I propose that there is an essential continuity of method connecting all of Joseph Smith’s translations of ancient texts, from his 1828-29 translation of the Book of Mormon to his 1843 encounter with the Kinderhook plates, and that this method was both expansive and linguistic. To demonstrate this continuity, I will begin with the latest of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts and work backward, heedlessly stomping through a few minefields along the way.
4. The Kinderhook plates
The Kinderhook plates provide the clearest example of Joseph Smith attempting to integrate a newly encountered ancient record into his previous experience. As Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee have shown, when attempting to make sense of these plates in 1843, Joseph Smiths identified the meaning of one symbol by comparing it to a visually similar character in the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” (GAEL), which had been created in 1835 in connection with the translation of the Egyptian papyri that led to the Book of Abraham. (My thoughts on the insights offered by this episode are here.)
3. The Book of Abraham/“Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”
There is ongoing controversy over the relation between the translation of the Book of Abraham, the Egyptian papyri acquired in 1835, and the GAEL. Reading Brian Hauglid’s latest contribution on the topic, I find myself largely nodding in agreement with his conclusions; the GAEL is intrinsically connected with the translation of the Book of Abraham. I do think much of the current controversy largely misses the point: the creation of the GAEL is not prior or posterior to the translation of the Book of Abraham; it is the translation of the Book of Abraham. You cannot translate the literature of another language without exploring the structure and potential of that language, and you cannot systematically explore the structure and potential of another language without study of its literature. The two are so closely interconnected that separating them is impossible.
All the hoopla about ha-e-oop-hah, so to speak, has obscured some of the most interesting features of the GAEL. The GAEL cannot be reverse engineered from the Book of Abraham—any more than it can be used to generate the Book of Abraham—because it is no mere glossary. What looks at first glance like a tabular presentation of characters and their definitions in fact sketches out the rudiments of a theory of language, and therefore a theory of translation. According to the introduction to volume 4 of Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translations, “In the language system found in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, each character contained five different degrees of meaning, and the definition of the character in each successive degree was more complex or detailed than in the previous degree.” However, not only the depth of meaning is involved, but also syntactic complexity. In its simplest degree, each character represents a sentence. Each character could potentially include as well any “connecting parts of speech,” including “verbs, participles, prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs” (the spelling and punctuation of the GAEL has been normalized throughout). Through variation, combination, and other forms of augmentation, characters could be increased or lessened in signification and syntactic complexity, and there are also allusions to comparing, qualifying, multiplying, connecting, and compounding the meaning of a character.
The GAEL presents two series of characters with definitions in their first through fifth degrees, starting with the fifth. Thus the canoe-shaped character similar in appearance to one found on one of the Kinderhook plates appears in the GAEL with the name “Ha-e-oop-hah” and the definition, in its fifth degree, of “honor by birth; kingly power by the line of Pharaoh; possession by birth; one who reigns upon his throne universally; possessor of heaven and earth, and of the blessings of the earth.”
I do disagree with Hauglid on one point. He sees the GAEL’s linguistic theory as “misguided”; I see it as an essential intellectual contribution to a revealed translation, and an invaluable insight into Joseph Smith’s approach to translation.
I would also begin the chronology of the GAEL’s theory of language, with its five-fold hierarchy of signification, several years before Joseph Smith’s encounter with the Egyptian papyri. Like the Kinderhook plates, the GAEL continues and builds on Joseph Smith’s prior prophetic and linguistic work.
2. The Specimen of Pure Language
In May 1835, prior to the summer 1835 acquisition of the Egyptian papyri, William W. Phelps recorded a “Specimen of Pure Language” in a letter to his wife. David Golding has provided an excellent overview of Joseph Smith’s quest to recover divine language. I differ from Golding somewhat in seeing the scant documentation of the “pure language project” as an integral part of a much larger undertaking that both looked back to Joseph Smith’s earliest work as a seer and served a very practical purpose for him.
The table below (based on table 14.1 in Golding’s article) compares the “Specimen” with a series of characters of the fifth through first degree from the second sequence of the GAEL.
The significance of this comparison lies not in any similarity of definitions, but in the similarity of organization using a five-fold hierarchy; the clear similarity of visual signs; the same progression through augmentation and variation of graphic elements; and similar progressions of variation in words and their definitions. The GAEL was not developed ex nihilo or strictly in response to the Book of Abraham and associated papyri. Instead, it incorporated and extended a pre-existing theory of language and systematization of characters, words, and meanings.
The “Specimen of Pure Language” in turn is related to the “Sample of Pure Language” of 1832, which provides words similar to those of the “Specimen,” although no characters or sounds. In addition, “Zomar,” a word that reappears in the GAEL as a synonym for Zion, is recorded in use with identical meaning in 1831.
Just as each step from 1831 to 1835 and 1843 builds and expands on the prior one, the essence of my proposal is that this expansive theory of language and augmentative systematization of characters and meaning continues and expands on Joseph Smith’s experience translating the Book of Mormon.
1. The Book of Mormon
I propose that the translation process for the Book of Mormon anticipated the process Joseph Smith attempted with the Kinderhook plates, in that the characters mediated and controlled the translation; that it involved the unfolding of a character’s full meaning and syntactic articulation similar to the system that motivates the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”; and that it was based on interpreting visual indications of augmentation, diminishment and combination as seen in the “Specimen of Pure Language” and the GAEL. The translation process did not involve Joseph Smith narrating a vision or repeating an auditory dictation. It entailed the textual rendering into English of ancient characters.
As a proposal, this outstrips what the evidence dictates, and it faces at least a few challenges.
- To understand the translation process of the Book of Mormon, the first fundamental step in the Restoration, my proposal turns to later documents and incidents that have largely been regarded as marginal curiosities.
- It flies in the face of the emergent consensus that Joseph Smith made little use of the plates in translating the Book of Mormon (discussion of which must again be deferred to a later post).
- It requires robust commitment to Joseph Smith’s calling as a seer without offering much in the way of external confirmation.
The proposal is not entirely without support or benefit, however.
It provides for continuity in translation methods. For an event as foundational as translating the Book of Mormon, we should expect to see substantial effect on Joseph Smith’s future translation efforts, especially those involving ancient records. This is far preferable to a complete breach in translation method between the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, as if his experience with the plates would have no effect on his approach to the papyri. Instead, the proposal calls for both translation projects to involve studying the visual differences between graphic signs and expressing their full potential meaning through a process of semantic and syntactic exponentiation.
It would explain at least part of what Joseph Smith was “studying out in his mind,” which the April 1829 revelation to Oliver Cowdery (now D&C 9) suggests as an essential step in the translation process. Rather than merely observing a vision or beholding an English sentence, Joseph Smith’s translation process involved contemplating the characters, their distinctions from, connections to, and relationships with other characters, and how their exponentially expanding significance might be fully rendered into English.
It is consistent with some aspects of some eyewitness accounts. I’m dissatisfied with the approach of citing one favored account, especially late accounts, and particularly the accounts of David Whitmer, which are all over the place. But two of David Whitmer’s accounts (both recorded in the 1880s) claim that Joseph Smith would see one character on or through the interpreter(s), under which would appear as little as one word or as much as two lines of text. This would at least accord with the proposal that while the translation could be quite expansive, it was directly connected to single characters. Even early accounts, however, do attest an initial focus on transcribing and studying the characters themselves before any ability to translate them was granted.
Additional evidence comes by way of the “Caractors” document, now dated circa 1829-31, and which seems to have been treated by Joseph Smith and other translation witnesses as an accurate depiction of characters found on the gold plates. Linguistically speaking, the “Caractors” document remains a puzzle. There are far too many characters for it to be an alphabetic representation of language, while too many of its signs are too visually simple and repetitive for it to represent a workable ideographic system. (I’m making an unsubstantiated claim here.) There are, however, several examples of what look like the same type of visual augmentation and variation as those found in the “Specimen of Pure Language” and the GAEL. This includes not only the use of some of the same characters, but also the same inventory of techniques, as found in the two later documents, for visually marking, augmenting and distinguishing characters.
A final bit of evidence comes from two sets of two characters recorded by John Whitmer in 1835-36 (and existing in a second copy from Frederick G. Williams).
These two-character sequences, glossed as “The Book of Mormon and “the interpretation of languages,” seem only modestly expansive in their translation. But they are visually similar to characters found in both the “Caractors” document and the GAEL, and they use similar means of visual augmentation with dots and lines. More importantly, the second phrase uses the same type of systematic visual variation for related concepts as found in the GAEL—in this case, a semicircle and full circle for “interpretation” and “languages” (either respectively or vice-versa, depending on the direction one reads). These phrases moreover tie the characters from the gold plates to the study of languages among followers of Joseph Smith in the mid-1830s.
This proposed theory of translation is compatible with both naturalistic and supernatural understanding of the Book of Mormon. In a naturalistic approach, the plates and the characters on them would inspire and mediate Joseph Smith’s preternatural creativity. In a supernatural account, the correct rendering of each character is divinely communicated to Joseph Smith by way of the interpreters; the theory of language sketched out by the GAEL can be seen as an attempt to record or systematize the initial revelatory experience of translating the ancient writings of the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.
One of the lasting puzzles concerning the translation of the Book of Mormon is how so much text could have been represented on plates of the size reported by eyewitnesses. It would seem to require either plates that were preternaturally thin, or writing that was incredibly tiny. Another option is to follow the math of Kinderhook, where one character generated a text of around 25 words. If we further make the (dubious) assumption that the ca. 200 signs of the “Caractors” document reflect the etchings found on one plate, it would only take 30-75 plates inscribed front and back to provide room for the text of the Book of Mormon, very easily possible with the six-inch stack of plates described by witnesses.
Finally, this proposal for the translation process of the Book of Mormon suggests a new approach to studying its text. The GAEL ties semantically expansive and syntactically complex definitions to a single character. An example of the fifth degree is “Ahlish,” or the “first Being—supreme intelligence; supreme power; supreme glory; supreme Justice; supreme mercy without beginning of life or end of life; comprehending all things, seeing all things: the invisible and eternal godhead.” We have in turn seen in the Kinderhook episode an example of how such a definition can begin to generate narrative. The goal of a new approach to the text of the Book of Mormon would be to ground textual studies in the translation process (rather than in a presumed but inaccessible Nephite precursor text) by identifying semantically extended and syntactically articulated rhetorical segments that are presumably rooted in a single character, beginning with the title page.
The Book of Mormon – An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon
upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi – Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites
Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile – Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation – Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed
I would guess that the text here reflects at least three but perhaps as few as eight characters from the gold plates.
 Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion”: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” in Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid. eds., Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (University of Utah Press, 2020), 452-523.
 Brian Hauglid, “‘Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham’: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Egyptian Language and His Translation of the Book of Abraham,” in Producing Ancient Scripture, 364-5.
 Cf. Hauglid, in Producing Ancient Scripture, 388.
 David Golding, “‘Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens’: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project,” in Producing Ancient Scripture, 354-56.
 Golding takes the sixth character from the “Specimen of Pure Language” as the base form upon which the other five are iterated, but this sixth character properly belongs to another sequence; cf. the visually similar “Baethka-Baethkee” series from the second part of the GAEL, which immediately follows the “Alkebeth-Alkibeth” sequence.
 Golding, in Producing Ancient Scripture, 361.
 David E. Sloan also identified similarities between the early stages of translating the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, as witnessed by the GAEL, but sees this work as a failed translation attempt. See Sloan, “The Anthon Transcripts and the Translation of the Book of Mormon: Studying It Out in the Mind of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5.2 (1996): 57-81.
 John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo: BYU Press, 2005), nos. 86, 89.
 Michael Hubbard MacKay, “‘Git Them Translated’: Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, eds. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 83-116.
 See Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Robin Scott Jensen, “The ‘Caractors’ Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters,” Mormon Historical Studies 14 (2013): 131-52.
 See Bruce E. Dale, “How Big A Book? Estimating the Total Surface Area of the Book of Mormon Plates,” Interpreter 25 (2017): 261-68.
This is very interesting. It’s always fun to see your mind at work. At the risk of being misperceived, I’d be interested to hear how you understand the differences between the model you propose here and the model I propose in Joseph Smith’s Translation.
Everyone else: Smith wasn’t looking at the plates at all during the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Jonathan Green: “I propose that the translation process for the Book of Mormon anticipated the process Joseph Smith attempted with the Kinderhook plates, in that the characters mediated and controlled the translation; that it involved the unfolding of a character’s full meaning and syntactic articulation similar to the system that motivates the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”; and that it was based on interpreting visual indications of augmentation, diminishment and combination as seen in the “Specimen of Pure Language” and the GAEL. The translation process did not involve Joseph Smith narrating a vision or repeating an auditory dictation. It entailed the textual rendering into English of ancient characters.”
Me: Your argument is pretty circular. (1) My thesis is that all of Smith’s translation projects were handled the same way, now (2) let me read the documents and make an argument based on my thesis, although my reading “outstrips what the evidence dictates,” and (3) I therefore conclude that my thesis is supported by my reading the evidence against the grain in a way that supports and is driven by my thesis.
Also, these are contradictory, at least for your non-Mormon readers: “It requires robust commitment to Joseph Smith’s calling as a seer without offering much in the way of external confirmation”; and “This proposed theory of translation is compatible with both naturalistic and supernatural understanding of the Book of Mormon.”
You are on the right track in that Smith’s textual productions do share a lot of similarities and in all likelihood worked off of a very similar process. Where you have gone off track, from my perspective, is in your retrojection of a very specific reading of the GAEL production method back onto the earlier projects rather than the other way around. Needless to say, there are lots of historical and methodological problems here.
One of the things I struggle with my testimony are many of these documents that you start with -kinderhook plates, the sample of “pure” language, and the grammar from Egyptian papyrus. It makes sense what you argue and I suspect there is decent textual and even circumstantial evidence to support it. However, it shakes me.
Some scholars appropriate things other people say to themselves, thinking perhaps, they had thought that way all along. Some so-called “contributions” on this blog are simply variations on other’s work…
It looks like comments are getting caught in the spam filter. Sorry for the delay.
Sam, that’s a good question, but I haven’t had a chance for more than a superficial look at your book. You mention a risk of being misperceived, but I’m really not sure what the risk is. Does my proposal end up recapitulating your book in some way? That would mean my proposal has more going for it than I expected. If nothing else, my proposal is largely focused on a broadly linguistic type of translation without larger aspirations, while it seems like you treat translation as an overarching structure for Joseph Smith’s prophetic work.
Brian, I’m sorry to hear that. As Jared points out, there are more than enough reasons to dispute this proposal if it’s not working for you.
Travis, it won’t do to hint darkly at plagiarism. It’s rude and, frankly, cowardly. Spell it out, or go away. I’m happy to give credit to others’ work or explain how or whether some piece of work influenced me. I’m right here, just ask me.
Jonathan, little of what you contribute is unique or original—everything is a variation on some one else’s work. Not quite plagiarism.
Little of what I did was original; basically, I just created variations on other people’s work. Seems to have worked okay for me.
Travis, my initial thought was to check if you noticed the footnotes at the end, acknowledge that all of this is only possible thanks to the tremendous work of the JSPP and the contributors to Producing Ancient Scripture, and congratulate you on a promising career as Reviewer Number Two.
But let’s push this a little. My proposal is that the translation method used for the Book of Mormon is based on an approach to language and written signs similar to what’s found in the later GAEL. If that’s not original, I’d like to know, because that would be a book/article I’d very much like to read. So please complete this sentence: “That idea was previously proposed by…”
Otherwise it would seem that you’re continuing to toss out accusations without merit or substance.
I am critical towards the belief that Joseph translated text. There isn’t evidence for it—except those LDS paintings that depict Joseph transliterating text by candlelight. Seems like every scholar that grew up with the image is now trying to argue to protect it.
Current LDS scholarship is drunk on a materialist explanation for Joseph’s cosmology, and for his record of ancient peoples. The question, “how did Joseph do it?” cannot be understood outside visionary context—what Joseph “translated” wasn’t letters or words—rather, symbols, archetype, hierarchy.
Revelation does not occur “line upon line,” as fools might suggest: revelation isn’t faith. Revelation is imminent, persuasive, exacting. Joseph received all of his cosmology and ancient history in a single flash—a whole seed. From this, he was able to reflect and remember—translate the experience.
Too many LDS scholars reach for a materialist explanation for the process of revelation. They are lead by the belief that historical, textual, chronological data can explain where Joseph got his ideas from. If we can explain the process of Joseph’s translation outside visionary experience, it ceases to be revelation—the process becomes materialized, sanitized—fit for a Pharisee.
Materialist explanation for revelation would make Joseph more reflective, like a philosopher, not a prophet. Nibley’s work on the Mantic and Sophic illustrates the tendency of scholars to “materialize” revelation.
So, yes, I count scholarship that would offer materialist explanations for Joseph’s revelation or translation as unoriginal. Unprofitable. Unfit.
Travis, You’ve posted at least some of this in comments a number of times. But I don’t think I’ve yet grasped just why you settled on your definition/description of “revelation” or what evidence there may be that “Joseph received all of his cosmology and ancient history in a single flash.” Have you considered writing a potential guest post, or other article, explaining just how you get there? — the evidence, the sources, etc. That would be far more interesting than trading insults with Jonathan or others.
Yes, that is a good idea. Give my comrade-materialists a chance to sling it back.
This is really interesting , creative work , Jonathan. Thanks for taking the time to think through this.
Travis, thanks, that’s a very helpful statement of what your beliefs and priorities are. I think we’re getting somewhere.
Of course we disagree about some things (I do think Joseph Smith translated text), so we won’t reach agreement on that, but we agree on other things (I believe the translation was revelatory and inspired). The hoops one would have to jump through to make my proposal truly naturalistic are considerable. I think I have evidence for my view, but I also recognize my proposal has some evidentiary challenges, too. (That’s why it’s just a proposal, an idea to be turned over and kicked around a bit. I like it in a lot of ways, but I don’t know how much confidence I have in it.)
I also have suspicions about materialist explanations, largely because they are so tempting to me. Maybe I’ll say mean things about intellectuals in my next post.
I do disagree about revelation being exclusively sudden and visionary. The Book of Mormon describes seers as inspired interpreters of text, D&C 9 describes a process of studying things out in one’s mind, and my personal experience suggests that revelation is sometimes sudden and visionary, but more often it comes after immersing myself in the details of a problem or puzzling over it for a long time.
But that area of disagreement isn’t one I want to pursue here. Instead, step back a bit and think about your priorities. I think the translation of the Book of Mormon was textual, and by the gift and power of God. I like my proposal not as a materialist explanation of the Book of Mormon, but for the potential insights about revelation and scripture. Does that make me, in your eyes, a dangerous heretic, or someone with whom you disagree on some things but agree with on the more important things?
One problem is that LDS authorities and scholars are unable to differentiate beliefs from doctrine. As a consequence, we end up using beliefs as the starting point—for example, if some folks believe Joseph looked at letters and magically transposed or transliterated the text—well, that belief has a different effect on the consciousness and communion of how revelation works than, say, if revelation is understood in its traditional form—as more a navigation of images and scenes and archetype—a dreamscape—just like what is described by the visionary prophets. A disciple-scholar starts with doctrine, not with belief. What is doctrine? How to define doctrine? Joseph left us a framework for this (a different topic for another day).
I see the materialist approach as useless, distracting, even deceiving. Recall the FARMS days when a bunch of LDS scholars and authorities “believed” that American continent archeological work will lead to proving the validity of the Book of Mormon—again, a textualist, materialist approach. After two decades, and millions of dollars spent on tithe-sponsored research, what happened? All by the wayside. No longer a “strong” belief.
I recognize the same pattern in textual-materialist explanation for process of Joseph’s translation. Total waste of energy. The textual-materialist approach, mark my word, will become poison arrows to the testimony of saints—especially outside the United States. It’s what happens when, paraphrasing Nibley, scholars work with more zeal than knowledge.
Jonathan, we share closer perspective than appears. I think you can make a better argument for Joseph’s translation process than most—outside of textual materialist stuff. But if you insist on textual stuff because it is what is getting published, then supplant the kinderhook stuff in your thesis with John Dee’s Enochian alphabet—particularly because the Smith family was very familiar with it (“abracadabra” is key to linking the Smith’s folkloric practices with Enoch alphabet). You’d have a stronger argument.
When reading through this fascinating post and its very apt commentaries, it struck me as a wrestling match between several contestants who share the same corner of the ring. We are all trying to understand the process of the production of text by Joseph, while the only thing sure is the fact that he dictated it.
Revelation versus translation, the latter in an increasingly wide meaning of the term. I am not sure Joseph did make that distinction at all. He claimed an original text and produced a revelation; whether the original text was very original did not matter much (Kinderhook) it is the process of revelation that counts.
So in the end this is not a debate on lingusitics and theory of language, but on the theory of revelation. GAEL gives a clue on that project. Joseph seems to have viewed revelation as a phased process, starting from triggers and moving into systematic text that bore little relation to the original trigger.
Tour de force
How revelation is understood determines our relationship to it. The observation, “Joseph seems to have viewed revelation as a phased process, starting from triggers and moving into systematic text that bore little relation to the original trigger,” expresses a belief-system about revelation.
The “process” itself—as you describe, is admittedly “triggered” by seemingly random objects; this expresses what we already know in the field of psychology—that latent subconscious and unconscious imagery utilizes trigger like a “key” to “unlock” imagery. When a person can control the trigger, turn on and off a remembrance of the imagery—that is revelation (Lehi’s Dream). When a person suffers subconscious or unconscious imagery to surface to consciousness unwillingly—that is psychosis.
The fact that “trigger” by various motifs was regularly employed by Joseph is evidence that he did not suffer psychosis. The employment of a trigger is NOT to conjure up, or enlighten some new thing—this is how seance works. Rather, the trigger brings-to-the-surface what is already there—like a seed, like opening a book, like returning to the imagery of revelation.
So if trigger is needed, it is because Joseph is accessing latent imagery that does not share space with conscious imagery. We are in the territory of subconscious and unconscious (see: Carl Jung, Erich Neumann, James Hillman, Michael Conforti). Here, the language is symbol, archetype, hierarchy—this is the language of revelation.
The idea that Joseph used a “phased” process to translate revelation may lead us into a seance-like scene—as if Joseph was waiting on words and phrases to magically appear, so that he could jot it all down. This is a false image of revelation—and we find it even today as spiritualists and mediums employ it as their process.
I argue that the visionary/apolcalyptic stuff that identifies Joseph’s revelation of records of ancient peoples and his unique cosmology was received in the same fashion as described by Ezekial and John and so many other visionary prophets, who were given a book. “A book.” To eat, partake, consume, commune with. The “book” is a self-contained order of imagery, not unlike a dream, a day-dream, a lucid dream, a hallucination, active intellect, creative imagination—however it fits. The book, like a seed, requires some time to fully sprout and blossom before it produces fruit. The imagery of the book/the revelation continually unfolds. Like John, Joseph “ate” the book(s). At a later time, like John, Joseph translated the revelation/book(s). Joseph’s use of trigger was not transliteration, was not line-by-line, or some stream of consciousness. Joseph knew the material and struggled only with organizing it into text.
Yes, my hope is to turn as many comrade-LDS scholars away from the textual-materialist approach to revelation as possible.
Sorry, got pulled into day job work (never a dull moment!) and wasn’t able to get back to this. i was worried that I would be misperceived for having been interested in hearing how you thought we might agree or disagree. I don’t have a desire to be a self-promoter or to be perceived as such. I wasn’t impugning your motives or professionalism. On the contrary. I’m very interested to hear your thoughts. From my quick read of your summary of your careful thinking, I didn’t see much that differed from my arguments (modulated into a faithful key, whereas my OUP book is written to be useful to non-believer observers), which made me very curious to understand your perspective better. Since I’m writing a devotional book on the topic for Faith Matters, I’m wanting to be sure I understand better the range of thinking and questioning that’s relevant to Latter-day Saints (as opposed to just the academic audience, which I write for quite naturally).
I had an extra moment to actually read through the full range of comments.
I feel for people who are feeling torn between two worlds (one set of descriptions of how the Book of Mormon came to be, for example, versus others). It can be a bit jarring. I think admitting that life is marvelously complex is a helpful start. Not complex in the sense of nothing can ever be said accurately about it, but definitely not simple. And marvelously because God is present in life (and not just as in pantheism). I understand myself to have a robust testimony of the Book of Mormon as real, actual, and historical. I don’t find that it requires one specific view of the translation process. For the gentleman who felt unsettled, we’re with you here. There’s much true and beautiful yet for us to discover.
On the question of materialism from Travis, I think the move probably owes too much to the neo-Epicurean (NT Wright has a lovely way of laying out the philosophy) need to securely divorce the world into physical and metaphysical realms and keep them wholly separate. I see Smith as participating in _both_ physics and metaphysics, so it’s okay to explore and enjoy the physical (ie materialist) aspects right along with the metaphysical aspects.
JG, on our areas of agreement–I argue for the fundamental continuity of all of Smith’s translation projects, including the temple, and that continuity is centered in glyphs and the possibility of metaphysically rich language. We may differ on how much metaphysics is present (although I argue that the engine of Smith’s translation mandates both physics and metaphysics). If the perception of my work is that Smith’s translation is not linguistic, then I understand myself to be misperceived. I argue rather than merely linguistic models are inadequate, but my being open to more than language does not reject language (again, the marriage of heaven and earth, of physics and metaphysics, are central to Smith’s project). If I may do so without overstepping bounds of propriety, I might recommend that you read my OUP book and consider what effect engagement of those arguments might have on your suggestions. It’s possible that we would disagree on whether the glyphs Smith is engaging in his translation are what I call “flat” or “merely physical.”
In terms of revelation vs. translation, there’s substantial overlap. It does seem to me consistently true that within Restoration theology, translation involves a direct relationship among a modern prophet, God, and the ancients, whereas revelation does not involve the ancients directly. I also believe it’s true that translation much more consistently engages language as language (admitting that language is not as flat as the moderns want it to be), although revelation is clearly also interested in language.
On the question of whether Smith’s revelation comes all at once or in parts, I think both are true. Some aspects seem to have been written into him from the earliest stage (one could imagine this as part of his prophetic calling), whereas others seem pretty clearly to have come to him as he interacted with texts both ancient and modern.
(I’ll be disappearing back into day job work and wish you all the best.)
Travis, I’ve read through your comments, and it seems clear you’ve got your own pet theory of revelation. That’s perfectly fine, although I find little support for it and little appeal in it. You’ve latched on to an academic fad from half a century ago as the one true theory of revelation, and the results are predictably ludicrous. Prophets and revelations take many forms – this is not doctrine or belief, but historical fact. Some of them may correspond to your theory in some sense, but many don’t. You say there’s no evidence of Joseph Smith translating text; please scroll upward to see pictures of it. And you don’t grasp that dealing with materiality does not make one a materialist.
Your condemnation of anyone taking a different approach moves you squarely into the “crank” category. I see now that responding to your baseless allegations only gave you an opportunity to expound on your theory, which remains irrelevant to my post. Next time I’ll just delete your comments and save myself the mental effort. If you want a place to expound, get your own blog.
Jonathan, you sound a petulant child.
Sam, it sounds like my post is at the very least compatible with your book (and I’d venture that David Golding’s chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture, which also touches on several of these points in a longitudinal study, is as well).
Where we likely differ is due to my stunted sense for metaphysics. I really am focused on linguistic elements and the translation process – I think that set of curlicues that shows up in the “Caractors” document, the “Specimen of Pure Language,” and the GAEL is pretty neat. It’s not that I disagree with your metaphysical project, it’s that I’m basically never in a position to say anything useful about metaphysics in the first place.
I have drawn very similar data from these sources and produced a similar and parallel argument that is being published in the next Dialogue volume.
We need to talk!
My genuine apology. You are right. Thank you for engaging.
Michael, oh, sorry, I do feel legitimately bad about that. I put a lot of work into this blog post, but that’s about 1/10 the work required for a real journal article. I’m looking forward to seeing the topic treated in print, and glad that I’m not the one putting in the work to get it there.
The way you describe Joseph’s pathway from single sign to extensive narrative is illuminating, The term ‘trigger’ might be a bit simplistic, but a phased process it definitely is. It is very reminiscent of the continuous, step by step revelation of mysteries in mystery religions. I presume Joseph’s involvement in Masonism came later, but anyway he seems to pre-empt this kind of thinking in expanding significations at each next step of initiation in the GAEL. At present I am writing on African secret societies, and there the same process of new, deeper insights in language appears, with each added signification equal to a new insight. Such a ladder-like revelation-in-language might resolve the seeming contradiction between the linguistic and the revelatory approach.