excerpt – An American Apocrypha
In 1833 Joseph Smith wrote to Rochester, New York, newspaper editor N. C. Saxton that “[t]he Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western Tribes of Indians … 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, and unto it all the tribes of Israel will come.” When Saxton failed to print the letter in its entirety. Smith wrote to him again: “I was somewhat disappointed on receiving my paper with only a part of my letter inserted in it. The letter which I wrote you for publication I wrote by the commandment of God, and I am quite anxious to have it all laid before the public for it is of importance to them.”1
Two years later, in conversation with an itinerant minister. Smith reconfirmed that the angel who revealed the gold plates to him “said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.”2 Published revelations also repeatedly affirmed that Native Americans are Lamanites—Israelite descendants of Book of Mormon peoples.3
Had the Book of Mormon been what Joseph Smith said—not an allegory with spiritual import but a literal history of Hebrew immigrants to America—this should have been verified by now. Instead, the varied inhabitants and exotic locales in the Book of Mormon remain elusive; what some would term “Book of Mormon archaeology” is nonexistent. The more we learn, the more inconceivable the Book of Mormon version of ancient America becomes. For instance, the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs has not produced the name of a Nephite or a Book of Mormon worldview. In the absence of confirming evidence, one should probably not be surprised to see that in recent years, apologists have redoubled their efforts to defend the book’s historicity.
Once largely unorganized, defenders of Book of Mormon historicity rallied around the 1979 organization of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), now affiliated with Brigham Young University and sponsored by the LDS church. Despite FARMS’s official status, an examination of its voluminous literary output discloses a clear willingness to utilize unorthodox approaches to defend orthodoxy. Their sometimes less-than-civil manner of responding to naysayers also suggests an undercurrent of insecurity, if not desperation.
In defending the Book of Mormon’s antiquity, these neo-traditionalists found it necessary to revise the view that the book’s Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite lands encompassed the entire western hemisphere and that all Native Americans descend from these peoples. When problems involving Book of Mormon distances and population growth were pointed out,4 defenders of the book’s antiquity hesitated to abandon long-standing assumptions about its geography— especially since they were supported by a straightforward reading of the text and by Joseph Smith’s revelations— but eventually advanced a new, more localized geography. Instead of identifying the “small” or “narrow neck of land” with the Isthmus of Panama, the “land northward” with North America, and the “land southward” with South America as the traditional geography held, they began to assert that the book’s events took place in the limited region of Mesoamerica (i.e., the area immediately surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico) and that most indigenous peoples do not descend from the Lamanites.5
Although unable himself to make the transition, Elder B. H. Roberts of the First Council of Seventy recognized the apologetic value of a limited geography. On 22 January 1921, at a meeting of a specially appointed “Book of Mormon Committee,” he said that if it were possible to set aside one of Joseph Smith’s uncanonized revelations designating the coast of Chile in South America as the place of Lehi’s landing, “it would be easier to reply to adverse critics of the Book of Mormon.” Otherwise, “[t]he enormous distances to travel present a serious difficulty.”6
In reality, the Limited Tehuantepec Theory and those who champion it represent a last gasp of Book of Mormon apologetics. The theory is supported by pseudoscientific studies and specialized interpretations that cannot bear rigorous scrutiny. Still, the new apologists embrace their theory like an article of faith despite the violence it does to the Book of Mormon text, early Mormon history, Joseph Smith’s divine edicts, and Mesoamerican archaeology.7 Regardless, the Tehuantepec theory should be seen for what it is: an apologetic device. Specifically, it is an ad hoc hypothesis designed to shield a central hypothesis from adverse evidence—in this case, the Book of Mormon’s historicity.8 Rather than accept negative evidence, apologists often invent ad hoc hypotheses to protect and maintain a crumbling central hypothesis. This tactic violates what is called the principle of parsimony, or Occam’s Razor, which posits that the best hypothesis is the simplest or the one that makes the fewest assumptions. Needless to say, the Book of Mormon’s revisionist geographers ask that we make numerous unsupported assumptions. Because their theory does not fit comfortably with the many geographic and directional cues in the Book of Mormon, it requires elaborate explanations and additional ad hoc hypothesizing.
To highlight some of the problems of such an approach, let us consider some of the intricacies of the new theory. In what follows, we will illustrate the difficulty in matching the Book of Mormon to any specific time and place. This is not to address the book’s interesting and impressive literary, theological, psychological, and spiritual qualities that have had such a profound impact on people. Is the Book of Mormon pseudonymous? We think so. Apocryphal? Yes. Is it therefore less able to touch people’s hearts? No. Our position is that the scriptural tradition includes fiction—parables, poetry, hyperbole, psalms, historical verisimilitude, and other genres—and that such writing can be as powerful in providing people with spiritual guidance as non-fiction. To acknowledge the obvious fictional quality of the Book of Mormon is not to detract from the beauty and brilliance of the sermons, visions, and other imagery.
To weigh the new geography, one should look at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and ask whether it could reasonably be called a “narrow” or “small neck of land,” which the Book of Mormon describes as being “only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite” (Alma 22:32). BYU archaeologist Ross T. Christensen suggested that the isthmus must have grown wider since Nephite times, arguing that “the Coatzacoalcos and other rivers of this Isthmus must have unloaded enormous deposits of silt over the past 1,500 years.”9 Because there is no scientific support for this speculation, most new Book of Mormon geographers have since rejected it. Accepting Tehuantepec’s present dimensions, BYU anthropologist John L. Sorenson proposed that its 120 miles of difficult terrain could be crossed in a day and a half by a good runner.10 Yet, despite its identification as an isthmus, Tehuantepec as a cartographic feature is not even recognizable from the ground. It provides nothing of the bottleneck between the southern and northern lands that the Book of Mormon describes.
This has led to highly specialized and convoluted interpretations of several Book of Mormon passages. For instance, entrance into the “land northward” was made through a “narrow pass” or “passage” (Morm. 2:29; 3:5), a feature that was nothing more than the place where the “neck of land” connects the land northward with the land southward. This is indicated by two Book of Mormon passages. First, Alma 63:5 uses “narrow neck” as a synonym for “narrow passage” when it says that Hagoth launched his ship into the “west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward.” Second, Alma 50:34 describes the “narrow pass” much as Alma 22:32 describes the “small neck” as being flanked by east and west seas. Attempting to prevent the Lamanites from getting into the “land northward,” Moroni’s army met them “by the narrow pass which led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east.” Obviously, there is trouble in the fact that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is neither a “narrow passage” leading through or between two nearby seas, nor is it militarily a strategic location.
Rather than seeing the “narrow pass” as simply the contact point between the northern and southern lands, John Sorenson speculates that it refers to a two-mile-wide, twenty-mile-long, east-to-west ridge of gravel in the northern section of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec that travelers in that region utilized to pass over swampy, sometimes flooded land. “At times during that [rainy] season,” Sorenson argued, “the ridge would indeed lead ‘by the sea, on the west and on the east’ (Alma 50:34), for the water in the flooded basins would be on both sides of the ridge and would have barred travel as effectively as the sea.”11 To accept this interpretation, one must believe that the Nephites considered these marshlands or lagoons “seas.” In addition, it is hard to imagine why the ridge would be strategic enough to head off the Lamanites in view of the wider, more accessible route frequented by traders along the southern coast. This situation led new geographer David Palmer to postulate two “narrow passes” on the “neck of land,” one on the north and another on the south.12
An even more difficult problem facing new geographers is the orientation of the isthmus because the seas are not on the east and west but rather on the north and south. Sorenson and others therefore theorize, without support from the Book of Mormon, that the Nephite directional system was unique, being tilted “45 degrees or more” to the west, that Nephite north corresponded to present northwest.13 Only by shifting the Mesoamerican map in this manner can they place the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean on the east and west of the isthmus. It seemingly escapes them that the primary directional cue for an assumed ancient American Jewish-temple culture would be, in a Mesoamerican setting, southeast towards the sun, whereas Sorenson’s proposed shift is to the northeast away from the sun.14
Aside from distance problems, traditional geography fits the Book of Mormon’s description with far less struggle, manipulation, and assumptions. Early Mormons, like many of their contemporaries, viewed Panama as just one portion of a longer neck which ran from southern Mexico to South America–in other words, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the Isthmus of Panama and everything in between. This is what the editor of the church’s Times and Seasons meant when he wrote in 1842 that the Nephites “lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America.”15 A straightforward reading of Alma 22:32 fits well with the thirty-mile-wide Isthmus of Panama. In fact, this key geographical passage tells of a boundary “line” on the southernmost portion of the isthmus running “from the east to the west sea.” Sorenson accepts that this “line” runs from sea to sea and thinks that Tehuantepec’s 120 miles of rough terrain could be crossed in a day and a half by a good runner. Others have suggested different solutions.
Paul M. Hanson of the Reorganized LDS church, for instance, attempted to defend the Tehuantepec designation by arguing that the line in Alma 22:32 does not seem to stretch completely across the isthmus, observing that “the text does not state that the ‘line’ extended from the east sea to the west sea, but ‘from the east to the west sea.'”16 Although this is true, the context seems to imply that the line traverses the entire “neck of land.”
Alma 22:32 adds that the “land southward” (“the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla”) would be entirely surrounded by water if not for the “small neck of land” which took a Nephite a day and a half to cross. Put simply, the “line” dividing the lands of Bountiful and Desolation must cut completely across the neck, leaving the southern landmass isolated, “nearly surrounded by water.” Consequently, the Nephite occupation of “the land of Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea … had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south,” blockading the sole access route to the land northward (Alma 22: 33[-34], emphasis added). The new geography’s land southward is not surrounded by water except where it connects with Tehuantepec.17 Neither can the new geography draw an east-to-west boundary line without tilting the map.
On the other hand, even within Hanson’s strict interpretation, an east-to-west line can be drawn completely across the Isthmus of Panama that touches the “west sea” but not the “east sea,’ Seventeenth-century traveler Lionel Wafer, when describing the southern region of Panama, drew such a line as Alma 22:32 suggests, stating: “I should draw a Line also from … the South part of the Gulf of St. Michael, directly East, to the nearest part of the great River Darien.’18 The River of Darien mentioned by Wafer is today’s Gulfo de Uraba, situated on the east side of the Isthmus of Panama, which allows one to draw an east-to-west line across the isthmus at precisely the location described by Mormon. Thus, traditional geography best fulfills the requirements of Alma 22:32.
The origin of the Book of Mormon’s geography is apparent to anyone familiar with the mound builder myth current in Joseph Smith’s day. According to this once-popular view, the monuments of North, Central, and South America were constructed by a single race of white-skinned, Christian agriculturalists who were eventually destroyed by the ancestors of the current American Indians in the Great Lakes Region.19 No wonder the Book of Mormon was immediately seen as a history of the mound builders by Mormon missionary and convert alike. Unitarian Jason Whitman, for example, reported in 1834 that the Mormons “suppose the mounds throughout the western states, which have heretofore excited so much curiosity, are the remains of the cities of the Nephites and Lamanites.”20 The Book of Mormon not only tapped into the mound builder myth for its history but also for its prophetic message (see Ether 2:10). Should Smith’s contemporaries fail to repent, the Book of Mormon declared, God would unleash the Indians on them.21 With a burial mound in nearly every corn field, or so it appeared, the Book of Mormon’s jeremiad seemed more than plausible to many in Jacksonian America.
Long distances and rapid population growth are not the only problems the new apologists have to address. Historical anachronisms are plentiful. For instance, such things as steel, horses, and wheat were first imported to the Americas by the Spaniards.22 Apologists counter with ad hoc hypotheses: steelis actually iron; horses are deer; wheat is amaranth; goats are brockets; cows are deer, brockets, camelidae, or bison; and tents are makeshift huts. In short, things are not what they appear. Never mind that Mesoamerica had no metallurgy to speak of until after Book of Mormon times, that the Nephites used the horse to pull chariots in battle and over long distances, or that tents are described as being “pitched,” portable, and reusable.23 Only with increasing difficulty do apologists accept the Book of Mormon at face value.
Again, the nature of faith is not what is at question here, but rather the structure of reason and theory. Some people would like to erect a closed system that admits only “positive” evidence. If apologists had their way, there would be no means to refute their theory and hence no method by which to fairly evaluate the Book of Mormon’s historical claims. However, this brief discussion already points to the danger in that. Embraced by the vast majority of Latter-day Saints since 1830, the hemispheric geography emerged from an astute—albeit pre-critical—reading of the Book of Mormon text, buttressed by Joseph Smith’s revelations. The hemispheric reach of the Book of Mormon may be embarrassing to revisionist Book of Mormon geographers, but the fact remains that it made perfect sense to those steeped in the mound builder myth.
The essays in this collection question apologetic views of Book of Mormon historicity or respond to its proponents. While it is impossible to answer every argument and issue, our contributors cut a deep and wide furrow through this ever-growing apologetic. Edwin Firmage, Jr., provides several reasons why the Book of Mormon is not ancient. He finds, for instance, that ideas develop in the order of Smith’s dictation of the book instead of in historical sequence, as one might otherwise expect.
For those who consider the Book of Mormon to be unique because of the supernatural manner in which it was dictated, Scott C. Dunn’s essay stands as a caution. He provides examples of what is known as “automatic writing,” the alleged supernatural means by which some of the canons of modern literature, as well as other religious texts, were produced. One might ask upon what grounds we accept the Book of Mormon and reject similar productions?
Surveying the on-going research in population genetics, Thomas W. Murphy challenges the long-held belief about Native Americans being of Jewish descent. Evidence gathered thus far confirms what scientists have long suspected: the vast majority of Amerindians are of Asiatic origin. The fact that not even a lingering Hebrew genetic marker has been found among Native Americans has lead to some wild ad hoc hypothesizing, some of which Murphy reviews.
In the first of two essays, Dan Vogel explores the experiences of the Book of Mormon witnesses, finding that they saw the plates only in vision and never actually handled them. In a second essay, he reviews and responds to those who deny that Book of Mormon bands of “secret combinations” were inspired by early-nineteenth-century anti-Masonic rhetoric.
George D. Smith discusses Mormon general authority B. H. Roberts’s mixed response to Book of Mormon problems. In two works, both unpublished during his lifetime, Roberts outlined the internal and external difficulties surrounding the Book of Mormon’s historical claims. The general authority was unable to resolve many of these issues himself, and some of them continue to occupy Book of Mormon scholars.
David P. Wright examines the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon to show their modern rather than ancient source, which is the King James version of the Bible. Responding to those who would like to explain away die errors in these passages, Wright demonstrates that the variants in the Book of Mormon are in fact responses to the 1611 English text and are often disruptive to the underlying Hebrew.
Susan Staker traces the development of the seer’s role in the Book of Mormon and related revelations and notes its similarity to Joseph Smith’s own evolving self-image.
Finally, Robert M. Price explores Joseph Smith’s motives and methods in composing the Book of Mormon, comparing Joseph Smith to the pseudepigraphists. Price is particularly interested in Smith’s method of using well-known Bible stories and texts to create new scripture. He concludes that Smith—like the pseudepigraphists—was trying to give to new ideas the authority of the old prophets and to rewrite the past in order to give meaning to the present.
Versions of Edwin Firmage, Jr.’s, and Scott C. Dunn’s essays appeared previously in Sunstone magazine (see Firmage, “Historical Criticism and the Book of Mormon: A Personal Encounter,” Sunstone 16 [July 1993]: 58-64; Dunn, “Spirit Writing: Another Look at the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 10 [June 1985]: 17-26); a version of Thomas W. Murphy’s essay previously appeared on Mormon Scripture Studies: An E-Journal of Critical Thought (http://mormonscripturestudies.com). The remaining articles are published here for the first time.
1. Joseph Smith to N. C. Saxton, 4 Jan., 12 Feb. 1833, in Dean C. Jessee, comp. and ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 273, 275. For more on the claimed Israelite origin of Native Americans, see Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Joseph Smith, the Hill Cumorah, and Book of Mormon Geography: A Historical Study, 1823-1844,” delivered at the 1989 Mormon History Association Meeting; Brent Lee Metcaife, “A Documentary Analysis of the Zeiph Episode,” delivered at the 1989 Sunstone Symposium; Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Disinterring Zeiph,” Mormon Scripture Studies: An E-Jourmal of Critical Thought (http://mormonscripturestudies.com).2. Joseph Smith, journal, 9 Nov. 1835, emphasis added. See Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books and Smith Research Associates, 1987), 51; Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989-), 2:70; Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-), 1:44.
3. Doctrine and Covenants 28:8-9, 14; 30:6; 32:2; 3:18-20; 10:48; 19:27; 49:24; 54:8; 57:4; 109:65-66.
4. Among the first publications to do so was M. T. Lamb, Book of Mormon: Is It from God? (Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Herald, 1885).
5. For a discussion of the history and development of the Limited Tehuantepec Theory, see John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 7-206. The best presentation of the Limited Tehuantepec Theory to date is John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; and Provo, UT: FARMS, 1985).
6. Janne M. Sjodahl, diary, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. See also B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 3:503. For more on Chile as the place where Lehi and his entourage disembarked, see Dan Vogel, “Lehi’s Chilean Landing: Early Sources and Lingering Traditions,” Mormon Scripture Studies: An E-Journal of Critical Thought (http://mormonscriputrestudies.com/bomor/dv/lehitrav.asp).7. For a critique of the new theory, see Deanne G. Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 269-328. See also Glenna Nielsen, “The Material Culture of the Book of Mormon,” delivered as the May 1992 Sunstone Book of Mormon Lecture; Hampton Sides, “This Is Not the Place,” DoubleTake 5 (Spring 1999): 46-55. For an incomplete and evasive response to Matheny, see John L. Sorenson’s review in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6 (1994): 297-361.
8. An hypothesis is considered ad hoc in a fallacious sense when it “accounts only for the particular fact or facts it was invented to explain and has no other explanatory power, that is, no other testable consequences” (Irving M. Gopi and Keith Burgess-Jackson, Informal Logic [Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996], 264). Unlike other auxiliary hypotheses that support or validate a central theory, an ad hoc hypothesis serves to explain away problems with the larger theory. For example, when it was discovered that many people do not fit the predicted patterns ofbiorhythm theory, advocates concocted a new category of people: the arhythmic. Similarly, when water dowsers fail to locate water in controlled experiments, they often blame their lack of success on psychic interference, including negative vibrations from skeptical researchers. The late-seventeenth-century phlogiston theory of heat is another such hypothesis, as are any of a number of since-disproven “scientific” theories. See entry for “ad hoc hypothesis” in Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic’s Dictionary (http://skepdic.com/adhoc.html); Theodore Schick, Jr., and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking/or a New Age, 2nd ed. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1999), 155-165.
9. University Archaeological Society Newsletter, No. 67 (7 July I960): 3.
10. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 17.
11. Ibid., 43.
12. See David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences/or the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1981), 31-34.
13. Sorenson, Are Ancient American Setting, 39-42; and Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, 34-36. See also Sorenson’s review of Matheny, Review of Books, 305-314; Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events, 401-415.
14. Sorenson’s misuse of Hebrew orientation has been criticized by colleague John A. Tvedtnes who has urged that the new geographers discard their weak theory of orientation and “begin a search for a more reasonable explanation for the Book of Mormon description of the narrow neck of land and the placement of the seas” (Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 149 : 9). Brevard S. Childs, professor of Old Testament atYale’s divinity school and author of the article on “Orientation” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible ([Nashville, 1962], 3:608) told Dan Vogel some years ago that Sorenson’s theory about directional points in ancient America was “wild” and “without foundation” (personal communication).
15. Times and Seasons 3 (15 Sept. 1842): 915.
16. Paul M. Hanson, “Book of Mormon,” Saints’ Herald (8 Jan. 1951).
17. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 6.
18. Lionel Wafer, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America (London, 1699), 70. Our citation of Wafer is illustrative only; we are not suggesting that Smith read Wafer.
19. See Dan Vogel, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon: Religious Solutions from Columbus to Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986).
20. Jason Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” Unitarian (Boston; 1 Jan. 1834): 43, cited in Vogel, Indian Origins, 32.
21. 3 Ne. 16:14-15; 20:15-20; 21:11-13; Morm. 5:20-24. See also Doctrine and Covenants 87:5; 109:65-66.
22. See Book of Mormon references to steel: 2 Ne. 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Ether 7:9; horses: 1 Ne. 18:25; Enos 1:21; Alma 18:9-12; 20:6; 3 Ne. 3:22; 4:4; 6:1; Ether 9:19; and wheat: Mosiah 9:9.
23. For references to horse-drawn chariots, see Alma 18:9-12; 20:6; 3 Ne. 3:22; and for portable tents, see: 1 Ne. 18:23; 2 Ne. 5:7; Enos 1:20; Mosiah 2:5-6; 7:5; 9:4; 18:34; 22:2; 23:5; 24:20; Alma 2:20, 26; 22:28; 27:25; 46:31; 47:9; 51:32, 34; 52:1; 58:13, 17, 25; 62:18; Hel. 3:9; Morm. 6:4; Ether 9:3; 14:28; 15:8-11.
* * * * *
HISTORICAL CRITICISM AND THE BOOK OF MORMON: A Personal Encounter
by Edwin Firmage, Jr.
Nearly twenty years ago, as a first-year graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, my ambition was to become another Hugh Nibley, whose writings I had loved since I was twelve. As a young admirer, I did not understand everything I read. On my first encounter, I was not quite sure, for example, what the difference was between Sethe and Seth; it was all German to me. But Nibley was my mystagogue. Through him, I had my first vision of a strange and exciting antiquity. Even now, despite a very different scholarly outlook, I cannot help but admire him; he remains to my mind the most original thinker and social critic Mormonism has known. Still a neophyte, but armed with German and a little Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew, and intent on acquiring the requisite apologetic tools, I came to Berkeley to study ancient Near Eastern languages, particularly Egyptian, the language of mysteries par excellence.
Not long after my arrival, I was asked to teach the Book of Mormon in the Gospel Doctrine class in my Berkeley ward. I welcomed the opportunity, as it would give me a chance to delve deeper into the book. By any standard, my wife and I were faithful Mormons who attended church, visited the temple, and prayed together. I expected my study of the Book of Mormon to result in an increase of faith as it had on my mission. But within six months, I no longer believed the Book of Mormon to be an ancient text.
To this day, I am not sure how it happened, although I can isolate several issues that played a role in my change of mind. Still, none of them individually should have been sufficient to have caused such a turn of mind. Indeed, even taken together, they seem inadequate to the task of breaking down the wall of faith. I have often thought that what happened to me in Berkeley was fundamentally a conversion or, if you like, an anti-conversion. The process had all of the inscrutable suddenness that characterized some of the conversions I had witnessed as a missionary. Like a conversion to faith, the effects of my change of mind propagated with amazing speed. Almost overnight my whole outlook on life was different. The particular problems that I encountered as I re-read the Book of Mormon were catalysts, not the active agents of my reform. Something else far more powerful was ultimately the force behind the conversion. I do not know why that something had the effect it did any more than I know why missionary-guided conversions seem, on occasion, to radically alter newcomers to the faith. One thing is certain: it was a close reading of the Book of Mormon that provoked this change. How ironic, I thought, that after doing precisely what Elder Ezra Taft Benson had been admonishing us to do–study the Book of Mormon–I now found myself regarding it as a work of historical fiction.
My study began to take a different direction since I had given up on the Book of Mormon’s historicity. How was I now to explain it? Thus began an intensive period of thoughtful study. It culminated in a hastily written document on Book of Mormon origins which I completed in the summer of 1984. Producing this document was an exercise in catharsis; for a time I did little else. Once it was done, I felt little inclination to return to the Book of Mormon as an object of serious study. Perhaps coincidentally, my interest in Egyptian also waned. But my interest in ancient history, if anything, increased. More and more I was drawn into the world of ancient Israel and particularly to its cult. I was now free to enter into biblical study without feeling as though I had to perform mental gymnastics to make the Bible conform to a Mormon world view. Once again I was fortunate to have a guide. But this time the guide was not a mystagogue but a rabbi and teacher. For the next three years, under Jacob Milgrom, I read the book of Leviticus, and in good Jewish tradition, our study was painstaking, methodical, down-to-earth, and always rooted in the text. By the end of my third year, our graduate seminar in biblical Hebrew had covered, I think, eight chapters in all. After years of looking at Nibley’s big picture, I could now see its finer details.
The remaining pages of this essay will present a few of what, for me in 1984, were discoveries of some importance. These do not by any means constitute a comprehensive explanation of the Book of Mormon. Nor are they offered as proofs of my thesis that the book is modern, but as examples of how the assumption that it is modern resolves otherwise significant difficulties.
THE EGYPTIAN CONNECTION
Like many pseudepigraphic works before it, the Book of Mormon announces itself as a translation from an ancient source that was miraculously preserved by divine providence. In this respect, it is not particularly noteworthy. It is, however, rather less like its apocryphal congeners in that it also lays claim to an Egyptian genealogy–a genealogy that has attracted authors of sapiential, magical, and alchemical works since Greco-Roman times but which seems out of place in a work of Christian apologetics. One might be inclined to seek an explanation of the book’s syncretic blend of Judaism and Egyptian genealogy in Joseph Smith’s involvement in popular magic, but its Egyptian connection has a simpler explanation.
Nephi, the first and most important of the putative writers whose compositions make up the Book of Mormon, tells us that his work was written “in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Ne. 1:2).l The plain sense of this statement is that the Book of Mormon was written in Egyptian while its theology derived from Judaism.2 That Lehi’s family read and wrote Egyptian is also evident in the fact that the “plates of brass,” which had been kept by Lehi’s kin, are also said to have been written in Egyptian (Mos. 1:4). Lehi is at pains to preserve this linguistic heritage (and anyone who has ever had to learn Egyptian can sympathize). Soon after leaving Jerusalem, Lehi asks his sons to return and get the plates of brass from Laban “to preserve unto our children the language of our fathers; and also that we may preserve unto them the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets … since the world began, even down unto this present time” (1 Ne. 3:19; emphasis added). Both the brass plates and the Book of Mormon were written, according to Lehi, in the Egyptian language and not just Egyptian characters.
Despite Hugh Nibley’s efforts to make this extraordinary notion palatable, it is wildly improbable. Is one seriously to believe that for several generations Lehi’s family was at home in the Egyptian language? Moreover, are we to believe that centuries before the Old Testament was translated into Greek (Septuagint), Lehi’s kin had privately sponsored the translation of the entire Hebrew canon into Egyptian? This, of course, presupposes that a sacred canon of scripture existed in the sixth century CE, which few biblical scholars believe. Nevertheless, besides Nibley, no serious historian of the ancient Near East would credit the idea that a Jewish family had gone to the trouble and expense of translating or having others translate the canon into Egyptian and of engraving this enormous translation on brass plates.
How, then, is one to explain the Book of Mormon’s Egyptian connection? The answer lies in an incident in the early history of the translation. In February 1828 Joseph Smith had permitted Martin Harris, his scribe, to take a transcription of some characters and their “translation” to have their accuracy verified. Harris chose to take the transcription to Professor Charles Anthon, a noted classicist at Columbia University. In Smith’s 1838 history, the professor is reported to have identified the characters as “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic” (JS-H 2:64).3 According to this account, Anthon also certified the correctness of the translation. While we may well doubt this latter claim, Anthon may have ventured to identify the nature of the characters.4 The Book of Mormon itself, in an interesting case of prophecy after the fact, suggests that Anthon ventured no translation (2 Ne. 27:9-20). Harris, perhaps willfully, seems to have taken Anthon’s remarks on the transcription as a vindication of Smith’s translation. In any event, what Anthon may have said off-the-cuff, Harris took as gospel truth. A leading scholar had identified these characters as Egyptian, and therefore, that is what they had to be. Smith, though he probably knew better, undoubtedly found this identification useful. Perhaps already wondering what he should call his Book of Mormon language, he now had a credible response for the curious. Henceforth, if anyone should ask what language the Book of Mormon had been translated from, Smith could say Egyptian and could cite Anthon’s expert testimony to that effect. Indeed, he could parry all such questions by having the Book of Mormon itself proclaim its Egyptian origin. It is no accident that at each of the two beginning points in the translation (1 Nephi and Mosiah, explained later), the Book of Mormon advertises itself as a translation from Egyptian. The Egyptian connection, born in an off-hand remark by Charles Anthon, thus proves to be explainable by reference to Smith’s experience as author.
The Egyptian connection is of course incidental to the basic story of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith already knew by the time Harris visited Anthon. Still, it has important implications for our assessment of the authenticity of the book and also for our understanding of what was involved in Smith’s “translation.” At the very least, the Egyptian angle illustrates that the translation was susceptible to suggestion, even of the most extravagant kind. More importantly, it indicates that Book of Mormon problems can reasonably be explained by reference to Joseph Smith’s own experience.
PROPHECY AND THE ORDER OF TRANSLATION
The Book of Mormon is a collection of three distinct compositions: the so-called “small plates” of Nephi (1 Nephi-Words of Mormon), Mormon’s abridged history of the Nephites (Mosiah-Mormon), and the history of the Jaredites (Ether). It is from the second of these that the Book of Mormon gets its name. Mormon, we are told, chose to include Nephi’s record with his abridgment in order to preserve Nephi’s extensive prophecies about the coming of Christ (Words of Mormon 4). In 1 Nephi 11ff., for example, Nephi foretells Jesus’ birth to a virgin in Nazareth, his miracles, the appearance of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ death. Nephi reveals that the Messiah’s name will be Jesus Christ (2 Ne. 25:19), that he will be crucified and rise after three days (v. 13). He predicts the natural disasters preceding the coming of the resurrected Christ to America, as described in 3 Nephi. He sees Jesus’ visit to the survivors of the cataclysms in America and to the twelve new-world apostles whom Jesus selects (1 Ne. 12; 2 Ne. 26). These last prophecies are of special importance. There could be no doubt for anyone who read Nephi’s record that the resurrected Jesus would appear in America.
It is therefore surprising that in the early part of Mormon’s abridged history, prophecies about the coming of Jesus say nothing about the latter’s coming to America (see Mos. 3:5ff.; 7:27; 15; Al. 4:13; 5:50; 6:8; 7:7ff.). Not until Alma 16:20 is it clearly stated that Christ would appear there. “Many of the people did inquire concerning the place where the Son of God should come; and they were taught that he would appear unto them after his resurrection” (italics mine).5 The people’s uncertainty, shared significantly by Alma himself (7:8), implies that nothing was known about Christ’s promise to visit America, as described in such detail by Nephi. The discrepancy between the prophetic material in 1-2 Nephi and that in Mosiah-Alma 16 calls for explanation.
As in the case of the Egyptian connection, the explanation is found in the story of how the Book of Mormon was translated. In June 1828 some 116 pages of translation, virtually everything that had been completed up to that point, mysteriously disappeared after being lent to Martin Harris. For some time thereafter, Joseph Smith was forbidden to translate, and though perfunctory efforts began again in the autumn, nothing substantial was produced until the arrival of Oliver Cowdery in April 1829. When translation began again in earnest, instead of re-doing what had been lost, Smith continued from the point where the 1828 translation had stopped–with Mosiah–and then translated 1 Nephi to Words of Mormon last of all. This reconstruction of the order of translation is confirmed by the handwriting analysis carried out by Dean Jessee.6 Jessee tentatively identified the handwriting of John Whitmer and of an additional unknown scribe in the first fifteen chapters of 1 Nephi where, had Smith and his scribe at the time (Oliver Cowdery) begun there, we should have expected to find Cowdery’s handwriting. However, we know that towards the end of the translation in June 1829, John Whitmer briefly acted as scribe. Mosiah and Alma, then, antedate 1-2 Nephi in order of dictation.
With this in mind, it is not difficult to explain why prophecies of Jesus in Mosiah and Alma 1-16 evidence no awareness of Nephi’s prophecies of Jesus’ American ministry. The explanation is simply that during the initial stages of the new 1829 translation (Mosiah to Alma 16), Joseph Smith himself had not yet conceived the notion of Christ’s visit to America. The ignorance of Nephi’s prophecies manifested by the characters in Mosiah and Alma 1-16 reflects the fact that Smith, the creator-translator, did not yet himself know the turn his narrative was to take. Nephi’s unambiguous prophecies reflect the fact that they were translated, or as I would now prefer to say, composed, after the events they claimed to foretell.
This is not the only instance where the order of translation affected the content. One striking aspect of 1 and 2 Nephi is the relative dearth of prophecies relating to the immediate history of the Nephites and Lamanites. Thus, for example, 1 and 2 Nephi predict the European discovery of America, the persecution of the American Indians, the translation of the Book of Mormon itself, the loss of the 116 pages, the Charles Anthon incident, and the three witnesses of the divinity of the Book of Mormon. From the perspective of subject matter, therefore, 1 and 2 Nephi continue the narrative left off in Mormon. The disproportionate attention these books bestow on prophecy, and especially on prophecy relating to modern events, contrasts with their disinterest in more immediate issues and suggests that the purpose of 1 and 2 Nephi was to outline God’s continuing influence in American history after the close of the Book of Mormon era. In other words, having finished the story of the Book of Mormon as he had originally conceived it, Smith decided to address topics of subsequent modern history when he faced the gap left in the book by the loss of the 116 pages. The resulting text was necessarily prophetic rather than historical in nature.
LDS readers who have noticed the two different genres that characterize 1 Nephi-Words of Mormon and Mosiah-Ether will perhaps observe that one need not resort to historical criticism to explain the difference; the Book of Mormon itself tells us that the so-called “small plates” of Nephi were deliberately written to preserve prophetic rather than historical detail (cf. 1 Ne. 9:1ff.). But this only indicates that the early Book of Mormon’s turn to prophecy was intentional. The existence of a separate set of plates devoted to matters prophetic is, I think, demonstrably a fictional explanation of how new source material turned up to replace the lost 116 pages and why this new material focused on prophecy at the expense of history. The Book of Mormon itself provides the strongest reason for regarding the small plates as a fiction: nowhere in Mosiah to Mormon is reference ever made to a separate set of small plates. What the record keepers pass from generation to generation is called simply the plates of Nephi without ever a hint of a separate prophetic collection. There is a single set of plates called the plates of Nephi which is maintained to the end of Book of Mormon history (e.g., Mos. 28:11, 20; Al. 37:2; 44:24; 3 Ne. 5:10; 26:11; 4 Ne. 19, 21; Morm. 1:4; 2:17, 18) and which is valued for its sacred as well as historical content (Mos. 1:2 with w. 6-7; Al. 37:2; 3 Ne. 26:7, 11).
Another reason for regarding the existence of the small plates as literary fiction is the peculiar way in which they are linked via the Words of Mormon to the rest of the Book of Mormon. The most striking thing about the Words of Mormon is that it is supposed to be Mormon’s last words: “And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni … wherefore, I chose these things to finish my record upon them. … And now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record … ” (1, 5, 9). What, then, is this editorial intrusion doing in the middle of the Book of Mormon? If, indeed, the Words of Mormon is a valedictory, then it belongs at the end of Mormon’s abridgment and not in the plates of Nephi. If, as Mormon says, his own abridgement had already been completed, what need was there for these transitional verses since they link not his abridgment of Lehi’s record but Nephi’s self-contained account to the beginning of Mosiah? In my opinion, there seems little choice but to accept the “Words of Mormon” as Smith’s attempt to knit two parts of his translation together while explaining how he providentially happened to have something like a duplicate of the lost portion.
Joseph Smith’s sensitivity to the problems connected with the lost pages is apparent in the preface to the 1830 (first) edition, which explains that he has substituted Nephi’s record for the lost material and implicitly therefore that no one should expect the translations to match exactly. He thus protects himself from the charge of fraud should the two translations ever be compared. (This fear is made explicit in Doctrine and Covenants 10:10ff.) Despite this caveat, one is entitled to suspect its motive. If Smith were ever confronted with the lost material and it failed to match up with the new translation, he could simply assert that it had been altered. Does he save face any better by coming up with an altogether different production? Is he not just as vulnerable to a charge of fraud on this account–that is, that he has deliberately avoided this test of his prophetic ability by translating a different work? It would be more logical for Smith’s critics to have left the manuscript untouched in order to see just how well he would do. These questions in themselves do not constitute an indictment, but it nevertheless seems only fair to admit that Smith’s reticence to retranslate is suspicious. It appears to me, at least, as if he feared he could not.
So, 1 Nephi-Words of Mormon proves to be an epilogue to the Book of Mormon proper not only in terms of order of composition but also in terms of subject matter. It is implicitly recognized as such by the fact that a new set of records had to be created to explain its appearance.
Much more could be said about the effect of the order of translation on the development of the Book of Mormon narrative, but I will limit myself to just one last example. The key to this case is the fact that nowhere in the Book of Mormon’s many detailed prophecies of the last days is anything ever said about the establishment of a new church. The nature of God’s work subsequent to the appearance of the Book of Mormon is very vague, particularly so after the detailed prophecies pertaining to Smith’s involvement in the translation.7
Not surprisingly then, while Nephi foresees the rise of a “great and abominable” church following the apostolic era, he says nothing of the Apostasy as Mormons understand that term today–that is, the utter elimination of the legitimate church of God. By the same token, nothing is said of the Restoration, as understood by Latter-day Saints today. The Book of Mormon portrays cases of apostasy and restorations in every era, but these are localized events. Joseph Smith, as he portrays himself in the Book of Mormon, is not the prophet of the Restoration but the translator of the Book of Mormon. He is a seer rather than the first elder. Smith’s calling, as described in the Book of Mormon, is connected solely with the Book of Mormon. He will be a “Moses” (2 Ne. 3:6ff) in that his book will play an important role in the gathering of Israel. The powers promised to Smith are those necessary for the book’s production (v. 11). Smith, in fact, used a seer stone during parts of the translation, thus the term seer. He is promised “judgment in writing” (v. 17). The “great and marvelous work and a wonder” (2 Ne. 27:26) to come about in the last days is the Book of Mormon–nothing more or less. The phrase has this same meaning in the early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants that preceded publication of the Book of Mormon (D&C 4:1; 6:1; 11:1; 12:1; 14:1). After that, and still almost a year before the church is founded, references to a “marvelous work” cease.
Accordingly, it appeared that concrete plans to found a church occurred either after the translation of the Book of Mormon or during its last stages when the incorporation of additional prophecies may have proved too difficult. Perhaps the thought surfaced during Smith’s intense involvement in prophesying of his own role in the Lord’s latter-day work. While one has to use arguments from silence with caution, the unusual detail of Book of Mormon prophecies concerning Smith’s life, foretelling as they do his name (2 Ne. 3:15) as well as every major event in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, is the surest reason for regarding the silence as significant. On reflection, the silence makes sense. Little if anything in Smith’s experience up to 1829 would have led him to think about founding a church. One looks in vain, for example, in his 1832 and 1835 diaries for evidence that his first vision or interviews with Moroni led him to anticipate a subsequent role as a church leader. The same is true even of Smith’s 1838 manuscript history.
Given the Book of Mormon’s silence on the possibility of a new church, how can one explain what I like to call the handbook of church government found in Moroni 1-6 and 8? These chapters are the epitome of church government that tell how one is initiated as a member, how the eucharist is administered, who governs the church, etc.–all basic issues of church administration conveniently gathered together as if to instruct would-be church builders. If, as suggested by the manuscript evidence, 1 and 2 Nephi were composed after the remainder of the Book of Mormon (including Moroni), why is nothing more said about the appearance of a new church, such as appears to be adumbrated in Moroni?
One possibility is that while Moroni 1-6 and 8 do indeed look like a handbook, they were intended not as the basis for a new church but as a guide for reforming an existing institution. If so, it was to have been the Book of Mormon, itself as much as anything else, that would have contributed to the reform. The Book of Mormon need not portray Joseph Smith as playing a pivotal role as a church reformer, much less a founder.
A more radical explanation would be that Smith in fact composed Moroni after 1 and 2 Nephi. While I do not necessarily favor this explanation, I offer the following pieces of evidence in its defense. First, it was toward the end of the translation (June 1829) that Oliver Cowdery began working on what we now call Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, known to have been begun in 1829.8 This suggests that indeed the idea of a new church was beginning to exercise Smith’s mind. If this is what motivated the collection of materials in Moroni, and if Moroni had been composed before 1 and 2 Nephi, then we should expect some “foretelling” of the idea. Second, if we exclude from the Book of Mormon 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon and also Moroni, and if we restore the 116 pages of Mormon’s abridgement, the resulting book is in fact a book by Mormon–that is, the book as it was perhaps originally conceived in Smith’s mind–the work of a single author. The loss of the 116 pages dealt this conception and Smith’s vision a blow. While Smith was eventually able to recover his gift of translation, the structure of the Book of Mormon changed– above all, the 116 pages had to be replaced. The fact that Smith did not immediately move to provide a substitute suggests that he may have needed time to consider its ramifications. Best perhaps to finish the story as he had already conceived it and worry about the replacement later. All of the additions (Ether, 1 Nephi-Omni/Words of Mormon, and Moroni) in this scenario come toward the end of the translation process. The complex story of large and small plates and multiple authorship are thus explained as the consequence of an accident on the one hand and a theological development in Smith’s mind on the other. The succession of insignificant record keepers from Jacob down to the time of Mosiah is required only in order to fill up the chronological gap between the end of the founding family’s story and that of Mosiah, the two Almas, and the Nephite wars.
Permit me a few more comments on the subject of Moroni’s church handbook. In saying that it is unique, I am not claiming that the concerns it treats are not addressed elsewhere in the Book of Mormon; some are, some are not. What is unique is the fact that the resulting guidelines are assembled in one location as an instruction manual. Each of the topics taken up were matters of debate in Smith’s time, which explains why they are treated at all.
Many readers of this essay may recall Alexander Campbell’s dictum that the Book of Mormon includes “every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years.”9 “He [Joseph Smith],” according to Campbell, “decides all the great controversies–infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man.”
The matter of infant baptism, which heads up Campbell’s list, is broached for the first and only time in Moroni 8:4ff–part of what I have called the handbook. This is puzzling since the Nephites have been practicing baptism at least since Alma the Elder’s time (Mos. 18:10ff). How is it that only at the end of the history does the question arise? By way of comparison, although there is no trace of it in the New Testament, infant baptism was nevertheless an established practice by the late second century when Tertullian advised against baptizing children for fear they would sin before they could be reasonably expected to act differently (On Baptism, xviii). Infant baptism is mentioned by Irenaeus and is an apparently normative albeit localized practice (II:xxii). The issue can scarcely have been avoided by the Nephite church.
Nevertheless, Moroni 8 implies that the issue is new: Mormon and Moroni are initially at a loss for a response. Even with his thorough knowledge of Nephite history, Mormon has to go to God himself for an answer (v. 7). Mormon’s justification (v. 8) is a pastiche of New Testament sentiments taken out of context in a manner not uncharacteristic of the rest of the Book of Mormon. His quotation of Jesus to the effect that “the law of circumcision is done away in me” is the most peculiar. This Pauline sentiment makes sense in its original social setting: the struggle to establish the independence of the gentile church from Jewish ritual. But what relevance does it have to Moroni’s practical difficulty? In fact, the problem faced by Paul could scarcely have arisen among Nephite leaders who all along had championed the rejection of Jewish “Law” in terms that could be called anti-Jewish. The problem of infant baptism cannot realistically be located in the sort of world which the Book of Mormon itself would lead us to expect. But in Joseph Smith’s world, the issue was very much alive. Presbyterians, the most popular group around Palmyra, New York, held with Calvinism that baptism as a sign of conversion was not necessary as a means to salvation. It was not administered to infants. Methodists, the next largest group in the area, required infant baptism. Baptists, also well represented, who felt that only believers should be baptized, excluded children from the rite. Universalists allowed baptism in any number of forms but held that it was not mandatory. The Friends did away with sacraments altogether. One could therefore find among major religious movements in the area just about every possible attitude toward baptism. The key to understanding Moroni 8, and many of the other passages discussed below, is the reference to Ancient American “disputations” (vv. 4-5), which these revelations are meant to quell. This is, in fact, the only hint of such disputations in the Book of Mormon. Reference to theological conflict makes great sense in the context of New York revivalism.
How one sees infants is not the only controversial point about baptism, and we should therefore expect that if Smith set out to settle matters of controversy once and for all, he would address himself to other points of debate. The passage in 3 Nephi ll:22ff. does just that. It too is introduced by the key word “disputations” (v. 22, also 28ff.), which are again unanticipated. We often hear of political dissension in the Nephite camp, but nowhere previously is anything said about disagreements among the faithful about how baptism should be done. Nothing is left to speculation in 3 Nephi. Every word and action is specified in detail. Christ himself–what better authority–makes clear its necessity and scope. This is important since the New Testament lacks such explicit divine instruction. The uncertainty which this issue evoked in the minds of nineteenth-century seekers after the “primitive church” could only thus be completely dispelled–with explicit instruction to fill the gap in the New Testament picture of the church.
Similarly missing from the New Testament are details about how to administer the eucharist (the Mormon “sacrament”), which are obligingly supplied by 3 Nephi 18. Verse 34 explains that this is, again, because of disputations. In this case, we should expect no disputes at all since the eucharist only comes into being with Jesus’ advent. Nevertheless, the exact significance of each act is, as in the earlier cases, carefully spelled out (w. 7, 11).
Having chosen twelve disciples to govern his American church, Jesus gives the disciples power to bestow the Holy Ghost (v. 37). This almost completes the rudimentary framework for church organization. All the church lacks is a name, which is providentially supplied in Chapter 27. Once more the motivation is “disputations” (w. 4ff.), but again, mention of these squabbles comes out of nowhere. One wonders why, if there were debates, the church leader did not simply solicit a revelation on the matter and put an end to it as the Book of Mormon prophetic tradition would suggest. Coming from Jesus’ mouth, the statement claims more authority and provides, in a New Testament tradition, what the New Testament does not: explicit details from Jesus himself for the organization of a church. The reader may have noticed that these items–the ordination of the twelve, the mode of baptism, the eucharist, and the authority to bestow the Holy Ghost–constitute what we earlier called the handbook of the church in Moroni 1-6 and 8, which epitomizes the lengthier treatment in 3 Nephi. Unlike 3 Nephi, however, Moroni’s handbook is explicitly designed for “some future day.” With such perfect instruction, the primitive American church operates without any disputes at all (4 Ne. 2). This is an extreme form of what Robert Wilken calls the “myth of Christian beginnings.”10 Eusebius expresses it concisely: Until then [the early second century] the church had remained a virgin, pure and uncorrupted, since those who were trying to corrupt the wholesome standard of the saving message … lurked somewhere under cover of darkness. But when the sacred band of the apostles had in various ways reached the end of their life, and the generation of those privileged to listen with their own ears to the divine wisdom had passed on, then godless error began to take shape through the deceit of false teachers, who now that none of the apostles was left threw off the mask [and] attempted to counter the preaching of the truth by knowledge falsely so called. (Ecclesiastical History, 3.32.7-8).
“Eusebius wrote a history,” writes Wilken, “in which there is no real history, for there is no place for change in his portrait of Christianity. The true church always remains the same from generation to generation. … There is no genuine history, for there can be no history … The history of the church is a history of an eternal conflict between the truth of God and its opponents.”11 Although they make different uses of it, this myth is basic to Protestants and Catholics alike; needless to say, it is important to Mormons. It is precisely this image of pristine Christianity under the apostles that underlies 4 Nephi. It is also the prototype for the primitivist model described in 3 Nephi and explicitly recommended for later implementation in Moroni 1-6, 8.
One consequence of this notion is the idea that diversity cannot be tolerated. In other words, the only way to explain differences is to say that divergent views contradict or oppose the true faith. If there can be only one way of doing things, then “disputations” are necessarily a sign of trouble. By attributing his handbook for church administration to Jesus, Joseph Smith established a form that should be beyond dispute. The solution to sectarian squabbles, the one ultimately chosen by Joseph Smith, was to establish a church based on the unambiguous constitution of ancient American Christianity. As Eusebius demonstrates, the notion of a post-apostolic crisis need not lead to what Mormons would call the Apostasy. It is possible that Smith’s handbook of church government, while ultimately providing the basis for the new Church of Christ (Latter-day Saints), was initially intended as an epitome for emulation by existing institutions.
In the preceding pages, I have tried to show how a historical-critical view of the Book of Mormon illuminates some of its more interesting problems. Many questions remain, and many problems have yet to be discovered and analyzed. I myself have questions about the Book of Mormon’s origins that I cannot yet answer. However, that fact does not diminish the certainty of my conclusion that the Book of Mormon is a modern text.
1. Note that only in Mormon 9:32 is the Egyptian said to be “reformed.” Otherwise, the Book of Mormon’s designation is simply “Egyptian.”
2. The anachronistic reference to “Jews” is worth noting but remains tangential to the present discussion.
3. According to W. W. Phelps, probably quoting Harris in his 15 Jan. 1831 letter to Eber D. Howe (Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville, OH: the Author, 1836], 273), Anthon is said to have described the transcription as “short hand Egyptian.”
4. In the preface to his Classical Dictionary (1825), Anthon shows some acquaintance with Champollion’s treatise on Egyptian. Even so, his ability to translate anything must have been minimal, to say the least. It is doubtful that Anthon ventured a translation. Anthon himself denied having authenticated Smith’s translation. His two versions of the interview, occasionally at odds with each other, are discussed in Richard Kushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 88, where additional literature on the topic is also given. However, Anthon may have ventured to identify the provenance of the characters. The reason for thinking so is that Harris’s description of the figures as “short hand Egyptian” reflects a knowledge of current Egyptological terminology, of which Harris could not have been aware. Champollion (Precis du Systeme Hieroglyphique 1:18, 20, 355) describes hieratic as “tachygraphie,” which is rendered “short hand” in the American review of Champollion’s work (American Quarterly Review, June 1827, 450). The references to Champollion’s Precis and to Anthon’s reviews of this work derive from a helpful article published by FARMS (“What Did Charles Anthon Really Say,” FARMS Update, May 1985). Anthon is known to have been familiar with this work (Classical Dictionary [4th ed., 1845], 45) and is the only known source from which Harris could have learned this usage.
5. A general designation of the Nephite people is intended.
6. “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10 (1970): 259-78.
7. The one post-translation event that does appear prominently is the gathering of Israel. But the gathering of Israel is seen not as the response to an institutionalized church but as the effect of the Book of Mormon gospel which was to prepare people for an imminent second coming. Cf. John A. dark: “[Martin] said he verily believed that an important epoch had arrived–that a great flood of light was about to burst upon the world … that a golden Bible had recently been dug from the earth … and that this would … settle all religious controversies and speedily bring on the glorious millennium” (Gleanings by the Way [Philadelphia, 1842], 223). Harris’s statement does not, of course, necessarily represent Smith’s point of view. But it is entirely consonant with the stated purpose of the Book of Mormon (cf. e.g., 1 Ne. 14:7; 2 Ne. 27:26ff.; 28; 29; 30).
8. Lyndon Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981), 126n3.
9. Delusions: An Analysis of the Book of Mormon (Boston, 1832), 13.
10. Robert Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980).
11. Ibid., 73.