Latter-day Saints often say that the Book of Mormon is obviously highly unusual since this complex text was generated in such a short period of time by a relatively uneducated young farm boy. But in making these assertions, we often may be relying on what we’ve heard from others without considering the details of how it actually compares to other works in literature. Just how unusual is it?
Our critics these days often point to other works to show that others (e.g., Tolkien) have done similar things. So is it really unusual?
Brian C. Hales gets into solid data and considers the multiple dimensions of the Book of Mormon to help all of us better understand what is going on with the Book of Mormon. I strongly encourage you to read “Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon,” just published in The Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.
37 thoughts on “The Curiously Unique Book of Mormon”
An entertaining parody of academic discourse. Brian Hales is a hoot. Thanks for brightening my day, Jeff.
I always thought the eygptian papyrus translation was more impressive than the BoM, but according to this it should have been even more impressive than I thought because JS was older and more developed as an author.
I'm going to go read some pornographic material now so I can wash away the memory of whatever you just linked to. Thanks for wasting my time with nonsense, Jeff.
Did you seriously read it, or do you just say that to all the LDS bloggets?
Dunno about the others, Jeff, but I seriously read it. It’s seriously bad, even by Interpreter standards. I’m surprised they published it, tbh.
It is difficult to determine the conclusion or point of the essay. The critics position is: 1. The Book of Mormon is not near as eloquent as the faithful make it out to be and 2. Joseph Smith was much smarter (a genius) than the faithful make him out to be. Given those two, the Book of Mormon is not a plagiarism that Joseph Smith slapped his name on or produced by an extra-terrestrial force.
The essay only appears to demonstrate that Joseph Smith was not the author, based on his age, background, and time frame of production. Parties dispute the time frame of production, with the faithful saying only 90+ days, to academics saying several years of rehearsals. The essay actual appears to concede the point of view that though the Book of Mormon is lengthy, but is not as complex as the faithful make it out to be. The only item the essay appears to refute is that the position that Joseph Smith is a genius. So in the end, a prophet is made by dumbing him down and exaggerating his accomplishments.
As for the essay's purpose / conclusion, all I could find was: “Determining whether the Book of Mormon creation was unique in any observable way." Look hard enough and everything is unique, even twins.
I just want it to be known that the "anonymous" poster above at 1:15 AM on 2/18, along with the anonymous poster on the previous thread about Malachi who crossed a line in terms of a lack of respect for Jeff as a human being is in no way connected with THIS particular anonymous participant who goes by the name of "EBU."
I know I have given you grief over your ideas, but you don't deserve some of this treatment. You are a better man than I am to put up with it.
Jeff's a big boy, he can handle it. It's part and parcel with presenting your beliefs in a public forum. For those of us who have actually met Jeff, his air of superiority needs a few pricks like me from time to time.
@ Anon 9:04 p.m.
"It's part and parcel with presenting your beliefs in a public forum."
No…..it's not. The Mormanity blog is THE ONLY blog on the Internet that allows all comments to be seen by everyone, regardless of what the comment is.
The powers that be on all other blogs will not allow any differing opinions and most will ban commenters who don't march in lockstep with the blogs owners/adrems/or whomever runs the blog.
But alas, classless cretins will always be classless cretins like Anon 9:04 p.m.
The reading level analytics can't possibly mean much if the same text gets results ranging from a 6th grade level to a post-graduate level. From Judy Blume to Jacques Derrida. That's quite a range.
Good point, EBU. Part of what I meant when I called the article a parody of academic discourse is that it tosses around all these numbers without seriously addressing the question of how they could possibly illuminate the question at hand. But that’s what LDS apologetics is about these days: cranking out meaningless BS that looks just academic enough to reassure the target audience, which of course is predisposed to believe anyway, that there’s really something there. Hence the adoption of all the academic forms and paraphernalia, e.g. footnotes, a journal, etc.
One item I found interesting was that a complexity comparison wasn't made to the KJV of the Bible. I'd be curious what grade level that would be evaluated at.
Also, his article fails to take into account the quality of writing in the comparisons. Most of the works of fiction Hales uses as comparisons do not have a comparable word count, but they were written with an editor and publisher who would have input as to the content of the text and would seek to limit the rambling nature of the text. Anyone who has read the BoM knows this isn't the case.
On a related note, I did a search of the BoM text for the word combination "in other words," and also "or rather." Both yielded a result of 12 hits. It was interesting to read the context of the "or rather" hits. The majority are clearly corrections to the story–something that someone who was dictating would do, but not something someone who is compiling documents would be likely to do. Give them a read at LDS.org.
The real problem with any attempt to analyze the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is the fact that no objective outside observer's view of the event exists. Everyone who was a scribe in the process was also someone who was in some way invested in the process. We just have to take their word for it. There is no way to objectively verify that Joseph Smith had plates, didn't have plates, used a stone, used spectacles, used a hat, didn't use a hat, made corrections as he went, didn't make corrections as he went, used a KJV, didn't use a KJV….
Everything we have of the story (and it is interesting that the stories of those who were there don't match up….) is from accounts written by people who had some flesh in the game. It doesn't matter what they say, because Smith said an angel took the plates back to Heaven. The entire project's credibility is deeply compromised. No one can be trusted here!
This idea that Joseph Smith wrote/translated/whatever the book in record time is silly. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. There is no evidence that he did, except that people who were married to him or who invested money in the project say so. But we also have his own mother telling us that young Joe loved to weave an Indian tale to entertain people.
If we had the plates, we could begin to trust the wife and the investor. With the plates being taken away by an angel, and without the wife or the investor or the Campbellite preacher or the divining rod connoisseur objecting to this tall tale, any reasonable human being will assume no one can be trusted here!
Did an angel take the Upanishads? The Koran? The Torah? The Epistle to the Romans? We don't have the original documents, but we know why we don't. Things get lost in history. Life stinks that way. But we can be sure that things don't just get taken back up into Heaven.
Anon 4:53, good point about the phrases "in other words" and "or rather." I would add that the Book of Mormon's prolixity in general argues against its ancient origins. But here I'll just mention one example, the Book of Jarom, whose wordiness severely undermines the claim it makes about itself — namely, that it would be longer were there more space to write on the plates.
Jarom starts off by telling us that "as these plates are small … it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations" (Jarom 1:2).
Got it? The plates are small, so he can only write a little.
One expects a certain amount of concision, so it comes as something of a surprise when we immediately encounter needlessly repetitive verbiage like this…
Behold, it is expedient that much should be done among this people, because of the hardness of their hearts, and the deafness of their ears, and the blindness of their minds, and the stiffness of their necks…. (Jarom 1:3).
… and like this:
And we multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the face of the land, and became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war—yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war (Jarom 1:8).
The Book of Mormon as a whole, of course, is notoriously wordy and repetitive, which again suggests spontaneous dictation rather than careful written composition.
@ Anon at 11:40,
Yes……. it is.
EBU, you've expertly stated something that's been obvious to me in my mind for a very long time, yet is never adequately addressed by apologists. Everyone around Joseph had a vested interest in keeping up appearances, and thus cannot be trusted by any truly objective researcher. So what are we left with? Which shred should we cling to? NONE! There's no evidence, only mere conjecture and so-called testimonies from untrustworthy witnesses.
Thank you for stating it so clearly.
Anon 10:13 –
The apologist have addressed it, though we can debate "adequately."
The strawman in the apologist's link above is pretty obvious. The link starts by saying the argument "IMPL[IES] that someone is unreliable" then ends by saying the "argument STATES that the witnesses are unreliable" neither of which is true.
It is the apologist that suggests the witnesses testimony is some sort of quality evidence. The obvious critique is that not all witnesses are of the same value and the witnesses were in fact carefully selected, not a typical feature of "witnesses." The argument refutes the quality and objective nature of the witnesses asserted by the apologist. As usually, the apologist resorted to strawmen and false accusations of ad hominem attack.
The apologist link above concludes that the witness had both a tangible and spiritual experiences, something not in dispute. The fact they end in concluding something not disputed pretty much says it all. Ojective evidence tells us there was some sort of plates, just like the Voree Plates and the Kinderhook plates actually existed.
“Witnesses” lol. Imagine an exchange like this in a court of law…:
Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Witness: I do.
Prosecution: Did you see the defendant steal the car?
Witness: I did.
Defense: Did you see this in the same way you see your hand right now in front of your face?
Witness: No, I prayed about it, and then I saw the defendant steal the car with my spiritual eyes, as one sees a city through a mountain.
Defense: We rest our case, your honor.
OK, we've been over some of this before, but let me remind you:
1) parallelism is a big part of Hebrew scripture and often results in couplets or other structures where things sure look wordy to us. Choosing to write with "flowery" parallelism as a style choice does not mean that Jarom was wrong about not having space for massively long accounts.
2) In written Hebrew as well as in Egyptian scripts, sometimes a simple mark can convey wordy meaning in English, like "and the" or "and it came to pass." So we see lots of those phrases and think they are being wordy, but it's the translation that is bulky, not necessarily the strokes engraved by a scribe.
EBU, hey, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I have to admit I've enjoyed some of your remarks and appreciate some of your perspectives, in spite of often disagreeing. Anyway, nice to hear from you again.
Here's how that court of law would actually go.
Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Witness: I do.
Defense: Did you see the defendant steal the car?
Witness: I did.
Prosecution: Did you see this in the same way you see your hand right now in front of your face?
Prosecution: But didn't you say that you prayed about it, and then saw it with your spiritual eyes, as one sees a city through a mountain?
Witness: No, I didn't; what would that last part even mean?
Prosecution: I don't believe you. If you had really seen it, you would have just said "yes."
Witness: I just did.
Prosecution: How can we believe anything you say if you're going to respond to things in such a roundabout way that doesn't actually answer the question?
Jeff, yes, we’ve been over some of this before. But the wordiness of my two examples does not stem from parallelism, nor from any necessary expansion of compact Hebrew forms. And anyway if a writer were truly hard up for space it seems to me he would eschew the excess verbiage sometimes entailed by Hebrew poetics. What I see in those passages (and many, many more) is not an author with limited space to write, but an author committed to mimicking the sound of the KJV.
Ramer, If you’re not satisfied with the example I used above, let me give you another one, with which you might be more familiar, that also shows the lunacy of the “testimony” of the Book of Mormon “witnesses”:
[W]e also testify that we have seen the engravings which are on the plates; and they have been shown to us by the power of God, and not of man…. [A]n angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates….
Witness: I saw it with my own eyes. An angel of God came down from heaven and showed me the defendant committing the crime.
Defense: We rest our case.
Ramer is a well known troll who describes his own type of behavior as demeaning others and twisting their words, describing his own type of position as anti-Christian.
Mormography, name one time I've described myself as doing any of that.
Double Standard Ramer – I will take your bait troll. As you just seemed to confess, you only accuse others that engage in your type of behavior. Name one time anyone here has describe you as taking personal responsibility for your behavior.
EBU, you make it sound like we just can't know what the translation process of the Book of Mormon really was like or whether there were plates or anything. But this requires overlooking extensive data from many who saw or handled the plates in some way and who saw or participated in the translation process. Not all were LDS. For example, from non-LDS Michael Morse's 1879 interview, we learn this: "When Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the scribes Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down." (W.W. Blair interview with Michael Morse, Saints Herald, vol. 26, no. 12, June 15, 1879, pp. 190-91.)
We know far more about the Book of Mormon and its translation than any other volume of scripture, and the extensive evidence regarding what happened with its production can't be swept away so easily.
The "academics" who claim years of preparation must be based on the old misunderstanding that Joseph was telling Book of Mormon stories for years. This comes from a highly questionable quote attributed to Joseph's mother. It's not reliable evidence. There's no contemporary evidence that any such story-telling or preparation regarding Book of Mormon content was going on. It was produced in a very short period of time.
Yeah that quote is highly questionable.
Joseph in the Wentworth letter claimed to have been "informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me."
I'm sure he never shared any of that information with his family. It's so questionable that the church has been publishing Lucy's quote in its official documents for years.
Jeff, you tend to throw away long accepted stances of the church whenever it's convenient and try to pretend like they never existed (see plural marriage as another example). This seems disingenuous to me.
Jeff needs the quote to be highly questionable, not that it is. Even the LDS admit the "tutoring" sessions by Moroni, leading his brother Alvin's death bed insistence that Joseph get the plates.
It just like when Jeff says "We know far more about the Book of Mormon and its translation". We probably know more about the Book of Mormon translation than the septuagint, but it is a massive stretch to then say we know more about the Book of Mormon.
Fiddler On The Roof and tradition. The apologists are not defending a religion any more; they are defending family and tradition. Jeff believes in the transfiguration of Brigham Young despite the academics view because it was his ancestor, as a child, that supposedly witnessed it. The critics usually point out that Joseph Smith’s father was a drunkard. It is interesting how Jeff will readily suggest that Joseph Smith’s mom was old and confused. Throw one Mormon family under the base to save another. Millenium of tradition kept the Jews a vibrant people, so more power to the Mormons (who see themselves as the modern Jews), avoid substantive theological discussion and just keep the tradition alive!
The Wentworth Letter indicates that Moroni gave him an obviously brief overview in 1823 regarding the rise and fall of his people. He obviously knew there had been a great civilization that was destroyed. This doesn't mean that he had developed a detailed storyline and text to go with it. And recognizing the limitations in a one-off late quote from an elderly mother isn't throwing anybody under the bus. Recollections decades after the fact that appear as outliers aren't reasonable ways to build a theory for who something was done.
Joseph was not a noted and skilled story teller before the Book of Mormon came out. Being able to tell stories in any case doesn't explain how a text like the Book of Mormon could be produced, a text with intricate consistency, abounding in apparent Hebrew wordplays and poetical devices, with spot-on accuracy for the journey across Arabia, etc.
So, “Joseph was not a noted and skilled story teller before the Book of Mormon came out”?
That would explain why the Book of Mormon is not a skillfully told story.
Everyone agrees several years passed between announcement of the he book of Mormon and it's translation, you just don't accept that time was used the rehearse it. Nothing wrong with that. Jospeh did not have to rehearse, because Lehi and nephi did it for him, each retelling the same story in slightly different ways. Declaring Wentworth an outlier seems a little convenient. Pomeroy Tucker, etc. And not just Joseph, mound builder myths etc were common.
View of the Hebrews came out in 1823, so I figure Joseph had about seven years to think about and compose the Book of Mormon. 🙂
Besides the time frame and who recorded the quote, one must consider whether or not it is plausible that Lucy might have said something like that. Her quote does not seem out of character for her or Joseph, or for what we know was happening with Joseph and his family in the years leading up to the creation of the BoM ie: the common knowledge in the community about Joe Smith's golden bible, the knowledge of his family about the plates and his story of visits from angels from the BoM. To dismiss that quote merely because it looks like a literary smoking gun and provides a clear explanation as to how the story could have been fabricated is short sighted on your part.
Also, we know Joseph was a passable enough story teller for people to pay him to find treasure on their land. Why not leverage that talent in other areas?
Also, amen to OK. The BoM isn't a skillfully told story–just ask Mark Twain.
Writing tends to come out of a setting that produced other writings like it. From a certain people, tribe,time period known for making that sort of thing. Yet, coming from ancient America, the B of M seems unlike any other book. Well, God does things people can't. Where does that leave us?
Joseph got the source text from upstate New York. Did that region produce any other ancient texts like the Book of Mormon? The short answer is, well, no.
God virtually always works through human agents, and what they do usually fits into patterns. One of these is that cultures that produce one example of a type of writing tend to–almost always do–produce other such examples as well. Style is similar; content is likely to be similar; language, method used to record or preserve the writing are some of the ways we can see the writings are related.
The Mayans produced some writings that can probably be called books, with the most impressive one called the Popol Vuh, about the creation story and who the local kings (compare them to B of M prophets) were. In the book Maya, 1985, p. 26-27, Charles Gallenkamp writes: The "Maya developed a hieroglyphic script . . . the only true written language ever invented in ancient America (unlike the rebus, or picture writing, used elsewhere in Pre-Columbian Mexico). . . .The glyphs are unrelated to any European or Oriental linguistic roots."
Assuming he's correct, it seems safe to say Mayan writing bears no relationship to Book of Mormon writing.
I wrote this because I've heard the B of M praised and critiqued, but I've not heard anyone say, "Wait, if you have these 500 pages of very inspirational writings, where is the literary tradition it came from?"
Where is its family?
The B of M even says there is more stuff like it but we don't have it because the "Lord's own due time" for us to have it hasn't come. So it claims a family but we haven't received the other members, 185 years later.