(Please visit this site for web presentation: http://prezi.com/3fn9oucwwpt5/copy-of-hisses-from-the-dust/)
Well into the second millennium A.D., a teenage boy who had grown up in a home dedicated to the study of scripture, unearthed a hidden text that had been deliberately buried within a hill centuries earlier by a first millennium A.D. prophet. This prophet had made the record especially for the future people of the land, and he included “…prophecy in the text about the circumstances of its future discovery. And at the appropriate time, he would instruct a future disciple about where to find the text . . . [and] with the revelation of the text to its prophesied revealer came the spontaneous ability to translate the coded language…”
If I were to ask each of you in the room to fill out the cast of characters in this short story, you would very likely identify the teenage boy as Joseph Smith, and the ancient angel-prophet as Moroni…unless you were familiar with the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in which case you may have correctly identified the boy as the 12th century master Karma Lingpa, the text’s original author as the 8th century Buddhist adept Padmasambhava, the hill as one of the Gampos in central Tibet, and the text as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Now if any of us meets a Tibetan Buddhist, we’ll have a conversation starter. And that gets at the purpose of this paper: To better understand the narrative of the Gold Plates in relation to the narratives of other world scriptures.
The impetus for this paper was quite different, which was simply to find other examples of gold plates in history and literature. But as I started on this seemingly simple path, I began to question my bases of comparison, which were the most obvious categories of “gold,” “engraved scriptural record,” or “plates.” I began to wonder what the essence of the Gold Plates really is. Is it that the plates are gold? It seems not. Mormons debate whether the plates were actually made of gold or tumbaga rather coolly. There’s less religiously at stake in such an analysis, and similarly for other material details such as how far they were buried under the earth, in what, their particular size, or their exact weight. Where the conversation begins to matter more is the narrative surrounding the Gold Plates, their origins, their authority, the experiences people have had with them. This is the realization that led me to shift focus to hunt for other world scriptures whose cultural histories were wrapped in Gold Plates-like experiences and discourse.
With this purpose in mind, I followed the theoretical lead of Elliott Colla to develop a new comparative framework. Attempting to understand the artifaction of ancient Egyptian antiquities disinterred by modern archaeology, he asserts that, “the being of objects…is reducible to the human understanding of them,” which supports this paper’s focus on the narrative of the plates, rather than the plates themselves. Colla goes further in saying: “A fundamental precept of science studies [is that] there is no sharp separation between material objects & the concepts & human capacities they enable,”  which provides support for expanding beyond comparisons between direct aspects of scriptural artifacts to comparisons between the human narratives, of which the artifacts are a part. This results in comparative analysis similar to that found in the opening story of this paper, in which we looked beyond the most obvious similarity of buried scripture, to explore other meaningful similarities in the broader narrative, such as prophesying from the past for the future, the spiritual guidance of angels, and a supernatural ability to translate coded language.
What is Scripture?
Before diving into comparisons, I’d like to define what I mean by scripture. This paper suspends judgment of truth, and follows Ann Taves’ lead by allowing others to define their own truth, and exercising a willingness to explore that truth. So scripture is defined broadly as divinely revealed writings that are considered sacred by the adherents of a sustained religious movement. “Divinely revealed” and “sacred” are the two key criteria of this definition, and they are relatable through Mircea Eliade’s definition of the sacred, as “The manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural “profane” world.” The Oxford English Dictionary includes the element of “setting apart” as part of its definition of sacred, and this is important, because it’s the key difference between the Plates and other artifactual objects that are archaeologically similar, such as the golden plates of Darius. Another good example is The Rosetta Stone. The reason the Rosetta Stone is not sacred is that the midwife if its birth into the modern world was science. Trumpeted across Europe as an ancient relic of peerless value, the Stone was captured by the British and taken to England for study two years after its discovery by the French in 1799. It was soon translated by such jewels of the Enlightenment as Jean-Francois Champollion and Sir Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Man Who Knew Everything.” How different this is from the sacred life of the Plates, which were to avoid the learned, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that in the last days God would deliver a book “to him that is not learned.” This paper considers only those texts that share the Gold Plates’ sacred, scriptural nature, according to the traditional narratives of believers.
The world scriptures cited as parallel to the Plates in this paper are not a comprehensive list, but they were culled from several excellent sources including Blackwell’s A New Dictionary of Religions, Eliade’s Essential Sacred Writings From Around the World, Tvedtnes’ The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books, and Wikipedia’s indispensable Religious Texts page, which contains such rarefied religions as Pastafarianism, which unfortunately has few parallels to the Gold Plates. Sorry. This was a long list to sift through, but made considerably shorter by the fact that many indigenous religions did not have scriptural traditions per se.
This paper assumes a basic familiarity with the Gold Plates narrative, so I will attempt to avoid doing violence to other scriptural narratives by belaboring the parallels explicitly. I hope they will become obvious in the course of their narration.
The Plates’ relation to certain other world scriptures can be modeled using a hub and spoke metaphor, where the Plates are the hub, and each spoke is a dimension of the Plates. Fracturing the Plates into several dimensions is not meant to be totalizing; the model is simply a framework to accurately visualize some culturally meaningful parallels between the Plates and other world scriptures. Not totalizing the Plates into any one of their dimensions, in addition to focusing on the narratives rather than the objects, allows us to avoid the errors of “parallelomania,” which has sometimes plagued comparative Mormon studies. The dimensions this paper explores are:
a. Scripture on plates or tablets
b. Hidden scripture
c. Scripture from the past
d. Culturally anachronistic scripture
e. Scripture kept by angels
f. Syncretic scripture
g. Foundational scripture
Scripture on plates or tablets
Franklin S. Harris, Jr., Paul Cheesman, and John Tvedtnes have all conducted excellent research on parallels found in this particular dimension. Culturally, Mormons have found this dimension especially fascinating. Even John Welch, who spear-headed the chiasmus studies of the Book of Mormon, an important extension of the textual analysis approach to apologetics that Nibley began, wrote a paper on ancient “doubled, sealed, witnessed documents” that he points out as being a “distinctive legal practice employed in Israel around 600 B.C.”
Though archaeology has unearthed many fine examples of ancient engraving on metal plates, few contain actual scripture. And there is the difficulty of determining the provenance, not to mention the religious narratives, of archaeologically excavated plates. It’s tough to know if an angel does not tell you! There are several interesting parallels in traditional religious narratives, however, and mostly within the Hebrew tradition. For example, The Apocalypse of Enosh records how an angel instructed Enoch to write, “Hidden things upon bronze tablets and deposit (them) in the wilderness.” Many subsequent apocrypha have claimed to reveal these hidden things. Gold Plates engraved with scripture are mentioned in the King James Old Testament, as in Exodus 28:36, when the Lord commands, “And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and grave upon it like the engravings of a signet, HOLINESS TO THE LORD.” And of course there are the famous tablets on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. According to tradition, these commandments were written directly by the finger of God in the presence of Moses, similar to the brother of Jared seeing the finger of God touch and illuminate his stones. Other parallels between the narrative of the Gold Plates and the tables of the covenant become clear in one Samaritan document that describes how Moses “Opened the Ark of Testimony and he placed the Book of the Law, which was written by the finger of God in it, by the side of the two Tablets upon which were engraven the Ten Words . . . which no one could lift from the Ark up to this very day.” Hiding the record in a box, and the supernatural protection of the record from premature revelation are conspicuous in both narratives.
While I am less familiar with the Mayan religion, one can reasonably instantiate religious purpose to the artifacts found in the well of Chichen Itza, including many pre-Columbian gold disks embossed with illustrations, though at least one features Mayan glyph inscriptions. There is certainly more to know about the ancient narratives the Maya wrapped around these presumably sacred records.
This is an aspect of the Plates that contributes to their sacredness more than any other; of course, this is frustrating to some who would like to heft the Plates and conduct authenticity analyses, but their hiddenness is the very thing that makes them sacred. Many scriptural narratives share this attribute. Scripture may be hidden either physically, as in the stone boxes used to hide the plates of Darius, or the Ark of the Covenant, or a cave, or they may be hidden effectually, as in a dead language or cipher. Hiddenness is a particularly interesting dimension of the plates because it’s a visceral manifestation of the ‘setting apart’ aspect of sacredness. Very often in history, scripture is ‘veiled’ to protect it from the unworthy, or to protect humanity from the power of the word, which it may not yet be prepared to receive. Sometimes this results in a kind of burial of sacred records, for recovery at a later time. Later peoples sometimes sense this, and it’s why Sam Brown’s statement that there is “Great religious power in the contents of the graves beneath [our] feet” is true. So sanctification is a function of hiding records, and a related purpose is to resist the artifaction of scripture, whereby it might otherwise be used as an object to frame the concepts & human capacities inextricably linked to it, as Colla teaches us.
Several religious traditions feature hidden scripture, and some share excellent parallels to the Gold Plates. We have already explored The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is just one text among many in the Terma tradition of digging up holy writings and artifacts deposited by past prophets. This practice is centered on a geographical axis running from Tibet to Mongolia.
There is also The Apocalypse of Paul, purported to be the secret vision of heaven that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12. According to ancient Christian tradition, Paul actually wrote this vision down, and buried it under the foundation of his house in Tarsus. Many years later, a young man living in this very house was visited by an angel over three successive nights, instructing him to break up the foundations to the house, where he would discover the record. He discovered in it “a marble box which was inscribed on the sides; in it was the revelation of St. Paul.”
Scripture from the past
The Zohar is the foundational scripture of Kabbalah. The traditional account is that God revealed the Zohar to Abraham, Moses, and others, who then orally transmitted—an effectual form of hiding—the teachings down to the time of one Shimon bar Yochai, a rabbi of the 2nd century during the Roman persecution, who finally redacted them after hiding in a cave for thirteen years studying the body of Jewish scripture. The prophet Elijah, in angel form, befriended and inspired Yochai to put the Zohar to paper. This text remained hidden until the Zohar was finally published in 13th century Spain by the Jewish thinker Moses de Leon. There are also important subject matter similarities between the Plates and the Zohar in that they both contain material on the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, and other cosmological teachings.
Translated as the “Record of Ancient Matters,” Kojiki is the oldest extant chronicle in Japan. Written by O no Yasumaro in the early 8th century, it precedes The Tale of Genji by several hundred years. Kojiki is the foundational scripture for Shinto, a religion intensely concerned with the past. It’s a collection of myths concerning the origin of the four home islands of Japan, and the kami, or spirits that inhabit them. Similarly, for early Mormons, the Gold Plates provided a vision of the past that answered burning questions about the former inhabitants that had shaped the physical landscape. Brown points out that many of Smith’s peers saw the Hill Cumorah as a giant burial mound. At any rate, the preoccupation with the past is strong in the Book of Mormon, which contains more than one reference to past voices crying from the dust, as well as many references to the American continent as being a promised land, set apart for a chosen people, just as Shinto sees Japan.
Culturally Anachronistic Scripture
The Emerald Tablet is a short Hermetic text regarded by Medieval and Early Modern European Alchemists as the basis for their art. It is one of the Hermetica, a collection of Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. The largest similarity this record bears to the plates, along with the other ancient Hermetic texts resurrected during the Italian Renaissance, is its culturally anachronistic quality as a text from the ancient orient, which was accepted as scripture by Western European alchemists in a very different place and time. It’s also obviously similar in that the record was thought of as being engraved on tablets, as we can see from this 1606 carving by Heinrich Khunrath.
Great Hymn to the Aten is a 14th Century B.C. Egyptian text written to glorify the pharaoh Akhenaten, who attempted to convert Egypt to Monotheism during his reign. This scripture does not represent a sustained religious movement, but it’s an especially good example of anachronistic scripture, insisting on a monotheistic God in the midst of polytheism. Very likely all monotheistic religions share this precarious origin, as Abraham did in Ur, but the Great Hymn to the Aten is preceded and succeeded by polytheistic religion in Egypt, which gives it a foreign character, as I would argue the plates have.
Scripture Kept by Angels
The Qur’an was delivered to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. The following is a traditional account of Muhammad’s call to prophethood, which shares many similarities with the calling of Joseph Smith: “When Muhammad was nearly 40, he had been prone to spending long hours in secluded prayer and speculating over the aspects of creation around him. Tormented by the social unrest . . . prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia, Muhammad went up the mountains to pray and contemplate in seclusion . . . Unexpectedly, the angel [Gabriel] came to Muhammed and asked him to read. The prophet replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ The Prophet added, ‘The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, 'I do not know how to read.' Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, 'I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?' Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me.’” The angel then quoted a line of scripture found in the Holy Qur’an. For a more in-depth discussion of the fascinating similarities between Joseph Smith and Muhammad, I recommend Spencer Fluhman’s paper “An America Mahomet: Joseph Smith, Muhammad, and the Problem of Prophets in Antebellum America.”
This next scripture is akin to The Emerald Tablets in that it also came out of the early modern profusion of Hermetic material. It’s known as The Five Books of Mystery, and John Dee wrote it in 16th century England. Dee was the Queen’s Astrologer, and a accomplished mathematician, and The Five Books of Mystery is the most important work in a series of his writings developing a system of Enochian Magic, as it was later termed. This ceremonial system’s purpose was to evoke and command various spirits, and it had a sustained influence on practitioners of magic for centuries afterward, and probably upon Joseph Smith himself in some form. In fact, it was revealed to Dee by angels after his very Joseph Smith-like supplication to God. He writes this prayer in the preface to the book as follows: “O God... I have read in thy books and records how Enoch enjoyed thy favor and conversation . . . And, furthermore, considering the Shewstone, which the high priests did use—by thy own ordering—wherein they had Lights and Judgments in their great doubts . . . And remembering the good counsel thy good Apostle James giveth, saying, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
The principle scripture of the Yarsan religion, which is practiced by 1-3 million adherents in the Kurdistan region of the Middle East, is the Kalam-e Saranjam. The Yarsan believe this scripture to be a collection of pre-history traditions that were eventually collected and written down by the Golden Pen of Pîr Musi, “The angel in charge of recording human deeds and one of the five companions of Sultan Sahak,” the founder of the Yarsan religion. This suggests another pattern of scripture produced by prophet-angel collaboration.
All religions are syncretic in their origins, but some religious scriptures are especially syncretic, and the Gold Plates are among the foremost. In their narrative and content, they synthesize such seemingly disparate religious elements as those found in traditional Christianity, ancient Hebrew worship, Hermeticism, Alchemy, radical sectarianism, Swedenborgianism, Amerindian folklore, Judaism, Freemasonry, and European folk magic. These influences are fleshed out to varying degrees of clarity in Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 and Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Let’s now turn our attention to other especially syncretic scripture.
The Tattvartha Sutra is the most important text of Jainism, a religion that, like Islam and Mormonism, emphasizes its own eternal nature. However, the present form of Jainism was formed from the 9th to the 6th centuries B.C. What makes the Tattvartha Sutra syncretic is that it was a successful attempt to bring together the doctrinal pieces of the Jain path by one Acharya Umaswati in the 2nd century B.C. A lengthy body of scripture, it compares with the Gold Plates’ text in its breadth of content as well as its syncretic purpose. Like the Gold Plates, the Tattvartha was seen as an authoritative record of what was most important from the past, and is accepted as scripture by all Jain sects.
There is another parallel between Mormonism and Jainism worth mentioning. Jainism teaches a strict dedication to the principle of non-violence towards all living things, a dedication that Mormons have not culturally shared as much, but which finds some support in the teachings of Joseph Smith, as in an incident during Zion’s Camp when several of the brethren were about to kill three rattlesnakes. Smith said, “Let them alone—don’t hurt them! How will the serpent ever lose his venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless, before the brute creation; and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety.”
The forerunner prophet of the Baha’i Faith, Bab, wrote the Persian Bayan in 1847. In it, he announces the coming prophet, and the fulfillment of the Islamic dispensation, as well as presents the outline of the new Baha’i law. He was martyred, but not before successfully founding a religion whose core premise is the spiritual unity of all mankind. The Bahai Faith sees religious history as having unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. Compare this with one of the Gold Plates’ teachings—and one of my personal favorites—that, “The Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have.”
This is a dimension that, like syncretic scripture, could be applied to most scripture discussed in this paper. But unlike, say, John Dee’s works, some scripture does an especially good job at forming a religious watershed by sufficiently communicating a unified, resonant, and separate message from the infinite strands of thought, belief and cultural practice that make it difficult to say exactly when a new religion is born. Foundational scriptures make it easier to do this, and the two exemplary scriptures discussed in this dimension suggest at least two reasons why.
The first especially good example of foundational scripture we have already discussed as the Tables of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments. Their narrative represents a watershed spiritual event in the history of the Israelites, an event so transcendent and powerful as to create an irreparable breach between the past and future, the symbol and substance of the experience being the scripture that came out of the event, scripture produced by a Theophany.
A full-blown Theophany and angelic visitations are part of the Gold Plates narrative as well, but the Plates also exemplify the other way that foundational scripture comes forth, which is the more boring scholastic fashion. The Shih Ching—the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems and songs—is a good example of this. It is the most religious portion of the Five Classics attributed to Confucius, who lived from 551–478 B.C. Confucius was a philosopher, and while his teachings focused mostly on ethical-sociopolitical issues, Confucianism later developed cosmological elements during the Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 B.C to 220 A.D. The holiest portion of the Shih Ching is a collection of hymns sung during sacrificial rites dedicated to ancestral and nature spirits. These hymns date from the 10th to the 7th century B.C. I share these dates to give a sense of the temporal magnitude of this scripture’s creation. The traditional narrative has Confucius culling the 305 poems of the Shih Ching from a fuller set of 3,000 records. This mirrors Mormon’s and Moroni’s experiences as scriptural editors, and Mormons have certainly imagined the Gold Plates to contain but a small fraction of the total Nephite records, which are thought to be hidden in a certain “hill of Shim,” or the hill Cumorah, depending on the narrative.
his paper has explored similarities between the narratives of various world scriptures and the Gold Plates, and has ignored the differences between them. This accords with the purpose of testing the null hypothesis of there being no meaningful similarities, which I have rejected to my satisfaction. However, it may be a bit ironic that in finding more similarities between the Gold Plates and other scripture, I have clarified my own conception of their utter uniqueness.
Firstly, while the plates share similarities with other scripture with respect to each of the dimensions explored in this paper, the Gold Plates are the only scripture that is all of them together: They are engraved on metal plates, they were and are hidden in the keeping of an angel, they came suddenly from the distant past, they were from a foreign civilization, they were especially syncretic in their content, and they became the foundational scripture for a new world religion.
There are additional points of uniqueness of course. Grant Hardy, in his introduction to Skousen’s earliest text version of the Book of Mormon, wrote that, “There are at least two ways in which [the book] is unusual. First, most recent holy books consist of doctrinal expositions, ritual instructions, moral codes, scriptural commentary, or devotional poetry. The Book of Mormon, by contrast, is narrative—a much rarer genre of religious writing . . . the Book of Mormon consists of an extended, integrated, history-like narrative, which makes it quite distinctive.” He also mentions the precision with which we know the details of the Gold Plates’ production as a unique quality, what Richard might call the Plates’ extreme self-consciousness.
Another point of uniqueness arises when studying the editorial process by which world scripture usually comes about. The Holy Bible, for example, is a canonized set of scriptural records, but the fragments, apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, copies, all the debris of literary creation, dissemination, editing, and revision witnesses to the Bible’s historicity. The Gold Plates narrative also posits their own accumulative creation over a period of 1,000 years, yet they are the only record of this process found to date, and this is unique.
In conclusion, the comparative approach to thinking about the Gold Plates allows one to learn more about them by drawing conceptual power from other faith traditions and narratives. This approach also helps to flush out what is truly unique about the Gold Plates among the symphony of world scriptural narratives, and perhaps helps to answer the question of why they are so compelling.
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