Monday, January 10, 2022

Original Manuscript: Vol 5 of JSP, but full of agenda-driven content

The long-anticipated volume of the Joseph Smith Papers containing the Original Manuscript was released in December 2021. It's available at Deseret Book here.

The description: 

Volume 5 of the Revelations and Translations series presents all extant fragments of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. For the first time ever, researchers will have access to a photograph and color-coded transcripts of each fragment of the manuscript, showing every change made and which scribe make it.

I bought one of the first copies when I was in Salt Lake in December. With high-resolution images and an excellent transcript, this is a spectacular volume, even better than I hoped for.

Except for the commentary.

IMO, the Introduction manipulates the historical sources to promote the editors' theories about Book of Mormon geography (M2C) and the translation (SITH). It's inexcusable for such a professional, beautiful book to be tainted by this type of editorial interference.

I faced a choice. Should I say nothing and watch as these editorial decisions continue to obfuscate the historical sources in favor of modern theories, or should I comment about my observations in the hope that our scholars will adopt a more serious academic approach? I chose the latter, and I posted a detailed analysis here: https://www.academia.edu/s/5728ebc3d7?source=link. The Abstract is at the end of this post.

I hope the scholars at the Joseph Smith Papers will take my observations as I intend them; i.e., I want the Joseph Smith Papers to present accurate history from the perspective of the people who lived that history. Readers should be able to trust the editors to provide useful insights and background that illuminate, but do not taint, the historical documents. Context is obviously important and welcome, but not when it is manipulated to accommodate modern theories, particularly about Book of Mormon geography and the manner of translation. 

Or, if they insist on accommodating modern theories, they should at least acknowledge multiple working hypotheses, including the possibility that Joseph, Oliver and their contemporaries told the truth.

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Readers often contact me to ask why the dominant LDS scholars continue to promote M2C and SITH. I've discussed the intellectual genealogy of those theories, but the origins of M2C and SITH are well know. Their persistence is more inexplicable.

From all my discussions and reading, the best explanation I can come up with is academic inertia.

Groupthink among scholars is a perennial problem. Scholars typically seek to make a name for themselves by finding a new historical source or proposing a new theory. That's how we ended up with the "New Mormon History." But once accepted, theories such as M2C and SITH become entrenched. Scholars devote their time and energy defending and upholding their theories, particularly when they've taught them for decades. 

Their admiring students naturally incorporate their mentors' theories as mental filters through which they see the world.


I've referred to this as the academic cycle.

This problem seems to be exacerbated in the LDS community, partly because students are primed to believe their LDS teachers at BYU and CES, and partly because some LDS scholars claim they've been hired by the prophets to guide Church members in these areas. 

Thus, we have a journal titled The Interpreter, as if "the scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20), along with other members of the M2C citation cartel that tell us such things as how the teachings of the prophets "are to be understood and used."

We have the Saints books that change Church history to accommodate M2C and SITH. We have notes in the Joseph Smith Papers that promote M2C and SITH. I've blogged about this problem since 2018, and the problem is getting worse.

IMO, the worst demonstration of this editorial agenda is in the notes and commentary in volume 5 of Revelations and Translations: The Original Manuscript. 

A far healthier academic approach would be to acknowledge multiple working hypotheses, always subject to revision and improvement as new information comes forward. 

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Abstract of paper:

Abstract: This volume is a monumental achievement. The eagerly awaited publication of high-resolution images of the extant pages of the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, with detailed transcripts, enables students of the Book of Mormon to explore the earliest text for themselves. The volume editors, Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, also edited the equally impressive Volume 3, parts 1 and 2, which contained the Printer’s Manuscript. The bulk of Volume 5 consists of the documents and transcripts, which speak for themselves. Appendixes (226 pages) provide additional images and information. All of this is excellent. The 16-page Volume 5 Introduction provides historical context about the discovery, translation, and usage of the material. However, the editorial content in several instances impedes an objective analysis because the editors have manipulated the historical record to reflect their own editorial positions on controversial topics, specifically the manner of translation and the historicity of the narrative of the Book of Mormon. This paper points out numerous specific examples. Like other volumes in the Joseph Smith Papers, the editors here have gone to extraordinary measures to avoid mentioning the hill Cumorah, consistent with the editorial effort throughout the Joseph Smith Papers to accommodate the prevailing academic theory that the events of the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory, aka M2C). The editors also skew their quotations and citations toward the academic theory that Joseph Smith didn’t really translate the plates but instead merely read words off the stone in the hat (the SITH theory). Because the Joseph Smith Papers are published by the Church Historian’s Press and should be held to a high standard of scholarship and objectivity, agenda-driven editorial manipulation of historical sources is inappropriate. A future addendum, or perhaps revisions in the digital version of this volume, could alleviate these problems by providing a more comprehensive and accurate historical context for understanding the Original Manuscript.  



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