modern English sources rather than ancient ones.

The only thing Joseph said was a literal translation was the Title Page. There never was any reason to think that the rest was a literal translation. But Joseph's statement is another reason why we should accept his claim that he translated the text. He knew what was a literal translation and what was not.   

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Our M2C and SITH friends

Just a quick note to remind readers here that we respect other Church members who still believe M2C and SITH. They are our friends and colleagues. We're all working together to improve ourselves, our associates and loved ones, and our society, local, national and international.

We want to work with everyone to clarify the message of the Restoration and to make it relevant and operative in the world.

We seek the pursuit of truth to support of the teachings of the prophets.

We don't mind if others disagree with our explanations and conclusions. We're happy for everyone to believe whatever they want. We don't seek contention, but we also don't avoid it when necessary to discuss important issues and clarify distinctions.

We recognize that people often disagree over interpretations of the exact same data because people see different movies on the same screen. It's an inherent human condition, driven by our mental filters, and it is often difficult for people to change filters.

On this blog, we appreciate and embrace fine scholarship, no matter the source or implications.

What we oppose is censorship, academic bullying, logical thinking and factual errors, tradition for tradition's sake, and intolerance of alternative perspectives, interpretations, and conclusions. We ignore anonymous trolls and don't waste our time responding to criticisms we've already addressed.

We encourage feedback through email and dialog.

To be crystal clear, we appreciate and respect the work of Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, BYU Studies, the Maxwell Institute, the Church History Department, and anyone else who studies these issues, whether independently or as part of an organization. We're happy to refer people to their work and we use and cite it ourselves.

However, we think that M2C and SITH have unduly influenced and even corrupted much of the academic work we see, but that is not a reflection on any individuals. We focus on ideas, not people. We're eager for new and better information and ideas, and we like nothing more than to change our minds in response to such.

We embrace this approach:

“Be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.” 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, May 2013 Ensign
https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/04/lord-i-believe?lang=eng

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Books to read - Ronald Barney

People ask me what books I read, so I'm going to mention a few. These will be brief observations, not full book reviews.

Today's book is by Ronald O. Barney, titled Joseph Smith: History, Methods & Memory.

This is a terrific book. As the title suggests, Barney discusses the methodology of history, exploring the challenges of relying on memory to figure out what has happened in the past. He provides an insightful overview of the historical context of Joseph Smith's life, reviews the evidence for Joseph's foundational experiences, and discusses Joseph as a man and a prophet.

Barney writes from a faithful perspective with refreshing candor. He summarizes the book's purpose in the Introduction here.

"This work is an attempt to reemphasize the techniques refined for generations by the historical community that may help readers of the Mormon past to better negotiate the conflicted historical record.... the issues addressed are so fundamental that despite the use from time to time of academic dialogue, all interested in Joseph Smith should recognize the necessity of treating the primary themes in a manner other than simply devotional or critical formulations."

I have made dozens of notes in the margins of this book that I refer to as I finish my current projects. Barney's book is a very useful tool for self-assessment of my writing about Church history. 

As readers here know, I have a different take on several aspects of Church history than what we read in the predominant critical and apologetic materials. I disagree with some of the assertions made in the editorial portions of the Joseph Smith Papers, which in some cases reflect an overly enthusiastic desire to change long-held beliefs, but I welcome the approach of re-evaluating traditions in light of new evidence. 

Barney writes, "Inevitably, in this generations' access to material regarding JS and early Mormonism discussed in this work, a transformation of thinking will be required due to traditions previously based on limited understanding. And, it is probably the case that in the future new insights, if not new documentation, will amend the scope of what we present think we know about the prophet."

That is a critical reminder that just when we think we know it all, we discover we maybe don't know as much as we did. My note in the margin here is simple: "Transformation of thinking--but it assumes BY et al did not have this info." 

That's a reminder to me that, as Barney also points out, some of the material we think of as essential may have never been recorded at all. Much of what was taught by Brigham Young and his associates who knew Joseph personally could have been what Joseph himself taught them, even though we don't have a specific record of those teachings. Actually, "could have been" is a misnomer. I think it's fair to say that BY and his associates certainly knew more about what Joseph taught than the record shows.  

For those interested in Church history and analysis of historical sources, Barney's book is the best I've seen so far at explaining the strengths and weaknesses of both the sources and the methodology of interpreting those sources.

The cover explains that Barney served for 34 years as an archivist and historian in the History Department in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a former associate editor of the Joseph Smith Papers and creator and executive producer of the Joseph Smith Papers documentary television series.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Censorship by Hugh Nibley

In 1955, Hugh Nibley wrote a series titled "The Way of the Church" that explored ...

In the March issue, he discussed censorship.

I doubt Brother Nibley intended this article as a guide for future generations of Church historians and self-appointed "experts" on the Book of Mormon, but these two groups of intellectuals have managed to adopt each of the techniques Nibley discussed.

The Way of the Church
Part 1:
   Controlling the Past -III
 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.
Improvement Era 58 (Mar. 1955), 152-4, 166, 168
Excerpts:
CENSORSHIP
WHEN Joseph Smith announced that the very first words of the Bible had been edited and their meaning changed by "an old Jew without any authority," he knew whereof he spoke.[1] Not that the manipulation of that particular passage has been definitely proven—there is not yet enough evidence, one way or the other—but that the common practice of such manipulation has of recent years become an established fact, thanks to the labors of Kahle and others. The work of the Masoretes, far from being, as it was meant to be, the final and definitive fixing of the sacred text for all time, simply laid the groundwork for new and daring "reconstructions."...
Censorship example from Nibley's article

Here's how the Saints book "reconstructed" Joseph Smith--History, 1:52. 
Nibley continued. The rigorous and arbitrary censorship of ancient texts belongs to the common heritage of all the "people of the book," being an established routine in every age. Antiochus ordered all copies of the Jewish scriptures burned, and pronounced the death penalty on anyone guilty of possessing a copy...
Good luck getting caught with a copy of Letter VII if you work for Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, BYU, CES, or Meridian Magazine. Whatever you do, don't read the packet on Cumorah.
Nibley continued. A subtle and very effective form of censorship is the silent treatment. "It is permitted," writes St. Augustine, "for the purpose of building up religion in things pertaining to piety, when necessary, to conceal whatever appears to need concealing; but it is not permitted to lie, of course, and so one may not conceal by way of lying."[21]  The distinction is too fine, for silence can be very mendacious. 
To accommodate M2C intellectuals such as those who run Book of Mormon Central, Volume 1 of Saints managed to censor Cumorah completely from Church history. 
The Gospel Topics entry on Book of Mormon Geography also de-correlated Cumorah by not even mentioning it.
Since its inception, Book of Mormon Central has censored alternatives to M2C. That makes sense, because it is merely a front for its corporate owner, Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (http://bmaf.org/) which has promoted M2C for decades.
Fortunately, we all have access to the Joseph Smith Papers, which are awesome. Some of the notes promote M2C and SITH, but otherwise the material is outstanding in every way.
The Church History Library is also awesome.
And, we always have the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets. As long as you don't get sidetracked into the commentaries, especially the commentaries that change the wording of the texts, you'll be in good shape.

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