Updating the Expansion Theory

In 1987 I published the theory of the Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source. I wrote the article as a bit of apologetics to show that assumptions made by both believers and critics lead to unwarranted conclusions.

I believe that the expansion theory is more cogent now than it has ever been. Let me explain three reasons why the expansion theory is essential to assessing the Book of Mormon:

(1) Those who write about the Book of Mormon in its ancient American setting necessarily adopt the expansion theory implicitly. (e.g., John Sorenson et al.) To make sense of the animals, plants, metals, weapons, directions and so forth mentioned in the Book of Mormon, we must assume that the words in the English are approximations or “conceptual translations” to make sense of what we know actually existed. For example, John Sorenson states: “In order to make sense [of animals identified in the Book of Mormon], we must consider a wide range of historical, linguistic and natural scientific information in search of clues to interpret the scripture’s statements…. But isn’t it ovious that the ‘cow’ of the Book of Mormon was our familiar bovine, straight out without all this hegding? No, it is not at all obvious. First, we are trying to figure out what the Book of Mormon really means by the words we have in English translation … Second, there is a lack of reliable evidence — historical, archaeological, zoological, or linguistic — that Old World cows were present in the Americas in pre-columbian times.” (AnAncient American Setting, 89, 294) Sorenson gives a long list of possible candidates for the animals mentioned in the BofM that were found in ancient America on p. 299-300. All of them are merely conceptual approximations. He does the same for metals, weapons, plants, compass directions and so forth listed in the Book of Mormon. My point is that to make sense of what we know from archaeology, paleo-botany, paleontology and so forth, we must assume that the BofM was translated rather loosely and was based on Joseph Smith’s conceptual abilities and horizons.

(2) To make sense of the text, we must accept that Joseph Smith was free to choose the language in which to express the translation. It is rather clear to me that the language chosen mirrors the KJV and adopts its phraseology and mode of expression throughout. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the expansion theory is somehow invalidated if we cannot find textual aporia or breaks in continuity that show where the ancient text leaves off and the new modern text begins. To look for such aporia (as Terryl Givens does) is to misunderstand what the expansion theory claims. Rather, the point of the theory is that the very nature of revelation included the limitations and horizons of Joseph Smith ability to conceptualize, express and explain the text. The theory is based on the fact that all human experience is conceptual and involves interpretation from a point of view. The theory thus argues:

(1) All human experience involves interpretation from a particular point of view.
(2) The revelation that resulted in the Book of Mormon was at least in part a human experience.
(c) Therefore, the revelation that resulted in the Book of Mormon involved interpretation from a particular point of view at least in part.

One of the strengths of the expansion theory is that it sees all of Joseph Smith’s prophetic translations as being of the same kind. Joseph didn’t translate the BofM because he knew Hebrew and/or reformed Egyptian; he didn’t translate the Book of Abraham because he read Egyptian etc. Rather, these translations were the same as the Book of Moses and the parchment of John that he translated now contained in D&C 7. He could translate because he received revelation; and the revelation involved his input in explaining, expanding and making sense of what he received. JS felt free to change, amend, add to, delete from and generally edit the revelations that he received in the Doctrine & Covenants — and he treated the BofM text in the same way when he made changes to it in 1837. The Book of Mormon cannot be a “literal translation” or JS’s changes don’t make sense. However, if JS is giving the best expression and explanation that he knows how to give, and later has greater capacity to explain the text or “translation” in a better way, he felt free to do so.

(3) It has now been 18 years since the expansion theory was first published and to date not a single critic of the Book of Mormon has attempted to explain the presence of convicing evidence of antitiquity that I cited in my 1987 article: viz., ancient prophetic call forms, ancient Israelite covenant renewal rituals and forms and formal Hebrew legal procedures. In my view, the presence of these forms is fairly clear in the text of the BofM and they are very difficult to explain on the assumption that it was written by anyone in the 19th century. To date, the only theory that accounts for these ancient forms and the presence of modern expansions that are fairly evidence is the expansion theory.

I believe that the Book of Mormon is precisely what it claims to be: a book translated by the gift and power of God that tells us about the record of an ancient people. However, translation by the gift and power of God isn’t translation based upon an isomorphic rendering of an underlying text into English based on a knowledge of the ancient textual language; rather, it is a revelation from God which involves necessarily the limitations of vocabulary, conceptuality and horizons of God’s servant chosen to render it into English for us.

205 comments for “Updating the Expansion Theory

  1. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. You write, “One of the strengths of the expansion theory is that it sees all of Joseph Smith’s prophetic translations as being of the same kind.” and you mention PoGP and the D & C. I’m thinking also of the JST; Robert J. Matthews’ list of four types of material in the JST comes to mind:

    (1) restoration of the text to the way that it originally read
    (2) material that was not originally part of the biblical text
    (3) Joseph Smith’s commentary
    (4) material added for doctrinal harmonization

    Do you think this list could apply to the BoM as well? Similarly:

    “Robert Matthews has written concerning revisions in the original manuscripts: In the face of the evidence it can hardly be maintained that the exact words [of the JST] were given to the Prophet in the process of a revelatory experience. Exact words may have been given to the mind of the Prophet on occasion, but the manuscript evidence suggests that generally he was obliged to formulate the words himself to convey the message he desired. Consequently, he might later have observed that sometimes the words were not entirely satisfactory in the initial writings. They may have conveyed too much or too little. Or they may have been too specific or too vague, or even ambiguous. Or the words may have implied meanings not intended. Thus through (1) an error of recording, (2) an increase of knowledge, or (3) an inadequate selection of words, any passage of the New Translation might be subject to later revision.”


  2. Julie. Thanks for your comments. I cannot see any textual evidence to support Matthews’ claims for (1) or (2) in the JST. Kevin Barney has taken a closer look and perhaps he could enlighten us (are you there Kevin?). It is my view that the process of revelation that led to the JST is the same kind of “translation” that led to the BofM, Book of Abraham, Book of Moses and all of JS’s translations that he did without the benefit of knowledge of ancient languages. Of course, there were ancient texts of the Bible, but I can see no evidence that JS had any knowledge of ancient languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek when he did the JST.

  3. Blake, exactly what is the problem with (2)? Exactly what would evidence for or against (2) consist of? If, for example, Joseph restores texts that weren’t in the Bible but were texts, then I don’t see the problem. Say the Melchezedek or Enoch sections of the JST. They line up surprisingly well with Midrash and pseudopigrapha, but seem impossible to line up with (3) or (4).

  4. Clark: I think that your point is well taken. I was thinking that (2) asserted that there as “material” restored to the biblical text that was orginally part of the bible. I misread it. In fact, the Book of Moses was never in the bible, it states that it was kept hidden. The Book of Enoch does align remarkably well the pseudepigraphic works about Enoch — but I see no evidence that they were ever part of the Bible either. Of course, the “Bible” is a modern notion and just what should be taken as an ancient “scriptural text” is a matter of discussion. In any event, I was wrong and I can see that JS did in fact restore documents that were not in the bible to begin to with as (2) asserts.

  5. Thanks for the post Blake. In a number of thread I have brought up your expansion theory only to have those involved in the discussion say that you have realized the errors of your ways and had abandoned your theory. It’s good to hear that the opposite is true since the theory gives hope to so many.

  6. Just out of curiousity, Blake, how do you feel about the various models of BoM geography? It would seem that you would lean in Sorenson’s direction with proper qualifications. Is this true? If so, what are your qualifications?

  7. Jeff: I have an article coming out in the next Sunstone where I suggest that we’re looking in all of the wrong places. Jacob states expressly in 2 Ne. 10 that the Nephites at least are on an isle of the sea. So I don’t accept any of the existing Book of Mormon geographies — though I definitely believe that the text of the BofM requires a limited geography of an area about the size of Palestine. In my view, there is not and cannot be any BofM archaeology until we find at least one place or object that we can say with some certitude derives from Book of Mormon peoples. We haven’t done so and so I suggest that we stop all of the non-sense about Book of Mormon tours and cruises.

  8. Would you accept the translations of such geographical terms as “east/west”, “up/down” and distances as accurate? What about the names of the cities? Would it be possible for JS to have transposed the names of the cities and areas around the great lakes area, names which so many have noticed bear such a stunning resemblance to BoM names, into his translation?

  9. I accept that the directions of an ancient culture were very likely not oriented in the same way as our own — so the land northward and southward and so forth may have had different orientations. I think the discussion by Sorenson in this area is workable. I don’t see the Great Lakes as a setting for any part of the BofM and I believe that it is easy to coin similarities if one is set on doing so. As I said, it seems to me that an islands setting is more likely — that is where Christopher Colombus landed after all (and I don’t accept the view that the Nephites arrived via the Pacific Ocean).

  10. If you are set on placing the Book of Mormon on an island the size of Palestine, that would seem to limit the choices fairly significantly. How many islands around the New World meet that criteria?

    Unless, of course,

    1. the geography has changed so much that the island no longer meets that criteria or no longer exists.
    2. or you use a very expansive reading of the text such that the promised land does not at all conform to the New World.

  11. Frank: The island need not be the size of Palestine; that is just the area in which the events recounted in the Book of Mormon took place. Just for clarity, we really have no idea how large the area of the land “northward” was because we don’t have enough information about it. So the island could be much larger than the area of Palestine (but not much smaller). I have no real map that maps onto a present day geography in mind — just what the book says as criteria.

  12. “In my view, there is not and cannot be any BofM archaeology until we find at least one place or object that we can say with some certitude derives from Book of Mormon peoples. We haven’t done so…”

    Blake: I wonder what you make of the proposed Nahom findings. Also, if you reject a Pacific Ocean route, then what route do you propose? Do you also reject the notion that Lehi’s party traveled south through the present day Hejaz to Yemen or Oman?

  13. I confess I have not read your original article, but since you are responding now, I’ll risk a rookie question: How does your expansion theory interact with Royal Skousen’s arguments of strict control of translation? Is it Joseph or God who made the decisions on which words to use (eg. KJV passages)?

  14. Blake, I felt, like you, that Givens, in outlining the possible kinds of “translation,” missed an intermediate option between tight control and very loose improvisatory conceptual rendering, one that recognizes the kind of conceptual horizons you discuss. (Not surprisingly, this is the mode that I instinctively favor.) I also agree that Joseph understood revelation to be more a genre–that is, as a *kind* of writing, and thus subject to revision like any other kind of writing–than an event. (This is not to deny the divine origin of the revelations.)

    But adopting your expansion theory will not reconcile all of Joseph’s revelatory texts to the same conceptual type. Significant differences remain in the claims Joseph made for their origins, and in the media through which the revelations arrived: the Book of Mormon has a tangible original, the contents of which is related in some way to the “translation”; the Book of Abraham has a tangible “medium,” the contents of which do not seem to be related to the “translation”; the Book of Moses and the parchment of John originate in no tangible object, though they posit a pre-existing text at some point in history. These differences in origin remain, even if one attempts to reconcile the processes through which the final products were generated.

  15. I find your theory rather sound, but there is something that I have always wondered about. If Joseph Smith was assigning familiar names to unfamiliar animals (and I think he probably was) why does he translate “cumoms” and “cureloms” directly with no expansion? Sorenson’s argument that they are Jaredite terms that Mormon did not know is not convincing. I wonder if you had any thoughts.

  16. OK, how many islands are there as big or _bigger_ than Palestine? This still cannot be a large set.

    Does North America count as an island bigger than Palestine? Would Australia count? How could the writers of the book tell them apart, size-wise?

  17. Cuba is bigger than Palestine. I think that Hispianola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) is about the same size. Jamica looks to be somewhat smaller. If you go north you have Newfoundland, which looks quite a bit bigger than Palestine. And that, I think, about exhausts it for Palestine sized Islands in the Western Hemisphere. Am I missing any?

  18. Starting with Nate’s list of biggish islands, I’d think Haiti/DR would be a hard fit. There is no narrow neck of land separating North and South. It runs east/west and is fat in the middle. Cuba has some North/South potential (as good as the Sorenson stuff I suppose) but is of uniform thickness throughout. Jamaica is really pretty small and has the same North/South issues as Haiti/DR. FYI, Puerto Rico also looks too small and is a square.

    Newfoundland, besides being rather cold for the loincloth crowd, seems similarly troubled.

  19. Nate: I am as yet undecided on the finds at Nahom in Arabia. The passage of the Pacific Ocean given currents and length of travel seems so highly improbable that it is not really a good candidate. As for islands – it may be that more than one island is referred to (the Book of Mormon refers to “isles” plural). I don’t know what Jacob meant by an “isle of the sea” (but he expressly states that they are on an isle of the sea)– but I see no reason that outlying areas like Belize wouldn’t work as well. I simply suggest that we keep open about the configuration since the narrow neck of land could be defined by large lakes as well as oceans or seas. So it could be a lot of different areas where there are two lakes that create a narrow neck of land between them (and that opens up a lot of possiblities). One thing I am clear about, the Mayan culture is a not a Book of Mormon culture.

    As for Skousen’s tight control theory of translation, it just cannot be squared with what we find in the text and real nature of translation. There is no such thing as isomorphic translation and it is evident to me that there is reflection in the text on KJV passages (which would have to be JS’s expansions). Further, I can’t see how looking at a ms. of the English translation tells us that there was a tight control with the original text (Skousen’s entire argument is non-sensical to me).

    Rosalynde — I agree that there are different underlying texts and sources for Joseph’s “translations” — but he didn’t use these texts as a basis for translation. The Book of Mormon was translated (largely) while the plates remained covered under a cloth on the table and Joseph looked into the seer stone in his hat. The facsimiles of the Book of Abraham are not translations but explanations of “figures” and illustrations as they relate to Abraham in Egypt. Indeed, none of the Egyptian text gets translated in the facsimiles! The method of translation was revelation — how that relates to the underlying text cannot be determined until we get the underlying texts.

  20. I would like to toss in here a variation I mentioned in a comment on one of Blake’s other posts. On its face the BoM clearly states that it was assembled and edited by Mormon, a post-Christian author who lived hundreds to a thousand years after his source texts. One of the most difficult anomalies in the BoM is not cows and horses but the Christian content of passages which were originally written hundreds of years BC and which are far more precise and explicit than contemporaneous passages in the OT. One explanation is to see these explicitly Christian passages in the early BoM as clarifying expansions not by Joseph Smith, but by Mormon. Perhaps the original Nephi read more like Isaiah but Mormon expanded them to make their meaning clearer in his view. He felt he could expand on Nephi because he was Nephi’s lineal successor (in contrast to Isaiah). Expansion by Mormon could explain other themes which have been ascribed to JS, such as the concern with political secret societies, a concern which was very real to Mormon.

    This “double expansion” variation probably doesn’t do much for apologetics, strictly speaking. However, I find it very enlightening for exegetical purposes. Seeing Mormon’s editorial hand and midrash-like commentary and expansions in the BoM makes it come alive for me. The persistent themes make much more sense from Mormon’s point of view than JS’s, and looking at it from this point of view ties together the seemingly random organization of some of the text.

  21. Mormon tanscribed the small plates — could he not have added his clarifications while transcribing?

  22. Blake,
    Two comments regarding your geography.

    1) How did the plates get in NY?

    2) Is that statment in 2 Ne the only reason for insisting on an island? Couldn’t Jacob have assumed, after limited exploration, that what they had landed on was an island after their sea journey?

  23. Concerning the “geography” of the Book of Mormon, I quote 3 Nephi 8:9-17 (see below).

    I think that trying to figure out the geography of the Book of Mormon land is more or less a waste of time. Sure, some of the land wasn’t changed. I am sure the city of Bountiful, although shaken, wasn’t changed a lot in form. In general, we don’t know what was changed and what was not changed during the crucifixion of our Lord. The geographical records we have prior to this event will have little bearings on what the land looks like after the event.

    Additionally, there is little detail by Mormon and Moroni after Christ appeared to the Nephites.

    I am not against trying to find clues of the Book of Mormon land. I just think that it will be a waste of some peoples time if they are looking for the land prior to the crucifixion as it does not exist in that form.

    9 And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof were drowned.

    10 And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain.

    11 And there was a great and terrible destruction in the land southward.

    12 But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth;

    13 And the highways were broken up, and the level roads were spoiled, and many smooth places became rough.

    14 And many great and notable cities were sunk, and many were burned, and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate.

    15 And there were some cities which remained; but the damage thereof was exceedingly great, and there were many in them who were slain.

    16 And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away.

    17 And thus the face of the whole earth became deformed, because of the tempests, and the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the quaking of the earth.

  24. On the subject of the small plates of Nephi, here is an heretical hypothesis for your consideration that would take the expansion theory one step further but also render JWL’s comments more on point.

    What if the small plates never existed? Instead the following sequence occurred:

    1. Joseph translated the corresponding portions of the large plates (which were edited by Mormon),
    2. Joseph lost the translation via Martin Harris
    3. Joseph (presumably under the Lord’s guidance) came up with the idea of a parallel set of plates that emphasized the “spiritual history” as a way to cover the same period without having to match the original translation word for word.
    4. To simulate a translation of the small plates, Joseph related the same narrative in language similar to, but not identical to, that contained on the large plates. To give the new translation its distinguishing “spiritual” quality, he added expansions that conformed to his Christian understanding of what Lehi and Nephi actually said (again, as edited by Mormon).

    If the small plates were attached to the rest of the plates, they would have resulted in a conspicuous irregularity that is not mentioned by the 3 witnesses. If it had been there, they could hardly have missed it, and mentioning it would have strengthened the testimony, so I think it is reasonable to infer that it was not there. Of couse, this just adds one more instance of “lying for the Lord” to the existing list, but if you can deal with one of those instances, you shoiuld be able to deal with them all.

  25. JWL: Mormon didn’t transcribe the small plates. He just put them in as he found them.

    Blake: I agree that we should look at the text itself, and not what other people say about it (such as the apparently erroneous official Introduction), but what about Joseph Smith’s own commentary? His mother claimed that Joseph described the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, their manner of traveling, their animals, etc. Joseph himself wrote that the central U.S. was “the plains of the Nephites” and the mounds there were Nephite.

    Your position that his understanding expanded over time, which justified him changing earlier revelations, makes sense (and is actually the only plausible explanation). I’m not clear on how to reconcile an island or central American geography with his apparent belief about the Nephites in the central U.S., which was expressed in 1834 (and therefore would presumably reflect an increased understanding than the Book of Mormon text itself).

  26. The term “small plates” comes from WofM 1:3, which explains that the plates contained “this small account” of the prophets, not from the physical dimensions. Even if they were smaller in dimension than the “large” plates of Nephi, Mormon’s plates were presumably the same size as the “small” plates.

  27. The small and large plates were made at two different times from (presumably) two different sources of ore. Though there might not have been a difference is physical dimension (which is questionable) there definetly would have been a difference in coloration and texture and maybe even thinkness and flatness. Remember, the two sets of plates were made by two different individuals separated by about a millennium.

  28. N Miller said: In general, we don’t know what was changed and what was not changed during the crucifixion of our Lord. The geographical records we have prior to this event will have little bearings on what the land looks like after the event.

    I’ve seen this argument before, even in church manuals. But I have a hard time believing that the fundamental shape and features of a land mass could change so abruptly without leaving some tell-tale signs for geologists.

  29. Will,

    Agreed to some extent. I am sure that the land mass could only grow or shrink by only so much. But what has changed, to what extent. I am not against archeologists trying to find some proof to the land, but if we are using the Book of Mormon descriptions prior to the destruction, then I believe that you are looking for something that doesn’t exist.

    However, I will say that in the verses quoted, there is strong language to suggest that the change was more than a minor earthquake, rather, “the whole face of the land was changed..”.

  30. JWL, I like your idea of Mormon’s post-Christian influence on the text, despite the small plates issue. And I agree that doctrinal anachronisms are more problematic than archeological ones, even if we adopt the conceptual translation model.

    On another note: I don’t want to sound like the “God planted dinosaur bones to test our faith” crowd, but what if the absence of Book of Mormon archeology is God’s will? Unlike with Biblical archeology, a concrete BoM geography and archeology would not only prove the existence of God, but the veracity of a particular religion. But that isn’t the way God has ever worked. What if the Lord has intentionally hidden or destroyed the evidence? There are various instances in the BoM where Mormon was about to write more but was forbidden. 3 Nephi 26:11 indicates the reason for these omissions is that the Lord wishes to “try the faith of my people.” Presumably, further information in these passages would have rendered faith unnecessary. If the Lord withholds information to test faith, couldn’t he have done so regarding the whole origins and geography of the Book of Mormon? After all, why go through all the trouble of sinking cities in the sea or burying them with mountains when a simple plague, drought, or series of heart attacks could have done the trick?

  31. Wow great post.

    #32 I have always said the same thing. I doubt that we will ever have a discovery that takes away the need of some faith. If ancient proof was found, so much of it that even the most hardened sceptic would not be able to argue it, the result would be earth shaking. The world would be turned upside down, and billions would question their belief system.

    That being said, there would be no need for faith anymore. The BoM is true, just go watch the Discovery Channel tonight. Or google it. I think that defeats the purpose of this whole probation.

    I believe though, that there will be just enough evidence to show that it is possible. With more and more evidence being discovered as the second comming gets closer. Kinda like reading the signs, and not hardining your hearts to the truth. That way noone can say they didnt know type thing. (for all the antis reading this)

    Along the lines of discoverys though. I find it funny that people would argue against the BoM because of not enough archeological evidence. Esp when many of those same people belive the bible, which is a joke if you try to prove it through archeology. The problem with doing this is that we dont have much discovered..period. They are discovering pyramids in the jungle that rival the ones in Egypt, that you CANNOT even see from the air. There is also very little money or time, put into the search for BoM archeology. Mostly just recently, and just by our Church. Worse, we dont even know where to start looking. With the bible they know where to look, have been doing it for hundreds of years, and hundreds or organizations, have spent untold millions to find proof. They have come up with basically zero. A few things, but not a fraction of the major events that are talked about. Moses led his people for how long? And they cant find 1 shred of evidence to support it.

    Yes it would be nice to say AHH HAAA…..see told ya so. I dont think it will happen though. I think it is left up to the spirit for the everyday person. For the “thinking man” all it take is a bit of logic to know it is true. Nothing can have grown this big, this fast, been this successful and be false. If it was it would be very easy to prove it false. If it was so easy to do, as much money as the church has, everyone would be releasing their BoMs. I mean would anyone with any common sence believe that only 1 person in history has ever been able to pull it off?

  32. I have a couple questions for everyone:

    1. I am no linguist, but presumably the language (style, structure, vocabulary) used in the small plates would have morphed substantially over the several hundred years of intervening time before Mormon commenced the abridgement of the source records, no? (And I agree Mormon did not transcribe the small plates; I am merely using them as a starting reference.) What effect, if any, would those changes have had on Mormon’s ability to abridge and editorialize? (Also, I find it hard to believe that Mormon inserted Christian themes into the text of the large plates, though the notion is interesting.)

    2. I have always liked the approximation theory of translation. It seems right to me. However, does 2 Nephi 27 and the anecdote usually shared to buttress the latter part of Ch. 27 conflict with an approximate translation?


  33. Steve B., if the written language of the Nephites changed as much in a thousand years as any of the modern European languages have changed in the last thousand years, or in the thousand years before that, editing would be a problem unless Mormon was both a general and a serious philologist. If the written language of the Nephites changed as little as Learned Latin did over a thousand years, then there would not be a serious problem. It’s a good question, but probably with too many unknowns to offer more than speculation.

  34. Bryan Robert (#33): “Nothing can have grown this big, this fast, been this successful and be false. If it was it would be very easy to prove it false. If it was so easy to do, as much money as the church has, everyone would be releasing their BoMs. I mean would anyone with any common sence believe that only 1 person in history has ever been able to pull it off?”

    I’m not entirely sure on the numbers, but I’d guess that Islam’s growth during its first couple of centuries probably compares to or exceeds Mormonism’s. So it seems that at least one other person in history has been able to pull it off…

    To try to bring this threadjack back to (sort of) the original topic, I’m much more comfortable with Book of Mormon apologetics of the sort Blake is doing than the old “no fourteen year old could have done it” line. The expansion theory appeals to me a great deal I think because it seems to back up the idea that God will speak to people in the way they can understand. I would imagine that when all the records of God’s communication to his children throughout history are revealed, the numerous texts will share the core truths of the gospel while maintaining cultural and historical peculiarities.

  35. Good points, JG. I guess we know that the “reformed Egyptian” used by the Nephites changed at least some over time. Anyone have any thoughts on my second question?

    BTW, my name is actually Seven like the number 7. A friend of my dad (during his days in the service) was named Seven. I take no offense being called Steve. Indeed, at times it seems as if I’ve been called that more than my actual name.

  36. Jim F.–

    Oops, sorry no citation. That quote in #1 is from Millet’s “Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: An Overview” in Nyman and Tate’s _Joseph Smith Translation: The Restoration of Plain and Precious Things_ off of GospelLink.

    Re Blake’s #2: I don’t think the point is that JS was working from original texts but rather that his translation restored the text to its orignal state.

    Re Blake #8 “I suggest that we stop all of the non-sense about Book of Mormon tours and cruises.”


  37. Jonathan: Re: #27 — I cannot see any evidence that Joseph claimed to know where the Book of Mormon events took place. It appears to me to have been an open question among the earliest saints. I believe that JS assumed that any American Indian was Lamanite, but I have a hard time believing that in his visions of the dress of the Nephites there was also a map that appeared in vision with a big neon arrow that said: “here is where it all occurred.” Seeing Nephites in vision doesn’t give any location of where they were located. I think he was speculating about these issues like the rest of us and the various views he had throughout his life tend to show that. I admit that saying that JS didn’t really know is uncomfortable for some — but it is better for them to get over assumed prophetic infalliblity early in life so that their faith isn’t challenged so easily and they are tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water.

  38. Jeffrey: Re: #24:

    In response to Qu. 1: I don’t know. Presumably Moroni carried them there from whereever they were.

    Re. Qu. #2: Yeah, Jacob didn’t have complete knowledge of the land where they landed and without exploring he could not have known how far the waters spread. So his assessment that they were on an isle of the sea could be mistaken due to his lack of information — but he had better information as to where he was located than we do!

  39. Blake: I’m wondering if you have ever responded in print to Robinson’s critique of the expansion theory (in The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, RSC, 1989). If not, would you care to do so?

  40. Jeffrey (re: #29), Mormon himself might well have used more than one batch of plates. No reason to think he knew in advance how many plates he would need for his project. And he was working with limited support from his contemporaries, or none. Any differences between Nephi’s plates and his might easily have blended in with differences among his own plates. Or there may have been a developed practice of normalizing the ore blend, like people beat steel to adjust the carbon content to match the purpose for which the item is to be used. Not like the witnesses were terribly detailed anyway. We just don’t know.

    JWL, regarding your double expansion theory, what reason do we have to suppose that the OT as it has come down to us is a complete representation of Israel’s pre-Babylon understanding of the Messiah? Christ told the Jews of his day in no uncertain terms that they were far afield from the teaching and belief of Moses and Abraham; consider how Christ says, directly condemning the Jews, John 8:56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” Why suppose that Mormon’s compilation was revisionary, rather than supposing that the OT as we have it was revisionary? Especially given Christ’s testimony that it pretty much was. And why suppose that Lehi’s and Nephi’s understanding would have to be only what was typical of the Jews of their time? The whole idea of a prophet is that they have a different perspective. By the time Mormon is talking about Christ, you’ve already assumed plenty supernatural; it’s not really any easier for Mormon to know about him than for Lehi.

  41. “I’m not entirely sure on the numbers, but I’d guess that Islam’s growth during its first couple of centuries probably compares to or exceeds Mormonism’s. So it seems that at least one other person in history has been able to pull it off.”

    What makes you think that Islam, during its initial stages, wasn’t directed by God? I’m not sure that it was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Angel Gabriel really were speaking to Mohammed.

  42. Adam (#44): I wasn’t speaking to whether or not Islam was directed by God. I was simply trying (apparently poorly) to offer a counter example to Bryan Robert’s assertion that Mormonism must be true because its success evidenced by rapid growth has no equal.

    Like you, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if God were directing Mohammed, and continues to direct religious leaders of all faiths as they strive to serve humankind and God. As I go on to say in my above comment, I believe that God speaks to his children in ways that they are prepared to understand him, and that when we have all the texts before us at some future time, the core messages in the texts will transcend historico-cultural particulars.

  43. Blake: It is interesting that Robinson criticized your expansion theory. Before I got to your comment #41, all I kept thinking was “This sounds like the theory Brother Robinson proposed on the JST to my New Testament class.” I really liked his theory then, and I have really liked what you have done with it in regards to the BOM. It is strange that Robinson does not agree.

    This was post is interesting to me because I have been thinking a similar thing about the wording of the temple ceremonies lately. I think the general church population feels that the wording is exact and perfect. But I think the wording, received by revelation, was filtered through the prophet’s understanding, the way the BOM was filtered through Smith’s mind. Which removes the difficulty some critics propose in the temple ceremony changing over time.

  44. Katie: I agree with you. I see all revelation as provisional and susceptible to improvement or change — and that includes the temple endowment. That can be unsetlling for some; empowering for others. It’s just a good thing that we believe in continual revelation.

  45. In response to Adam’s comment (#44) I merely want to say that the relation between the traditional Islamic history and the actual events that happened might be quite tenuous. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Adam is at all wrong in what he is saying. I think it is also quite possible that Muhammad was inspired … but it is pretty impossible to tell from the texts and other types of evidence (archeological evidence for example) that are available what really happened or even exactly where it happened. Contrary to what has been said in some places, Islam was not born in the full light of history.

    Still, having said all that, Islam certainly provides an interesting comparison to Mormonism in terms of its historical growth — whether we are talking about ancient times or in the current time period.

  46. Blake, I agree with that assessment of revelation’s potential for change, but it’s important to understand and accept that revelation as mormons accept it doesn’t vary wildly from one day to the next. We are very much creatures of precedent when it comes to receiving guidance from the Lord. Even Joseph Smith, whose revelations were the wildest, was careful to ingrain his visions with biblical roots.

  47. Steve: I agree that there are limits — but looking for JS to keep his revelations within its biblical roots? I believe that he was inspired and received revelation upon revelation from the same God who inspired the Bible; but his revelations fit no prior mold and cannot be put into old water skins. The “Jews” had the same problems with Jesus and Paul that evangelicals now have with Joseph Smith. They were revolutionaries and God’s revelations cannot be maintained within the boundaries of shorelines cut by men. His revelations came like a deluge that washed away any attempt to contain them.

  48. #36 Justin

    The BoM was written/translated over a period of weeks. Muhammad took years and years to write/recieve his book. He also never said he found his book in full, like JS did. My point was that NO ONE, not even with Islam, has produced a Book like JS in that short period of time. I would also be willing to bet that their growth is not greater than ours. If our growth continues, we will be bigger than Islam in another 200 or so years, much less 2000.

    The 14 year old boy thing is good also. But I think it is better to look at the fact that neither a 14 year old boy, or a group of scholars have been able to produce a book in a similar fasion. If it could be done, someone would have done it.

  49. It’s precisely because I’m given to understand that we really know little about Mohammed and the beginnings of Islam that I think we might find that God, angels, and visions were behind it (and not just some vague ‘inspiration’ that goes to all leaders of all churches everywhere).

  50. The inspiration in which I hope is not vague, nor is it to all leaders of all churches everywhere.

    It’s revelation from God to his servants who are working for his glory and the redemption and salvation of their fellows in ways that please God, wherever they might be found.

  51. Adam … good point. I’ve just been reading on this topic (The First Dynasty of Islam: The Ummayad Caliphate AD 661-750 by G.R. Hawting) so maybe I’m a bit too fired up.

  52. Bryan (#52): I’m not trying to argue with you. I’m certianly not trying to deny that what Joseph Smith accomplished was miraculous. I’m saying that I don’t find institutional growth rates or speed of production very firm foundations for my faith.

    That is, even if LDS Church membership were declining while that of every other religion were growing, even if any number of young prodigies rapidly produced any number of amazing and profound works of literature (note, I’m not saying that the Book of Mormon is literature in this sense) — even if — I’d still know that the Book of Mormon was inspired by a loving God.

    Again, a more compelling “empirical” evidence to me that the Book of Mormon is true is precisely the issues Blake is seeking to understand with his initial post. That the Book of Mormon as we have it in modern English can be read as demonstrating that the Prophet Joseph’s own specific historical and cultural experience was involved in its production/translation/revelation shows me that God may indeed, as he claims, be concerned about reaching all his children everywhere in the manner they are best predisposed to understand and hear.

  53. Ben (#43), wouldn’t you agree that in a certain way Jesus was but one of many figures criticizing Judaism from within? As many have noted, when it comes to his comments on the Law and on ethics, he fits a common mold of reformers. He even appears to quote or paraphrase a lot of figures of the era. It’s interesting that the Pharisees were, in a certain way, a reformation of Judaism with certain parallels to the Protestant – Catholic debates. (With important differences as well, of course) It’s just that by the time of Jesus many of the reformers had become corrupt.

    Reminds me of the Republicans in Congress. (ducks)

    Of course we, as Mormons, recognize that Jesus restored a lot that the Jews of the era didn’t necessarily understand that well. But even there I’m not as convinced of that, as the DSS show. Nibley liked to talk about discoveries of the last 50 years showing more of an anticipatory Christianity in Judaism. Perhaps overstated. But we’ve also seen the last 40 years much more recognition of the strong Jewish elements in early Christianity. As Nibley liked to joke, in a way, Christian scholarship has finally caught up to the position of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

    Even subtle things in the Book of Mormon, largely little known in the 19th century are now better understood. Such as Enoch becoming Metatron or the Little YHWH which has direct bearing on how to read passages like Mosiah 15 which were once largely interpreted modalistically. Now, by better understanding the Judaism of the time of Christ, we can see that things were much more complex than most thought. (More complex than even many scholars trying to read such matters purely in terms of popular 19th century thought can show)

  54. Just to add, and to take us back on topic a tad more, I think the greater appreciation for Midrashic writing as a genuine way of dealing with scripture by the Jews offers perhaps far more for Blake’s position. In a way, if we take Blake’s position seriously then Joseph Smith was very much in harmony with the way Judaism worked. Further, if earlier texts, as we now have strong evidence for, were themselves compiled and mixed, perhaps inspirationally, then is Joseph’s actions in the D&C or elsewhere that different from the very formation of the OT? And ought that inform how we take the Book of Mormon?

    While I suspect that I’d differ from Blake in the details of application, it does bother me somewhat how many Mormons look at the Book of Mormon the way Muslims do the revelation of Mohammed. I don’t see this desire for inerrancy of dictation.

  55. I don’t think that archeological proof of the Book of Mormon will really help or hinder the religion it promotes.

    Look at the Bible, for instance. There’s quite a bit of archeological evidence backing up the accounts in the Bible. But that hasn’t caused everyone to simply throw up their hands and say “Well I guess I can’t doubt the truthfulness of the Bible anymore.”

    Instead they still squabble about various parts that couldn’t have happened the way the Bible says they did or that the theologians of the Bible were drawing the wrong conclusions … In short, they still question whether the book comes from God. The Book of Mormon is likely to be the same.

    Regarding the passage mentioning that the Nephites lived on “an isle of the sea” …

    I don’t think this requires us to conceptualize the Nephites as living on a literal island.

    If you read the account of Mosiah’s search party it becomes apparent that the Nephites had a very limited concept of their surroundings. This search party was lost in the wilderness for days, but they could easily have been only twenty miles in a straight line through the jungle from the hidden land of Zarahemla.

    Nephite geography was likely very localized. Jacob’s reference to “isle of the sea” could simply have been a recognition that they were bounded on both sides by large bodies of water (like Panama for example).

    This could refer to something similar to present day Panama, but it doesn’t have to. Jacob would have had no basis for saying “that’s the Pacific Ocean” and “that body of water over there is the Atlantic Ocean.” After all, the Nephites only traveled on one of those two oceans. Furthermore, the term “sea” doesn’t necessarily mean “ocean.”

    The “narrow neck of land” need not refer to an isthmus separating two oceans. It may simply refer to an ocean on one side, and a body of water the size of the Sea of Galilee on the other. Other geographical barriers could have bounded civilization elsewhere. Or they simply didn’t bother to explore in that direction. Who knows?

    But I don’t see why “isle of the sea” needs to refer to a literal island.

  56. Thank you all for your responses to my “double expansion” theory about Mormon also expanding on the text as well as JS. Also apologies to Blake if that was a threadjack. On the small plates issue, see Jeffrey’s #29 above. One gets the impression from the descriptions of the plates that they were a single uniform volume. The BoM text itself is not specific to this level of detail as to the specific construction and placement of the various metal records. It therefore does not seem to be an unreasonable speculation (and speculation is all that it can be) to assume that Mormon transcribed the ancient, probably very worn, Nephite plates on to his newly created physical record and in the process could have added some inspired prophetic clarifications to the thousand year old text.

    However, rather than belabor my little theory, I would like to use it to ask a broader question about the expansion theory. Obviously I am sympathetic to the theory, in fact I like it so much I have expanded on it myself. But as the responses to my little speculation show, it is not necessarily obvious what in the text is original and what is midrash. I apologize but I don’t have Blake’s original article at hand, but I vividly recall reading it, agreeing with the concept, but then disagreeing with some if his examples of JS additions. One example (and I apologize if I am distorting or remembering incorrectly) was the suggestion that the secret combination material was a modern expansion, whereas I find that material to be plausibly ancient.

    Now I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of that specific example. The issue is what do we DO with the expansion theory? I see several possibilities:

    (1) We try to tease out which passages are original and which are midrash. I can see utility in this for both apologetic (this passage sounds modern because it is but the BoM is still inspired and fundamentally historical) and exegesis (as an inspired expansion by JS this passage clearly has special relevance to our day because of x, y, z). However, as illustrated by the reaction above to my own exercise in speculating on which passages might be expansion on the original, this also has the potential of leading to endless dancing on the head of pin (to distort a metaphor) for no purpose other than scholarly amusement.

    (2) We don’t worry about which passages are original and which midrash, but just use it as a general apologetic gambit (if some passages seem modern, don’t worry they MIGHT be a JS expansion).

    (3) We don’t worry about which passages are original and which midrash, but just use it to understand the nature of revelation for various exegetical purposes. Examples of these include some of the points Blake makes in his original post above.

    I tend to 3, but I have to wonder how solid the expansion theory is if we can’t definatively determine from it at least some specific passages which are JS expansions. Obviously, Blake has some ideas as to midrashic passages, but I suspect that many would disagree with every one for some reason or another. Can we have the concept without at least a little broadly accepted specific content to it? In other words, is the theory a useful theory if it doesn’t suggest some testable criteria for identifying expanded text?

  57. I’m so glad I read through this post, even though it’s so technical and a bit difficult for me to grasp at times. These comments (and the post itself) are awesome and have been helpful for me. Thanks.

    I’m hoping some BoM expert out there who has participated in this discussion could help me answer one question that I have about the BoM translation that has been bothering me for awhile.

    First, let me admit that my BoM knowledge in this area is woefully inadequate. While I’m trying to expand my knowledge – here is my question: there are apparently some typographic and translating errors in the BoM that are duplicated in the Bible (or the other way around). Since we believe Joseph Smith had the power to translate the Bible correctly, why do the same errors in the Bible appear in the BoM? Shouldn’t Joseph have been able to see these errors and corrected them so that we would have had the correct translation in the BoM?

    There has probably been a thoughtful, faithful answer written to this question somewhere, but I can’t find it. And people look at me like I’m a freak whenever I’m bold enough to mention it to someone whom I think might understand what I’m asking. Could someone help me out? I can understand almost everything else in and about the BoM, but I’m stuck with this question. Thanks.

  58. Blake: re #39. Your response is inconsistent with your previous positions on Book of Mormon interpretation. For example, in Sunstone you wrote: “I suggest that the Book of Mormon should be read to see what it says rather than relying on others to characterize what it says.” Yet in your response to #39, you deduce that Joseph didn’t know where the Nephites lived by relying on others to characterize what Joseph himself said.

    I understand that you think he was speculating, but do you have any logical or factual basis for your conclusion? Your argument seems to be as follows:

    P1. Joseph Smith was intimately familiar with Nephite culture and specifically identified where the Nephites lived.

    P2. Other people said Joseph made ambiguous statements.

    C. Therefore, Joseph Smith was speculating.

    You have simply asserted the traditional apologetic approach to the issue, which basically says, “We like to think Joseph didn’t know where the Nephites lived.” I haven’t seen any of Joseph’s writings where he stated he didn’t know. What he did write was pretty specific.

    He wrote to Emma from Illinois that he had been “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls and their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.” I don’t find the ambiguity in here that you seem to.

    You dismiss Lucy’s account as a vision of Nephite dress, but I’m sure you know better. Lucy said he described was much more than their dress. He described “their manner of traveling, the animals which they rode, the cities that they built, and the structure of their buildings with every particular, their mode of warfare, and their religious worship as specifically as though he had spent his life with them.” This isn’t a neon arrow, but how much more could a person know about a society?

    Your inconsistent approach to this issue leads me to conclude that you don’t believe the Nephites lived in the central U.S., so you want to believe that Joseph was speculating, despite what he said. Do you find this to be a strong position?

    I fully agree with you that the Book of Mormon trips to Central America are nonsense (although the Mayan culture is fascinating to visit). The ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which I visited in December, are much more like what the Book of Mormon describes (elephants, chariots, silk, etc.) than are any in Central America that I’ve seen. Inconveniently, Cambodia is an ocean away from New York, so I don’t expect any Book of Mormon tours to start up there in the near future.

    I suppose the Book of Mormon would be as effective if it described Atlantis or any other unknowable historical reality. What I find puzzling about the whole issue is that, on the one hand, we dismiss the importance of the historicity of the Book of Mormon as far as geography and culture, but on the other hand, we attempt to prove its historicity by including within its covers the testimonies of people who claim to have seen the actual gold plates (even when these weren’t used in the translation). If, as some on this blog have suggested, identifying the actual geography and culture of Book of Mormon people would eliminate the need for faith (which I strongly disagree with), then why bother with the witnesses of the plates? If a testimony is based on a spiritual witness generated from reading the book, then why should anyone care if someone said they saw the plates or not?

  59. “My point is that to make sense of what we know from archaeology, paleo-botany, paleontology and so forth, we must assume that the BofM was translated rather loosely and was based on Joseph Smith’s conceptual abilities and horizons”

    My experience has been that when I hear someone describe phenomena that they have not encountered before, they are most likely to say it was “similar to” or “appeared to be as” rather than using a concrete term they are familiar with. If I have never seen an Aphid before but am familiar with Gnats, In describing my first experience with an Aphid, I might describe it as a green, Gnat-like insect, rather than using the more positive “I saw a Gnat”. The recounting of the indeterminate description of what I saw probably won’t create the powerful imagery that God-As-Editor might require, but I think Joseph would have been more careful if he knew in future generations man would not have found evidence of the phenomena implied by the concrete terms he used. It is a step up the allegorical ladder to use these positive, phenomenological terms and represent the BoM as a “History”; and I am not enlightened enough to take that spiritual step.

  60. Jonathan: Re: # 52. I am confused. I don’t assert your P1 but deny it. Just where you think I make the argument you attribute to me is a mystery to me. I think that JS was speculating because he never claims to have received a revelation about the geographic location of the Nephites and having a vision of their manner of dress doesn’t convey such information.

  61. “I don’t think that archeological proof of the Book of Mormon will really help or hinder the religion it promotes.”
    “If, as some on this blog have suggested, identifying the actual geography and culture of Book of Mormon people would eliminate the need for faith (which I strongly disagree with), then why bother with the witnesses of the plates?”

    Faith is not belief without evidence; it is belief without proof. We need at least some evidence before we can exercise faith; otherwise our belief is arbitrary and irrational. That is why we have the golden plate witnesses but not the golden plates themselves. One provides evidence, the other provides incontrovertible proof (which would negate faith, at least as far the origins of the BoM is concerned).

    Proof of the Book of Mormon may not cause Church membership to skyrocket, but it would rock the religious world and eliminate the necessity of investigators to exercise faith in believing the divine origins of the book. This is different from the Bible. We could stumble onto the Ark of the Covenant or the very cross Jesus was crucified on and it would not move us any closer to proving the reality of God or revelation. This is because the Bible comes to us through “natural” sources—traditions passed down through generations, copied by scribes, etc…
    But if we unearthed a pre-Columbian golden plate in Central America with Hebrew-Egyptian-like engravings on it, we could logically conclude that God exists and Mormonism is true because the text of the BoM came through divine means…revelation, angels, seer stones, etc…
    That is why I think we will continue to find little scraps of evidence like Nahom, but we are not going to stumble onto a Nephite tomb.

    By the way, on the topic of the original post, I think Blake’s expansion theory is the most honest yet faithful way of viewing the BoM. Thanks, Blake, for helping build my confidence in the book despite its anachronisms.

  62. I think JWL’s double expansion theory has some things going for it. It certainly seems to go well with what Edwin Firmage concludes regarding the translation in his “Historical Criticism and the Book of Mormon: A Personal Encounter”. See here: http://www.signaturebooks.com/excerpts/apocrypha.htm#criticism

    I also have a question for Blake.
    How would you interpret Joseph’s command to not retranslate the 116 pages? Would you consider it a viable option to suggest that while JS’s enemies might have changed the text, the truth of the matter is that JS could not have retranslated the text word for word?

  63. Sheldon – re: #65. I agree that faith is things hoped for and not seen. If I understand your point, the witnesses of the plates are provided to give people something to hold onto as they start to develop faith; i.e., some evidence, however equivocal, to justify making an investigation.

    However, I don’t agree that there would be no need for faith if, say, a Nephite artifact were ever found. Why are we different from, say, Mosiah whose people found the people of Zarahemla, providing an independent witness of the destruction of Jerusalem that, until then, was merely an ancient prophecy of Nephi’s? Or Limhi’s discovery of the Jaredite plates and artifacts, which verified what Coriantumr had claimed. Did they cease to need faith from that point on? Even the apostles who saw the resurrected Christ had to struggle with faith.

    It seems to me that given the increasingly constrained scope of the “evidence” we commonly rely upon, as typified by the DNA and textual anachronism problems, we are re-evaluating the basis for our faith, and finding that it relies more on things hoped for and less on things seen–whether the things are seen by us or by the 3 witnesses.

  64. Another request for Blake,

    Could you describe the context surrounding your invitation to present the Expansion theory to the BYU faculty as well as the reactions to it?

  65. Steve B. (#34) and Jonathan Green (#35), sorry to jump in so late, but you don’t even have to look to a specialized “elitist” language like “Learned latin” to find a language that hasn’t changed substantially. Modern italian has remained fairly stable to the point where modern third and fourth year Italian students can read Dante’s Commedia, Petrarch’s poems and Boccaccio’s Decameron without much modern aid; the style, vocabulary and syntax have changed so little in the past 700 years that not much special training is required once you understand “modern” Italian.
    That being said, Book of Mormon orthography (meaning the actual characters they used) does seem to have changed over time (Mormon 9:32) “according to [their] manner of speech.” Of course he goes on to say that the hebrew has been changed by them as well. Since he’s concious of his language being different from his ancestors’ it seems plausible that he would be able to at least recognize the changes, and therefore it seems plausible that he would be able to understand the ancestral forms of his language. It’s at least a possibility that Mormon would be able to read a. an altered language or b. an unaltered language.

    From a different angle, given the cultural reverence that being able to read the Torah has among even my most secular of Jewish friends, it doesn’t seem too far-fetchted to assume that Mormon would have the desire and ability to read his ancestral tongue, either.

  66. I see two minor flaws with the expansion theory. One, how do explain the times where Joseph Smith does not use a modern term to describe what he is translating. Why would he use a modern term one time and not another. Second, you said “He could translate because he received revelation; and the revelation involved his input in explaining, expanding and making sense of what he received.” So why use the urim and thummim at all. I didn’t read all the posts so forgive if some already touched on this.

  67. John: Re: # 71. Since the entire book is in KJV English, your point about sometimes a modern word and sometimes not doesn’t seem to hold as true for the text. The only exception that I can think of is the cumons and curloms in the book of Ether — and I suppose it is fairly simple to say that JS had absolutely no comparison in English so he used the term given in revelation without any attempt at translation or explanation. JS used the urim & thummim as a condition to receiving revelation — and he received for example the parchment of John now in D&C 7 by looking into it — so he can receive revelations of texts through the urim and thummim (tho as I said earlier, I believe that all or nearly all of the present text was translated with the seer stone). In fact, if you will look at the introduction to various sections of the D&C you will see that a number of revelations came through the urim and thummim.

    Jeffrey: Re: # 69. I was invited by Kent Brown and Robert Matthews to present my theory at a “brown bag” series that the religion department held in 1987. They usually had about 6-8 people attend, but that day there were about 60. I defended my theory for about 90 minutes (it ran way over time). The highlight of the entire encounter came when I presented the views of critical biblical scholarship and rejected the notion that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. I explained that I adopted something like the E, D, P, Y theory of the Pentatech and that I believed Deuteronomy was written rather late (something that a lot of people at BYU are now adopting in light of Margaret Barker’s thesis). Bros. Matthews said that such a view was tantamount to apostasy and asked me if I had a testimony of everything I had written. I responded that I didn’t see the language game that was being played as the same as testimony and that the rules applicable to scholarship differed. He said he had a testimony of everything he had written and if I didn’t perhaps I shouldn’t write.

    Re: 66: I suppose that it is correct that given my theory JS couldn’t have rendered a word-for-word duplicate so that the revelation to replace the 116 pages with the small plates was quite propitious.

  68. Thanks for sharing that Blake. I guess bro. Matthews isn’t a big fan of impartiality in scholarship. This certainly seems to shine through in his work. I am very uncomfortable with the notion of having a testimony about everything I write. This is tantamount to making myself a prophet. What I really do is write and blog because I know that I could be wrong and I’d like to see how well my ideas can stand up to scrutiny, thus becoming stronger. I for one am a strong supporter of the expansion theory and would like to thank you for your work.

  69. “Source Criticism is a method of determining if one text is dependent on another source, usually by close comparisons of parallel language or forms. Source criticism allows scholars to determine the relative date of a work *as received,* because, if a source can be identified, they can properly deduce that the work was composed later than the source upon which it relied. Source criticism is also useful in determining the place of composition because the document must be composed at a place where the source is available.”

    While I recognize that the above quotation from your paper is a generalized description, source criticism as described seems to claim or to assume too much. How can scholars use comparison of parallel language or forms to *determine* dependence of one text on another, *identify* sources, *determine* relative dates and *determin[e]* place of composition unless they assume at least (1) that the history and availability of all potential textual sources are adequately known and (2) that a sufficiently high degree of parallel language and forms in separate texts can only result from source-dependence of one on another? What would justify a scholar in making such assumptions? What about a scholar who accepts at least the possibility that a god may intervene at times in the lives of women and men?

    It seems more supportable to say that source criticism can merely “suggest” rather than “determine” or “identify” such things.

  70. Blake: I apologise for coming into this discussion rather late, but I’d like to comment on something you said all the way back in #20. I think you dismiss Royal Skousen’s argument for tight control too quickly. The evidence he cites for his argument includes the following three points (as well as others):

    (1) JS seems to have seen (or otherwise known) the correct spelling of proper names and to have spelled them out at the first occurrence. For example, Oliver Cowdery initially wrote Zenock with a “k”, then changed it to Zenoch with an “h”. Thus he seems to have written the more phonetic spelling, then changed it at JS’s request. (The present BM spelling of
    Zenock is incorrect, having reverted to other incorrect instances. Oddly, the Pronouncing Guide at the back still gets it right.) Likewise, OC initially wrote the phonetic Coriantummer before changing it to the unexpected Coriantumr.

    (2) 1 Nephi 1:8 and Alma 36:22 both contain an identical 20-word passage: “God sitting upon his throne surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God”. It appears either Alma is quoting Nephi or both are quoting the lost Book of Lehi.

    (3) The original text contains many non-standard constructions that are not typical of English (but apparently are of Hebrew). For example, in Helaman 12:13-21 there is repeated use of the “if…and” construction (“if this happens and that will happen”). (Most of these no longer appear in the present
    edition, but many got as far as the 1830 edition.) If JS was putting revealed ideas into his own words, we would expect him to have written the normative English construction: “if…then” or “if” by itself with “then” understood.

    These points seem to indicate that tight control cannot be dismissed entirely.

    I agree that the English translation of the BM strongly reflects KJV language. There are many unacknowledged KJV phrases and passages, both from the Old Testament and (more problematic) the New. The question is, how to explain these. If we believe Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith, then JS did not have a copy of the KJV open on the table as he dictated. Hence, he either was so saturated in the Bible that he had much of it by heart, or the text was given to him in KJV language. There’s no doubt JS’s knowledge of the Bible was extensive by the 1840s, but just how good it was in 1829 is not so certain. Perhaps this is an example of the Lord speaking to men “after the manner of their language” (D&C 1:24), since in the Anglo-American culture of the nineteenth century the KJV Bible was part of the language.

    Despite my arguments above, I confess that the expansion hypothesis is very attractive and helps to resolve some knotty problems. However, if there was some translator expansion, then I don’t believe it necessarily means that tight control didn’t occur in places (perhaps many places). I’ll leave it to others more qualified to come up with a credible model that
    incorporates both tight and loose control.

  71. Ross:

    With respect to (1), how do we know that Cowdery didn’t just change it? There is no evidence of the reason for the change. It seems to me that Skousen’s speculation is baseless. With respect to (2), note that the similarity of words extends beyond these 20 words, except that Lehi says “I thought I saw God…” whereas Alma says “methought I saw God…” Similar wording of such phrases (with this kind of variation) hardly suggests a word for word translation or that he is quoting the same passage — in fact, Alma states that he sees “even as our father Lehi saw,” so it is a conscious reference back to Lehi. If you look at my article on the prophetic call in BYU Studies, I noted that this exact same language was used in an English translation of Ezekiel the Tragedian’s vision of God on his throne! However, the underlying Greek text could certainly be translated with different words.

    With respect to (3), I doubt that there are any real Hebraisms that could not be accounted for by the peculiarities of King James English. Indeed, there are several awkward constructions that don’t really have any Hebrew counterpart. I remain undecided about Hebraisms — but I’m far from convinced. The fact remains that translation is always approximate and there are several (innumerable really) different ways that any underlying text could be translated or phrased. The choice of words, the vocablulary, the concepts expressed in any translation inevitably reflect the ability of the translator to express.

    Could there be passages of tight control and others of loose control? I suppose that there could be logically — but tight control seems to presuppose that JS knew the language of Reformed Egyptian (and/or Hebrew) and reflected the underlying text. He didn’t know these languages. I think that you are right that KJV is used in the Book of Mormon because it was the language of scripture in the 19th century and for something to be scripture such language was expected.

    Greg: I agree that there are limits to what source criticism can show. However, if I find a text that quotes another that is earlier in time, I know that it relies on that text or they both rely on a common text. However, determining when the parallels amount to dependence is very difficult – and it weakens the case for dependence if the texts are not exact (and they rarely are). However, concluding that the BofM quotes and relies on the KJV for its translation is fairly obvious — isn’t it?

  72. Two quick points:

    First, as Blake notes above, most witnesses indicate that Joseph translated most of the BoM without even looking at the gold plates, but rather at his seerstone (which was probably NOT the urim and thummim found with the plates but rather the old stone he originally used in treasure-hunting). My impression is that this information is not generally well-known among Church members. However, it is going to become much more widely known after Richard Bushman’s new JS biography is published this fall. I think that this could make for a much more receptive climate for Blake’s expansion theory since these facts are much more compatible with the expansion theory’s view of the translation process in contrast to the still currently popular view of Joseph staring at the actual gold plates laboring to do a literalistic translaton of the reformed Egyptian characters.

    Second, and apologies for reverting to my comment #60 above, but I do think that one aspect of the expansion hypothesis that will bother some people is that it does not specify criteria for determining which part of the text is expansion and which part is original. This question doesn’t bother me much because I think that the translation process was very fluid (and I also think that Mormon could have done a lot of the explicitly Christian expanding which would make it even harder to tease out what is original and what is midrash). However, I think that it is the first question that a lot of Joe RM and Mary Mormon Church members are going to ask when first exposed to the expansion theory (really, like where in the BoM does that occur?). And I think that trying to get to broadly acceptable specific answers to that question could be a real morass. Yet, will saying “that’s hard to tell specifically, we’ll probably have to wait until the Millenium when we can see the real original Nephite text to be sure” be a satisfactory answer?

  73. Blake: …but tight control seems to presuppose that JS knew the language of Reformed Egyptian (and/or Hebrew) and reflected the underlying text.

    Wouldn’t a more likely reconciliation be that the revelation process included not only images, concepts, and ideas, but also exact phrasing for certain passages? If we assume that we can utilize all of the strengths of your expansion theory without dismissing the strengths of Skousen’s claims.

  74. JWL raises a very good point. I heard just the other day that witnesses described Joseph staring into his hat to translate the BoM. After hearing this, I was embarrassed that I knew so little about the actual translation of the BoM. We’re taught in Church that Joseph “translated” the BoM from gold plates, but what does “translated” mean? This thread has been really helpful going beyond the Primary-level understanding of Joseph Smith sitting down at a table translating gold plates, to perhaps a more realistic description of what happened. Thanks. I’m looking forward to Richard Bushman’s book as well.

  75. JWL, why not just point out the doctrinal anachronisms and say “Well, its probably a safe bet to say it’s happening here”?

    I wonder, however, how the expansion theory, if widely accepted, would color our reading of the BoM. Do we read with the thought in the back of our mind “Hmm, I wonder if this is JS here or really Alma”? Do we then, even if only subconsciously, assign more credibility to those parts we believe to be from the ancient text? Do we read the apparent expansions less seriously than the parts we believe to be more directly from the original text?
    I don’t mean to suggest that we would dismiss a prophet’s commentary/expansions as irrelevant, but isn’t commentary or embellishment usually less compelling than the original text in question?

  76. Blake wrote:

    if you will look at the introduction to various sections of the D&C you will see that a number of revelations came through the urim and thummim

    My understanding is that “urim and thummim” was also used to refer to Joseph’s seer stone. Do we know whether that is the case with these sections of the D&C?

    Blake, further:

    but tight control seems to presuppose that JS knew the language of Reformed Egyptian (and/or Hebrew) and reflected the underlying text

    I don’t think it presupposes this at all. Skousen quotes the description of the translation given by those close to Joseph, in which Joseph simply read text off the seer stone. This allows for tight control of the text without any presuppositions of Joseph’s knowledge or even the existence of an underlying text. Of course, there are other problems with these descriptions. And it is interesting to consider what role the seer stone played if we accept the expansion view — what was Joseph seeing? Recall the account of his “All is as dark as Egypt!” until he had made reconciliation with Emma — there seems to have been something to see — but what, in the expansion theory?

    JWL wrote:

    the still currently popular view of Joseph staring at the actual gold plates laboring to do a literalistic translaton of the reformed Egyptian characters

    Promoted by such things as the latest Church DVD, “The Restoration”. No wonder it’s popular.

    sheldon wrote:

    I don’t mean to suggest that we would dismiss a prophet’s commentary/expansions as irrelevant, but isn’t commentary or embellishment usually less compelling than the original text in question?

    I don’t know, but I suspect that most LDS tend to find Paul’s commentaries and embellishments on Old Testament passages more compelling than the original texts, not less.

  77. Sheldon: but isn’t commentary or embellishment usually less compelling than the original text in question?

    I doubt it. How many prophets in the history of this planet are more important than Joseph Smith? Who would you rather meet and be tutored by: Amulek or JS?

    Perhaps the more important question is whether God himself is guiding the transmission the message or not. We are really only interested in what God has to say, not in which instrument he says it through right?

  78. Grasshopper,

    The idea of a tickertape of text running across a seer stone is much harder for me to swallow than the concept of exact phrasing coming in to Joseph’s head on occasion. The tickertape model seems to allows for no other methods of revelation. It excludes Blake’s theory I think. On the other hand, the expansion theory leaves room for exact phrasing at times. How many writers have “the muse” hit them even today and know exactly what to write and exactly how to write it? If that can happen now to all sorts of writers throughout the world it is no stretch to imagine God could inspire exact wording for portions of the text of the BoM.

    As for all being as dark as Egypt — that happens to all of us when it comes to receiving revelation at times doesn’t it? (Of course exactly what a seer stone is and how it works is another more sticky conversation…)

  79. There’s a lot here that makes sense to me. Though I have to wonder just how far we can go with the expansion theory before we come to the conclusion that the plates weren’t at all necessary–not to say that this is where Blake is going with his ideas. It just seems to me that one could justify any ol’ quirk in the BoM that doesn’t suit our liking if we chalk it all up to direct revelation. I think it’s possible that, after a certain point in the process, JS might have become familiar enough with the characters on the plates that he was able to take a good stabe at the translation without the aid of interpreters–relying on inspiration to confirm the correctness of his ideas. If so, then a good enough translation is, well, good enough. Plus, the importance of the plates is not lost upon an overly mystical approach to the translation process.

    Blake, that’s an amazing (and disappointing) story about your encounter with Robert Matthews. Perhaps you should have told him that you DID have a testimony of your proposals. Then you could nail his **s against the wall with personal revelation. Did he actually tell you that he has a testimony of everything that he has ever proposed? If so, that’s terribly silly. It reminds me of the over-zealous mormon artist who proclaims to one and all that the spirit was with him/her on his/her last project. What is the viewer supposed to believe if the work is a piece of crap? Sheesh.

  80. “I doubt it. How many prophets in the history of this planet are more important than Joseph Smith? Who would you rather meet and be tutored by: Amulek or JS?”

    Good point, but if I had my druthers, I suppose I would prefer a more literal translation with a separate authoritative commentary by the prophet. Paul didn’t rewrite the Old Testament, he offered separate interpretive commentary. But my preference means nothing, and far be it from me, if the expansion model is true, to criticize the Lord for doing it that way. Besides, I do like the expansion theory. I’m just wondering how it affects our reading of the book…particularly if there is any adverse effect from wondering in the back of our mind which passages are more JS and which are more original text.

  81. Grasshopper is right to point towards Royal Skousen’s perspectives on what Joseph Smith saw. Because Royal Skousen has spent so much time examining the portions of the Original Manuscript that are still available, he has been able to see the crossouts and corrections that were made and from them draw some conclusions about what Joseph Smith might have been seeing.

    I recall Royal Skousen saying something about names — that at a minimum he believed Joseph Smith was seeing how specific names were spelled and that perhaps by some means the Urim and Thummim was stopping him from continuing to translate if a scribe spelled a name incorrectly. I think there was a specific example where this happened with the name Coriantumr. Obviously an English-speaking scribe wouldn’t normally put the two consanants “m” and “r” together like that at the end of a word and at that point a crossout and correction was made. The whole translator to scribe process needs to be considered … because Joseph Smith would speak the translation and the scribe would then write what he heard.

  82. “Then you could nail his **s against the wall with personal revelation.”

    There’s a phrase you don’t come across everyday:)

  83. Geoff,


    The idea of a tickertape of text running across a seer stone is much harder for me to swallow than the concept of exact phrasing coming in to Joseph’s head on occasion.

    I don’t particularly like this concept of how the translation worked, either. I was only pointing out that the idea of “tight control” doesn’t necessarily imply what Blake said.


    Paul didn’t rewrite the Old Testament, he offered separate interpretive commentary.

    Except for when he pulls bits and pieces from the OT and (re)works them into his teachings without explicitly acknowledging their source. It’s not so much a question of “rewriting” an existing book of scripture as it is taking an ancient text as a base and expanding on it to create something new.

  84. Jack,

    You are right that the expansion theory is only a baby step away from making the physical plates superfluous. I wouldn’t be too bothered if we learned the actual plates were superfluous to the text of the current Book of Mormon (the same applies to most of our modern scripture). The main question is whether it is accurate or not, and more importantly, if it is from God or not. Our primary responsibility is to seek and receive personal revelation on the subject. That is what God want from us anyway — a personal relationship that includes regular actual dialogue.

    If we did discover the plates were superfluous to the traslation the obvious question would be why did God bother with them? One answer might be that they were needed to help Joseph develop the necessary faith to receive the revelations from God that became our current text. Perhaps without those tangible plates his faith would not have been sufficient to accomplish the task.

  85. Geoff,

    Of course, what you say is possible. And if we were to learn that such is the case then I’d fall in line with it without too much difficulty.

    I’ve been wondering if the loss of 116 pgs may have been a mixed bag for Joseph. On one hand it was a terribly painful learning experience for him about the importance of obedience, trusting the Lord, and so forth. On the those 116 pgs might have given just the amount of training he needed to familiarize himself with the plates and the whole translation process. This is where I think JS may have “develop[ed] the necessary faith to receive the revelations from God that became our current text.”

  86. I think Sheldon back in #80 has a good point that we shouldn’t write off too quickly. After all, when we read the scriptures it isn’t only about doctrinal propositions. It has a lot to do with the stories which are supposed to be illustrating certain doctrines. For instance: What about the prophecies about Christopher Columbus and the founding of the US? Did JS kind of tweek it a bit to suit what he thought? What about the great and abominable church? What about those who will build up great churches while ignoring the poor? What about all those these that were to commence when the plates were translated (like the beginning of the gathering)? What statements regarding full blown communitarianism? And so on.

    If we attribute these things to JS we are basically attacking the historicity of the BoM which can in turn lead to all the issues associated with the “New Mormon History.” It also makes you wonder at how reliable a guide it will be for us now. We can point to how accurate Nephi’s prophecies were of things which were in his future but JS’s past, but what about things which were in JS’s future as well?

  87. Goeff said: ” We are really only interested in what God has to say, not in which instrument he says it through right?”

    I don’t know–I think we’re interested in the means as well because I think the means say as much about God as his own words do sometimes. This is one of the gripes I have with those who don’t accept the BoM’s historicity. I’m not sure what to believe in if there were no ancient prophets who wrote the record (as the “inspired” record purports), no interpreters prepared by God for the translation of such records (as the “inspired” record purports), no real tangible plates upon which the record was written (as the “inspired” record purports), no real prophecy of one who was to bring to light by translation such a record (as the “inspired” record purports), yadda, yadda, yadda, ad (almost) infinitum.

    This also messes with our sense of basic “doctrine” on the subject of God revealing Himself to His children. What? There was no Nephi? No Alma? No Moroni? How in the heck am I supposed to believe that God keeps His promises when the folks to whom He makes is promises never actually existed? Especially when the coming forth of the BoM is a fullfillment of promises made to those very people who don’t exist? What kind of screwball universe do we live in?

  88. By the way, Goeff, I’m not saying that you’re one of those with whom I have a gripe.

  89. I should note that the question “where does an expansion begin and the original text leave off” is the wrong question. My point is that the entire process of human experience, including the human experience of revelation, involves interpretation from a particular point of view. Any expression in linguistic terms requires interpretations and decisions about how best to express what could be expressed in many ways. So what is expanded? The entire text. What is original? The entire text. There is no text without such expansion.

    Is it possible that we have a “literal” text at points and not at others? Impossible for the simple reason that a “literal” word for word translation of a text from one language into another — any other language — would result in gibberish. There is no such thing as isomorphic translation. Is it possible that the text is more close to the original language at points? Well, the entire thing is in English and not an ancient language. Could it reflect that ancient language more closely in translation at points? Inevitably it does — but only a fine textured analysis could give us hints (and that is all we have).

    Did JS need the plates to translate? Of course, otherwise what would be the basis of the revelation that revealed what was on the plates? Did he need to look at the plates during translation and know the ancient language as a means of translation? Of course not — he didn’t do either!

    Does Royal Skousen show that the BofM was dictated with a ticker-tape appearing across the seer-stone/urim & thummim? How could looking at an English translation ms. with scribal corrections tell us that? His argument makes no sense to me because it goes way beyond what the evidence reasonably shows. Admittedly David Whitmer believed in the ticker-tape theory of translation; but he was upset when Joseph altered the revelations in the D&C too. He and Joseph had different ideas about scripture. I see his story about the method of the Book of Mormon translation as something he adopted to bolster his fundamentalist view of scripture (a wildly untenable view promulgated by the likes of the Tanners).

  90. Blake,

    From the extreme degree of of textual similarities, it certainly seems that someone must have had in mind the KJV text, in a very specific way, in generating the text of the Book of Mormon–for the Isaiah quotations, for example.

    As I know you realize, whether that someone was God, Joseph Smith alone, Joseph Smith under the guidance of God, Joseph Smith under the guidance of the Devil, or some other person or group of persons is not determined merely by the similarities (nor, as far as I can tell, even by the inclusion of poor or mis- translations from the KJV). Strictly speaking, books of themselves can’t quote and rely.

  91. I agree with you Jack (#94).

    There were real plates reporting real history and that is a vital part of the story. The point I was making is the manner of the “translation” is not all that important in the long run. It was miraculous regardless of the details (pure revelation via the expansion theory, tickertapes across the seer stone, miraculously reading an ancient language, etc.) . Any of those would require direct divine intervention. So since all faithful explanations are equally miraculous, I tend to side with Blake on the expansion theory (as I understand it) for a couple of reasons:
    1. His theory seems to plug the most holes
    2. The process is most like the way we receive revelations from God today. That makes me most comfortable with it. (Plus Joseph later said that it was the same process Moses used to cross the Red Sea — See D&C 8)
    3. It seems to be the most flexible answer as well — allowing for expansions in some areas and exact wording/spelling in others.

    Jeffrey is right (#92) that the expansion theory could take some of the bite out of Nephi’s prophesies of Columbus, etc. for some; but I think it all must get back to Moroni’s promise eventually anyway. The BoM requires us to enter into a real dialogue with God. When we enter that dialogue, God himself can tell us if Nephi really prophesied of the future without Joseph expanding anything. Of course if we’re in a dialogue with God that question will be rather moot, wouldn’t it? In that sense, the BoM does still act as a sacred sign to us today (as Givens says it did in Joseph’s day) in addition to being worthy of our intense study.

  92. Geoff: I believe that FARMS has had a powerful effect in education about what is required to have a sound view of scripture in its historical context. In my discussions with many at FARMS, the expansion theory is a matter of course and the question is how much expansion and where. As I noted, all who work with the BofM apologetically implicitly adopt the expansion theory whether they admit it or not.

    However, I am not quite so sanguine about Church education. My brother teaches religion at BYU (and he is a good man and I like him even if he was mean to me when when I was little [grin]). I understand that the Church will not hire anyone who believes the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch. Indeed, they gauge how faithful a scholar is by whether s/he believes that Paul wrote Hebrews (and that is really odd because I cannot think of any good reason to believe that Paul wrote Hebrews and a lot of really good arguments that he didn’t). Church education insists on teaching a more or less fundamentalist view of sripture. Adam was real and evolution is false; the flood was world-wide; languages differ because of the tower of babble etc. Unfortunately, in my view they are setting members up to lose their faith when they gain even a little exposure to critical bibical scholarship that will dis-iluision them of these types of beliefs. I think that our worst enemy is not an anti-Mormon but a Mormon who believes things that are demonstrably false and insists on such beliefs as a litmus test for faithfulness.

  93. Wow.

    If that is all accurate I guess brother Nibley would not be allowed to work at BYU these days… I think I first heard about the limited flood concept reading him.

  94. I think the divide between the church education system and then church scholars like FARMS is interesting. There is such a gap with often the latter not thinking much of the former.

  95. Geoff, I think that is just in the religion department. However by and large even when I was at BYU everyone advised you to not take religion classes from people in the religion department.

  96. “Church will not hire anyone who believes the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch. Indeed, they gauge how faithful a scholar is by whether s/he believes that Paul wrote Hebrews…”

    I find this very interesting (especially the part about Hebrews). When you say “the church” do you mean the BYU religion department, or CES in general, or what? Do you understand that they explicitly ask someone about these topics when hiring? What if someone just avoids talking about those things? Who is driving this, is it a small group of people in the religion faculty, or in CES administration, some GAs, or who?

  97. Geoff,

    Mostly agreed. Yes the whole thing is miraculous no matter what means are provided by God to get the job done.

    I guess I’m not ready to say that Joseph did not have to consult the plates in anyway whatsoever to get a translation (I’m speaking more to Blake than Geoff). Did he just plop them on the table without ever turning over one single leaf? Why were some of the plates sealed and some of them open if it really didn’t matter whether or not JS needed to consult them?

    When Oliver Cowdrey fails to translate because he “took no thought” what does that mean? If JS was required to take thought in order to translate, what is it he was thinking about? He was thinking about what was on those plates! No doubt, at a certain point, he become familiar with some of those characters, and therefore had greater power in focusing his thoughts toward fruitful results.

  98. Regarding Blake’s comments on church teaching. I’m unsure whether “Church education” refers to CES or to BYU. If the latter, I have some comments. I strongly suspect that some religion professors at BYU generally accept the documentary hypothesis, that Ancient scripture profs. are not monolithic, nor nearly as fundamentalist as Blake thinks. (Since his brother teaches Church history, I doubt he’s had in-depth discussions with his colleagues about issues of biblical authorship.)

    Second, the powers that be in the religion dep’t know a few things. A large percentage of the religion faculty will retire in the next 5 years, and the CES pool from which to hire is shrinking greatly. That leaves current LDS graduate students, most of whom are both faithful and more open to some of the issues Blake mentions. Should BYU make some litmus tests, they won’t be able to hire anyone vaguely qualified. However, I don’t think they have done so and I don’t think they will, however much some there might like to. Were that to happen, they would of necessity turn away everyone who applied, and they can’t afford to do that.

  99. Royal Skousen wrote an article titled “Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon” (1990 BYU Studies) that discussed to an extent whether there was “tight” or “loose” control over the actual wording of the Book of Mormon during the translation process. There is a quote in this article from Emma Smith where she describes how Joseph Smith would spell names (a letter at a time) and longer words that he had trouble pronouncing. In this quote she also states that Joseph Smith would correct her at times when she was writing down names incorrectly, even though he was not looking over her shoulder. He only knew to correct what she was spelling out by inspiration or revelation.

  100. JWL: ” . . . most witnesses indicate that Joseph translated most of the BoM without even looking at the gold plates, but rather at his seerstone (which was probably NOT the urim and thummim found with the plates but rather the old stone he originally used in treasure-hunting).”

    JWL, can you point to a specific source that corroborates your contention that the seerstone was more likely than not the “old stone . . . used in treasure-hunting.” I have heard similar suggestions and agree that it is possible, but probable?

  101. Blake —

    Re: #95

    Help me out here. Anyone who is even minimally bilingual (as probably millions of regular Church members are) realizes that any translation involves rephrasing ideas in a way that makes sense in the target language and that that will never be word-for-word identical with the original language. However, every minimally bilingual person also realizes that that rephrasing in the target language can involve a very large range of flexibility –ranging from getting as close to the original exact wording as possible while still being grammatical in the target language to using the translator’s own concepts to explain what he understands as the original idea without any particular regard for how they were phrased in the original.

    Beyond that is the translator who, in the service of the basic original message, adds concepts which would have never occurred to the original author, but which the translator regards as relevant to the application of the basic original message by the target audience. I understand this latter to be what is meant by midrash, and I thought it was what you were proposing in your expansion theory. This seems to me to go way beyond just saying fuzzily “Joseph had to use words and ideas that he knew in expressing his translation of the BoM,” which is where your response in #95 seems to be headed.

    As long as we believe that Nephi, Mormon, et. al. actually lived and actually wrote SOMETHING and that what they wrote is in some way related to what appears in the JS translation of the BoM, I think that it is a legitimate question to ask just how closely the JS translation comes to the phrasing and concepts of the original authors. They weren’t Martians. It is not beyond credibility to think that Egypto-Hebrew or whatever it was could have been translated reasonably literally in a way that would have been comprehensible to a modern English-speaker. If it isn’t so, then how it isn’t so is a proper question.

    In particular I think that the huge numbers of regular Church members who are bilingual are going to see it as a reasonable question, and I think that trying to argue that it is a “wrong” question because any translation has to be a little loose is not going to satisfy them.

    One answer that I would find sufficient is this: “The importance of the BoM is not that there were cureloms or what they were, or even that somebody foretold some miscellaneous detail about the coming of Christ or Columbus. The importance of the BoM is its teachings, and the authentic historical stories it tells of one ancient people’s encounters and struggles with God. In guiding JS in translating the BoM, God wanted the message communicated. To do this, he inspired JS to translate in such a way that we would understand the message today. To do that he may have needed to add to or vary some things from the way Nephi et. al. originally expressed them. Since we don’t have the original BoM text we probably can not tell where these additions occurred exactly, but this may be one reason why the BoM seems to have more modern things in it that are so much more relevant to our times than some of the more obscure things we read about in the OT from the same time period.”

    In other words, I think as a practical matter it is going to go over better to say “I don’t know for sure” than to duck the very legitimate question of “so just how loose a translation is it?”

  102. Bah, I shouldn’t try to read and comment at T&S when I’m studying other things as well. Going through the comments here I’m seeing Blake brought up concepts (such as Royal Skousen’s “tight control” that I later thought I was introducing to the discussion. Still, a very interesting post and comments.

  103. JWL: I am asserting that expansion and explanation or inevitable for any translation — even one that intends to be very faithful to the source. I don’t see any reason to believe the JS didn’t feel free to give explanations, change the text when he could express it more clarly, give extended explanations and midrash and at times seek to spell a word correctly (though exactly how one correctly spells and Egyptian or Hebrew word in English is not exactly clear to me). It is not a legitimate question to ask for clear aporia or textual breaks to mark the difference between “unedited or unexpanded” material and that which is — because it is all expanded in my view. There are no such aporia. It is also not sensible because there is no way to know how close the translation matched the underlying text without the underlying text. However, we can see that the BofM does in fact expand upon the KJV and even KJV mistranslations. We can see that some of the expansions must come from JS and not from Mormon. I repeat what I said in response to Robinson:

    Some, of course, claim that the translation of the Book of Mormon was so literal that it preserved Hebrew syntax. See, for example, Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997), 61-93. I view that position as extremely unlikely because such a literal translation would result in nonsense in English. Wherever we have a Hebrew text to compare to the Book of Mormon translation, it is the KJV syntax that is used (often word for word) rather than a literal Hebrew translation. For example, a literal translation of the Hebrew in Ezekiel 37:16-17 (paraphrased in the Book of Mormon at 2 Nephi 3:11-12) reads: “Son of Man, take yourself stick one and write on it, for Judah and for the sons of Israel, his companions. And take stick one and write on it for Joseph the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions; . . . and they shall become ones in your hand.” It seems transparent to me that the Book of Mormon renders the translation in a KJV idiom and does not preserve a literal Hebrew syntax-but no meaningful translation could preserve such a syntax faithfully.

    You are correct that allowing midrashic commentary goes beyond merely allowing interpretation in translation. Call the latter the “minimal expansion thesis” and the former the “maximal expansion thesis.” I obviously accept both and believe that both phenomena are demonstrable in the BofM text. My point is that everyone at FARMS must accept at least the minimal expansionist thesis — and I believe that anyone who looks at the text seriously will see that the maximal thesis is also required to make sense of how the book handles KJV quotations. Moreover, I believe that the minimal thesis entails the maximal thesis because at times any competent translation must explain what is really being said rather than just rendering the words. For example, the English “beat around the bush” wouldn’t mean anything without explanation as to how the idiom is used. The French “sacre bleu” is similar — it doesn’t mean sacred blue and without explanation means nothing at all in English. The Italian “che mi ne frega” is similar (and I won’t translate it).

  104. ” Unfortunately, in my view they are setting members up to lose their faith when they gain even a little exposure to critical bibical scholarship that will dis-iluision them of these types of beliefs. I think that our worst enemy is not an anti-Mormon but a Mormon who believes things that are demonstrably false and insists on such beliefs as a litmus test for faithfulness.” I could not agree more, especially as an active member of the Church who also holds a Ph.D. from a religious studies department at a non-religious school. I have friends who did not make it through the graduate program (and others like it) because of what they absorbed as undergrads in the religious education department at BYU. Not that this is inevitable. I, too, graduated with a B.A. from BYU, and did not lose faith, but too many others are not so fortunate.

  105. Blake, have you ever attempted to situate your expansion theory in the history of translation? The process you describe runs counter to popular contemporary expectations of translations (that the form and language will closely reflect the original), but seems quite similar to medieval translations where prose might become verse, the total length might double, and literary allusions to any number of works might be sprinkled into the new text. I can’t say how late this kind of literary creation was still considered a legitimate translation, or if it still is in some places or traditions. Is the Book of Mormon a throwback to an earlier sense of translation, or is it part of a continuous tradition?

  106. Costanza: you raise an interesting point. The expansion theory was really spurred in thought by the practices of pseudepigraphic authors, the midrash and the various peshitta and targums that are so common in Judeo-Chrisitian literature throughout its history. However, I am not really qualified to comment on the phenomenon as it appears in medieval or other literature. You are undoubtedly better qualified than I to do that assessment and I would be interested in what you have to say.

  107. In response to anon and Costanza, the BYU religion department is moving away from whatever fundamentalism it may have embraced in the past. For example, the new ANE-Hebrew Bible program at BYU includes a new required class that covers “Textual, literary, historical, redaction criticisms, and exegetical methods used in academic study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.”

    A BYU religion prof. with a PhD in ANE studies informed me that, contrary to my post on the topic, getting this new major approved had not been terribly controversial at all, as I had implied. In short, I don’t think the religion department is either as fundamentalist or monotheistic as implied by Blake or Costanza here. They have some excellent people. and some good classes, but you have to know who they are.

  108. My apologies to Blake et. al. for posting comments while trying to remember Blake’s article off the top of my head. I have now reread it and can be more precise in my queries.

    The original article in fact identifies numerous specific texts from the BoM as possible JS expansions (pagination from 1987 Dialogue):

    70: 1 Ne. 13:10-20
    76: Hel. 6:21-30, 8:3-4, 3 Ne. 6:28-30, Eth. 8:10-16
    80: 2 Ne. 9:23-24
    81: Mos. 15:24-25, 2Ne.2:8-9, 26-29, 10:24, 2:17-26, Alma 42:2-14
    82: 1Ne. 10:6, 2Ne. 2:15-16, 9:6, Mos. 3:16-27, Alma 12:22, 18:36, 42:13-15,
    84: 2 Ne. 9:10-13
    86: 1 Ne. 13-15
    92: Mos. 4:2
    96: Mos. 13:28-32, Mos. 14-16
    97: Mos. 15-16

    The article also proposes a method for identifying expansions using form criticism which is to see if the concepts are incompatible with concepts or teachings from the OT or other pre-Christian Jewish sources or they are overwhelmingly similar to concepts from 19th C America. This raises the following questions for Blake:

    (1) Do you still see all of the examples in your 1987 article as probable JS expansions?
    (2) In light of the fact that you suggest numerous specific expanded texts in your own article, why do you object to my comments above asking about the consequences of the use of expansion theory to tease out expanded vs. original text? Your replies above seem to be suggesting a little fuzzier, less precise “translation” process than that suggested by your highly specific 1987 article, or at least that’s my impression. I could have completely misunderstood you but I don’t see all these specific examples as being compatible with saying that “it is all original, it is all midrash.”
    (3) In connection with your comment 110, I agree that the KJV verses are a good argument for expansion. However, surely you have to agree that adding entire doctrinal chapters as expansions as suggested in your 1987 article is not equivalent to translating “sacre bleu” as “oh my goodness” instead of ‘holy blue”? In other words, the expansion theory, at least if the expansions are as extensive as you suggest in your 1987 article, raises the very important exegitical question of “why this particular expansion?”
    (4) Finally, obvious responses to the form criticism methodology proposed in your article are: (a) the Nephite prophets could have received revelations that were not received in the Old World and (2) since it was isolated from the Old World Nephite culture and religion could have developed in such a way as to raise the doctrinal issues and concepts you see as 19th C even though those issues and concepts did not arise among the Jews. How would you address that explanation?

    To end, I do believe JS expanded although I am not sure I agree with all of the examples in the 1987 article. I think the expansion theory is espcially important because it is more compatible with the information we do have about the translation process and (as Blake notes in the original post here) it resembles how Joseph received other revelations and translations. I think that it will be helpful if it becomes better known among the LDS for reasons noted by other commentators here and my own view that the details about the translation are going to become better known among the LDS. I raise these questions in the interest of clarifying and tightening up the theory for these purposes.

  109. Only loosely related:
    Does anyone know when we can expect Bushman’s Joseph Smith Biography on shelves?

  110. Blake: Afraid I can’t find the Ezekiel the Tragedian reference you mention (#76). I have your BYU Studies article, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi”–is that the right one?

    I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s possible to tranlate literally from one language to another (at least for any extended text), but I don’t think that’s what “tight control” means. Tight control, in Skousen’s words, is where “Joseph Smith saw specific words written out in English and read them off to the scribe” (BM Authorship Revisited, 65)–the ticker-tape theory if you like, although I think that term belittles the concept somewhat. Loose control, on the other hand, is where “ideas were revealed to JS and he put the ideas into his own language” (ibid, 64). The issue with control is not how closely the English version resembled the original (although that is of course a very interesting separate issue), but where the text of that version came from. Did JS read off that text, or did he compose it based on ideas given to him? Grasshopper (#81) raises a good question: If JS didn’t see words in the U&T/seerstone, what did he see? Historical events are one thing, but it’s hard to see anything visual with theological concepts. And remember, JS was translating 7-8 (present) pages per day, so he can’t have spent too much time working out the words to dictate. I do accept that there was expansion (at least minimal) (#110), but who the expansion should be attributed to is the question.

  111. To answer the question about the Bushman biography, my Ph.D. dissertation director wrote to me said that he had received a non-corrected proof that the publisher (Knopf) wanted him to comment on —for the dust jacket. The letter that came with the book indicated that the biography, entitled “Rough Stone Rolling” would be published in October.

  112. Ben S.:”They have some excellent people. and some good classes, but you have to know who they are.” I actually agree with this, and I am heartened to see that more of the folks at BYU have Ph.D.s in relevant fields–rather than Ed.D.s as was the case with the vast majority when I was an undergraduate.

  113. Ben S.: the new Ancient Near Eastern Studies/Hebrew program is not a part of the dept. of religion at BYU. The imperative to reject the documentary hypothesis and still belong to religious education in my experience. Would that it were.

    JWL: I still believe that the expansions that I identified in 1987 are valid with two notable exceptions. I believe that the masonic stuff is influenced in its verbal formulation by the anti-masonic terminology, but it is clear to me (as it was in 1987) that antimasonry cannot account fully for what we find in the BofM regarding secret combinations. Further, I badly misconstrued Alma’s teachings on the atonement to reflect Anselm’s satisfaction theory. In the second volume of Exploring Mormon Thought I have a chapter where I exegete LDS scripture regarding soteriology and I pay special attention to the theory of atonement in the BofM. It turns out that the view of the BofM regarding atonement is miles away from Anselm and provides a new (so far as I am aware) view of atonement that I believe is much more edifying and inspiring. I really blew that in my 1987 essay. Culpa mea. However, the remainder of the expansions that I identified in 1987 remain solid in my view and I still believe that form criticism is the best way to get at expansions in the BofM.

    Ross: Translating “sacre bleu” as “oh my goodness” is really non-sense. It fails to capture the cultural expression of what is really being said (and really it cannot be translated into English). Sacre bleu cretine! Let me give a good example of a single word that begs for several chapters and perhaps an entire book as a basis for an adequate translation. The Hebrew word “chesed” could be translated simply as “mercy” — but that misses the point all together. To really translate “chesed” to capture what is being expressed an entire paragraph on how God dealt with Israel in covenant beginning with Abraham, how he chose Israel again and delivered it through Moses and how God continued with Israel despite Israel’s constant rejection of him is necessary. One must tell the story of Israel to adequately translate this single word.

    The notion that Joseph just read the words as they appeared in the urim and thummim cannot be squared with the text. How could he change the BofM if it was given word for word as David Whitmer claimed? How could there spelling, grammatical and other errors? If what you suggest is that God himself did the expanding, then why does God speak 19th century KJV English? Why did God include material from the KJV that is only there because of corrupt mss.? The idea is untenable — unless you believe that God is a prankster. Seer stones and Urim and Thummim don’t work like ticker-tape devices, they enlighted the mind with knowledge and open a space for revelation. Later, JS didn’t need these implements because he had learned to be sensitive to the light without them. Do you think that seer stone is magic or a teleprompter of sorts? If “ticker-tape” belittles the concept, so be it – it also accurately conveys precisely what you suggest was happening. (Is that too harsh?)

  114. Blake: You’re correct that the major is not hosued in the religion department. However, it is primarily qualified professors from that department who will be teaching it. I find that significant.

  115. “The notion that Joseph just read the words as they appeared in the urim and thummim cannot be squared with the text.”

    I believe it can.
    1) The “meaning” of the text is put into Joseph’s consciousness via revelation. (This may sound hokey, but anyone who knows a foreign language well enough to comprehend it without translating into English in their head understands this.)
    2) Joseph struggles to express that in English.
    3) When he hits on something acceptable, it appears on the stone, and he reads it off. As such, he learns how to recognize the approval of the spirit and eventually doesn’t need the stones. This makes Joseph responsible for the words that appear in the stone, and the translation is acceptable, but not perfect. This also allows for literalisms. Every student new to translation, tends to be literal when faced with unfamiliar constructions, idioms, etc.

    Stephen Ricks and several others have proposed this theory of translation.

  116. Ben, thanks for your link to your M* post on the ANES and Biblical Hebrew program at BYU, and for your very kind comments on my Documentary Hypothesis article, which I deeply appreciated. Fascinating stuff there.

    As for this thread, I just wanted to point out that Blake’s expansion theory saved my belief in BoM historicity. When it came out in 1987, I was on the edge of the cliff and ready to reject historicity and leap into a purely secular, naturalistic approach.

    Blake’s theory used to be persona non grata in the Religion Dept., and it may still be for all I know. I am too far removed from that setting to have any inside skinny. But I know that many LDS scholars affiliated with FARMS accept the theory, at least to some extent.

    My own approach to BoM translation theory is not to approach the text with a single preexisting theory for every word. I call this “eclecticism.” I am open to a given passage being on the tighter or looser end of the scale, or for that matter a midrashic embellishment from Joseph as a modern prophet a la Blake’s expansion idea. This frees me to be able to accept evidences all along the scale, both for antiquity and for modernity, simultaneously. I find it a wonderfully liberating point of view.

    I also personally like Blake’s idea that, conceptually, all of Joseph’s inspired translations involve essentially the same, or at least similar, processes. I think that too is a very useful insight.

    Blake has taken a great deal of heat and grief for the expansion theory over the years. But I think it has salvaged the faith of innumerable thoughtful Saints, and I would like to publicly express my thanks to my old friend for having the courage to articulate this idea and stand by it.

    Three cheers for Blake!

  117. Hip, hip, hooray! (That was my third time, Kevin…)

    Ross: You can blame me for the term ticker-tape model (see #83). It is admittedly an unflattering name for the idea. I have a nasty habit of letting my own opinion on theories influence the titles I give them. (I wouldn’t be surprised if I learned others had previously and independently dubbed that model the same thing, though. I think it is an accurate description.)

    Ben S.: Thanks for that middle ground solution you mentioned. That is an idea I could buy — that rather than a ticker-tape of text streaming across a seer stone, Joseph occasionally got stuck and a word or sentence might appear. I don’t think it is a necessary tool ( I think Joseph could have done it all without such visual aids) but I do think it is a plausible theory. Its greatest strength (in my opinion) is that it sound much like the way the Liahona worked for Lehi.

  118. Kevin,

    In light of what you term as “eclecticism”, do you think it’s possible that when JS arrived at the Isaiah passages in 2Ne. that he may have asked Oliver if he had a Bible handy? And that he went along comparing the texts and making adjustments as he felt necessary–receiving guidance in a way similar to what Ben S. has proposed?

    I like your statement: “I am open to a given passage being on the tighter or looser end of the scale, or for that matter a midrashic embellishment from Joseph as a modern prophet a la Blake’s expansion idea.” This helps me make a little more sense of Blake’s theory.


    I’d like to hear a little more about your thoughts on how the plates were untilized (or not utilized as the case may be) during the process of translation. Earlier in this thread you mentioned (in so many words) that JS may not even have had to look at them as part of the translation process (If I understood you correctly, that is). I’m open to the possibility, but remain unconvinced.

  119. Jack: The fact is that JS didn’t look at the plates for most of the translation. Those who watched him translate (Emma, William, Oliver Cowdery) all described the same process of JS putting the seer stone in his hat and shutting out the light and then translating while the plates remained on the table covered by a cloth. At first, according to William, JS used the urim and thummim set in the breatplate — but the breastplate was heavy and cumbersome to put on and he soon adapted the use of the seer stone (if William is to be believed, and I do accept his version). The plates were essential to the translation in that what was being revealed was what was on the plates as JS conceptualized it through revelation. Without the plates there could not have been a revelation of what was on the plates.

    Moreover, I would accept Kevin’s statement of how the expansion theory actually works in exegesis — we have to look at the passage to determine whether it is tighter or looser or midrashic explanation (however, I reject the Skousen tight control theory because it is just not tenable).

    And while I am at it, thanks Kevin. Kevin has been a good friend since our BYU days and I value our friendship. His contributions to LDS scholarship are invaluable and we are richly blessed by him and his gifts.

  120. Jack, Skousen makes a good point when he says that none of the witnesses mention Joseph having any access to a Bible. So how do we deal with the Isaiah passages? Some like the divine teleprompter theory. Others think Joseph had a prodigious memory. A few like the automatic writing theory.

    For my part, I think Joseph did use a Bible. It’s true we don’t have any witness statements to that effect, and I freely acknowledge that is a weakness in my point of view. Nevertheless, I think the evidence from the text itself is pretty strong that Joseph made use of a KJV. In particular, I think the tendency of BoM Isaiah variants to revolve around the italicized words in the KJV (which Skousen denies, but I think he’s wrong on that score) is strong evidence that a KJV was somehow involved in the process.

    My own theory for why the witness statements don’t mention it is that they come from different times in the translation process. Most of the Isaiah quotation would have been at the very tail end of the translation process in 2 Nephi (assuming the priority of Mosiah, which seems to be a universally accepted theory these days).

    So I accept the B.H. Roberts view that Joseph probably did make use of a KJV in his production of the BoM.

  121. Jack,

    Here is a line from the Skousen article that he wrote after giving quotes from Joseph Knight, Emma, David Whitmer, and Whitmer’s sister (Elizabeth):

    All four accounts mention an instrument of translation in a hat. All refer to Joseph Smith’s ability to dictate extensively without using the gold plates or any other physical text.(Winter 1990 BYU Studies, pg. 52)

  122. I was just thinking that if we take literally John 14:26 then we might have an explanation why there is so much of the KJV is in the BoM even if Joseph never consulted the Bible during the process.

    But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

    Joseph had probably read the KJV several times before translating the plates. That means the KJV text was sitting somewhere on his “hard drive”. It seems that since God was revealing all sorts of new things to Joseph through the Holy Ghost already it would not be unlikely that the Holy Ghost could also pull up the relevant KJV passages to Joseph’s remembrance at the appropriate time… (Just a thought)

  123. It is interesting to note how the Book of Mormon itself uses the words “interpretation”, “interpreters”, “translate” and “translation.” It seems that “interpretation” and “translation” might be slightly different things. Perhaps the Book of Mormon is itself hinting that the work to bring forth the Book of Mormon (and other sacred works) is sometimes the work of interpretation and sometimes the work of translation.

    On the title page it says:

    To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof … The interpretation thereof by the gift of God.

    It’s simply interesting to me that the use of the word “interpretation” is preferred when the word “translation” was available and had been used by Moroni before. Of course below the title page it reads: “Translated by Joseph Smith, Jr.” — though that was not engraved on the plates like the material above it.

    Here’s some other verses that are of interest. It isn’t always easy to tell if “interpretation” and “translation” are interchangeable equivalents or if they are actually different in some way.

    Mormon 9:34
    But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.

    Ether 4:5
    Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord.

    Even (as the following verse shows) when records are translated, the instruments used are called interpreters:

    Mosiah 8:13
    Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.

    Mosiah 28:11
    Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi;

    Mosiah 28:13
    And now he translated them by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.

    Mosiah 28:17
    Now after Mosiah had finished translating these records, behold, it gave an account of the people who were destroyed, from the time that they were destroyed back to the building of the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people and they were scattered abroad upon the face of all the earth, yea, and even from that time back until the creation of Adam.

    Ether 5:1
    And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me, according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up; therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate; for that thing is forbidden you, except by and by it shall be wisdom in God.

  124. Dagnabit … I must have left out a end-bold sign somewhere. Anychance someone could help me out with that?

    ADMIN: Done.

  125. After reading all the posts I propose that there be a new Article of Faith saying that we believe the BOM is true as long as it is translated corectly.

  126. Whenever I read or hear that line “we believe in the Bible as far as it is translated correctly” I think that caveat could be applied to any book of scripture. Would we want to believe in a book of scripture if it were not?

  127. Amen to Kevin’s comment. I felt the exact same way in a very similar context upon reading his article.

    Geoff, I wouldn’t be too anxious to attribute that John 14:26 to JS’s remembering the KJV. Isn’t this kind what Blake’s theory is, that the HG helps people remember things conceptually, not necessarily word for word.

  128. Thanks guys, for the responses.

    I’m the least qualified here to give an informed opinion, but my sense is that JS had a KJV on hand even though history seems to be silent on that count. My guess is that those elements of the translation process which were most striking or miraculous are the things that people were more inclined to write about in their history. Copying from the KJV would not have given one much to much to gloat over.

  129. Blake: Thanks for the reference. It’s in the small print! It’s similar, but not identical, which was the point I was making about Alma 36:22 and 1 Nephi 1:8 (for those 20 words, and yes, there is paraphrase as well). You incorrectly attributed the “sacre bleu” comment to me; it was JWL (#115). I wish I’d said it, though!

    Ben S: I too like your middle ground solution. I think it has real merit.

    Geoff Johnston: Ticker-tape is a catchy term. If it accurately describes the concept as you “see” it, then stick with it!

    It’s a pity the two people most involved in the translation process (JS and OC) are the two who said the least about it, JS deliberately. Statements by others, such as David Whitmer, do need to be taken with a grain of salt. My defence of tight control has not been because I take Whitmer’s word for it. He is not always reliable; eg, later on he clearly thought he had possession of the original manuscript when he actually had the printer’s manuscript. I am not wedded to tight control, as some may suspect. I have merely raised some counter-arguments that I was aware of and thought (mistakenly or otherwise) had some merit.

    I echo Kevin’s thanks to Blake for his work, and am glad that it has stopped some from jumping overboard. It’s clearly been a subject that quite a lot of people have found interesting. What’s the record number of posts on a thread? This one must be getting close. Thanks, Blake.

  130. It seems to me that the divide between tight control and expansion need not be as great as some suggest. It may well be that there was expansion via tight control but that the tight control itself was largely dependent upon Joseph Smith’s own neural structures. (i.e. memories)

  131. I think some people have a gift for articulating early an idea whose time has come. For being early they suffer the negative reaction of many who exagerate it and fear the worst. However, as the merits of the idea settles in, and people see it in appropriate application and perspective, more come to appreciate that articulation and it becomes a permanent part of the accepted vocabulary. I think that has been the history of Blake’s article. I too would like to thank Blake for publishing his article.

  132. re #92. The expansion concept is appealing because of the puzzles it resolves, but as Jeffrey points out, it undermines the notion of prophecy. As I understand Blake’s perspective, he believes prophecy is vague because the future is unknowable, except to a degree of probability. Therefore, to the extent specific modern fulfilment is attributed to Nephi, it would have been JS’s expansion of Nephi’s vague prophecies.

    As Jeffrey points out, the expansion theory leaves the BofM largely useless as a prophetic book for times beyond JS’s time. Isn’t this Blake’s point as well, that the specific prophecies carry through to JS’s lifetime and then cease?

    I agree that, as Blake points out, any translation necessarily involves some degree of expansion. However, I don’t believe JS expanded it to the point of changing Nephi’s prophecies (and Enoch’s and the others) to make them appear more specific or to show their fulfillment.

    One other point. If the expansion approach explains the changes JS made to the BofM and D&C, then theoretically, a modern prophet could also make changes, or corrections, to these texts.

    One thing the expansion theory doesn’t explain is why bother having a sealed portion of the plates, if JS couldn’t read the language anyway? Or, if they were readable only with the seer stone, the stone would simply not work on the sealed portion. The more we get away from a textual basis for the BofM, the less some of the history makes sense.

    Kevin’s eclecticism approach (#123) is also appealing, although to some extent it seems to beg the questions. I like it because it allows me to adopt any possible explanation for any passage of modern scripture that I already accept, but it also feels a little uncomfortable because it seems to detach the BofM from objective analysis. In some ways, I like the idea of a completely mystical book, which to me is where eclecticism inevitably leads, but it’s a different approach (and one much more like the other religions around the world that have sacred, inspired texts).

  133. This has probably been said before, but I want to add my thoughts. Personally I think this “double expansionist” theory has merit, but is basically wrong. I believe that there is too many intellectual assumptions made about what should and should not consitute “historicism” and “anacronisms.”

    My theory is that the Book of Mormon is an Ancient Text — period! Moroni did NOT add in Christianizing elements that were not already there. Lets not forget that we are reading Palestinian Jewish religious culture into Nephite Jewish culture. Lehi and his family left Jerusalem specifically to get away from the Jewish religion. The stagnant Jewish religious society was spoken against almost from the start, with Laman and Lemuel as representations of that corrupt system. They would believe nothing that didn’t already exist in the popular culture.

    Why you have such Christian flavor in what should be a staunch post-Messianic Jewish setting is because of REVELATION to Lehi and Nephi, and other prophets, about Jesus Christ. In almost every single instance where Christ is mentioned, it is out of a revelatory experience with Angels. The Jews in Palestine rejected such prophetic revelatory movements and therefore were left “out in the cold” as far as the future Christ and his gospel were concerned. One of the main messages of the Book of Mormon, besides the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that if you don’t believe in revelation than you will either stagnate or go backwards.

    I am not saying that there was no amendments from Mormon and Moroni that made the text more Christian that it actually was. That would be going too far, and that is why I say the d.e. theory has merits. But, I believe that the expansions are minor and subconscious. There is also, at least to me, a substantial change in style and focus between 1 and 2 Nephi and the rest of the Book of Mormon books. It becomes far more Christian in philosophy, and less apocalyptic in tone.

    As for Joseph Smith, I believe he used the language and ideas of his time to translate the Book of Mormon, but i reject the amount of anacronisms or modernist similarities some people find. They are often of such general nature that one could say the same thing about any translation of ancient text by modern writers. One can easily say it was written by someone of the 19th Century, but that is as far as it goes. As Richard L. Bushman and others who have looked at the possible modern structure has said, beyond a certain point the similarities to modern ideas are grossly distorted. It is almost as if someone was forcing a modern relationship onto an unfamiliar landscape.

  134. By the way “Islands of the Sea” has always meant beyond the borders of the Palestinian promised land mass and across a large body of water. That fits all of North and South America. I don’t think it has anything to do with relative size or shape.

  135. Jettboy: You’re going to have to explain those expansions that rather clearly rely on a KJV version of the text as a base text. You are also going to have to explain why the explanation of Christian doctrine as it appears in the BofM presupposes the developments in Calvinists and Arminian theologies — especially given the fact that there are a lot of possible trajectories for Christian thought to take (and it has taken many), but the BofM presupposes a peculiarly 19th century American take. Have you actually read the article?

    Jonathan: As far as prophecy goes, it seems to me that the BofM is very clear and explicit about the advent of Christ and events up until the time of JS and thereafter it becomes very vague. It is not a matter of a theory that presupposes that this is how it must be, it is just an observation that it is really how it is.

  136. Jettboy re 144: How do you know that? What do you have that backs up your assertion?

  137. Wish there was an edit button. Anyway, any time the “tight control” comes up, it is always about names and not concepts or events. You never read of Joseph Smith stopping and saying, “Oh, you wrote that sentence wrong. It is actually such and such.” Therefore, I would say the only thing we have any evidence about relating to tight control is names. To be honest, I am not sure what this means or where this is going. Just an observation.

  138. Blake, I suppose you can ignore me than, but basically I know that because I know that. Like I said, I find “intellectualism” to be a hinderance to faith. You either know or you don’t.

  139. How do I know what I have said? Because I have read the Book of Mormon and have read the Bible. Those are the conclusions I have made. I refuse to get involved in tit-for-tat evidence spouting. You can either accept what I have said or not. Have I read your article? No. Will I? No. Your comments at the start have already made your views clear, and no amount of “evidence from my article” is going to change my mind, just as I believe no amount of my pointing things out is going to change yours.

  140. “You’re going to have to explain those expansions that rather clearly rely on a KJV version of the text as a base text” Because Joseph Smith is familiar with them, and therefore God uses what is most familiar to help people understand things. Same reasoning as to why the official LDS Bible is still the KJV; because of the ties into Revelatory Language pre-supposes the continued use.

    “explain why the explanation of Christian doctrine as it appears in the BofM presupposes the developments in Calvinists and Arminian theologies” First, I don’t believe that is the case to the extant some people say. We read into things what we want sometimes (isn’t that part of what you argue). Second, because they are closer to the truth than all other thoughts on Christianity. Personally, I think you read too much into things without actually reading what it says. You should read the Book of Mormon with less pre-dispositions and start reading it cold turkey. That goes as much for tight controllers as others.

  141. As Jettboy states: “I don’t believe that is the case to the extant some people say. We read into things what we want sometimes” Blake, this is a reservation I have about your article. I think the basic idea of the expanded source will survive, but I think as time goes on more and more of your examples will have to be taken back or qualified a bit.

    For example on page 82 you appear to be saying that JS has Alma “elucidating” Anselm’s theory of the Atonement. I think it is safe to say that Justice counterbalancing Mercy did not begin with Anselm. They are OT concepts. Alma’s is not a tight ontological argument, in my opinion. It is just an Atonement meaphor using personifications of justice and mercy. Personification of such attributes is in the OT literature. Describing the Atonement by metaphore is a typical biblical approach. Even the concept of mercy satisfying the demands of justice is not original with Anselm. All theories of the Atonement have been stated at one time or another that way. Besides, I don’t think Anselm’s Satisfaction theory was articulated and promoted by any of the sects JS was familiar with. So where would he have picked it up?

    I think the problem is that being familiar with Anselm’s Atonement theory predisposes one to see things in Alma that aren’t there.

    In time, in my opinion, all such overstatements will have to be argued out and corrected. And then the idea of a modern expanison will find less resistance.

  142. Blake: I’m also surprsed at your assertion that Lehi landed on an island. If Jacob’s comment is all you base this on, then it seems you are making two assumptions.

    1) “Island” means island in the modern sense of a small landmass surrounded by water.
    2) Jacob knew the complete extent of the landmass they were on.

    #2 is neither provable nor disprovable, but I doubt that Jacob knew the full extent, unless it was a very small island.

    #1 is much more problematic.

    a) “Isle” and “island” in the KJV always translates iy/iyyim. Most translations of the OT now understand this term to mean something like “area close to a large body of water” ie. island or coastland. Most translations seem to prefer “coastland.” BDB notes “place whither one betakes oneself for resting, etc., orig. fr. mariner’s standpoint.” BDB and the TWOT also simply give us “region” as one translational value. In other words, since Jacob is referring to Isaiah, and the term Isaiah uses is not strictly an island in the modern sense, I think you are hanging heavy weights upon slender threads.

    b)Furthermore, Jacob (whose vocabulary usage should count) uses the term “isle of the sea” in contrast to continuous land in 2Ne 10:8. The “four parts of the earth” (land, eretz) and the “isles of the sea” together make up all the inhabitable land. In other words, if it’s not contingent with Israel, if you have to go by sea, it’s an island (regardless of its size).

  143. Lorin re: 152: You should have read my comments in post 120 — I beat you to the punch. I submit that neither of us knows what will be shown in the future. But if you believe you have a case to make regarding other proposed expansions, there is no time like the present.

    Re: 152: Ben, in an article being published in Sunstone this month I already made observations very similar to yours. From Jacob’s perspective, it appears that they were on islands — and note that Jacob says that because it says “isles of the sea” there must be more than just the Nephites who are there. So he sees it as a reference to plural land masses surrounded by waters. However, you are correct that ‘iy/iyyim means “coast, island, shore, region.” In the KJV it is translated “isles” 30 times, islands 5 and country 1. In the NAS it is translated coastland 4 times, coastlands 26 times and islands 6 times, including “islands” in the critical reference to Isaiah 49 cited by Jacob because that is what the context demands. I don’t see that the text means that if it’s not contiguous with Isreal then you have to go by sea. Jacob’s point is precisely that there must be others around them because it says “isles” — and he says that “we are on an island of the sea” — singular. And he also states “wherefore, as it says isles, there must needs be more than this, and they are inhabited also by our brethren.” In this context, translating it as “coastland” makes no sense. Jacob means islands. Now I think that you are correct that Jacob couldn’t possibly have a complete geographic knowledge of the Americas. But it seems quite probable he would know if they were on an island — he could know that easily by circumnavigating the island. However, the point that I make in the Sunstone article is that Jacob believes that there are already others present in the same land areas that he resides in. That point is relevant to the DNA controversy.

  144. Blake,

    How do you square the “Island” argument with D&C Section 10? Particularly verses 49 through 51? One may argue that these verse have a lot of wiggle room for interpretation because of their implicit value. (i.e., they don’t state explicitly that “this land” is the land of America) Nevertheless, the section as a whole seems to suggest very strongly that the Lord is speaking of the land where JS resides.

  145. I would also add that (and perhaps this is a bit of a stretch) Jacob ch. 5 may shed a little light on his view of scattered Israel–that is if we equate “isles” with the nethermost parts of the vineyard. In other words, I think the important concept at play is the separation from the mother tree or the homeland not the size of the landmass.

  146. Jack: First, the D&C isn’t the Book of Mormon. Second, I believe that JS believed at the time of this revelation that all of North and South America was the promised land spojken of in the BofM (a mistaken view). Third, other nations already possessed the land at the time that the Lephites arrived, so it isn’t possible to interpret D&C 10 to mean that the “promised land” possessed by the Lehites meant the entire New World which they had all to themselves. Fourth, not only is there wiggle room, just when other nations would possess the land isn’t certain — but it has certainly happened by now and by the time that JS received D&C 10. Fifth, “this land” may refer to the New World, meaning merely that JS lived in the same hemisphere and the Lehites had hopes that the entire hemisphere would be populated by nations dedicated to the Lord — though it seems to go almost without saying that the Lehites never spoke of the New World, or “this hemisphere,” or contenents or even “nations” in the modern sense.

  147. Blake,

    Re: #157. First of all, I said it was a bit of a stretch–I understand that “isles of the sea” are not spoken of in the allegory. Second, I was trying to get at his thinking when he speaks of scattered Israel by suggesting that what was foremost in his mind was “separation”. Therefore, when Jacob speaks of “isles” his focus is on being cut off from the homeland (or the mother tree as per the allegory) not only the fact that they were residing on “islands”. I think the imagery of “isles” is beautiful when it is applied specifically to the scattering of Israel. And, if this is what he, Isaiah, and others were really getting at, then I think the size of the landmass where the various scattered remnants of Israel reside is irrelevant.

    Re: #156. I don’t understand how the D&C not being the BoM makes a difference. The Lord is speaking of the promises he made to various Nephite Prophets. They were concerned that other nations who might at one time or another dwell upon “this land” might receive the gospel by virtue of their (the Nephites) witness. Therefore, if “this land” is the very land that the Nephites dwelt upon and the same land that JS dwelt upon, then one may safely assume that the land that Jacob dwelt upon was no small island.

  148. — From #99
    Adam was real and evolution is false; the flood was world-wide; languages differ because of the tower of babble etc

    In rejecting each of these concepts, there needs to be an alternative doctrine that’s supported by the scriptures. The problem with rejecting Adam (which I’m not entirely convinced is synonymous with accepting evolution but seems to be so), is three-fold:

    1) Enduring covenants are established through him (covenants that we are then asked to enter as if we were in the place of Eve and himself). The records go to great pain to give Adam a proper personal history (in a similar way to Moses, Abraham – a recent recipient of the ‘did he exist?’ treatment and Noah, all of whom also where means of covenant establishment).
    2) He is intrumental in the Fall, and how does the Atonement redeem us from a non-existent Fall?
    3) Modern revalation, which is the perfect place to downplay the idea of a literal Fall and distinct personality of Adam, instead champions it (2 Ne 2, Mosiah 3, Pretty much all of Moses, Abraham 4/5, D&C 138).

    With regards to Babel, modern revalation in the form of Ether 1 is particularly problematic, as it’s supposed to be a record of 2 eye-witnesses to the event (a record complete enough to include the appearance of the Lord to the Brother of Jared in exquisite detail). Any faithful reinterpretation of the diversification of languages must be able to handle that – and I consider the BoM colonization theories work to be a successful example of the kind of thing I’m talking about.

    I think that our worst enemy is not an anti-Mormon but a Mormon who believes things that are demonstrably false

    Very true, but I don’t see how that applies here. Until the above doctrines are dealt with in a full scriptural manner, the term ‘demonstrably false’ cannot be definitively applied. Just saying that current scientific data doesn’t agree isn’t enough, unless you’re promulgating a faithless reinterpretation, which I don’t believe you are.

  149. Blake at #99: I understand that the Church will not hire anyone who believes the documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch. Indeed, they gauge how faithful a scholar is by whether s/he believes that Paul wrote Hebrews [. . .] . Church education insists on teaching a more or less fundamentalist view of sripture. [. . .] evolution is false; the flood was world-wide; languages differ because of the Tower of Bable etc.

    My problem with this is that I know a good number of people who teach religious ed at BYU who do not accept one or all of these claims. For example, I’ve heard public discussions among the religion faculty in which it was clear that at least several accepted some version of the documentary hypothesis, and no one objected. And I knew a prominent General Authority, now deceased, who did not believe that Paul wrote Hebrews. I know a number who think that evolution must be accepted, that the flood was local, etc.

    I don’t know how to explain my experience if Blake’s claims are accurate.

  150. Blake, Re #153, You are right, I had missed post #120. Sorry. However, not that it matters, but I don’t know if you “beat me to the punch.” When I published my “Moral Atonement” article a year after your “Expansion” article, I gave a one sentence dismissal of you and Mark Thomas seeing the Anselm theory in the BofM. The editors asked me to defend my dismissal. The dismissal was pretty much what I said in #151. But I told them, to keep the article as positive as I could, I didn[‘t want the arguments against to become part of the article.
    Also, another statement I am sure I have missed: When will be able to read vol.II? Is it already published?

  151. Jim: There are several in the religion dept who accept the documentary hypothesis and who regard Hebrews as non-Pauline — so that easily explains your experience. However, I could name numerous members of the dept. who view those who accept such views as suspect — and many of them have prominent standing in the dept. and who control hiring and promotion. I won’t name names. Further, I would be interested in the venues where you heard or learned such things. I would be delighted if I were wrong. But I can tell you from my own experience that such views as the documentary hypothesis and critical biblical scholarship are seen as an abandonment of faith and that I have sopken with several persons in a position to know that hiring decisions are influenced by such factors.

  152. Lorin,

    Your article on the moral atonement was extraordinary, and has helped reshape my understanding (and testimony) of the atonement.


    I look forward to volume II.

  153. One thing that Blake’s expansion theory seems to do is allow for JS to have influenced certain descriptions of BoM geography. For instance, it seems clear to me that back in 1830ish JS believed that the BoM covered all of the Americas. Could this have influenced his “translation” of terms like “north(ward)” “south(ward)” and “narrow neck of land”? Clearly JS must have been thinking about N. America, S. America and Panama when he heard or “read” those respective terms.

    One issue I have with the island idea is that such a theory sticks its head out for DNA falsification, for surely the Nephites were the primary ancestors of the inhabitants of any given island. This hypothesis doesn’t seem to allow for the dilution which Mormons have always clung to in the face of DNA studies.

  154. Fraggle, I think many people are talking about the points you make. I certainly don’t think there is any conflict with a historic Adam (which I think the scriptures require) and evolution. With regards to the flood, as Hugh Nibley so excellently put it, if we consider scriptural history in terms of eye witness accounts rather than some “god’s eye view” then I think the problem resolves itself. The world as Noah saw it was flooded. There was no way Noah could know whether Mt. Everest was flooded since it wasn’t part of his world of experience.

    With regards to the tower of Babel, I think Ether provides the same out. It doesn’t say how the languages were corrupted nor what that means. They left before that happened.

  155. Blake – re #120 on the examples in the 1987 article.

    I think that these deserve a fuller analysis than one can give in a blog comment. That said, it seems to me that the most difficult case is the suggestion that JS added chapter-length doctrinal expansions responding to theological issues that did not arise in the Old World until centuries after Christ. That is going beyond any sense of the word “translation” no matter how loosely you define it. What is particularly difficult about this case is that these lengthy doctrinal expositions are embedded in the narrative and presented as the actual words of prophets who appear elsewhere in text which seems to be original. When you suggest an expansion of at most a few verses to clarify the content of an existing original discourse, or see 19th C experience creep into the wording (such as the sounds of a revival meeting in the description of King Benjamin’s address or anti-masonic rhetoric in descriptions of the secret combinations), these can be comfortably (I think) ascribed to an inspired effort to make the ancient text fully comprehensible to a contemporary audience using the words and experiences available to the translator. However, it seems to me that you can not use the needs of translation to explain the insertion into the narrative of lengthy expositions that have absolutely nothing to do with anything that the BoM prophets were writing or thinking or preaching about.

    Now it is possible to argue that JS was inspired to make these lengthy insertions because these are doctrinal issues which were in JS’s mind and which needed to be addressed in modern times. I believe that is your position. I would like to suggest an alternative view which is a little “tighter” although still expansionist:

    Lehi and Nephi in fact received messianic visions which were more explicit than anything we have in the OT. These visions may have been expanded or clarified by JS and/or (in my opinion) Mormon but there was something explicit and original in the core messianic vision which obviously dominates Nephi’s teaching throughout 1 and 2 Nephi. Clearly the subsequent pre-Christian text of the BoM suggests that there was a strong surviving tradition of messianic expectation among the Nephites. There also seem to be two factors which would differentiate this Nephite tradition from messianic expectations among the Jews:

    (1) It may have originated with a more explicit information about Christ as a result of Lehi and Nephi’s visions, and
    (2) Despite their troubles with the Lamanites, the Nephites clearly did not suffer political troubles and oppression as severe as those of the Jews. Rather the challenges to the Nephite messianic tradition were more of a doctrinal nature. Nephite messianism orbited round responding to challenges to belief rather than becoming the focus of hopes for national political salvation.

    As a result of the foregoing factors, is it not possible that some of the issues which you see as Calvinist or Arminian could have arisen in Nephite society before Christ? Of course, JS’s exposition of them could have been expanded due to the influence of European Christianity on his worldview. However, I am suggesting that in places like Mosiah 13-16 and Alma 42 that it is not impossible to imagine that these issues might have arisen among the Nephites even if they did not arise among the Jews and that therefore JS was expanding on some original Nephite prophet’s throughts rather than inserting whole commentaries which are wholly unrelated to the original text.

  156. JWL: I have already granted that Alma 42 is not necessarily an expansion. However, it seems to me that Mosiah 13-16 rather clearly is. The discussion in Mosiah 13-16 incorporates the KJV of Isaiah 53 and then gives commentary some of which is dependent on the peculiar phrasing and translation of the KJV version of that chapter. The discussion is rather clearly influenced by Christian discussion of God’s unity and the relation of the Father to the Son. However, as I stated in the article I don’t believe that JS was aware that the revelation as received constituted his midrash. Rather, he thought it through and when he knew it was right that constituted the translation (and it is possible that the seer stone then reflected the that translation). So there is no clear aporia as to where Joseph begins and Mormon’s editing or Abiniadi’s speech ends. That is what the creative synthesis view of revelation is about.

    The problem with your view is explaining why subsequent discussions of messianic expectation are not nearly as detailed as Nephi’s or Abiniadi’s. Why quote the rather vague prophecies of Zenos, Zenock and Nahum if you have the very clear and explicit statements of Nephi and Abinadi already within your scriptural record? It simply makes no sense to assume that these very clear revelations were given and then they became less clear as time went on. It seems much more reasonable to see the incredibly detailed explanations of Christ’s mortality and death and resurrection in 2 Nephi and Mosiah 13-16 as expansions. Consider by contrast the fact that even Christ’s disciples didn’t understand his statements about the resurrection until after it occurred and they were surprised by it even after Jesus explained it at length and rather clearly (if the gospels are to be believed).

  157. Blake,

    Do we really know how widely used the small plates of Nephi were among the populace? We learn later in the BoM that the prophecy of the destruction of the Nephites was not to be revealed to the general population. I think the same would hold true for the small plates of Nephi which contained said prophecy. The prophecies of Zenos, Zenock, and Isaiah were probably on the brass plates which, no doubt, would have been more accessible to the people. So, when we read the words of Zenos or Zenock it is when Alma is preaching to the general public–not so with the prophecies of Nephi.

    As for abinadi, well, can he not unfold the prophecies of Isaiah by virtue of the spirit of prophecy? And, cannot JS expand that unfolding to make it that much more accessible to his own generation?

  158. — From #166
    With regards to the tower of Babel, I think Ether provides the same out. It doesn’t say how the languages were corrupted nor what that means. They left before that happened.

    Well, to be totally accurate they left as it happened, as although they successfully petitioned the Lord to avoid the confounding of their language, they were still part of the scattering that is the other part of the Babel story.

    Nevertheless, you are right that it’s not entirely clear, especially as the last verse of Ether 1 suggests that there is some sort of significant passage of time occuring through the chapter. What Ether makes clear though is that *something* happened at Babel that involved language, which the brother of Jared specifically prayed for protection from. I suppose the limited worldview applicable to the flood could also apply here.

  159. Interesting enough, I have heard that a possible explanation for the Tower of Babel was the formation of the first real Cosmopolitan city. The book of Ether supports this notion as the only way to survive the “language confusion” was to leave. It might even be that the confusion was not about language, as much as about identity. The people of God were quickly becoming the people of the World, and losing their distinctness. The system colapsed because immigration happened too fast, causing social chaos. The loss of the Zaugarnaut could have been symbolic of the loss of order.

  160. But, to the issue at hand. I think that the biggest problem I have in the expansionist ideas happens to be a lack of respect for the possibilities of Revelation. Who are we to say what God is able to communicate to His prophets? Now, I have not completely rejected your ideas, as it is clear to me that God will communicate in accordance with what his prophets know and understand. Modern Education is built on the idea that you learn best from what you already know. On the other hand, the weakness of this is demonstrated by your idea of expansionism. At what point is parallelism just another name for seeing patterns out of familiar motifs? A biologist might see a fascinating animal of nature where a hunter sees lunch.

    That is, I believe, one of the dangers of intellectualizing the Gospel. And, I believe, it is one reason Joseph Smith or even Saul and David’s prophet Samuel was chosen at a young age. For instance, I don’t see Calvanism or Ansolm in the Book of Mormon mostly because I am not familiar with them. However, what I do see is Truth and Spirit in the arguments. That another group came up with similar solutions to understanding the Atonement only says to me that there is nothing original under the Heavens. If other “thoughts on the Atonement” were to show up in the Book of Mormon, than surely you would be questioning why they are in there.

  161. David Persuitte’s book “Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon” contains many interesting conjectures regarding inspiration and source material for the Book of Mormon. Besides Ara Norwood’s perfunctory review in FARMS, have any of you critiqued his book?

  162. I quite like the expansion theory, and I’m also pleased to see recognition of the need to update it in light of further research. I remember sitting with Blake at a panel discussion of Mark Thomas’ Digging in Cumorah, and most of the people packed into the room signified that they believed it.

    On the other hand, I do think that Margaret Barker’s work changes everything, particularly with respect to the idea that the Book of Mormon is too Christian before Christ. On this topic, I have “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament” in FR 16:2. And I personally believe that the prophesy in 1 Nephi 13 points directly to her work.

    With respect to Isaiah, I notice that while Margaret has enlightening chapters on First Isaiah, Second Isaiah, and Third Isaiah in The Older Testament (which is being reprinted any day now), just a few years ago she wrote “Hezekiah’s Boil” (available online via a google) which sees Isaiah 53 as a direct response to Hezekiah’s coming down with the plague, and makes that chapter contemporary with First Isaiah, and therefore available to Abinadi via the Brass Plates. I expect Friday afternoon in Washington D.C. in the Library of Congress to be exceedingly interesting.

    Kevin Christensen
    Bethel Park, PA

  163. Following up Jack’s point in #169 and Kevin’s #174, Words of Mormon v. 3 leaves the impression that the small plates were unknown even to Mormon until he was researching the archives (“… I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates …”) and that he did not himself expect to find such explicit prophecies of Christ (v. 4: “And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled …”). Again, I am not arguing that 2 Nephi is without expansions, just that Nephi may have received a more explicit messianic vision than found in the contemporary OT, some of which was preserved in oral tradition, but the written detailed record of which was buried in the scribal archives over the centuries until Mormon pulled it out. Based on Words of Mormon, it would seem that there was only one copy of the small plates.

    I think it is also reasonable to assume that much of Nephite religion was passed on orally. Given Nephi’s (frankly) wordy and repetitive preachiness, it does not seem strange to me that a primarily oral tradition would focus more on shorter texts like Zenock or Zenos, especially since they would have the extra prestige of being obviously older having come over from the mysterious ancient land of the fathers. If Nephi’s vision was preserved on a single written record in the possession of a hereditary scribal line of men who (the record tells us) were not always diligent, it would not be surprising that details of his teachings would not be well-known. Finally, we should note that the primary source for much of the pre-Christian BoM, the Almas, were not in the hereditary scribal line and may not have had ready access to all of the written records to learn of Nephi’s detailed prophecies. (That last sentence is tentative, I don’t have time now to check references on that.)

    In contrast, of course, Alma did have ready access to Abinadi’s discourse, the account of which could only have come from him. However, in preaching one uses the sources that the audience would accept as most authoritative. Even if Abinadi’s teaching was more explicit, a preacher would still have had good reason instead refer to the venerable ancient prophecies rather than Abinadi since the old prophecies would still have carried more weight with the audience than the relatively recent Abinadi. I would analogize to the 19th C LDS treatment of the BoM. Even though the BoM may have been clearer on many points, 19th C LDS speakers still tended to quote far more from the Bible. Like the Bible to a 19th C audience, Zenos and Zenock may well have been both more familiar and more authoritative (assuming they were preserved in widely accessible oral tradition) to a Nephite audience.

    Again, that does not argue that Abinadi’s speech was not without expansions. If I understand correctly, you are NOT arguing that Abindai never gave any speech at all. To argue that Abinadi never gave any speech would create a huge narrative problem since we would not then have any reason for the conversion of Alma and the enormous consequences to the history that follow from that. However, you are arguing that a large part of the speech is expansion. I understand that you do not like to try to tease out aporia, but I think it is a fair question to ask what Abinadi did in fact talk about in the original, since that was so powerful that it converted Alma with enormous subsequent consequences for the history.

  164. It’s also possible that Alma expanded Abinadi’s discourse simply by nature of memory and the writing process. See my post here.

  165. I think I understand a little better now what Blake was getting at with Abinadi’s sermon. I like what JWL has to say about it, plus I would add that we shouldn’t forget that the BoM is a compilation of various texts pulled together and abridged to Mormon’s liking. It’s piece-meal! He comes upon the words of Abinadi and says, ah! We’ll just have to throw this whole thing in as it is–this is great stuff!

    There’s a wacky unevenness in the BoM with regard to the narration. Some things are lumped in en total while others are watered down. And, who knows just how watered down some of the text may be. It could be that we’re reading a second or third generation abridgement in some cases.

    At any rate, I think it’s possible that Mormon felt that those doctrinal elements found in Abinadi’s sermon were represented well enough for his own purposes as the editor of the text without having to pull in more from other sources in order to make is point.

  166. Alas, these are the kinds of threads that SHOULD be setting the record. As such it’s still quite a healthy thread.

  167. JWL: I appreciate the care with which you have considered the issues. I suggested some of the same possibilies in the 1987 article — but it seems fairly clear that the doctrine taught publicly by Amulek in Alma 34, with its incredibly explicit discussion of Christian atonement, is very different in its presupposition of knowledge possessed by the audience than Alma assumes in his discourse in Alma 33. Indeed, it is hard to see Alma 34 as anything but a fully developed Christian soteriology. They are speaking to the very same audience — and one assumes that his audience has a complete knowledge of Christian doctrine and the other virtually none! What you suggest is certainly logically possible. It seems to me that the small plates were not ciruculated and were not accepted as scripture by Nephites or Mulekites (and certainly not the Lamanites), although the contents of the plates of brass had to be considered as widely known and accepted “scripture”, it seems to me; otherwise, the authoritative citation to Zenos, Zenock and Moses in Alma 33 makes no sense. Further, just what was on the plates of brass is unsure, but it is certain that it was not simply the Pentateuch as we know it. The paucity of citations to Deuteronomy seems instructive in this regard to me. Further, it is fairly clear that the base text for Abinadi’s speech in Mosiah 16 is the KJV Isaiah 53 (and therefore quite likely a midrashic expansion on a base text).

  168. Blake, is it possible that Amulek knew his audience better (or, perhaps, worse)? As Amulek states at the beginning of Ch. 34, “My brethren, I think that it is impossible that ye should be ignorant of the things which have been spoken concerning the coming of Christ, who is taught by us to be the Son of God; yea, I know that these things were taught unto you bountifully before your dissension from among us.” Alma only meets Amulek in Chapter 8, so the “us” cannot refer to a group common to Alma and Amulek.

  169. “They are speaking to the very same audience – and one assumes that his audience has a complete knowledge of Christian doctrine and the other virtually none!”

    I think we see this kind of disparity in general conference all the time.

    I don’t think Alma assumes that his audience is ignorant of those things. In fact he assumes that some of them have read the scriptures and, therefore, must be aware of the words of Zenos and Zenock. Alma 32 and 33 come across (to me) as an appeal for the audience to return to what they once knew. I’ve been a member of the church for a long time and I still find Alma 32 and 33 to be rich with meaning. As a matter of fact, I’m finding as I plod along through the mundane in life that those chapters are quite often much more useful to me than the Alma 34’s, or the 2Ne 2’s, or the Moroni 10’s, or what have you.

    In some ways Amulek’s words are more foundational than Alma’s. Amulek’s tend to have an aesthetic distance because of his (shall I say) laying out the “plot” of the gospel, as it were. Whereas Alma’s seem to be directed more toward the immediate circumstances of the individuals to whom he is speaking–not to say that Amulek is completely detatched. It’s just that there are times when we need to be reaquainted with the big picture, and times when we need very specific direction.

    The Atonement is certainly a fascinating subject, one that I don’t pretend to understand very well. But even so, regardless of my limited undertanding of it, it is working in my life. And therefore, what I probably need more right now than an understanind of the mechanics of the atonement is something that will help me be a better christian. Something like, learning to recognize the Spirit a little better, even if it’s only in how it directs me to treat my children when I’m trying to get them out the door in the morning for school.

    Well that’s the long way around the block in trying to suggest that both were appropriate for the same audience.

  170. Blake —

    I think my principal point is that the expansion theory does not need to argue that the Nephite prophets could not have had more explicit messianic revelations than currently found in the OT. (I know that’s an awkward double negative but you read both philosphical and legal writers so I know you follow it.) The expansion theory needs only to contend is that In interpreting those messianic teachings into our current modern English BoM, Joseph used his full worldview and understanding (as well as the Bible translation he knew) to express those concepts in an inspried way which incorporated his 19th C knowledge of Christ as well as what was revealed to the Nephite prophets. This explains the modernisms in the text while still allowing that the original Nephite prophets were also inspired.

  171. JWL: You are right on point when you say that the expansion theory doesn’t have to take any position at all on what exactly all of the expansions are or how extensive. It is really a matter of evidence. I believe that the Nephites had to have had a much more complete revelation, especially related to messianism and the advent of Christ (since I believe that Israel had virtually none).

  172. How does the expansion theory account for or explain the rapid population growth that occurs in the Book of Mormon? Did Lehi and his family assimilate with other indigenous people but fail to record that occurrence (or those occurrences) on the plates? Did Joseph add characters to expand the message?

  173. Paul: There are at least two compelling possibilities. I argue in the next issue of Sunstone that there were indeed indigenous others that are rather clearly pointed out in the text. They assimilated. In addition, it is widely known that in ancient literature, obht secular and relgious, population numbers (of armies especially) are vastly overstated for rhetorical purposes. It appears to me to be the case in the Book of Mormon as well (I also discuss that in the Sunstone article).

  174. Interesting. I like both of those explanations and have, I think, subconsciously allowed for overstatement and assimilation since beginning to read the Book of Mormon with a critical but not disbelieving eye.

  175. Paul — Blake’s article will certainly be excellent and thorough. Another article discussing the presence of other populations with whom the Lehites integrated is Matthew Roper’s in the 2003 FARMS Review (pp.91-128) available at http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=review&id=505 (I still don’t know how to make links in these things).

    Blake — Not to leave Paul hanging, do you have a good reference for his inquiry in #107 above about Joseph’s use of his seerstone for most of the translation? I know I have just read a recent article that goes over that in some detail but have looked and looked and can not find it nor remember where I read it.

    Finally, w/r/t messianism in Israel of the OT (your comment #185), do have any views on the Margaret Barker material that Kevin Christensen discusses in the article linked at #174 and elsewhere? Or is the jury still out on her work?

  176. JWL: In the final section of my 1987 Expansion article I give a number of sources regarding JS’s use of the seerstone and I discuss it at some length there.

    My view is that Margaret Barker is hanging weighty conclusions on very thin threads.

  177. Maybe this thread is dead by now, but I just caught up and wanted to pursue some of the ideas from 156. In #156, Blake tries to sustain his “island” view in the face of the D&C by discounting the D&C in favor of his peculiar interpretation of Jacob’s statement. He gives five arguments, as follows:

    First, the D&C isn’t the Book of Mormon. Apparently this argument is based on the notion that the D&C could be in error on this issue, contrary to Blake’s interpretation of Jacob’s ambiguous statement. Given that the two are closely entwined (each refers to the other, has a common author, from common source of revelation), it seems illogical to dismiss the D&C like this. Is Blake suggesting that the analysis should be limited to what the BofM says, to the exclusion of what the D&C says? If so, this approach is apparently limited to geography because he clearly relies on the D&C in his study of LDS philosophy. Why would there be a distinction between these topics?

    Second, Blake suggests that, when D&C 10 was received, JS mistakenly believed that all of North and South America was the promised land spoken of in the BofM.

    I don’t know what Blake’s belief is based on, either as to JS being mistaken and as to JS believing North and South America was the promised land. I don’t know of any reference supporting the idea that JS believed that North and South America was the promised BoM land. Nor can I figure out what Blake means when he says (in #39) that there was no evidence that JS claimed to know where the BofM events took place.

    It seems clear that JS consistently believed the Book of Mormon people inhabited North America, from the reference to the “plains of the Nephites” through the locating of the New Jerusalem in Jackson County. As late as 1844, Joseph announced that he had received a revelation declaring that the whole of America, from north to south (the context shows he was referring only to N America), was Zion, and that the mountain of the Lord would be in the center of the land. JS even said that “we learn from the Book of Mormon the very identical continent and spot of land upon which the New Jerusalem is to stand,” quoting Christ who made the statement that he was giving the people “this land” that would be the New Jerusalem. Since the New Jerusalem is Jackson County, what basis would there be for concluding that JS didn’t at least believe what he said about where the Nephites lived?

    Third, it is consistent with D&C 10 that other nations possessed the land at the time the Lehites arrived, just that the Lehites didn’t know about them. Verse 49 could be taken as either present or future tense. The “this land” could easily refer to an area that included more than what the Lehites themselves inhabited, that, for all they knew, was possessed by other people. This point also addresses Blake’s fourth argument.

    Fifth, I agree with Blake that it does seem clear that the Lehites never spoke in terms of continents. They spoke of “this land,” a term which is admittedly ambiguous enough to refer to a small or large area. (In Genesis, the term was used once to refer to the land from the river of Egypt unto the river Euphrates, but generally it was used to refer to Israel.) However, I don’t find it plausible to think that Christ was speaking to people in Guatemala when he referred to Jackson County as “this land.”

    Nothing in D&C 10 seems to vary from JS’s consistent statements about the promised land of the Nephites and the New Jerusalem.

    The dilemma, of course, is that Jackson County doesn’t seem to fit the geographical descriptions in the BofM. But I don’t think that justifies seeking (and inventing) ambiguity when JS was clear about what he believed. Nor do I find it necessary or even useful to scurry about, searching for a topology that fits what we think the BofM describes.

    #165 points out that the expansion theory could as easily have affected descriptions of geography as doctrinal expositions. To the degree that the BofM descriptions are inconsistent with the central U.S., one wonders whether JS’s subsequent identification of the location of the New Jerusalem and the plains of the Nephites represented a greater understanding than he had when he translated the BofM (despite his mother’s description of JS’s intimate knowledge of the Nephites).

  178. Jonathan: JS believed at some times that North America was the land referred to in the Book of Mormon. If that is what the BofM means then it cannot be accepted as authentic. First, DNA evidence shows that if there were Semites in the New World prior to Columbus, they had to be assimilated into an existing population of peoples who originated from Asia (probably around 20,000 B.C.). Second, the notion that “this land” means North America won’t fit the Book of Mormon internal geography as you admit. Third, if you want to know what the Book of Mormon says, read it and don’t assume that the D&C can give a guide to what the Book of Mormon says. All of the events recounted in the BofM took place in a land about the size of Palestine if we take it at its own word. Fourth, it is clear that JS believed that North America was incuded in the BofM geographic area based on events in 1834 when he wrote a letter to Emma about traversing the plains of the Nephites on the march of Zion’s Camp. Fifth, the D&C reflects this inaccurate assumption if it is addressing the same thing as the Book of Mormon — but it isn’t. Sixth, I allow that Jacob could be mistaken based on his limited geographic knowlege. From where he was standing it may have appeared that the Nephites were surrounded by water but in fact they weren’t — that is possible. What is certain is that Jacob says that he is “on an isle of the sea” and he knew more about where he was than we do. It seems to me that when D&C 10 refers to “this land” it means merely that the Nephites were in the New World just as Joseph was; it doesn’t mean that they were in the same state, region, country or continent (since the Nephites didn’t have any of these geographical concepts). So it is speaking generically and generally and not attempting to pin-point geographic location of Book of Mormon events any more particular than the Nephites were in the New World — as I read it.

  179. “…if you want to know what the Book of Mormon says, read it and don’t assume that the D&C can give a guide to what the Book of Mormon says.”

    Why not? Why is it that modern scripture can clarify earlier texts doctrinally but not geographically? What of the Gospels? Can one not shed light on the others in terms of both doctrine and logistics?

  180. Jack: The reason to read the Book of Mormon instead of the D&C about where the Nephites were was that Joseph Smith made assumptions about who the Lamanites were and these assumptions are also assumed in the revelations he received (e.g., D&C 10 where preaching to any American Indian is preaching to a Lamanite). All scripture must read in light of a hermeneutic that is aware of the horizons that existed for the prophet writing in his culture and time. When JS comments on the Bible we get revelations as it is processed through JS’s conceptural categories. The Book of Mormon is also processed through JS’s conceptural categories and so may betray some of the same assumptions — but it seems to me to not make the same assumption at all. Read my Sunstone article for further argument.

  181. W-w-w-wait a minute!

    I certainly agree that when we approach the scriptures we’ll have a much better chance of understanding the intended message if we have some understanding of the culture to which, and out of which, it is written. That said, don’t you think there’s room for a sort of “stratified” (for lack of a better term) hermenuetic that may be applied to the complete canon of scripture? For example (and I’m sure that this is nothing you haven’t thought of before), what about the developement of the doctrine of salvation across the scriptural spectrum? Do we assume that they had it completely wrong in the Old Testament? No! We see it as an unfolding of doctrine. Granted, there is always the risk of assuming too much, but on the other hand I think we may run the risk of locking ourselves in a subset of interpretation which otherwise might be enlarged upon by not viewing it in light of subsequent inspired commentary.

  182. Regardin Margaret Barker “hanging heavy weights on slender threads’–that is I recall how B.H. Roberts characterized Higher Criticism. But if you ravel together lots of threads before hanging weights, it’s more appropriate to call it a rope and more reasonable to trust it. I’m impressed, which of course may mean nothing. And I find that her work ravels together astonishingly well with what we have in the Book of Mormon, and with Jeremiah.

    At the Joseph Smith Conference, Margaret Barker spoke directly on the topic that her 2003 BYU Devotional Address only suggested. (She gave me a printout of her talk, so all of the following are direct quotes from a manuscript in my possession. She pointed out that the first footnote is to my work in progress on Jeremiah.)

    “Do the revelations to Joseph Smith fit in thtat context, the reign of King Zedekiah, who is mentioned in the beginning of the First Book of Nephi?” She commented “If prophets revealed the past as well as the future, the revelation of history to Joseph Smith is not out of character.” “Enoch traditions could have been very important in 600 BCE, just as the revelation to Joseph Smith implies.” “Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose _white fruit_ made one happy, and the terpretation that the Virgin of Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh. This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life, and then Mary and her Son on hearth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.” (Here she footnotes Daniel Peterson’s Nephi and His Asherah in JBMS 9.2) Later she discusses the Narrative of Zosimus and footnotes John W. Welch’s paper, and then talks about The Great Angel’s thesis and reception, and notes that “The older religion in Israel would have taught about the Messiah, and so finding Christ in the Old Testament is exactly what we should expect, but something obscurred by incorrect reading of the scriptures. This is, I suggest, one aspect of the restoration of “the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them” (1 Nephi 13:40).”

    Amazing. The applause was loud and long, and in my opinion, very well deserved. It’s a brave and marvelous thing for her to do.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  183. Kevin: How loud the applause was by a bunch of LDS is beside the point! Barker’s arguments have not been well received by other scholars. Her arguments are flimsy in my view and based on begging the questions constantly. I am quite sure that there is not a large acceptance of her views among scholars because she is long on assertion and short on evidence. The fact the LDS may be enthusiastic because it supports our preconceived idea of what the evidence should say (as I believe it does for her as well), we still need sound evidence — and I don’t see much that she offers.

  184. It is not as if we had some “objective scholarship” to make a comparison with what Margaret Barker is doing. I enjoyed her talk very much. My impression from the little reading I have done about the history and literature of that era is that there is a lot of “scholarship by consensis” going on, scholars applauding each other because they share the same “world view.”. I think those she is challenging are also “long on assertion and short on evidence” and are “enthusiastic because [their interpretations] supports [their own] preconceived idea of what the evidence should say. To me, she is just as credible (if not more so) than most of the others writing in that field.

  185. [Blake writes:] How loud the applause was by a bunch of LDS is beside the point! Barker’s arguments have not been well received by other scholars.

    [Kevin C.] My observation about the applause was just that. Like my observation that most of the people in the room at the Sunstone panel on Digging in Cumorah accepted your Expansion Theory. An observation. Not a point, not an argument. So there is no need to refute or contest it.

    To say Barker’s “arguments have not been well received by other scholars” is much like saying “have any of the rulers or of the scribes believed on him?” or “most scholars dismiss Joseph Smith’s religious claims.” But I’m personally aware of many scholars who have received Barker’s works enthusiastically, just as most LDS scholars, almost by definition, accept Joseph’s claims, and there are many non-LDS scholars who respect them. A group of Cambridge scholars a few years back asked Margaret to head up a study of the Temple roots of Christian liturgy. In 1999 she was president elect of the Society for Old Testament Study. She gets invited for a serious of lectures at Heythrop College at the University of London, her talks there get published by an academic press. She was invited to write on Isaiah for the Eerdman’s BIble Commentary. She gets published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. I’m also aware of her critics. But we both know it’s not the numbers that matter either way. How many of the scholars who you might cite as critical of her views would turn and publicly affirm your views on God, Christ, Joseph Smith and the Restoration, and the translation of the Book of Mormon? Or is it not fair to ask for that kind of consistency in citing Authority?

    [Blake] “Her arguments are flimsy in my view and based on begging the questions constantly.”

    [Kevin C.] I wonder if we are reading the same arguments. Which of her works have you read? And how about providing a specific example or two to illustrate, say from “Text and Context”, an important essay, in my view very significant for the LDS, and easily accessible on the web.

    I think one of her most interesting arguments is that there is no Day of Atonement in the list of festivals in Deuteronomy. And lo, I observe that there is no Day of Atonement in Deuteronomy. She says that Deut. 32:8-9 is different from the MT in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint, and lo, so it is. No question begging there. Where then? Does her overall approach involve self referentiality? All approaches do. I don’t have a problem with that. I know that Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe dismiss all LDS apologetics as “begging the question,” whereas any true, rational, enlightened investigator would start from the assumption that there is no God, and would employ objective critical tools designed to verify just that proposition. They refuse to believe in a God who will not compel their belief. I’ll settle for being invited to believe, and to find cause to believe with respect to the problems that are for me (if no one else), most significant.

    [Blake:] I am quite sure that there is not a large acceptance of her views among scholars because she is long on assertion and short on evidence.

    [Kevin C.] I trust that evidence of this assertion will be forthcoming, and that it will be more substantial than that offered by Paul Owens in TNMC or by Terrence Szinc in FR 16.2. A couple of years ago I got am email from a BYU professor explaining that Barker’s views of Wisdom could not be correct, and he cited von Rad to back up his arguments. He managed to persuade me only that he had not read The Older Testament, and Barker’s chapter on Wisdom which had already dealt with von Rad’s view and arguments, as well as those of Whybray, and others. Had I not seen the evidence she had presented, I would likely have been both persuaded by the arguments and overawed by the authority of the Tenured Person. But I had partaken of the tree of knowledge in advance, and saw the opposition in all those things.

    My own view is that what makes her interesting is her individual attempt to “redraw the landscape of Biblical scholarship.” She is offering a new paradigm, and granted that one useful definition of a paradigm is that it is a ‘group licensed way of seeing’ I find that I am neither surprised nor dismayed that others such as Szinc or Owens, operating in other paradigms, do not see things the same way. What intrigues me are the kinds of things I see from inside her paradigm that no one else seems to see. Richard Elliot Friedman, for example, claimed in Who Wrote the Bible? that Jeremiah agreed with Deuteronomy on every major point. I checked and found that while Jeremiah appears to cite Deuteronomy some 200 times, he also contradicts Deuteronomy on issues key to Barker’s view of the reform. Friedman is a good scholar, but his approach does not define those particular points as “major.” To me, they have become so. I checked Marvin Sweeny’s recent King Josiah of Judah: Lost Messiah of Israel, a very good book by a careful, conventional scholar. He has read and dissected everything in the Bible using his own tools and approaches, but it never occurs to him to ask why there is no Day of Atonement in Deuteronomy, or to consider the implications of 1st Enoch or other non-canonical texts in considering the Reform. He does not, as Margaret does, notice the apparent critique of the returning exiles in the 3 Isaiah. So Margaret asks questions that he does not, considers evidences that he does not, and sees things he does not. I read Sweeny as a check on Barker’s view, but what he sees only helps me in my exploration of her views.

    [Blake] The fact the LDS may be enthusiastic because it supports our preconceived idea of what the evidence should say (as I believe it does for her as well), we still need sound evidence – and I don’t see much that she offers.

    [Kevin C.] This has not been my experience, nor is it what she herself reports. Do you honestly think that she imagined that her work would be relevant to Book of Mormon study, or that over thirty years of reading the Hebrew and Greek Bibles in many versions in the originals, the Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha, the Aramaic Targums, the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, Josephus, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic texts, and four centuries of the Early Christian Fathers, not to mention thousands of secondary works, would have led her to publicly say that the Book of Mormon appears to accurately depict conditions in Jerusalem 600 BCE and that it accurately prophesies and demonstrates the restoration of plain and precious doctrines from antiquity? The material behind The Great Angel was clearly not what she had been taught to expect–rather, her readings overwhelmed her expectations–and left to herself, she would have never considered the Book of Mormon.

    Moreover, if you look at the other essays in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, you will see a definite tension in the views of Josiah in comparing her essay and mine to the rest. Szinc’s review of her “What King Josiah Reformed” in FR 16.2 clearly does not show enthusiasm, and he does not find his preconceived LDS ideas confirmed in her work. But just as clearly, in my view, he is the one hanging heavy weights on slender threads. He uses the initial questions that naturally arise from an LDS background in facing her approaches, but he uses them to close doors. When I ran into the same conflict and questions years ago, and I went through the doors and explored things he didn’t even consider. I’m not better a better scholar than Szinc by any measure. On this topic, I just looked where he didn’t.

    She is clearly not just telling us what we expected to hear, and she clearly did not expect to find in the Book of Mormon what she has found.

    Well, we are all going to differ on what constitutes sound evidence. I’m enthusiastic with respect to Sorenson and Gardner and Clark on the the Book of Mormon, and you, apparently are not. There is nothing we can do about that but accept each other as doing the best we can according to our lights. Like Joseph Smith says, I want the liberty to believe as I please, and I know you do as well. Don’t think that I don’t appreciate your light (I do), but I think that on this topic, we are not likely to agree. That’s Kuhn’s mechanisms for “distribution of risks” in a community in action..

    It’s so very odd to be dismissed by Dan Vogel (in Sunstone) and Blake Ostler in the same month. I expect it from Vogel, but this, I admit, surprises me. But I do find some compensation in knowing Margaret.


    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburg, PA

  186. Divine Foreknowledge, the Small Plates, and the Expansion Theory

    Hi Blake!

    I have been wondering for a while how you reconcile the replacement of the “lost 116 pages” with your views on divine foreknowledge.

    If God doesn’t possess precise foreknowledge of what will happen, why did the Book of Mormon plates providentially contain a replacement for the lost manuscript? To know that this replacement text would be needed, God would have needed to foreknow the free choices of Martin Harris, Lucy Harris, Joseph Smith, and (if it wasn’t Lucy) the thief or thieves who took the manuscript. It could be argued – I suppose – that God foresaw the *possibility* of the theft and provided a potential replacement text as a contingency plan. But this is problematic. The number of possible futures at the time of the compiling of the plates was vast beyond comprehension. That there would be such an individual as Martin Harris, that he would live near Palmyra, that he would marry Lucy Harris, that he would act as Joseph Smith’s scribe, that Joseph would be living away from Palmyra at that time, that Lucy Harris would insist on evidence that Martin wasn’t merely throwing himself into a fool investment while away in Harmony…all these represent only one constellation of choices out of a universe of possibilities. Surely there were a great many things that could have gone awry during the translation of the Book of Mormon. Did the plates contain a solution to *each*?

    Also, the Small Plates cover the period of the lost manuscript quite neatly. The Words of Mormon ends precisely where the retained manuscript picks up. The fit is almost uncanny. Royal Skousen has found that our present Mosiah 1 was actually Mosiah III in the earliest manuscript, indicating that the first two chapters of Mosiah were part of the lost manuscript. And Skousen has also found that the chapters of the original text usually marked divisions between distinct narratives. Notably, The Words of Mormon summarizes two narratives of conflict during the reign of King Benjamin, one military (13-14), the other spiritual (15-18):

    12 And now, concerning this king Benjamin—he had somewhat of contentions among his own people.

    13 And it came to pass also that the armies of the Lamanites came down out of the land of Nephi, to battle against his people. But behold, king Benjamin gathered together his armies, and he did stand against them; and he did fight with the strength of his own arm, with the sword of Laban.

    14 And in the strength of the Lord they did contend against their enemies, until they had slain many thousands of the Lamanites. And it came to pass that they did contend against the Lamanites until they had driven them out of all the lands of their inheritance.

    15 And it came to pass that after there had been false Christs, and their mouths had been shut, and they punished according to their crimes;

    16 And after there had been false prophets, and false preachers and teachers among the people, and all these having been punished according to their crimes; and after there having been much contention and many dissensions away unto the Lamanites, behold, it came to pass that king Benjamin, with the assistance of the holy prophets who were among his people—

    17 For behold, king Benjamin was a holy man, and he did reign over his people in righteousness; and there were many holy men in the land, and they did speak the word of God with power and with authority; and they did use much sharpness because of the stiffneckedness of the people—

    18 Wherefore, with the help of these, king Benjamin, by laboring with all the might of his body and the faculty of his whole soul, and also the prophets, did once more establish peace in the land.

    Mosiah “1” (III) then picks up the narrative with “And now there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla, among all the people who belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days.”

    It appears that the two missing narratives at the beginning of Mosiah are those summarized by Mormon, and that the extant text picks up at precisely the spot where the Small Plates replacement text leaves off.

    To prepare so perfectly for the loss of the “116 pages,” God would have had to tailor the contingency-plan “Small Plates” precisely to a very specific set of decisions that *might* be made millennia later. But what if the manuscript theft had occurred a month sooner? a month later? two months later?… Did the plates contain a replacement text tailored to *every* possible point at which the manuscript could have been lost??

    Here, I think the expansion theory might have something interesting – perhaps even shocking – to offer. Assuming the basic structure of the narrative to be ancient, it is entirely possible, and, I think, far more probable on a non-absolute view of foreknowledge, that the Small Plates, either in toto or in part, are a modern expansion.

    “Mormon” wrote The Words of Mormon *after* having abridged the plates of Nephi and immediately before delivering the plates to his son Moroni (WoM 1:1-3). He then ‘finished his record’ on them, stating that he did so for a wise purpose known to the Spirit, but, it is implied, not to himself (1:7).

    And how does “Mormon” choose to close the plates just before delivering them to Moroni? Bizarrely…with stories of King Benjamin that would later be lost in the “116 pages”!

    Mormon appears to know precisely what he implies he does *not* know – the providential purpose of his inclusion of the Small Plates in his own compilation and of his completing his own record on them – to replace the exact text stolen from Joseph Smith in June of 1828. Mormon’s behavior is otherwise incomprehensible.

    Other odd features of the Small Plates are also readily explicable on an “expansion” model. For instance, if the text from Enos through Words of Mormon were a modern expansion created to fill the gap between a real ancient record ending at Jacob 7 and another beginning at Mosiah III, this would explain its brevity and lack of detail. The expansion theory could also account for Nephi protesting rather too much that he does not know why God instructed him to make these additional plates. The Book of Mormon would then be either a substantially ancient record with a modern composition replacing its lost portion, or two ancient records connected with a modern “bridge” – a much more interesting and complex work than has been thought.

    But if a sizeable section of the Small Plates, or even the whole text, is modern in composition, this raises the question of whether the same might be true of the remainder of the book as well.

    In any case, it seems to me that for anyone accepting the limited nature of God’s foreknowledge, the replacement of the “116 pages” with the Small Plates creates an enigma: How does this putatively ancient text so perfectly and knowingly address a modern problem?


    Don Bradley

  187. Brant A. Gardner talks about looking at the BoM’s translation in terms of layers. i.e., a nineteenth century production layer vs. an event structure layer of sorts. In other words, there may be modernized vocabulary employed that would seem to convey a familiar meaning to those who are part of the concurrent culture (the one that is doing the translating). But upon looking deeper, one may find that the text’s event structure causes the meaning of the vocabulary to be “out of sync” with current meanings of said vocabulary. I thought it was interesting–a case for the Book of Mormon’s historicity!

    Here’s the link to his paper:


  188. Don: ow, I just saw your post these many months later. I consider the Small Plates and God’s provision of an alternative basis of translation as easily explainable as merely Plan B when Plan A didn’t pan out. God probably has an innumerable list of contingency plans — and that is why I call my theory “contingent omniscience.” Interesting view that the entirety of the Small Plates are an expansion. Well, it could be. Yet I still find convincing evidence of the antiquity of the BofM in 2 Ne. 9-11 and especially in 1 Ne. 1. Sorry for the late response.

  189. “The Book of Mormon cannot be a “literal translation” or JS’s changes don’t make sense.”

    why? even a literal translation can be changed, especially when the subject matter is understood differently. i’m pretty sure that those with translation experience understand this.

  190. This has been bugging me for a while, and it came up in a discussion with Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks ago over here on by common consent.

    So, even though this discussion long since done, and nobody will ever read this comment again, I’ve (finally) taken the time to go back and read Sorenson’s chapter that Blake cites in support of his point 1 above, which says this:

    1) Those who write about the Book of Mormon in its ancient American setting necessarily adopt the expansion theory implicitly. (e.g., John Sorenson et al.)

    and I’m pretty durn sure that that this is a pretty blatant example of misprision, because the portions he cites are taken out of context. In the paragraphs preceding the citation that Blake uses, Sorenson repeatedly brings up examples of Old World conquistadores using Spanish words to describe new world beasts (vaca for buffalo, “kind of a little goat” for deer, etc. see page 294 of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon). From this portion of the text, I believe he would argue not that Joseph, seeing a tapir called it a cow, but instead that the Nephites themselves, seeing a tapir or buffalo or what have you for the first time would use the hebrew/reformed egyption/nephite word for cow and place that word on the plates. This view requires no use of the expansion theory at all, since, from this point of view, all the cross-cultural naming of things would have taken place back in 600 b.c.e. etc.

    I don’t believe that this necessarily hurts any evidence for the expanisionist theory, just that it doesn’t
    lend any support to it whatsoever. If anybody ever reads this and has something to say on the matter, I’d love to hear it… :) Not that I think that’d happen, since the party is clearly, looooong over.

  191. Uhhh… that should probably say, “expansion theory” not “expanisionist theory.” Sorry.

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