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.

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:


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


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.]

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.

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.   

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