The Authorship of the Book of Mormon
Noel B. Reynolds
BYU Forum Assembly May 27, 1997
SLIDE #1 (book—Book of Mormon Authorship)
SLIDE #2 (book—Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited)
SLIDE #3 (Blank)
It may be of interest for you to hear what two young evangelical scholars recently told their own colleagues in comparing evangelical criticisms to the research published by faithful LDS scholars in recent years. In a paper that they hope to publish in a major theological journal, they pointed out that certain evangelical beliefs about Mormons are nothing more than myths or wishful thinking. For example, their research categorically refutes the following three myths that evangelicals frequently tell each other about Mormons:
1. There are no traditional (faithful) Mormon scholars with training in academic disciplines related to biblical studies or religion.
2. Mormons who seriously study biblical languages, theology, and philosophy abandon belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's prophethood.
3. Mormonism is crumbling as liberal Mormons have shaken the foundations of LDS belief.
1. There are many qualified Mormon scholars.
2. Mormon scholars and apologists have answered most of the evangelical criticisms.
3. There are no evangelical books that interact responsibly with contemporary LDS scholarly and apologetic writings.
4. At the scholarly level, evangelicals are losing the debate with the Mormons.
And conclusion #5
5. Evangelicals involved in the counter-cult (anti-Mormon) movement lack the skills and training necessary to answer Mormon scholarly apologetic.
They went on to explain, and I quote:
"Having read an immense amount of the scholarly literature published by LDS intellectuals; having read a great deal of apologetic material produced by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS); and having read or examined most evangelical works on Mormonism, we feel that we are justified in our conclusions."
SLIDE #4 (Richard Bushman)
SLIDE #5 (Richard Anderson)
SLIDE #6 (Proclamation)
One dramatic incident gives us the essence of their experience. David Whitmer was one of the three witnesses who disagreed with the way the Church was going and settled down permanently in Missouri, letting the saints go their way to Nauvoo and then on to Utah. He once became deeply annoyed by persistent rumors that he had recanted his witness. Desperate for a means of quelling these false rumors, he purchased advertising space and published this proclamation in numerous newspapers, even as far away as Chicago. In this proclamation, he reaffirms the original experience of hefting and handling the plates as shown to them by an angel and of hearing the voice of God commanding him to bear public witness of the same. In spite of every incentive to recant this witness, neither Whitmer, nor any of the other ten witnesses ever did modify his original story. They rather chose to maintain their testimonies firmly to the end of their lives.
SLIDE #7 (Royal Skousen)
SLIDE #8 (manuscript page)
As Joseph dictated without the aid of notes, papers, or even the plates themselves, relying solely on the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone, the scribes carefully recorded every word. The manuscript shows that Joseph dictated same-length word groups rather than sentences. This may explain why the original manuscript had no punctuation. Joseph would spell out strange names the first time they occurred, and the scribes would correct them in-line if they had misspelled them. But then they would sometimes revert to misspelled versions when those names occurred again in the dictation. Many errors were caught when scribes read each transcribed line back to Joseph. If it was wrong, he would dictate the line again, and the scribe would make appropriate corrections above the line. Once it was recorded correctly, the line would disappear in the stone, and the next line would appear. This translation process, as described by the participants and substantiated by Skousen's examination of the original manuscript, did not seem to allow Joseph Smith much freedom in word choice. The Book of Mormon was not an ordinary translation.
The complicated production of the Book of Mormon, from its original writing by Nephi, Mormon, Moroni and others to its most recent editings and printings is a human process that has been well described. While errors may have been introduced with every step, many of these can be identified and corrected. But because so much of the original manuscript has been permanently lost, many of these errors may never be identified. Once Professor Skousen completes and publishes his critical text, we may have the closest text possible to what Joseph Smith actually dictated to his scribes in 1829.
SLIDE #9 (Hugh Nibley)
SLIDE #10 (Correlated calendars)
SLIDE #11 (Blank)
SLIDE # 12 (Daniel Peterson)
In one of his most recent forays Peterson responded to the recurring ridicule that has been heaped on the Book of Mormon for prophesying that Jesus would be born in "the land of Jerusalem," without mentioning Bethlehem. In response, Brother Peterson and his associates have documented beyond any doubt that in ancient Israel, the term "land" was often used to indicate the rural area and villages associated with a larger city with the same name. Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem, and would certainly fall in its economic sphere as a smaller village at the time Christ was born. Furthermore, scholars have actually found ancient textual references to Bethlehem "in the land of Jerusalem."
SLIDE #13 (Blank)
SLIDE # 14 (Bill Hamblin in China)
SLIDE #15 (Wilfred Griggs)
As a particular example, Griggs focuses on the Book of Mormon's account of the tree of life. Here is a dramatic and imaginative image, advanced boldly as an explanation for God's relationship to men here and hereafter. Is it modern or ancient? Griggs shows how this typology shows up in many forms in the ancient middle east, and especially in Egypt in a time frame suggesting possible connections with Lehi. In many similar passages, the Book of Mormon has all the earmarks of an ancient book, and only appears modern on more superficial readings.
SLIDE #16 (Louis Midgley)
The first critics agreed with Joseph—he obviously was not the kind of man who could have written such a book. So they looked around for someone who could have done it. Sydney Rigdon and Solomon Spaulding were early candidates, but neither can be plausibly defended as the book's author. They were not even in the neighborhood. Later critics invoked epilepsy and other forms of psychological abnormality to explain Joseph's seemingly miraculous achievement—without noticing that there is no evidence for such abnormalities in Joseph's life. Nor are there any documented examples of such abnormalities ever contributing to the writing of such a complex book.
Some critics assumed that Joseph was a conscious fraud, but even this fails to explain how this highly complex work could have been produced by a man with so little knowledge of the world and its literature.
In 1945 Fawn M. Brodie attempted a supposedly gentler explanation, arguing that although Joseph's religious career began fraudulently, he gradually came to believe his own lies. Brodie was trying to make plain what many liberal Mormons were saying less publicly. But this did not solve any problems for the critics, and it provoked the young Hugh Nibley and others to do the scholarly work that exposed the weaknesses of her logic and evidence.
More recently, a few historians, who have trouble accepting Joseph's account—mostly because they do not believe in angels that can bring gold plates, have argued for some kind of middle ground that would accept the religious value of the Book of Mormon, but explain its origins as a product of nineteenth-century frontier culture. Midgley chronicles, evaluates, and criticizes all these approaches, documenting their meanderings, contradictions, and other shortcomings. He notes the recurring cycles in these explanations and their failure to take into account most of the recent research on the text of the Book of Mormon itself. He concludes that none of these alternative theories of Book of Mormon origins accounts for the facts of the case nearly as well as the original account given by Joseph Smith and the other witnesses.
SLIDE #17 (Jack Welch)
SLIDE #18 (Chiasm)
We have on screen one of the dozens of chiasms Welch and others have identified in the Book of Mormon. Chiasmus is one of the more complex forms of parallelism, and is distinctive in that the repeated forms occur in reverse order.
(Briefly discuss the one on the screen.)
SLIDE #19 (Blank)
Jack Welch has completed many other Book of Mormon studies that could be described in this kind of presentation. He may well be the most productive Book of Mormon researcher of recent decades. For example, he has documented the presence of many forms and elements of ancient near eastern law in the Book of Mormon text.
Welch has also demonstrated a striking set of parallels between The Narrative of Zosimus, an early Christian text with earlier Hebrew origins, and Lehi's account in the Book of Mormon. While no one has been able to explain what the connection between these documents might be, the clear suggestion is that their origins must be of equally ancient date.
SLIDE #20 (Don Parry)
Parry points to the simple example of climactic parallelism that occurs in Mormon 9:12—13. Notice as I read this how four key words are repeated, creating parallelistic structures, and the whole passage progresses quickly to a climax, starting with creation and ending with man's return to the presence of the Lord:
Behold, he created
the fall of man came
Jesus Christ came the
redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ,
they are brought back into his presence.
Not only does the recognition of parallelistic structures enrich our reading of the Book of Mormon, it also constitutes one more impressive challenge to Book of Mormon critics. In addition to explaining how Joseph Smith could have written the book, they now must explain how he could have silently introduced such beautiful examples of Hebrew poetic structures.
SLIDE #21 (John Tvedtnes)
SLIDE #22 (Al Rencher)
In the 1982 authorship volume, Wayne A. Larsen and Alvin C. Rencher, BYU professors of statistics, presented the first comprehensive statistical wordprint study of the Book of Mormon. Using computerized text and powerful statistical techniques, they were able to establish that the different sections of the Book of Mormon were authored by different people, and that none was authored by Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, or other nineteenth century candidates put forth by Book of Mormon critics.
SLIDE #23 (graph)
More recently, applied physicist John L. Hilton and five of his fellow scientists in the Bay Area (three being non-LDS) repeated that study using a wholly different and more conservative form of wordprinting analysis. Again, different authors were detected, and none corresponded to the nineteenth century candidates. More recently, in retirement as an adjunct professor of statistics at BYU, Hilton has used his techniques to identify anonymous writings of the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, to show which of Francis Bacon's works were authored chiefly by his staff of secretaries, and even to help the FBI identify possible authors of the Unabomber's Manifesto.
SLIDE #24 (Blank)
SLIDE #25 (John Sorenson)
John L. Sorenson has identified and collected over seventy competing geographical theories that have been advanced for Nephite lands. His own careful analysis has shown us that while the text itself presents an internally coherent and consistent geography, many of the assumptions Mormons and others have made about that geography since 1830 cannot be correct. For example, his careful analysis of the text shows us that the entire Nephite saga played out in a limited area probably less than 500 miles in diameter. Further, the usual LDS assumption that the New York hill where Moroni buried the gold plates was the same as the Book of Mormon's Hill Cumorah, where Mormon had his great records repository, doesn't work very well. The text shows that Mormon's Hill Cumorah was only a few hundred miles from Zarahemla. And Moroni had custody of the plates for 36 years after he had fled from the conquering Lamanites at Cumorah before he buried them in New York. Anti-Mormons have complained vigorously against Sorenson's limited geography, and want to insist that Latter-day Saints are officially committed to other traditional theories—which are much easier for them to refute.
SLIDE #26 (abstract Book of Mormon lands map)
The most useful critique of the many geographies that have been advanced for Nephite lands was offered some years ago by John Clark, professor of anthropology at BYU. Clark prepared several maps such as the one shown here to demonstrate the basic relationships existing between certain Book of Mormon sites which any geography based on the text must exhibit. Anyone attempting to solve the geographical puzzle must minimally meet the criteria that Clark has summarized from the text itself. To ignore these, as most such theories do to one extent or another, is to fail to take the text fully seriously.
SLIDE #27 (Warren Aston)
SLIDE #28 (Map of the Arabian Peninsula)
Following an old suggestion from Ross Christensen, Aston has demonstrated that the Book of Mormon Nahom, where Ishmael was buried and the company turned due east, corresponds quite naturally with modern Nehem, the only site in the Middle East bearing this name. Aston has demonstrated that this name has been associated with that area for at least 1500 years. It is located very close to the main junction of ancient frankincense trails in northern Yemen, where those trails veer to the east. Though this site was never a city, it features large numbers of ancient burials which go back to the time of Lehi and beyond.
Equally tantalizing is the textual description of Bountiful, the seashore site where Lehi's party camped three or more years while building the ship on which they crossed the Pacific ocean. The text mentions almost a dozen facts about that area, most of which seemed impossible, given the early nineteenth century understanding of the Arabian coastline.
SLIDE #29 (Wadi Sayq)
Again, Aston has identified one site on the southern coastline of Oman which appears to meet all of the textual requirements for Bountiful. Wadi Sayq lies almost due east from Nehem. It is accessible from the inland plateau, but only after passing through a long and rugged wilderness. It is naturally fertile, being watered liberally five months out of the year by monsoons that come off the Indian Ocean and park on its shore, penetrating a mile or so up the wadi. This area once featured forests with trees suitable for building ships, as is demonstrated by the shipbuilding reputation of the ancient Omani seafarers. Readily available iron has been located in small deposits within the area where the Lord could have showed Nephi to obtain metal to make tools.
SLIDE #30 (Mount)
The site features an obvious mountain or mount. Nephi twice mentions the mount where he frequently resorted to pray. Water from natural springs is available year round. Until this century there was an inlet suitable for launching ocean craft. It was used in Islamic times as a small port, as is evidenced by its Arabic name, Khor Kharfot or Port Fort. This inlet and others on this coastline have been blocked by the beach since the rivers of Oman dried up sometime within the last century.
SLIDE #31 (Ocean cliffs)
At the west end of the beach are the ruins of about eight small buildings and a surrounding wall that are estimated to date to the first or second millennium B.C. These ancient dwellings were positioned immediately above 200 foot cliffs from which a troublesome brother could readily be thrown to his death in the rocks and waves below. No other site on this coastline meets all these criteria. Book of Mormon critics have long insisted that no site ever would. Only someone who had been to this unique place in ancient times could have described it in such precise detail as did Nephi in chapter 17.
SLIDE #32 (Blank)
The kinds of evidences that I have reviewed here represent only a small fraction of the research results coming forth from a large number of scholars. This sampling should be adequate to show that the most reasonable explanation for the Book of Mormon is that it is just what it claims to be. It is a record of Hebrew emigres who left Jerusalem and found their way to the New World, where their descendants lived for over a thousand years before losing their tradition of prophecy and record keeping. That evidence should give critics pause, and it should encourage young Latter-day Saints whose testimonies might be fragile or wavering in the face of concerted attacks from anti-Mormons or liberal doubters. Finally, all who have firm testimonies of the veracity of the Book of Mormon know that such knowledge is a gift of God that comes after study and prayer. The scholarly studies can help us in many ways, but they do not establish testimony, which is a form of spiritual knowledge. I want you to know that my testimony of the Book of Mormon is precious to me. I am so grateful for the knowledge that it contains the writings of ancient prophets of God, that its pages contain the gospel of Jesus Christ taught in its plainness, and that its witness of Jesus Christ is true. I am delighted to be able to share that testimony with you. ITNOJCA.