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, 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.

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.


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