FARMS Review Probes Geography, Papyri, Isaiah, Creation, and More

The latest FARMS Review (vol. 16, no. 2, 2004) is another weighty issue flush with articles covering a wide array of interesting topics. In the lineup are reviews of works on Book of Mormon geography, de-Christianization of the Old Testament, the Joseph Smith Papyri, Isaiah’s central message, Jerusalem in Lehi’s day, creation theology, gospel symbolism, and the Christian countercult movement. Also included are two freestanding essays, one older article of lasting appeal (initiating a new feature in the Review), book notes, a 2003 Book of Mormon bibliography, and the editor’s top picks of recent publications. A foretaste of the many engaging articles follows.

In the introduction, editor Daniel C. Peterson demonstrates how detractors since 1830 have abandoned one theory after another in seeking to explain away Joseph Smith’s role in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. Peterson covers a lot of ground as he sketches a kind of intellectual history of the anti-Mormon campaign. He ably turns each successive theory on its head. Responding to the charge that if the Book of Mormon were truly an ancient record, that fact should have been proved by now, Peterson writes, “One wonders when, exactly, the deadline for verification passed” and asks, in turn, why critics have not been able to prove the record false, much less agree on how it came to be.

Three reviews deal with Book of Mormon geography. In the first, John E. Clark, professor of anthropology at BYU and director of the BYU New World Archaeological Foundation, weighs the claims of two books. He finds them to be unconvincing, the first “privileg[ing] impression over substance” and the second (a proposal for lower Central America as the range of Nephite and Lamanite lands) “worth contemplating” but faulty on many counts. Clark offers insights into the narrow neck of land, population sizes, Izapa Stela 5 (the so-called Lehi Tree of Life Stone), weights and measures, and Jaredite colonization. In other reviews, Allen J. Christenson and Brant A. Gardner reach similar conclusions regarding attempts to identify Book of Mormon lands through superficial linguistic analysis and to challenge the limited geography model (see below), respectively.

In a freestanding study entitled “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations,” FARMS resident scholar Matthew Roper demonstrates that current views favoring a small-scale geography are not of recent devise, as some critics claim, but had antecedents as early as the 1840s. Speculation on the geography question has spawned two principal theories: the hemispheric model (with Book of Mormon lands comprising North, Central, and South America) and the limited geography model (a restricted New World setting on the order of hundreds rather than thousands of miles). Roper notes that although the hemispheric view was popular among early Latter-day Saints, it is not clear whether it was the result of prophetic revelation or the outgrowth of the personal ideas and assumptions of the Prophet Joseph Smith and others. The striking diversity of 19th-century opinion on Book of Mormon lands attests that the church had no authoritative stance on what was—and continues to be—an open issue. According to Roper, today many serious students of the Book of Mormon favor Mesoamerica (encompassing southern Mexico and Guatemala) as the best match for the complex requirements of the text itself—a view that has remained tenable after years of examination in light of the archaeological and cultural record of ancient Mesoamerica.

“The Book of Abraham: Ask the Right Questions and Keep on Looking” is Larry E. Morris’s review of Robert K. Ritner’s translation of the Hor Book of Breathings, part of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Ritner, associate professor of Egyptology at the prestigious Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, annotated his translation extensively and included notes on previous scholars’ work, providing helpful information for students of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Interestingly, the same papyri fragments were translated by Michael D. Rhodes in a 2002 FARMS publication entitled The Hor Book of Breathings: Translation and Commentary. Rhodes is associate research professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Since Ritner and Rhodes worked independently yet refer to the same body of scholarship, their translations invite comparison. To help facilitate that effort, Morris’s review includes a side-by-side comparison of the two translations of the hieroglyphic text accompanying the initial vignette in Joseph Smith Papyri I.

The tone of Ritner’s commentary reveals hostility toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints despite the assertion of impartiality. Ritner also denigrates Joseph Smith and the contributions of Latter-day Saint scholars Hugh Nibley and John Gee. Morris notes that this kind of nonscholarly ax-grinding detracts from the value of Ritner’s translation, as does his refusal to deal with other scholars’ claims that certain nonscriptural elements of the Book of Abraham also appear in ancient or medieval texts that were unavailable to Joseph Smith. As for the quality of Ritner’s translation, Morris suggests this is a good topic for trained Egyptologists to take up in the future.

In “Exploring the Isaiah Code: Ascending the Seven Steps on the Stairway to Heaven,” David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, assesses Avraham Gileadi’s latest book and his impressive Isaiah corpus in its entirety. Seely adjudges Isaiah Decoded: Ascending the Ladder to Heaven distinctive because of its “holistic approach [that] attempts to read and understand passages in Isaiah in light of their relationship to the writings of Isaiah as a whole.” Gileadi employs structural, typological, and rhetorical analyses to relate Isaiah’s writings to people today—”a message so relevant to the times in which we live and to our divine destiny as children of God,” Gileadi writes in his book. According to Gileadi, each of the seven levels on the ascent to heaven represents a set of spiritual characteristics that people must acquire if they are to gain salvation (as opposed to descending the metaphorical ladder to damnation).

Seely notes that Gileadi’s model of ascent derives from the “bifid” (parallel) structure of the book of Isaiah—namely, seven parallel themes arranged chiastically in each half of the book. “The idea is that Isaiah arranged his material in such a way that he teaches about salvation and invites God’s children to come to salvation through a series of choices between opposites [e.g., ruin/rebirth, rebellion/compliance],” Seely explains. Each level is related to nations or biblical figures that reflect certain spiritual qualities and afford instructive models. Seely finds “many marvelous insights throughout this book”—such as Isaiah’s teaching that creation is not a one-time event but a cyclical process that continues throughout the plan of redemption (and Gileadi shows how that process occurs at each of the seven levels). Of Isaiah Decoded, Seely concludes, “There is something here for everyone. . . . Gileadi has succeeded in bringing the teachings of Isaiah to the average reader in an interesting and readable format that can aid us in ‘likening’ these things to ourselves.”

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