My Response to Matthew Roper and BYU Studies

by Earl M. Wunderli

An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us About ItselfIn a recent issue of the BYU Studies quarterly (53:3, Fall 2014), there was a critical review of my recent work, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself. My book, a study of the internal evidence in the Book of Mormon, was reviewed by Matthew Roper, a member of the Maxwell Institute at BYU, and two collaborators, Paul Fields, who was identified as “a consultant specializing in research methods and statistical analysis,” and Larry Bassist, described as “a statistical analyst, consultant, and professional development trainer” (Roper, Fields, and Bassist, “‘If There Be Faults’: Reviewing Earl Wunderli’s An Imperfect Book,” p. 145). The three men divided their review into two general topic areas, curiously passing over the major points I made in my book.

Roper and collaborators began by discussing five of the eight anachronisms I identified within the Book of Mormon (steel, Jews, scimitars, silk, and synagogues), while passing over three (horses, gentiles, and church). The anachronisms in the Book of Mormon depend on evidence external to the Book of Mormon and were therefore issues I only touched on lightly. For example, they incorrectly cited what they called the “discovery of a meter-long steel sword at the ancient site of Jericho.” In fact, there is no such artifact. If one follows Roper’s footnote to the source, one finds that the sword, mentioned by Avraham Eitan in the Biblical Archaeology Review, is not steel at all but is, in fact, “an iron sword” (Hershel Shanks, “BAR Interviews Avraham Eitan: Antiquities Dealer Confronts Problems and Controversies,” 12:4, July/Aug. 1986). I mentioned anachronisms in the context of asking how the Book of Mormon could be a literal, word-for-word translation, as claimed by eyewitnesses Martin Harris and David Whitmer, when there are such errors as those, as well as grammatical mistakes, changes from one edition to the next, and word variations such as “among” and “amongst,” “kneeled” and “knelt,” “shall” and “shalt,” and others, sometimes in the same sentence. Incidentally, few if any LDS scholars today accept the Harris/Whitmer accounts.

In this first part of their review, Roper et al. mentioned one of the many curiosities I identified in the Book of Mormon and cited, by rebuttal, an “expert on such cases” who had found that Shiz, who was decapitated in the last chapter of the book of Ether, could make sounds as if he were struggling for breath after having his head cut off. On other subjects I had raised, they suggested that synagogues may have appeared earlier than most scholars assume, that the documentary hypothesis might be faulty, and that there may be only one author of the book of Isaiah, all of which would be contrary to the consensus of scholars in these fields. There is often disagreement, even Mormon scholars, regarding evidence related to Book of Mormon origins, and so, in order to avoid such disputes, I focused my study on the Book of Mormon text itself so I could deal with facts that everyone can agree on. As I note below, the reviewers were silent about what I concluded from studying the text.

In their second part, the reviewers offered a statistical analysis of Book of Mormon authorship in contrast to my own consideration of word frequencies. Many of us have seen “wordprint” studies before from BYU statisticians Wayne Larsen, Alvin Rencher, and Tim Layton dating back to at least 1980, and later from John Hilton, who used a different statistical approach and came to the same conclusion, that the Book of Mormon had multiple authors. Hilton contributed a chapter in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited that summarized the history of computerized stylometry, or wordprinting. Interestingly, Roper footnoted an article that used another method of analysis, “Reassessing Authorship of the Book of Mormon Using Delta and Nearest Shrunken Centroid Classification,” which found evidence for Sidney Rigdon and Solomon Spaulding as possible authors of the Book of Mormon, a conclusion Roper and colleagues would not accept. What one takes away from their discussion is that computerized stylometry is esoteric and still evolving; it uses a specialized vocabulary that it is not understood by ordinary readers.

They were, of course, unconvinced by my own word-count analysis because “researchers must standardize all word counts to a common base rather than simply comparing the number of words that come from texts of different sizes.” This is precisely why I broke up the text, where it was appropriate, into blocks of 170 words (pp. 125, 128), 203 words (p. 126), and page-long sections (pp. 99, 104, 114), among others.

Because my publisher was concerned about Roper’s criticism, they contacted BYU Professor of Sociology Tim Heaton to look over my work. Heaton responded by saying he has no specific expertise in statistical analysis of texts and said that my presentation lacked the sophistication evident in the calculations Roper and colleagues offered, but that my discussion was, by virtue of its simplicity, easy to follow compared to that of the reviewers who failed to offer “enough detail to know precisely what they did. It is not completely clear what [Roper’s] unit of analysis was—2,000 word blocks maybe—or what the dependent variable was—frequency of words or word patterns maybe. The reviewers’ use of statistical significance is not correct. Statistical significance is used to make inferences about the population based on a sample, and no sampling is involved.”

More useful than the review by Roper and friends, in my opinion, was Heaton’s suggestion that I might have structured my model differently to address

the problematic issue of what the null hypothesis should be. Roper et al. imply that it would be uniformity in word usage throughout the text. If we applied this logic to different writings by the same author, we would probably conclude that they were written by different people. For example, if we compared Joseph Smith’s diaries and letters with his discourses or the Doctrine and Covenants, I suspect we’d conclude that they were written by different authors. A more plausible alternative might be to consider (1) factors that might influence word usage (who was helping Joseph Smith with the dictation or key events in his life at the time), (2) the claimed Book of Mormon authorship, and (3) whether the Book of Mormon was describing a war, reporting a sermon, citing biblical events, or recording the acts of Jesus. If this approach were validated by comparing different works by the same author with works of different writers addressing the same topic, then it could reasonably be used to shed light on the question of authorship (Tim Heaton to Tom Kimball, Nov. 13, 2014).

To a large extent, a purely mathematical evaluation, without the kinds of controls Heaton suggests, will not settle the question of authorship. For example, there are nine idiomatic words in the Book of Mormon that are recognizably biblical (behold, cast, even, forth, hearken, lest, O, wo, yea), which are used by all four main writers of the Book of Mormon: Jacob, Mormon, Moroni, and Nephi. How these words are distributed among the four writers depends on what their topic is. For example, Nephi, in the first half of his writings (excluding Isaiah) uses 80 unique words that occur only once in the Book of Mormon, then 113 unique words in the second half of his writings. A statistical analysis might conclude that there were two different writers, but the Book of Mormon attributes both parts to the same person. In spite of such variances among the same author, there are hundreds of identical idiomatic word usages, combinations of words, and phrases in the Book of Mormon that two or more of its authors use across time and space in different cultural settings and in different contexts: Mormon writing his abridgments of firsthand accounts of missionary and military efforts, Moroni summarizing the history of a more ancient civilization with few details and very little religion, Nephi writing firsthand about his family’s travels, beliefs and prophecies, and Jacob writing a brief first-person account that includes Zenos’s long allegory. The amazing thing is that these four writers, whose styles are so similar, are nevertheless easily distinguishable from Isaiah and the biblical Jesus.

In fact, the Book of Mormon Jesus, who sounds the same as the four main writers of the Book of Mormon, is easily distinguishable from the biblical Jesus quoted in the Book of Mormon. Neither Larsen/Rencher nor Roper et al. found two different Jesuses in their computer analyses. The Book of Mormon Jesus, for example, addresses the crowd as “O house of Israel” over a dozen times, which “the biblical Jesus” never does in speaking to the same crowd. The Book of Mormon Jesus makes impersonal references to “the Father” 147 times,  in contrast to the biblical Jesus who uses more intimate terms: “thy Father,” “my father” (the Book of Mormon Jesus uses this term eight times), “your father,” and “our Father,” and often couples Father with “which is in heaven,” which the Book of Mormon Jesus never does. In addition to these and other differences, there is one similarity that appears to be intentional on the part of the author. The biblical Jesus says “Verily I say unto you” five times in his biblical Sermon on the Mount, but in the Book of Mormon version, these five instances are retained and sixteen more are added. The Book of Mormon Jesus uses the phrase forty-nine times. Together they use the phrase seventy of the seventy-six times it appears in the Book of Mormon. This is “the very voice of Jesus,” one LDS scholar noted, and apparently so did the author of the Book of Mormon, who used this phrase in Jesus’s speech with abandon.

Roper claims I use “only raw word counts and summaries.” If so, it would be a severe failing on my part. He said this in the context of my discussing the work of Roger R. Keller, who claimed Moroni used certain words (power, faith, blood, destruction, suffer, miracles) more often than Mormon. I countered that, in fact, Moroni uses faith 47 times, two-thirds of which occur in his elaboration of Hebrews 11:1, while Mormon uses faith 31 times, mostly in borrowing from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. The firsthand-narrative portions of Mormon’s and Moroni’s accounts are of nearly equal length (see my book, p. 142, note 140). The way Roper and company are able to conclude that “Moroni’s affinity for these six words is five to twenty-six times greater than Mormon’s” is by comparing their total word counts regardless of whether the authors are speaking for themselves or say they are abridging someone else’s writings. Keller and I compared apples to apples, while Roper compared oranges to cantaloupes. In fact, the word faith is used 261 times throughout the Book of Mormon and not just the 78 times that Mormon and Moroni use it in their firsthand writings. Mormon’s and Moroni’s high-density uses of the word are tied to their lengthy discussions of “faith, hope, and charity” and faith being “hoped for and not seen” from the New Testament, which is reason to identify a a modern origin for those passages.

I will mention one more thing in response to Roper’s statistical analysis. The word therefore occurs 663 times in the Book of Mormon and wherefore 415 times for a total of over 2 times per page. The two words have the same meaning and are interchangeable. However, what is unusual is that Mormon, who wrote nearly two-thirds of the Book of Mormon, is responsible for 90 percent of the therefores and less than 3 percent of the wherefores, whereas Moroni, Nephi, and the other minor writers use 97 percent of the wherefores and only ten percent of the therefores. After the loss of the first 116 manuscript pages, Joseph Smith began his dictation again with the book of Mosiah. He used therefore predominantly right through Mormon’s own book of Mormon. When he came to Moroni’s book of Ether, he apparently decided to distinguish Moroni from Mormon by using wherefore rather than therefore, gradually replacing therefore, which he had been more comfortable with. By the end of the book of Ether, the transition was complete. He used only wherefore throughout the book of Moroni and predominantly so as he continued the dictation from the First Book of Nephi through the Words of Mormon. Roper and his co-authors chose wherefore, but not therefore, as one of the 26 words they analyzed to show multiple authorship of the Book of Mormon. They did so without alerting readers to the shift in usage or their omission.

It is easy to see how Larsen, Rencher, and Roper in their studies were able to find no difference between the biblical and Book of Mormon Jesuses and why the use of wherefore, without consideration for therefore, would erroneously point to multiple authorship.

That said, the most puzzling thing to me about the review was why Roper failed to address the main points of my book: my discussion of how Professor Jack Welch, who happens to be editor of BYU Studies, “discovered” that Alma 36 is an extended chiasm but which is really a product of his imagination; my critique of Professor John Sorenson’s attempt to locate geographical sites for the Book of Mormon; my discussion of simple mistakes in the Book of Mormon; my study of the creative ways in which Book of Mormon names were devised; my discussion of the earnest but misguided way in which John Tvednes found Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon; my summary of nineteenth-century scientific and political ideas embedded in the book; and my noting of how the prophesies in the Book of Mormon differ according to whether predicted events were to occur prior to or after Joseph Smith’s day. Roper et al. may well have thought their statistical analysis superseded all other evidence, but I find they mislead more than enlighten.

The overall problem I detected in the Book of Mormon was its consistent voice from one time period to the next. It doesn’t matter which civilization the writer claims to represent; whether the writer is Jaredite, Lamanite, Mulekite, or Nephite, he sounds the same. The style betrays a consistent cultural context, with any differences in language and theology attributable to an evolutionary arc from the beginning of Mosiah (the first part of the Book of Mormon to be dictated) to the end of Moroni, then around to 1 Nephi, and from there through the Words of Mormon to Mosiah. The changes that can be detected proceed in a consistent way, specific to when Joseph Smith dictated portions of the Book of Mormon and are unrelated to whichever prophet is speaking or what the internal chronology was supposed to be. (See the similar conclusion in my book on p. 317.)

I acknowledge in my book the “inspiration and comfort” people derive “from the Book of Mormon and from the church” and how this frequently outweighs “cognitive obstacles to faith.” I hoped that if anyone chose to challenge my research directly, they would not “disseminate misleading information on grounds that they are promoting the greater good or guarding a higher truth” (327). From the misinformation in the BYU Studies review, I have less confidence that my hope will be realized.