A favorite tactic for attacking the Book of Mormon today is to find parallels in other modern texts from Joseph Smith’s day or before, and then argue that they are evidence for plagiarism or at least “influence” enough to rule out the Book of Mormon as an ancient text translated with the power of God. My two previous posts deal with this topic and draw in part upon Benjamin McGuire’s response at Mormon Interpreter to a recent statistical effort pointing to an alleged “smoking gun” for alleged fabrication of the Book of Mormon.
With statistical analysis, it is possible to find numerous brief parallels scattered throughout any two texts. Finding chunks of four words at a time can be interesting, but what does it tell us about authorship? When we apply what critics are finding in this recent case or in any case of alleged plagiarism or influence, what we tend to get implicitly is a process in which Joseph Smith’s “plagiarism” did something that plagiarists usually try to avoid: making life harder rather than easier for the fabricator/author. These smoking guns don’t offer nice, polished sections of plagiarized text and detailed stories that Joseph could lift and use to simplify his life. Rather, it looks like the process of composing his text was one of incredible tedium, pausing every few words to snatch three, four, or five words from a text somewhere, or turning to another text for a tiny idea that could be momentarily adapted. Occasionally a bit of imagination was used to complete the plagiarism. For example, in describing the scene of Lehi finding the Liahona, one of the impressive parallels I discuss in my previous post would imply that Joseph turned to The Late War and found a passage about ships being sunk by torpedoes, and in the description of a torpedo, found and applied the word “ball.” This resulting curious workmanship of the portable and non-explosive Liahona in the final text is certainly better than having Lehi find a mystic torpedo outside his tent, but turning to a naval scene in The Late War at that point for guidance on what Lehi would find in the desert just seems like an easy way to make life unnecessarily difficult for a young plagiarizer.
But if all these parallels are the result of mere exposure to various sources that were digested and used almost subconsciously by Joseph, rather than being directly applied in overt plagiarism as some have suggested, then where do the many snatches of four-word phrases come from, if not from chance and natural overlap when similar style is used and related topics are discussed? Read these other works, then look at the real content of the Book of Mormon, and explain how they account for anything. The latest smoking gun gives us very faint smoke indeed.
Update, Nov. 14, 2013: Wait a second. If we Mormons are now discounting parallels, aren’t we discounting much of the evidence for the Book of Mormon as an ancient book since a good portion of that is based on parallels as well? Parallels, like experimental data in scientific research (e.g., individual positive or negative results in a pharmaceutical trial), can be meaningful and give insight, when the right test is conducted, when the right questions are asked, and when the right analysis is done. To argue against the irrelevance of bad data (“big” or otherwise) based on flawed work and errant assumptions is not to discount all research and data per se. When loose parallels with another text and some similar phrases might theoretically account for, say, far less than 1% of a text, the work of explaining the origins of that text is hardly done. There is much more to say on the proper applications of parallels and data to Book of Mormon studies that I will address later.