review – An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself

An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us About Itself
John Whitmer Historical Association Journal,
William Morain

Reading this book brought to mind that old Swiss adage, “If you see something on top of the Matterhorn with all the characteristics of an elephant, you don’t ask what it is but rather how it got there.”  For Earl Wunderli, that metaphor has been made flesh in a lengthy quest to discover how to explain the Book of Mormon’s perch on such exalted heights for nearly two centuries with so many missing pieces of provenance strung along the way.  Fortunately, his quest has been richly rewarded with the present volume, An Imperfect Book:  What the Book of Mormon Tells Us About Itself.

Drawing on his legal background, Wunderli has applied a strict evidentiary approach in his scrutiny of the Book of Mormon.  Restricting his analysis to the internal evidence within the book itself to the exclusion of other sources of information, he presents an overwhelming case that the Book of Mormon was authored solely by Joseph Smith in the early nineteenth century.

Wunderli’s book is exemplary in all respects.  The writing is clear and unstilted, the paper and font easily readable, the documentation voluminous, and the section summaries well crafted.  The book is organized with an overview and seven topical chapters, followed by four appendices of proper names and several maps and illustrations.

The strength of the book is the author’s exhaustive database of words, phrases, and events portrayed in the Book of Mormon, indexed personally by hand before the computer over the space of a decade.  Restricting himself to the evidence of the words on the page, the author’s conclusions are clear and compelling—and refreshingly free of the copout of spirituality.

Wunderli posits that Smith had a comprehensive knowledge of the King James Bible (KJV) as evidenced by the vast number of scripture phrases that he has casually salted through the book.  The characteristic KJV phraseology and sentence structure are paralleled with several familiar Bible stories as well (Saul’s and Alma’s conversions, Salome’s and Akish’s dances for the king in exchange for beheadings, and both Jesus figures feeding the multitudes).  But Smith carried a simple view of who wrote the Bible that is at variance with later scholarly studies concluding (1) that Moses did not write the Pentateuch and (2) that the Old Testament was not compiled until long after 600 BC when Lehi’s family allegedly went to sea.  Smith copied exclusively from the KJV, including over 100 New Testament anachronistic quotes in the first two books of Nephi alone, none of which could have been on the “brass plates.”  Wunderli re-emphasizes the inappropriateness of Smith’s Deutero-Isaiah quotes as well.

The author’s database reveals a total of 5250 different words in the Book of Mormon, of which 27 were idiomatic for the book.  The nine most common (behold, yea, even, forth, O, cast, hearken, wo, and lest) are used interchangeably by Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, Moroni, and Jesus, and there appears to be no language evolution in the idiom for over 1000 years.  In Wunderli’s words, “The Book of Mormon speaks with a consistent voice throughout. . . [Any] changes are subtle and proceed in a consistent way, specific to when Joseph Smith dictated a given portion of the Book of Mormon, unrelated to whichever prophet may be speaking or what the internal chronology is” (317). Book of Mormon Jesus’s idiom is very different from that of KJV Jesus, especially with those 27 common words; in particular, the former Jesus speaks of eight “abominations”, a word Bible Jesus never utters.  In addition, all 13 alleged Book of Mormon authors used “and it came to pass” indistinguishably a total of 1414 times, strongly suggesting the phrase as a common prose narrative device of a single author.  Noting the similarity of usage of the 27 common words across all writers, Wunderli remarks that there are “. . . so many that the stamp of a single writer seems all but certain” (page 122).

The author highlights many, many anachronistic words and phrases in the Book of Mormon including, among others, “Alpha and Omega” (used by Jesus as translated from the Greek in the KJV), “Lamb of God” (from John), and four uses of “Christians” in Alma (first used in Acts at Antioch).  Of the 304 named persons in the Book of Mormon, seven have identical names and 14 nearly so between Jaredites and Nephites, though centuries apart in time.  Naming the son for the father was unknown in the Old Testament but very common in the Book of Mormon and in early nineteenth century America.  Though extremely rare for two men to have the same name in the Bible, this occurs 32.5% of the time among Nephites and 35.8% among Jaredites.  Many names from the Bible are introduced into the Book of Mormon with just one or two letter changes, including all three women’s names.  Wunderli also notes that most Book of Mormon names are readily pronounceable by English speakers, unlike the known New World native names of the period.

Wunderli devotes a full chapter to Book of Mormon prophecies.  He notes that 25% of these are for events that will occur within the Book of Mormon itself. Another 40% are for world events that occur before Joseph Smith’s era.  The remainder concern the end of the world and are congruent with the Christian eschatology of Smith’s time.  Notably, the only secular name given in a prophecy is that of Joseph Smith himself.  Wunderli points out that the only three specific prophecies for the post-1830 world all have been rendered false by events (that Smith would be protected from harm, that Jews would convert to Christianity to regain their homeland, and that a third sacred book would appear).

The author emphasizes that xenophobia in the Book of Mormon was wide and deep.  In addition to the well-known dark skin prejudice typical of Smith’s time, the book’s florid anti-Catholicism was likely reinforced by the presence of Irish laborers building the Erie Canal in Smith’s neighborhood.  The book’s widespread anti-Semitism is problematic because the alleged Book of Mormon authors were supposedly Jews themselves.  In truth, the noblest group in the book are the Gentiles who will one day drive out the Lamanites.  As Wunderli states, “God deals with groups, more than individuals, and shares the racial and religious views of white Protestants in frontier America. . . .The Book of Mormon, like Puritan writings before it, placed America in the center of a sacred pageant and working-class people in central roles, affirming everything they did as blessed” (pages 191-2).

Wunderli describes a seemingly endless cascade of curiosities that appear in the Book of Mormon.  Some characters live upwards of 200 years.  People who have not yet been born are quoted at length.  Although Zerahemnah is scalped in the ancient narrative, this British-introduced practice would not be adopted by Native Americans until several hundred years hence.  Wunderli describes a sizable number of slips in the narrative that are obvious mistakes in dictation as well as numerous contretemps and bizarre occurrences in several of the Book of Mormon’s stories.  These he describes as “. . . thoughtless mistakes in an unedited manuscript.  Some of them seem overly imaginative, but Joseph’s religious beliefs were mainstream for his time and place and consistent within the book.  What more could we expect since he preceded Darwinism, higher criticism, DNA, and so much that we have learned since then” (page 226).

I was impressed with the thoroughness and courtesy that Wunderli has accorded to apologetic defenders of the Book of Mormon, four in particular.  He describes John Tvedtnes’s claim of Hebraisms in detail but notes that the Book of Mormon claimed to have been written in Egyptian rather than Hebrew, and those “Hebraisms” actually originated in the KJV and appear with some frequency in the Book of Commandments and Smith’s personal writings as well.

Wunderli describes John Welch’s chiasmus claims with examples but notes that the inverted parallelism has been achieved only by considerable selection of phrases within highly repetitive passages to give the appearance of symmetry.  Wunderli similarly analyzes the limited-geography model of John Sorenson and the Jaredite extinction theory of Hugh Nibley, giving both a thorough review and describing their considerable difficulties.  And with all four apologists the criticism remains free of animus and couched exclusively upon the preponderance of intrinsic evidence.

Wunderli remarks that Mormon’s knowledge of heliocentric astronomy would have been most untimely without the complex analyses of Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.  But Creationist historicity remained a critical theme in the Book of Mormon with enormous theological dependence on a literal Adam and Eve.  As Wunderli notes, “Whoever wrote the Book of Mormon lived after Copernicus and before Darwin” (page 290).

As other authors have noted, the theology in the Book of Mormon was not significantly different from that within Smith’s own religious environment.  The book’s traditional Protestant views of the trinity, of the afterlife, of baptism, and of good/evil were all vastly different from the innovations Smith would later introduce in eschatology, resurrected angels, dietary proscriptions, priesthood divisions, temple matters, and location of the Garden of Eden.  As Wunderli notes, “Ironically, Mormonism in its present form, organizationally and doctrinally, is essentially divorced from the theology and perspective of the Book of Mormon” (page 315).

Wunderli summarizes by describing the narratives of the Book of Mormon as repetitive, simple, epic and mythic, “like reading a good novel. . . This is the stuff of fiction” (318). He stresses that his evidentiary approach is justified by the fact that the book itself claims an artifactual basis, deriving from metal plates with an alleged provenance.  As such, it is fair game to be exhaustively examined by traditional scholarly measures without any absolving crutch of spiritual license.  As the author concludes, “There is no virtue in believing what is demonstrably untrue” (page 327).

An Imperfect Book:  A marvelous work and a Wunderli.

Association for Mormon LettersDale E. Luffman 

My first impression in reading this text was that it was rightly named in its title. Indeed the author intends to lead the reader through an exploration of a book that he describes as an imperfect book, and does so in a way that enables the book to speak for itself. Given the fact that so many approach the Book of Mormon through lenses already adjusted to read the text for apologetic purposes, I found the author’s engagement of the Book of Mormon to be respectfully and critically refreshing. Feeling unable to rely on historians, archeologists, self-designated authorities, or others with sure knowledge of the Book of Mormon, the author turns to the book itself for what it might reveal about itself. Rather than turning to external evidences to vindicate the central claims of the Book of Mormon, the author invites the reader to explore internal evidences to be discovered in the book itself. He does this while engaging a broad range of contemporary scholarship.

An Imperfect Book begins with a concise overview [chapter 1] of various perspectives held by scholars and critics. The reader is then escorted through a review of the Book of Mormon’s purported origin, the editorial changes in the text’s evolution, the ordering of the “translation” itself, and the question of authorship. In summary, the overview suggests that there are good reasons to doubt the Book of Mormon’s antiquity. Further, given both internal and external evidences, there is little reason to rule out the possibility that Joseph Smith, Jr. was what the title page to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon indicated, its author and proprietor. Wunderli cautions that this determination, however, is best left to a thorough examination of the text.

This is first of all guided by an examination of the problems of the Bible in the Book of Mormon text itself [chapter 2]. The author cites the tendency to ignore the contribution and methods of higher criticism and the critique it would make on the source claims made within the Book of Mormon itself. Also, problematic is the apparent lifting of passages from the KJV of the Bible and placing them in the Book of Mormon text, the use [misuse?!] of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and the frequency of biblical parallels as contributive to the narratives of the Book of Mormon; all seem to require explanation.

In chapter three, Wunderli offers his findings from his efforts in reviewing all of the language in the Book of Mormon with particular attention to words and phrasing in the text. This chapter is perhaps one of the best researched chapters of the book. Issues addressed include a comparison of the biblical Jesus and the Book of Mormon Jesus. They are distinguishable. Based on the author’s findings, the biblical Jesus is not the Book of Mormon Jesus – – in fact, the Book of Mormon Jesus is more like Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, or Moroni than Jesus in the Bible. Of the many attempts to identify different authors in the narrative itself, Wunderli offers caution, and writes: “in trying to distinguish Jacob from Nephi, Mormon from Moroni, and Alma from everyone else, LDS scholars have implicitly endorsed the value of internal evidence for this purpose. But their evidence is either thin or wrong, and on further analysis it is contrary to their conclusions.” [page 148].

The author explores the use of proper names in the Book of Mormon in chapter four. Most intriguing is his analysis of language attributable to deity. He holds that when one reads “God” in the Book of Mormon, it is actually a reference to “Trinity.” And the presence of the word “Christ” in the Book of Mormon is actually an anachronism as it is a translation of the word “Messiah” into Greek, a usage that would not have been available to the Nephites. And “Alpha and Omega” is an apparent anachronism in the text as is the term “Christians.” A consideration of the category of “prophecy” follows in chapter five. In this section some very difficult content of the Book of Mormon is competently explored. Included are the issues of “people of color” that seem to encapsulate the attitudes of many European North Americans in the early 19th century, the portrayal of Jewish peoples as unbelievers and those responsible for crucifying Christ, and the condemnation of Catholics as the “great and abominable church,” “the whore of all the earth” for which there is no redemption.

What follows in the book is a consideration of curiosities that are to be found in the Book of Mormon as well as an examination of evidence assembled by defenders of the Book of Mormon among LDS scholars which, upon examination, seems to fail to be as convincing as the scholars suppose. This is a well argued and insightful chapter.

The most provocative section of the book is to be found in chapter eight. This chapter explores the political, scientific, and religious ideas reflected in the Book of Mormon text, many of which appear to be anachronistic. Of particular note, Wunderli suggests that the Book of Mormon tells us a different story about God than what Joseph Smith came to teach on the subject later in his life. Wunderli holds that what is to be found in the Book of Mormon is representative of traditional Trinitarian understandings of God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The concluding statement of the book captures well a basic thesis of the book: “The Book of Mormon may be many things to different people, but it is not a literal history of ancient America” [p. 328]. The integrity by which Wunderli approaches the Book of Mormon is to be commended! In his own words, “there are few things in life as wrong-headed as someone who is willing to manipulate the truth for fear of what people may do if they know better” [p. 327]. Wunderli has been faithful to his stated intentions.

All of us write out of our own experience and from our significant encounters. Wunderli is no exception. A professional attorney by training, he has meticulously engaged the Book of Mormon text. His professional competence has in many ways shaped how issues are approached and written about in a particular manner. Those competencies have proved to be helpful in working through many of the issues that were dealt with in the work. However, this style of writing can become tedious at times. That said, the effort has provided the reading public a solid resource to assist individuals, whose faith seeks to understand [St. Anselm of Canterbury], an opportunity to discover some things that the Book of Mormon has to tell us about itself.