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.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Interview on SITH vs U&T

The single most important question in Church history involves the translation of the Book of Mormon. 

I recently did an interview about this topic on Mormon Book Reviews, which you can see here:

Here I'll summarize the question and the alternative working hypotheses. 

At the outset, I recognize that for many people, the origin of the Book of Mormon doesn't matter. 
- Some faithful LDS say the words themselves are evidence of their divine origin, regardless of how Joseph produced them. 
- Others (most critics including both unbelievers and Christian ministers) say the words themselves are evidence that their origin is not divine.

I'm fine with people believing and teaching whatever they want to. I write this blog simply to explain how I approach these questions. I don't care about persuading anyone or winning any arguments. Such a motivation would be pointless anyway, because people make up their own minds. I just encourage people to make informed decisions, based on all the available facts and after considering multiple working hypotheses.

The origin of the Book of Mormon affects everything about the Book of Mormon because if Joseph Smith translated it (as he and Oliver said), then the criticisms are moot. For example, it's a foolish argument to say that a 19th century translation is not an ancient text. No one claims the Book of Mormon is an ancient text; instead, it's a translation of an ancient text. A 19th century translator would naturally use 19th century language, references, and concepts, including anachronisms, just as the KJV refers to candles and other elements that the original ancient texts don't.

Although Joseph and Oliver always described the process as a translation with the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters), there are many historical references to Joseph use of a stone-in-the-hat (SITH). For some, these are irreconcilable alternatives. Others accept one and reject (or redefine) the other. For me, the simplest, most practical and most reasonable reconciliation is the demonstration scenario that I've discussed many times, including in the interview linked above; i.e., that Joseph translated the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim, but he also used SITH to satisfy the awful curiosity of his supporters, which they inferred was a translation experience that they later expanded for apologetic reasons. IOW, bad apologetics in the 19th century has led to worse apologetics today.

The topic has many threads, with dozens if not thousands of articles, books, blogs, etc. Here I attempt to summarize and systematize the issues.

The translation narrative is a combination of naturalistic and supernaturalistic elements. Supernatural, because Joseph obtained the plates from a resurrected being (Moroni) and used divinely prepared instruments to learn the characters on the plates (as he explained), and natural because Joseph used his own lexicon and worldview to articulate the literal translation of the characters (except for the Title Page, which he explained was a literal translation). 

There are two alternatives to the translation narrative: (i) a purely naturalistic explanation, that Joseph composed or copied the text he dictated, and (ii) a purely supernatural explanation, that Joseph merely dictated words that appeared on the stone-in-the-hat (the SITH theory).  

The criticisms of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon depend on SITH; i.e., the idea that Joseph merely read words provided by a Mysterious Incognito Supernatural Translator (MIST).  

And yet, LDS scholars such as Royal Skousen, Dan Peterson and Jack Welch agree with critics such as John Dehlin and CES Letter that Joseph Smith didn't translate the plates but instead dictated words with his face looking at a stone in the hat (SITH). They disagree only about whether Joseph (i) read words that appeared supernaturally on the stone, or (ii) dictated words he composed or memorized. 

Besides contradicting what Joseph and Oliver said, SITH creates a false set of expectations. If the MIST provided the words, they were divine and presumably should not have errors, anachronisms, etc.

The faithful SITH argument goes like this: We don't know why the MIST provided errors and anachronisms (or why the text supposedly includes artifacts from Early Modern English).

SITH has generated various apologetic responses. Skousen claims Joseph and Oliver intentionally misled everyone by referring to the Urim and Thummim. Peterson's movie on the Witnesses portrays Joseph using SITH as a fact. Welch and his Book of Mormon Central "Kno-Whys" teach SITH as a feature, not a bug. Other apologists have used variations of these.

The critical SITH argument has two branches: 

(i) The presence of errors and anachronisms proves that the words were not divine in origin; i.e., the MIST was not divine but a deception from the adversary.

(ii) The presence of errors and anachronisms proves that SITH was a ruse used by Joseph to claim a supernatural origin for a text he composed/copied.

Dehlin has done numerous episodes based on the SITH narrative, claiming that SITH is one of the major causes of the faith crises he documents. Most of the CES Letter objections to the Book of Mormon depend on SITH.  

Bottom line: there is evidence to support multiple working hypotheses, but in my view the best sources are Joseph and Oliver, and all the historical evidence can be reconciled by accepting what Joseph and Oliver said; i.e., that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient record. 

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