|Photo of the long-discussed seer stone used by Joseph Smith.|
What’s interesting news for many Latter-day Saints is, for some of our critics, simply earth-shattering and hopely faith-shattering for benighted Mormons. “Mormon church releases photos of ‘seer stone’ used by founder Joseph Smith” is the headline at the Salt Lake Tribune.
From the various accounts of Joseph’s translation process for the Book of Mormon that have been published for many years, it has long been clear that Joseph used a seemingly ordinary rock as a “seer stone” for at least a significant portion of the translation process. See, for example, the Church’s prior statement in the LDS Topics area of LDS.org entitled “Book of Mormon Translation” and Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 1977 Ensign article on the topic (the Tribune says 1974, a minor error), where the mechanics of the seer stone and the hat are mentioned. Elder Russell M. Nelson also discussed this in detail in his 1993 Ensign article, “A Treasured Testament,” which I highly enjoyed. As I understand it, Joseph stared at the seer stone in the darkness provided by a hat and somehow was able to dictate words hour after hour to his scribes to provide the original text of the Book of Mormon.
Was there something miraculous–something even cooler than iPad technology, for example–about this stone or the two stones in the Urim and Thummim that came with the gold plates? Did he actually see something with his physical eyes, as David
Whitmer thought, or did he otherwise see or sense something in his mind? Was the real purpose of the physical stone simply to help him concentrate and receive inspiration? We really don’t know.
We don’t know what was going on in Joseph’s mind, but we can be pretty sure what wasn’t going on in the hat: he wasn’t staring in the dark at a paper manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding or some mysterious team of scholars capable of plausibly describing places and even names in the Arabian Peninsula, and also capable of crafting Hebraic poetry, Hebraic puns, and awkward, even laughable English phrases that are good Semitic phrases. Of course, if there had been a carefully crafted text in the first place, why go through the hassle of spending three months dictating the text word for word? Just hand the text to the printer, or at least hand the text to a scribe to make a copy for the printer. Why add a painful three-month delay that would introduce many typos and result in a dictated text devoid of much-needed punctuation, that surely would have already been present in a real but fraudulent source manuscript?
Multiple witnesses of the process also affirm that he did not even have a Bible present, though the dictated text closely follows the KJV (though with hundreds of mostly subtle differences). It’s close enough to the KJV, including parts that seem to have flaws, that many LDS people have assumed he must have had the KJV text to use when the Book of Mormon quotes the Bible, but something else may have been going on. The dictated text seems to generally use the KJV when it is close enough to the theological purposes of the Book of Mormon, not giving us the miraculous update to a perfectly translated pristine Ur-text that we would readily convince scholars today.
While the nature of the translation process is puzzling, it is clear, however, that the text was actually dictated to scribes just as they and other witnesses maintained. The surviving portions of the original manuscript make it obvious that this was an orally dictated text. That’s an important part of the story in the recent release from the Church, which highlights the significance of the original text, the printer’s manuscript, and the massive project to provide the papers of Joseph Smith (see JosephSmithPapers.org) and the massive work of Royal Skousen giving us the Earliest Text manuscript for the Book of Mormon.
Understanding the origins of the Book of Mormon requires careful, detailed consideration of the Earliest Text, our best estimate of the words actually dictated by Joseph. It is there we find much that was laughable in Joseph’s day which has become a little more respectable upon further examination.
Regarding that text, the LDS.org statement on the translation process say this:
The manuscript that
Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the
original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives. This manuscript corroborates Joseph Smith’s statements that the
manuscript was written within a short time frame and that it was
dictated from another language. For example, it includes errors that
suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words
copied from another manuscript. In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more
characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the
original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the
translation was not English.
Unlike most dictated drafts, the original manuscript was considered by Joseph
Smith to be, in substance, a final product. To assist in the publication
of the book, Oliver Cowdery made a handwritten copy of the original
manuscript. This copy is known today as the printer’s manuscript.
Because Joseph Smith did not call for punctuation, such as periods,
commas, or question marks as he dictated, such marks are not in the
original manuscript. The typesetter later inserted punctuation marks
when he prepared the text for the printer.
With the exceptions of punctuation, formatting, other elements of
typesetting, and minor adjustments required to correct copying and
scribal errors, the dictation copy became the text of the first printed
edition of the book.
Elder Nelson’s article on the the Book of Mormon goes on to discuss its Hebraisms and bad grammar in English that shows Semitic origins, and even cites the story of Sami Hanna, a neighbor and close friend of his, who was convinced of the ancient authenticity of the Book of Mormon’s text after translating it into Arabic. (Brother Hanna gave a powerful fireside on his experience in my ward when I was a teenager that my mother still talks about to this day. Sadly, I skipped it. One of my regrets in life.)
Among the example of the laughable content in the original Book of Mormon, consider a section from a learned critic of the Book of Mormon, Martin T. Lamb, in his 1901 work, The Mormons and their Bible:
His first example is still with us in the current printing of the Book of Mormon, while the second example has long-since been corrected to more conventional English.
His objection to someone “being stabbed … by a garb of secrecy” is readily resolved by considering the Hebrew origins of the text. John Tvedtnes explains:
In Helaman 9:6, we read that the Nephite judge had been “stabbed by his brother by a garb of secrecy.” Critics have contended that this makes no sense in English, since “garb” has the same meaning as “garment” or “clothing.” This idiom is the same as the English “under cloak of secrecy.”[iii] But what is most interesting is that the Hebrew word begged means both “garment” or “garb” (e.g., Genesis 39:12-13) and “treachery.”[iv] This is an obvious word-play in the Hebrew original of the Book of Mormon. As for the preposition “by,” in Hebrew its range of meaning includes “in,” (locative), “with” or “by means of” (instrumental).
This kind of thing is found on page after page of the Book of Mormon. Names, word usage, and grammar that is objectionable to learned critics turns out to be plausible or even to offer serious evidence for ancient authenticity far beyond the ability of Joseph Smith to fabricate.
But Lamb’s second example is the really hilarious one from Alma 46:19 that he relishes at length. Joseph was such a clod that he didn’t realize that once you “rend” a garment, you can’t “wave the rent of the garment in the air” and you can’t “write upon the rent.” How utterly stupid, eh? No wonder it was later changed in 1906 to indicate that that Moroni waived “the rent part” of the garment. Funny thing, though, is that this expression reflects pretty accurate Hebrew. John Tvedtnes explains in BYU Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn 1970), p. 50 :
[In] the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, we read that “when Moroni
had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent of
his garment in the air.” (p. 351.) When the word “rent” is used as a
noun in English, it may refer to a hole caused by rending, but not, to
my knowledge, to a portion of rent cloth; the unlikely usage of “rent”
in English as a noun no doubt contributed to the fact that, in
subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon, it was changed to read “rent
part” (Alma 46:19). But the Hebrews would, in this instance, use but one
word, qera’, “rent (part),” coming from qara’, “he rent, tore,” for
nouns, in Hebrews, are derived from roots–as are Hebrews verbs–by the
addition of certain vowel patterns that distinguish them from other
parts of speech.
The original text has numerous such “flaws” which reflect its Semitic origins that “leaked” through the translation process, indicative of some level of “tight control” in the generation of the text that Joseph dictated. Understanding them helps us appreciate the nature of the dictated text.
But what of the awkward “had wrote” in Alma 46:19, which has since been corrected to “had written” to give it a more standard modern English form? Had wrote–isn’t that just uneducated dialect? The issue is related to the very similar problem of “had smote” in the original text of the Book of Mormon that is discussed by Dr. Stanford Carmack in “A Look at Some “Nonstandard” Book of Mormon Grammar,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 209-262:
Next we consider I had smote. To many of us, smote seems to be a past-tense verb form defectively used in a pluperfect construction. The KJV doesn’t use smote in this way. From [Page 219]the perspective of that important biblical text, past-participial smote is a grammatical error; it seems like smitten
should have been used in 1 Nephi 4:19 (and in Alma 17:39; 20:30; 26:29;
51:20; Ether 15:31). Indeed, in the latest LDS edition there is only
standardized smitten in these contexts, a clear reflection of that view. But smote is specifically noted in the OED as functioning as a past participle
for centuries in English, beginning in the 16th century. The OED
contains about 10 examples of this usage. Here are two representative
quotations from that dictionary, one with smote used in the passive voice,24 one with smote used in the active voice:
1597 Beard Theatre God’s Judgm. (1612) 309 He caused..the Citie of the Priests to be smote with the edge of the sword. 1658 Manton Exp. Jude verse 3. Wks. 1871 V. 98 The goose-quill hath smote antichrist under the fifth rib.25
As a result, we are justified in thinking that smote is the correctly translated word.
That conclusion is based on the thesis that Early Modern English is actually in the Book of Mormon as originally dictated, which I’ll mention in a moment. First let me point out that a search of “had wrote” and “hath wrote” shows that this non-standard usage for our days also has deep roots in written English, suggesting that like its “hath smote” cousin, was not non-standard in the past. E.g., Shakespeare’s 1608 King Lear has a “hath wrote.” Other texts using it date to 1588, for example. But why would we care about Early Modern English and think it has anything to do with the 19th century translation of the Book of Mormon?
In my opinion, a whole new level of rich data to explore has been opened up in Royal Skousen’s careful work pointing to unusual elements in the dictated text that show numerous features of archaic English that actually cannot be obtained by simply imitating the King James Bible. Beyond the Hebraisms of the text, a controversial and somewhat shocking, even troubling discovery, something that should be much more interesting than the appearance of the seer stone, is the finding that much of the awkward grammar of the Book of Mormon, long thought to just reflect Joseph’s poor education, is not so much bad modern English as it is good Early Modern English (EModE), often reflecting an era in the language slightly before the King James Bible.
This finding from Royal Skousen, who understands the original text of the Book of Mormon better than any other scholar today, coupled with heavy additional analysis from a linguist, Dr. Stanford Carmack, has been the subject of several posts here at Mormanity with some further analysis and exploration of my own. What it means and how it happened is the subject of ongoing speculation and debate, but it’s something that demands attention for anyone interested in understanding how the translation took place and what it actually is. They suggest that their work buttresses the case that the dictated text had some level of tight control. It at least seems that something was going on that simply cannot be explained by Joseph fabricating the text himself or just making stuff up as he dictated hour after hour. That’s part of the real story here and it’s a story that is just getting started as we explore the data. Not sure where it will lead and if it will withstand more detailed investigation, but I look forward to learning more.
In any case, the stone is a blank slate for us, while the dictated text offers a treasure trove of information remaining to be dug out.