Not to beat a dead Nephite horse, but I’d like to say a few more things about Lehi’s dream and the lessons learned through exploring hypermodern theories of modern fabrication for Nephi’s record. Some of these issues touch upon questions raised by commenters in my recent posts on Lehi’s vision where I feel further information is needed. Other topics are areas for further exploration.
1. The Straight and Narrow Path: Evidence of Plagiarism or of Translation?
Some critics see evidence of plagiarism or modern origins in Nephi’s language about the “straight and narrow path.” First, I must say that I agree with John Welch’s very thoughtful and intelligent discussion of the confusion around “strait and narrow” versus “straight and narrow” in John S. Welch, “Straight (Not Strait) and Narrow,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/1 (2007): 18–25, 83–84. He argues convincingly that the word should be “straight” as it was printed in all editions of the Book of Mormon until 1981.
Whether “strait” or “straight,” the direct combination with “narrow” does not occur in the Bible, but does occur in Pilgrim’s Progress, a widely known Christian tome published by Paul Bunyan in 1678. In a dream, Goodwill tells the protagonist, Christian, that there are many ways that go down, “and they are crooked and wide; but thus thou mayest distinguish the right from the wrong, the right only being straight and narrow.” Did Joseph plagiarize from Paul Bunyan?
The phrase is actually older than Pilgrim’s Progress. The use of “straight” near “narrow” is, of course, found in Matthew 7:13-14:
13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Welch explains that “Had the Lord said, ‘Strait is the gate, and straight and narrow is the way,’ it would have been more descriptive but less poetic.” But there is really no need to specify the shape of the path in this bit of poetry. Crooked, winding paths are already ruled out in the scriptures His audience would have known (e.g., Deut. 5:32-33; see also Ps. 5:8 which asks the Lord to “make thy way straight before my face” and Isaiah 40:3, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”).
Bunyan was not the first to see that Lord’s narrow path was also straight, not just strait take the Lord’s words and move “straight” and “narrow” a little closer together. According to Welch:
Cyprian, a church father of the third century, in an apparent paraphrasing of Matthew 7:13–14, wrote, “How broad and spacious is the way which leadeth unto death, and many there are who go in thereby: how straight and narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there are that find it!” He also wrote, “We must persevere in the straight and narrow road of praise and glory.” (Cyprian Treatise 12.3.6, “Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], 534, and Epistles of Cyprian 6.3 (in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 5:284), both as cited by Welch).
Origen also wrote of the “the straight and narrow way, which leads to life” (Origen, Commentary on John 10.28, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 10, ed. Allan Menzies [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969], 408, as cited by Welch).
Welch attributes the popularity of the phrase to Bunyan’s influence. However, a search of Google Books shows it was also in use in modern English, or rather, Early Modern English, before Bunyan’s day, when the Early Modern English era was nearing its end. For example, the opening page of John Dee’s 1591 “Dr. Dee’s Apology” sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks of the “true, straight, and most narrow path” of Christians. Two examples from 1632, both in a Christian context, include a work by Richard Hooker et al. and a work by Robert Chetwind, have “straight and narrow.” Examples are easier to find using a database of Early Modern English such as Early English Books Online proximity search at the University of Michigan. There, I can see, for example, a poem published by Robert Albott in 1600 with “For straight and narrow was the way that he did showe.” In 1608, Thomas Bell wrote, “First, that the way to heauen (that is to say Gods commaundements) is very straight and narrow, not wide and long, or easie.” I also see examples of “straight and narrow” in non-religious contexts, indicating that the pairing was more useful than just paraphrasing scripture. There are many dozens of examples to consider, with many obviously referring to the way to salvation.
One noteworthy point is that “straight and narrow” was not only part of English vocabulary in Joseph’s day, but was also part of the vernacular of Early Modern English (which still includes Bunyan, though he was near the end of the period). I mention this because an important observation about the language of the Book of Mormon–not a theory that we Mormons need to buttress our faith, but a fact-based observation that we are struggling to understand–is that much (not all) of the language of the Book of Mormon shows strong influence from Early Modern English in ways that are not readily derived from the KJV Bible, almost as if there were tight control to give an English text that was often moved away from the English of Joseph’s day or from KJV English into something slightly earlier and strangely different, yet plain and familiar, readily understandable to English speakers (unlike some Early Modern English). With this came grammar that is bad by modern standards by acceptable in EModE, a story we’ve covered here before. For now, the important thing is that “straight and narrow,” though related to the KJV, is not a direct KJV phrase, but was an established phrase before Bunyan came along While its presence in the Book of Mormon may come from Joseph’s own vernacular, as we would expect with a translation, it is also consistent with the unexpected observation that there are many times of possible tight or “semi-tight” control giving text laden with an Early Modern English approach.
One skeptic who objected to the idea that “straight and narrow” could not be explained by being part of Joseph’s vocabulary if I also think that there was tight control with words given to Joseph Smith. “You can’t have it both ways!” But I have it both ways all the time when I translate, as do many others in translation work. I turn to automated tools or Chinese friends who give me words directly, but I may edit those myself or do translation in my own words at other times. Normal translation is a complex process and the Book of Mormon itself shows much complexity in the language used. If any mental effort was required from Joseph, and it appears that it was, then his mind and language was not entirely separated from the text. The fact that he edited parts of the text after it was dictated and copied in subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon, often taking out some of the best Hebraisms or Early Modern English characteristics, suggests that his mind was involved to some degree.
Further, using a well-known phrase that has entered into the common vocabulary of a language is not plagiarism. Those who speak of quantitative easing, global warming, a black swan event, a utopian society, etc., are drawing upon recently developed phrases that can legitimately be used in an original work because they are part of our language now, as “straight and narrow” was in Joseph Smith’s day, and as it was in the Early Modern English era. Whether the account of Lehi’s dream was dictated with tight control using an Early Modern English base text or “setting” of some kind, or whether it was translated more loosely in Joseph’s own vernacular, as a translation drawing upon either modern or Early Modern English, “straight and narrow” can be used to describe the path leading to eternal life even if that is not literally how the straightness or strictness of the way was expressed on the gold plates themselves. It’s a plausible term to use in a translation and is not a sign of “plagiarism.”
2. A Rod or a Railing? Active or Static?
Joseph was presumably familiar with railings and fences. Why not describe the rod as such in the text? “Rod” is not a common way in modern English to describe the function of what we perceive as a common railing in Lehi’s dream. But it is a terrific word for an ancient Semitic text. “Rod” conveys the meaning of authority and divine power. In the Old Testament, the word “rod” is introduced in Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai, when the Lord asks a significant question: “And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod.” The rod of Moses would become a tool for smiting enemies or overcoming the barrier to liberty and bringing the Israeilites to the promised land, just as the rod in Lehi’s dream brings us to the tree of life. The rod can be used as a weapon to thwart enemies of God, as does the rod of iron in Psalm 2:9, and the smiting rod in Isaiah 10:24 and 11:4. In the latter verse, the Lord “shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,” showing a connection to the role of the rod as the “word of God.” Similar action against the wiles of the adversary is a also function of “the word of God” (in context, implicitly the rod, IMO) in Helaman 3:29. The rod from the stem of Jesse is a Messianic symbol (Isaiah 11:1). All these uses provide relevant context for the significance of the rod, as it might have been understood in Nephi’s world. (It is often said that Psalm 2 came after the exile. For evidence of a possibly more ancient origin, see William H. Brownlee, “Psalms 1 – 2 as a Coronation Liturgy,” Biblica 52, no. 3 (1971): 321-336.)
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi first uses the word rod in an interesting scene in 1 Nephi 3:28-29, where the rod is used both as a tool for smiting and implicitly as a symbol of authority:
 And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me, and also with my father; and also was Lemuel, for he hearkened unto the words of Laman. Wherefore Laman and Lemuel did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers, and they did smite us even with a rod.
 And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands.
The angel not only spares Nephi’s life, but challenges the use of a rod by the wicked brothers. The question isn’t merely “Why do ye smite your younger brother?” but why do they smith him with a rod? This is followed by a challenge to their leadership status: “Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you and this because of your iniquities?” The right to wield the rod is Nephi’s, not his elder brothers’. Here the rod is a misused symbol of authority as well as a smiting tool.
With that context having been established, I suggest it is improper to neglect what Nephi and other scriptures already have told us about the symbol of the rod when we encounter it again in Lehi’s dream. Obviously the rod, however it was portrayed, was much longer than a typical scepter. It extended along a bank and led to the tree of life. But that doesn’t make it a modern railing. Those who gained the benefits of the rod “caught hold of the end of the rod of iron” and then pressed forward by “clinging to the rod” (1 Nephi 8:24), and finally reached the tree of life by “continually holding fast to the rod of iron” (1 Nephi 8:30). The interaction with the rod seems to be one of grabbing and not letting go. This could be advancing along the rod, one grip or handhold at a time, but the language leaves open the possibility that the rod might have been extended toward people on the bank to then pull them toward the tree of life if they would but grab the end and hold on, contrary to the image we tend to have of moving along the rod as we do with a conventional railing. Perhaps the rod as “word of God” played a more dynamic role in leading, guiding, and shepherding people (see the quote from Margaret Barker below on this idea), while also being able to “divide asunder” the cunning, the snares, and the wiles of the devil as does the word of God in Helaman 3:29, and to “land their souls” in the kingdom of heaven (Helaman 3:30). In any case, it’s a dream and elements don’t have to have normal dimensions and properties.
Nephi continues using the word “rod” in his writings. In 1 Nephi 17:41, he refers to a active use of the rod to “straiten” the Israelites in the wilderness as he juxtaposes the rod of Moses with the story of the brass serpent on a pole:
And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.
The rod of Moses, famous for its association with serpents in Exodus 4, is linked here with the brass serpent on a (rodlike?) pole, and the overall effect is to “straiten” the Israelites, or to guide them on a strait (narrow) course that, like the yoke of Christ, is easy but often rejected. Here the rod, the Messiah, and the straight and narrow path are associated. Later uses of “rod” by Nephi are in quoting from the Old Testament, where the smiting action of the rod is mentioned several times (2 Nephi 20: 5, 24, 26; 21:4, 24:29, 30:9).
In 2 Nephi 3:17, the rod as a symbol of power is found in a prophecy of the Lord given to Joseph the ancient Hebrew and recorded on the brass plates, possibly in the Egyptian script or language that Joseph may have used: “I will raise up a Moses; and I will give power unto him in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing.” In this couplet, the rod and writing are linked, possibly drawing upon the Egyptian language wordplay in which “rod” (mdw) means “words,” in line with the apparent word play in Lehi’s dream where the iron rod is explicitly identified as “the word of God.” See Matthew Bowen, “What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?,” Insights 25/2 (2005). In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “word” is the symbol of the walking stick, a rod, as you can see in Wikipedia’s entry, “Walking stick (hieroglyph).” I find this potential word play to be highly interesting and not the kind of thing one would think up on the fly after being impressed by an aqueduct in Rochester, or even with leisurely study in 1829. These findings either support ancient origins for Lehi’s vision or provide just one more case of Joseph making a lucky guess in his innovations. Let’s at least give that lazy plagiarizer a little innovation credit.
Adding further credibility to the argument for ancient roots of the iron rod as portrayed in the Book of Mormon, non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker writes:
Consider as well the mysterious rod of iron in this Book of Mormon vision (1 Nephi 8: 20; 11: 25). In the Bible, the rod of iron is mentioned four times as the rod of the Messiah. Each mention in the King James Version says the Messiah uses the rod to “break” the nations (Psalm 2: 9) or to “rule” them (Revelation 2: 27; 12: 5; 19: 15). The ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) is significantly different; it understood the Hebrew word in Psalm 2: 9 to mean “shepherd” and it reads, “He will shepherd them with a rod of iron.” The two Hebrew verbs for “break” and “shepherd, pasture, tend, lead” look very similar and in some forms are identical. The Greek text of the Book of Revelation actually uses the word “shepherd,” poimanei, of the Messiah and his iron rod, so the English versions here are not accurate. The holy child who was taken up to heaven (Revelation 12: 5) was to “shepherd the nations with a rod of iron.” The King James Version of Micah 7: 14 translates this same word as “Feed thy people with thy rod,” where “guide” would be a better translation. Psalm 78: 72 has, “He fed them … and guided them,” where the parallelism of Hebrew poetry would expect the two verbs to have a similar meaning: “He led them … he guided them.” Lehi’s vision has the iron rod guiding people to the great tree—the older and probably the original understanding of the word. (Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John S. Welch [Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press: 2006], Kindle edition, section “White Fruit and a Guiding Rod.”)
Let’s don’t make the mistake of projecting modern views of iron railings into Lehi’s dream and then finding that the iron rod is too modern to be from an ancient text. Iron rods, pillars, and bars are attested in the Old Testament and could have been known and recognizable to Lehi and Nephi, with symbolism and even linguistic aspects relevant to Nephi’s usage in an ancient era. Lehi’s dream and the rod of iron fits the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon better than a modern railing from Rochester in Joseph’s day.
3. New Insights on a Temple Gone Dark: The Use of “Spacious” in the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon’s use of the term “spacious” is another interesting twist in this story. That word is not used in the King James Bible, but is consistently used in a negative context in the Book of Mormon. And in most cases, possibly all, it has an architectural connection (buildings). Thus we have “spacious buildings” (Mosiah 11:8-9), referring to Noah’s “elegant and spacious buildings” and “spacious palace,” and then Mormon’s condemnation of Riplakish, who taxed the people to “build many spacious buildings” in Ether 10:5. But before we read of the great and spacious building, Nephi introduces spacious to describe a field, of all things. But there’s something unusual about this field and the other words used to describe it in 1 Nephi 8, as Nephi quotes Lehi:
 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
A large and spacious field? As if it had been a world? Huh? This always sounded very odd to me–until I read D. John Butler’s book, Plain and Precious Things: The Temple Religion of the Book of Mormon’s Visionary Men (2012), available at Smashwords or Amazon for a pittance.
Butler identifies numerous temple themes in Nephi’s writings, and explains how the three parts of the ancient Jewish temple are reflected there, as I previously mentioned in a 2012 post, “A Temple Gone Dark,” (before I noted the use of “spacious” elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, which strengthens the argument made there). Among the three parts of the Jewish temple, first is the ulam, often translated as “porch,” a room that may be roofless or very tall. Then comes the hekal, the main middle room. That word literally means “building” or “great building.” A high, lofting building. And then comes the debir, the holy of holies, representing the presence and power of the Lord.
As Lehi begins his travel in the dream, he encounters a “dark and dreary wilderness” that joins a “large and spacious field, as if it had been a world” (1 Nephi 8:20). The Hebrew word ulam for the first part of the temple is very close, almost identical in sound, to olam, the word that means “world.” In Butler’s view, there is a Hebrew play on words linking the great and spacious field, “a world,” to the temple’s ulam. If “a world” is a play on words linked to the courtyard of the temple, then “spacious” again could convey an architectural sense. There is a great and spacious courtyard, but dark and dreary from apostasy.
After the ulam comes the hekal, the “great building.” Recall Lehi’s words of what he saw after the spacious field/world/ulam, describing:
a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. (1Nephi 8:26-27)
The word “fine” is used repeatedly in the Old Testament to describe the clothing of the priests in the temple, not secular clothing. The people with the fine clothing in the great and spacious building include the priests of the temple in a sinister hekal, part of Lehi’s dark temple experience. Butler also compares the fumes of incense that are part of the hekal with the mists of darkness that lead people astray. The waters of life that are part of many temple scenarios in ancient literature are replaced with filthy waters that lead people astray.
Only those who resist the corrupt religious establishment of his day and the temptations and pressures of the adversary, clinging to the word of God (the iron rod) can make it past the dark ulam and sinister hekal and arrive safely to the debir and the tree of life, also rich in temple imagery.
As is so often the case, there is much, much more going on in the Book of Mormon than meets the eyes of a casual reader rushing through the text. There also appears to be much more going on that can plausibly be attributed to an unschooled farmboy rushing through many pages a day of non-stop dictation with no other documents before before him. Consistency, depth, intrigue, and even clever word plays seem to abound. In my view, this is not the kind of stuff anybody could make up on the fly after bumping into a four-story building near a river and an aqueduct. The most reasonable dating for Joseph’s visit to Rochester in July 1829, after the Book of Mormon was already written, only slightly increases the overall implausibility of Rochester’s buildings, bridges, aqueduct, river, books, and maps as the source for Lehi’s dream, Lehi’s trail, or anything else in the Book of Mormon.
4. The Whiteness of the Fruit
While Rick Grunder found an 1838 publication boasting of the abundant fruit in New York, nearly every state has fruit trees and regions that are well known for fruit (Washington apples, Georgia peaches, California and Florida citrus trees, Wisconsin’s Door County for cherries, etc.). But finding fruit in New York to explain the fruit of the tree of life is hardly interesting, and doesn’t address what really stands out in the Book of Mormon: the unique white fruit of the tree.
Grunder argues that the tree of life vision was created after a June 1829 (actually it was probably July) visit to Rochester, when Joseph was finishing the Book of Mormon as he translated the small plates of Nephi at the end of the translation process. This fails to account for the many references to the words and teachings from the small plates that are woven into the rest of the text, such as Alma 32 where the word of God is compared to a seed that can be planted in our heart and then grow, if carefully nourished, into a tree of life. Alma’s description of the tree of life mirror’s Lehi’s, for it “is sweet above all that is sweet, and … white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst” (Alma 32:42). Compare that to 1 Nephi 8: 11-12:
 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
Nephi also tells us in 1 Nephi 11:8 that “the beauty [of the tree of life] was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” This is not a New York apple tree, unless there’s been some kind of serious industrial accident.
Margaret Barker was impressed with Lehi’s description. In the section “White Fruit and a Guiding Rod” of her above-cited chapter in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, she writes:
The tree of life made one happy, according to the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 3: 18), but for detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the noncanonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruit like grapes (1 Enoch 32: 5), and a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruit like white grapes. 21 I do not know of any other source that describes the fruit as white grapes. Imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruit made one happy, and the interpretation that the Virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh (1 Nephi 11: 14–23). This is the Heavenly Mother, represented by the tree of life, and then Mary and her Son on earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 bce.
There’s on old joke about a man on his hands and knees looking for something on the ground under a streetlight one night. A passerby asked him what he was doing. “Looking for a lost key.” Where did you lose it? “About a block down the street, I think.” So why aren’t you searching there? “Because the light is better here.” Searching for parallels in the modern era is more convenient, but it’s not the right place to fairly evaluate the Book of Mormon.
As is often the case, when looking for parallels to a text in the wrong place, something can always be found, what is found may not be not as meaningful or informative as the parallels encountered when one searches nearer the source. The fake “keys” to the Book of Mormon from Joseph’s environment don’t really open the book to us. They don’t fit the data. And in the case of Rochester and Pilgrim’s Progress as purported sources of a major section of Nephi’s writing, they fail on numerous counts and don’t come close to offering plausibility or explanatory power for the riches that are there.