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, November 1, 2021

BYU Studies strikes again-part 3

Issue 60-3 includes an article by Grant Hardy titled "The Book of Mormon Translation Process." 


This is one of the most important articles on the translation published to date because it is in BYU Studies and because Hardy does such an excellent job of concisely presenting the alternatives.

It is far, far more useful than the Gospel Topics Essay (GTE) on the translation. However, like the GTE, the article omits important evidence and consideration of an alternative perspective.  

At the end of this post, I'll point out some implicit bias, but the core of the article is an excellent summary that I'll discuss here.


Hardy lists several "kinds of evidence that might support viewing the English Book of Mormon as a translation jointly produced by divine revelation and Joseph’s personal capacities." 

This evidence leads to this conclusion: Many readers might wonder whether the Book of Mormon, as a reve­la­tion from God, should have been more eloquent, literary, and precise in its portrayal of a Christianized Israelite civilization in the ancient Americas. It can be helpful to think of Joseph Smith as the translator, transmuting distinct spiritual impressions into his own language.

This is a reasonable conclusion, well stated. 

The conclusion would have been strengthened by adding Joseph Smith-History 1:62. "immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following."

Other scriptures corroborate this and should be considered, such as "And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true." (Doctrine and Covenants 17:6)


Next, Hardy lists "Evidences suggesting that Joseph was reading from a pre-existing translation." This is what we know as the "stone-in-the-hat" theory, or SITH. He describes it this way:

Other Latter-day Saints have called attention to features of the text that would be difficult to explain if the book had been extemporaneously translated in Joseph’s mind. As a result, they posit a Nephite record that was carefully composed, meticulously translated in the heavens (perhaps being updated to appeal to the sensibilities of King James Bible–reading Christians in the modern era), and then communicated to Joseph in fairly exact words, which he read from the seer stone. (emphasis added)

That's probably the most accurate, succinct expression of SITH I've seen yet. Kudos to Hardy for that.

Except I don't agree these features are difficult to explain, as we'll see below.

SITH was described in 1834 in Mormonism Unvailed as an alternative to the claim that Joseph translated the plates. The book ridiculed SITH, partly because if Joseph didn't use the plates then the testimony of the witnesses served no purpose, but also because everyone knew that Joseph dictated the text from behind a curtain or screen (the "vail" of the title) and the real question was figuring out what was behind the "vail." Was it the ancient plates, or another manuscript, specifically, the Spalding manuscript?

The Spalding theory prompted Joseph and Oliver to emphasize that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates; i.e., by divine commandment, no one was allowed to observe Joseph using the plates or the interpreters. 

But the Spalding problem also prompted supporters of Joseph Smith's translation of the plates to eventually emphasize that Joseph had nothing to read from because they had observed him dictate while looking at the stone-in-the-hat (SITH); i.e., they claimed he "translated" in the open, with no plates, Urim and Thummim, or anything else to read from. Obviously, the witnesses could not know what Joseph was doing while looking into the hat. He could have been reading words off the stone, reciting from memory, or making things up. No one recorded what he dictated, apart from the scribes, and there is no chain of custody between whatever they wrote when Joseph dictated with SITH and the text we have today. None of the SITH witnesses said "He dictated the first chapter of Nephi" or anything comparable. It's merely an assumption that what Joseph dictated with SITH made it into the text. 

When analyzed carefully, the statements from the SITH sayers collapse into a combination of imprecise hearsay and direct observations of a demonstration Joseph conducted, while contradicting what Joseph and Oliver (and the scriptures) teach about the actual translation. 

SITH was refuted by Joseph, Oliver and their successors from at least 1834. Nevertheless, in recent years, SITH has gained rapid acceptance. Hardy explains that "This second theory of translation has received significant support in recent years from Royal Skousen’s work with the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, and it comports well with the detailed literary patterns explored by John Welch, Hugh Pinnock, Donald Parry, and Grant Hardy. Scholars who believe that Joseph read a pre-existing translation, besides Skousen, include Daniel Peterson, Stanford Carmack, and John Welch."

Readers here know that Royal Skousen has famously concluded that “Joseph Smith’s claim that he used the Urim and Thummim is only partially true [regarding the 116 pages]; and Oliver Cowdery’s statements that Joseph used the original instrument while he, Oliver, was the scribe appear to be intentionally misleading.” 

Skousen's conclusion inevitably follows from the SITH theory. It's difficult if not impossible to disagree with his logic--once we accept his premise. But his premise doesn't follow from the evidence he cites. I discussed that point here: https://www.mobom.org/skousen-on-witnesses

Let's look at the features that allegedly support SITH.

Hardy writes, 

Evidences suggesting that Joseph was reading from a pre-existing translation include the following:

The extreme care taken in the dictation/transcription process to get the words exactly right. The original manuscript shows that Joseph dictated in blocks of twenty to thirty words, with the scribe then reading the words back to him and making immediate corrections as Joseph detected errors. There are many such corrections, often involving distinctions that are difficult to hear without close attention (plurals, verb endings, and so forth) and that make little difference to the overall meaning of a sentence.

To the extent the words were "exactly right," Joseph would have sought correctness whether he translated or read words off a stone. The subsequent changes he made to the text are more consistent with Joseph as translator than as reader of a word-perfect pre-existing divine translation. Assuming Skousen is correct about ink flow, the original manuscript suggests that scribes wrote in blocks of twenty to thirty words. That suggests but does not "show" that Joseph dictated in such chunks. It could be a function of the amount of ink the quill could hold. In any case, Joseph could have articulated the translation as a coherent whole after deliberating over the wording.  

Joseph’s spelling out difficult names at their first occurrence. Quite regularly unfamiliar names were first spelled phonetically by the scribe and then immediately corrected when Joseph apparently spelled them letter by letter.

If Joseph spelled out difficult names at their first occurrence, scribes wouldn't have spelled them incorrectly. The evidence suggests alternative spellings were discussed, not read off a stone.

Emma Smith’s testimony that Joseph could dictate for hours on end and would start each dictation session without reviewing where he had last left off.

This is consistent with Joseph as translator. If he ended a session at the bottom of a plate, he would naturally resume at the top of the next plate. A translator has no need to review where he left off because he wasn't composing the text.  

Intratextual allusions, in which distinct phrases from earlier stories are quoted in later episodes. One famous example is Alma’s exact, attributed quotation of twenty-one words spoken by Lehi (Alma 36:22; 1 Ne. 1:8), which is especially interesting because Joseph dictated the quotation before the original source (after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph continued dictating the books of Mosiah through Moroni before turning to 1 Nephi through the Words of Mormon).

Once Joseph translated Alma 36:22, he would naturally have worded 1 Nephi 1:8 the same way. Even more likely, he had translated Lehi's words in the 116 pages, used the same wording when Alma quoted Lehi, and then used the same wording when he translated 1 Ne. 1:8.  

Intricate literary patterns or rhetorical devices such as chiasmus, poetic parallelism, inclusios, and so forth. For instance, the complex chiasmus of Alma 36 appears to have been worked out beforehand in written form, and the inclusio that frames Alma’s career is characterized by the repetition of distinctive phrases: “The number of their slain/dead was not numbered, because of the greatness of their number,” with bodies “cast into the waters of Sidon and . . . in the depths of the sea” (at both Alma 3:1–3 and 44:21–22).

Although Joseph said only that the Title Page was a "literal translation," it's not difficult or unexpected for a translator to retain literary patterns. The Alma 36 chiasmus is evidence that the plates were worked out beforehand, but that's evidence of translation that contradicts composition. It's not evidence of SITH.

Chiasmus survived the KJV translators. There's no reason to infer Joseph neither could nor would preserve literary patterns when he translated the text into English.

The presence of Early Modern English grammar and vocabulary usages that were obsolete by the early nineteenth century and did not appear in the KJV. Some of the nonstandard grammar in the Book of Mormon—much of which was updated in later editions—would have been acceptable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though the overall syntax of the book does not match any particular time or place in the development of the English language, including Joseph’s native linguistic environment of nineteenth-­century New York. Many of the particularities of Book of Mormon diction would have been foreign to Joseph.15

The Early Modern English narrative is based on a comparison between published writing and Joseph's (presumably) verbatim dictated text. Even Grandin's typesetter, Gilbert, wanted to edit the text as he set the type. Had he done so, even though he wasn't a professional editor, much of the "Early Modern English" material would have vanished.

There's no reason to assume that Joseph's contemporaries spoke the way edited books and newspapers appear in print. There are no comparable verbatim transcripts of Joseph's contemporaries. Regional speech patterns and colonial lag account for differences in the few verbatim examples that exist. Even in the far more literate modern world, people speak differently from the way they write. It takes effort to duplicate speech patterns in print.

Most of the non-biblical Book of Mormon language can be found in the works of Jonathan Edwards, who died in 1753 but whose books were on sale in Palmyra from 1818 (along with the books of other authors dating to "Early Modern English" times). Examples of "Early Modern English" usage of terms can be found in newspapers, family writings, and other sources contemporary with Joseph Smith.

As translator, Joseph would draw upon the lexicon he acquired by listening to his peers and reading materials readily available to him.  

The presumption in the 1830 preface and D&C 10:6–19 that Joseph could have retranslated the lost 116 pages and produced exactly the same words. He was forbidden to do so because those who had stolen the manuscript would have changed the words so that the original and retranslated versions did not match.

This presumption isn't required by the texts or circumstances. These references don't say Joseph would produce "the identical words." (Besides, under SITH, the stone could have given Joseph an alternative translation if that was the problem.) 

To be sure, the "same words" could mean "the identical words," but it could also mean comparable words; i.e., the same narrative. Mormon (or Joseph as translator) had to clarify the meaning of "same words" in this passage: "And when they had ministered those same words which Jesus had spoken—nothing varying from the words which Jesus had spoken—behold, they knelt again and prayed to the Father in the name of Jesus." (3 Nephi 19:8) If same=identical, no clarification would be required.

Variations from the first translation would not prove Joseph couldn't translate if the meaning was the same. Even in the early 1800s, people knew there were multiple translations of the Bible. 

Instead, the text emphasizes that Joseph translated, and that those who had the 116 pages had changed the meaning of the translation.

10 And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands.

 11 And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written;

(Doctrine and Covenants 10:10–11)

They sought to prove Joseph couldn't translate because their alterations "read contrary" to what he had translated; i.e., their alterations differed enough that the underlying meaning contradicted what Joseph had translated, regardless of the precise words he used in the translation. 

 16 And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts—We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again;

 17 And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them;

18 Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power;

(Doctrine and Covenants 10:16–18)

As an aside, it's not feasible that these thieves would have altered the words on the 116 pages themselves. Everyone would see that as an obvious change to the original words. Instead, they undoubtedly planned to publish their alteration, claiming it was from the original manuscript. 

2 And, behold, they will publish this, and Satan will harden the hearts of the people to stir them up to anger against you, that they will not believe my words.

(Doctrine and Covenants 10:32)

Such a tactic would be enough to convince people to reject the Book of Mormon, the way fake news today persuades people even when it is easy to demonstrate how the news is fake.

It's also interesting to wonder why, if Joseph had produced another translation (whether with identical or comparable words)--if God gave him power to translate again--these people would have still rejected the Book of Mormon. 

The Book of Mormon itself suggesting that its future translator would “read the words” (2 Ne. 27:19–26).

Every translator necessarily reads the words of the original. This passage does not state or imply that Joseph would "read the words" in English.  

Hardy write, "This list does not negate the previous one, but it complicates it, and so far neither translation theory has proven entirely satisfactory—both explain some features of the text while passing over others, or introduce new conundrums. 

I don't see the conundrums. The simply explanation that Joseph and Oliver gave--that Joseph translated the engravings on the plates--fits the facts. But I understand why others see a conundrum. It's because they assume that Joseph was ignorant and illiterate. 

While a pre-existing translation may have been either free or literal, it is unlikely that Joseph’s own improvised language would have yielded such precise literary patterns. 

This doesn't follow because (i) the literary patterns were in the original and (ii) the non-biblical language in the text consists of chunks from Christian authors familiar to Joseph (primarily Jonathan Edwards) who themselves recognized and implemented similar literary patterns.

On the other hand, if the translation came fully formed as a word-for-word revelation from God, why wasn’t it lovelier, more elevated, or a better fit for modern English?"

That's a key point and it's good to see it articulated here.

Hardy concludes that "the two sides will probably remain in tension for some time." While his conclusion fits the editorial objective of the issue (which is titled "Yet to Be Revealed"), the article reads like a justification for a pre-ordained outcome, as if Hardy sought to establish the unresolved tension.

An alternative view--that Joseph did translate in the ordinary sense of the word, albeit with the assistance of the Urim and Thummim to interpret the engravings on the plates--is consistent with each of the items of evidence listed, once the evidence is considered in light of its original context. 

Thus, if we accept what Joseph and Oliver always taught, there is no tension to resolve.


A few comments about bias.

Grant Hardy is well known for his thoughtful book, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide. Slightly less well-known is his The Maxwell Institute Study Edition Book of Mormon, which incorporates M2C as the only acceptable theory of geography, as I discussed here: 


The BYU Studies article is saturated with ideology that taints the presentation, beginning with the oft-repeated fib in the very first sentence: "Joseph Smith did not offer many details about the translation process for the Book of Mormon, other than affirming that it was done through “the gift and power of God.”1"

Lazy learners don't read footnotes. Even engaged learners who do read footnotes rarely consult the original source, especially when there are no hyperlinks (which is inexcusable in an online article). To help readers, I'll provide the links as we evaluate the footnotes.

Footnote1 refers to the obscure Preface to the 1830 edition that was omitted from every subsequent edition, the "Letter to Noah C. Saxton, 4 January 1833," and the Wentworth letter

In the Wentworth letter, Joseph explained that "Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God."  Contrary to the opening line of Hardy's article, Joseph did provide the "detail" that he translated "through the medium of the Urim and Thummim."

The Saxton letter barely mentions the translation in this section that M2C advocates normally prefer to avoid: "The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians, having been found through the ministration of an holy Angel translated into our own Language by the gift and power of God, after having been hid up in the earth for the last fourteen hundred years containing the word of God, which was delivered unto them, By it we learn that our western tribes of Indians are descendants from that Joseph that was sold into Egypt, and that the Land of America is a promised land unto them." Here Joseph explains it was "translated into our own language," not some archaic, Early Modern English version that was obsolete in Joseph's day. 

The Preface also mentions the translation only in passing, but includes another important detail that Hardy omits: "I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi." The detail: Joseph says he "took" the translation from "the Book of Lehi" the way any translator would do. He didn't say or imply that he merely read words off a stone. 

Another useful citation that readers should know about offers an additional detail. In the Elders' Journal, Joseph explained "I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon." There, Joseph explains he "translated the plates," refuting claims that he merely read words off a stone without even using the plates.

This analysis of the first sentence in the article informs the rest of the article.


The second sentence is more spin. "In 1831, at a Church conference where he was invited to share more information, he declined, saying that “it was not expedient for him to relate these things.” Given the first sentence, the implication here is "more information about the translation." 

Footnote 2 refers to brief minutes available here: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-25-26-october-1831/4. Anyone who takes the time to read the actual source can see the topic was not the translation, per se. 

Br. Hyrum Smith said that he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.

Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.

Hyrum could easily have asked Joseph to explain the translation, but he didn't. If the participants understood Joseph to be referring specifically to the translation, they violated his instructions because both Martin Harris and David Whitmer, who were present, later did discuss what they observed and heard about the translation. 

For that matter, Joseph himself later gave more particulars about the translation, as did Oliver Cowdery, who was also present. What they did not "tell the world" about was the repository of Nephite records in the hill (which Brigham Young explained that Oliver never spoke about "in meeting" but did tell him privately). Given the persistence of treasure hunters, this reticence makes sense. Nor did they discuss what happened to the plates, or the ministrations of Nephi and the other two Nephites, or any but a few of the visits of Moroni. 


The third sentence is fine. But then we reach a cascade of problems. Here, I'll just make interlinear notes.

According to eyewitnesses, however, after the loss of the 116 pages, he primarily used a seer stone that had been in his possession for several years, which he would place in the crown of his hat, and then, putting his face in the hat, he would dictate the text of the Book of Mormon to scribes.3 

Footnote 3 cites a superficially impressive list of references that turn out, when examined in detail, to be merely groupthink; i.e., the usual suspects interpreting the same historical excerpts the same way. All of them reject what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation. The Gospel Topics Essay doesn't even once quote Joseph or Oliver regarding the Urim and Thummim. Instead, these groupthink references rely on late recollections, primarily by David Whitmer and Emma Smith, without recognizing that David and Emma were primarily focused on refuting the Spalding theory and made no effort to reconcile their accounts with what the long-since deceased Joseph and Oliver said. 

(Somewhat confusingly, after 1833 he referred to both devices by the biblical term “Urim and Thummim.”) 

This is apparently a reference to the now-discredited assertion that Phelps was the first to use the term in his 1833 article, despite the discovery of an earlier 1832 article in which Samuel Smith and Orson Hyde explained that Joseph obtained the Urim and Thummim with the plates and used the instrument to translate the plates. The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed pointed out the distinction between the "peep stone" and the "Urim and Thummim."  Ever after, Joseph and Oliver clarified that Joseph translated with the U&T, never once referring to the seer stone or the hat. Later, in the Nauvoo era, Joseph referred to the Urim and Thummim in a broader context (D&C 130:10), but the only confusing aspect of this is the effort by modern scholars to conflate the two terms in their unpersuasive effort to reconcile the SITH accounts with what Joseph and Oliver always said.

The open question in this case is what happened when Joseph looked at the seer stone.

That is definitely an open question, but the unstated premise is that Joseph and Oliver misled everyone when they said Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim, a premise that Royal Skousen has now made explicit, as I discussed here: https://www.mobom.org/skousen-on-witnesses

I reject that premise for all the reasons I've explained before, but here I point out that Hardy takes it as a given that Joseph "looked at the seer stone."

Next, Hardy writes, "He obviously did not know the language of the plates—reformed Egyptian (Morm. 9:32)." But what did Joseph say? 

In a passage never quoted or cited by Hardy, Joseph explained that he learned the characters on the plates before he started translating them and dictating the translation. "By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following." (Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

It's always easy to support one's conclusions by omitting contrary evidence, even, as in this case, the canonized statements of Joseph Smith.

Whether Hardy ignored JS-H 1:62 deliberately or negligently doesn't matter because he proceeds to double down on his dismissal of Joseph's explicit explanation when he states his own opinion as a fact. "So when Joseph spoke of “translating,” he was not using the word in its ordinary sense, whereby someone who knows the source language perceives the meaning and then formulates corresponding expressions in the target language."

It's difficult to understand how Joseph could have been more explicit than by saying he copied the characters off the plates and translated them. Nevertheless, Hardy simply assumes that Joseph received revelation, either "in a nonverbal or preverbal form" or by seeing English letters and words on the seer stone that he read aloud.

"Either way," Hardy writes, "when Joseph “translated,” he was rarely looking at the characters on the plates, which were usually either on the table covered in cloth or hidden elsewhere in the house or vicinity."

To support his claim, Hardy cites the out-of-context excerpts from Welch's "Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon" in Opening the Heavens

Notice, too, that nowhere in this article does Hardy quote what Joseph and Oliver said about Joseph translating the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. Their explanation is, apparently, as de-correlated as their teachings about the New York Cumorah.

[I have no problem with people rejecting what Joseph and Oliver said, but they should do so explicitly instead of misleading readers by omission.]

After discussing Royal Skousen's framework of "loose control," "tight control," and "iron-clad control," Hardy explains that he thinks the evidence "argues strongly for it being a translation characterized by functional rather than formal equivalence."

As I mentioned above, Hardy sets out a framework for continuing tension between the two translation theories; i.e., that (i) the English Book of Mormon as a translation jointly produced by divine revelation and Joseph’s personal capacities, or (ii) Joseph was reading from a pre-existing translation. Both theories assume Joseph could not have actually translated the engravings on the plates, despite what he and Oliver claimed.

In my view, Joseph and Oliver provided a clear, consistent explanation that resolves the purported tension that arises when people ignore what they claimed. 


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