Scholars Speak at FAIR Conference
Scholars from BYU spoke at the recent FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) LDS Apologetics Conference held in August at Utah Valley State College, in Orem, Utah. FAIR, which is not affiliated with BYU or the Institute, is an organization dedicated to defending LDS beliefs and practices with sound scholarship. The theme of the conference was “Turning Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones: Responding to Challenging Issues in Mormonism.”
John A. Tvedtnes, a resident scholar with the Institute, addressed the topic “The Mistakes of Men: Can the Scriptures Be Error-Free?” He noted that critics often attack the Book of Mormon on issues that would similarly be damaging to the Bible. “Since most of our critics are Bible-reading Christians, I believe that the best approach is to use the Bible as much as possible in our responses.”
One example is that the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon apparently refers to King Benjamin as still being alive (in Mosiah 21:28 and Ether 4:1) after his death had already been recorded (in Mosiah 6:5). Possible explanations include a scribal error by Moroni, Mormon, or someone else. Interestingly, the Bible has a similar difficulty in 1 Kings 15:6, which mentions “war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam” after Rehoboam had already died. This also could have reflected a scribal error, and a few Hebrew manuscripts correct the text to read “war between Abijah the son of Rehoboam and Jeroboam.”
Some critics also argue that the Bible has been verified by archaeologists while no Book of Mormon cities have been identified in the New World. Tvedtnes pointed out, however, that archaeology related to the Bible is not at all cut and dried, with some archaeologists arguing they can find little or no support for the Bible. In addition, identification of various sites often involves speculation. In the last century, for example, three different archaeological sites have been identified as the biblical city of Debir, which was conquered by Joshua, with the most recent identification coming in the late 1970s.
In his conclusion, Tvedtnes noted that the Bible, “which most of our critics accept as inerrant scripture, has the same kinds of perceived ‘problems’ as those the critics find in the Book of Mormon. A few of those problems have already been solved for the Bible with the passage of time. Fairness and logic dictate that we give the Book of Mormon the same benefit of the doubt.”
Royal Skousen, a BYU professor of linguistics and editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, spoke on changes in the Book of Mormon text. He first reviewed the history and findings of the critical text project (a topic covered in detail in his article in the recent FARMS publication Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon). Next, he noted that changes in the Book of Mormon text over the years fall into three categories: (1) the referencing system (chapters and verses); (2) accidentals, such as paragraphing, spelling, and punctuation; and (3) substantives, which are changes in words, forms of words, phrases, and sentences – including removal of archaic King James Version language and inclusion of text clarifications. “In every case, the original text could be restored without any problem, or Joseph Smith’s clarifications could be kept,” Skousen said.
“Errors have crept into the Book of Mormon, but no errors significantly interfere with either the message of the book or its doctrine,” Skousen concluded. “These textual errors have never prevented readers of the book from receiving their own personal witness of its truth. In fact, errors have been helpful in studying the Book of Mormon text. We have discovered how systematic the original text is because the occasional error has created an exception in phraseology. How many other cases of systematic phraseology have not yet been discovered because the transmission has been error-free? The errors in transmission actually help us!
“Further, all this worry over the number of changes in the Book of Mormon is specious. There are many more variants per word in the New Testament text and many more highly debated variants than in the Book of Mormon text. Does this variation mean that the New Testament is false – that it is not God’s word because humans have made errors in its transmission? The word of God still comes through despite the occasional errors in transmission.”
Daniel C. Peterson, associate professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, demonstrated how anti-Mormon explanations of the Book of Mormon have evolved through the years without a single, unified theory ever emerging.
An early theory regarded Joseph Smith as the sole author of the Book of Mormon, even though he was regarded as a “superstitious and ignorant peasant,” Peterson said. Before long however, critics who recognized the power of the Book of Mormon text suggested that Joseph had help from educated people, most notably Solomon Spaulding, who had innocently authored a religious romance, and Sidney Rigdon, a supposed coconspirator who helped Joseph transform the Spaulding manuscript into the Book of Mormon. “This theory dominated skeptical explanations of the Book of Mormon for fifty years,” Peterson said.
Fawn Brodie “effectively sounded the death knell of the Spaulding Theory, arguing instead that Joseph Smith was the consciously fraudulent author of the book, which reflected his own personality and environment. The dull village idiot was now ‘a mythmaker of prodigious talents.'” This same idea is manifest in the recent publication American Apocrypha. “While the authors all seem to agree, broadly, that Joseph Smith was the sole or principal author of the Book of Mormon, there are notable disagreements about the how and the why.”
For example, one essay depicts Joseph “as a rather cunning and deliberate fraud” while another maintains that Joseph employed “automatic writing” to produce the book and that he was therefore “dissociative but sincere.” Peterson argued, however, that the various theories put forth in the book do not support each other. “Mutually contradictory accounts are not mutually reinforcing. Quite the contrary – they weaken each other.”
Seven other people spoke at the two-day conference. Topics included Joseph Smith’s 1826 trial, plural marriage, the Gadianton band in the Book of Mormon, and the impact of Mormon critics on LDS scholarship.