One of the most astounding aspects of the Book of Mormon is the intricate detail it provides regarding its sources. As largely compiled by the military leader and master historian, Mormon, and concluded by his son, Moroni, the Book of Mormon relies on numerous documents, including the brass plates brought from Jerusalem around 600 BC, Nephi’s small plates with many authors, the large plates, the Jaredite record, and then a host of sources drawn upon by Mormon or others such as the record of Limhi, military reports, epistles, etc. Through it all, we are frequently told where the information came from and who is writing or editing it.
Far more than just acknowledgement of sources is involved. The Book of Mormon gives us intricate details on the creation, transmission, preservation, and reliability of those sources–in other words, abundant details on provenance.
In this way, the Book of Mormon is quite different than the Old Testament, where we are often left to wonder who wrote which parts of the various texts. For those interested in the Documentary Hypothesis and the various ways ancient scribes and editors may have compiled and redacted their texts, the data from the Book of Mormon should be a welcome reference point for detailed study.
But not only does the emphasis on record keeping and provenance in the Book of Mormon differ strongly from what we have in the Bible, it also differs radically from record keeping practices in Joseph Smith’s day. The record keeping aspects of the Book of Mormon often seem fairly normal to modern readers because it reflects our modern understanding of good practices in dealing with historical records, but those practices were largely absent in Joseph Smith’s day, as an archivist, Anita Wells, has explained. Anita has a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, and recently published an outstanding examination of the record keep issues in the Book of Mormon that many of us gloss over or take for granted. See Anita Wells, “Bare Record: The Nephite Archivist, The Record of Records, and the Book of Mormon Provenance,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 24 (2017): 99-122. An excerpt follows (see the original for the references deleted here):
Some historic tablets and scrolls indicate that scribes signed their work and noted the lineage of copy transmission.Yet the idea of record provenance, which traces the chronology of ownership and custody of records to document their authenticity, was a nineteenth and twentieth century development by European archivists. In the mid-nineteenth century, American interest in the past grew with the formation of historical societies (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) to honor the dying colonial generation. However, American society experienced a slow beginning in organizing historical records. As a historian noted, “the handwritten world of colonial records did not adopt a sophisticated recordkeeping system. Discussions on colonial records and recordkeeping mostly focus on individual or organizational negligence or natural damage by fire and water.” It was not until the twentieth century revolution of typewriters and duplicators (and further digital transformations) that record keeping changed dramatically.
The resources for a historian in Joseph Smith’s era would have been limited, insofar as library access, organization, and retrieval went. A nineteenth-century frontier historian searching through volumes of early Plymouth history or Harvard College’s records would not have the benefit of alphabetical arrangement, indices, cross-references, and topical searches, as these concepts were in their infancy. Additionally, more advanced archival principles like chain of custody, keeping fonds (an archival group of papers) together (officially known as “respect des fonds”), and archival integrity were nascent at the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
While archival methodology began to move in new directions around 1830 (interesting coincidence of date) in Europe, it was not until the early twentieth century that these ideas became accepted on a widespread level in the United States:
Although archives have existed for thousands of years, much of the archival paradigm — not unlike that of library science — coalesced between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Several key treatises and manuals codifying archival theory and practice were published between 1830 … and 1956. … The most influential of these was the Manual on the Arrangement and Description of Archives, written in 1898 by Dutch archivists … which brought together the French and Prussian ideas of respect des fonds and provenance. The translated manual was widely disseminated and was a major topic of discussion when librarians and archivists met for the first time for an international congress at the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. As a result, the concept of provenance was adopted by the congress as the basic rule of the archival profession.
Consider how the above information affects our understanding of Book of Mormon studies: the archival profession as we understand it now did not exist in Joseph Smith’s time. The concept of provenance (a record of ownership to guide claims of authenticity) and chain of custody (documenting that record of ownership) was not identified. The Bible, Joseph’s main resource for an example of ancient writing at the time he translated the Book of Mormon, gave very little indication of who wrote it and how its records were copied and transmitted throughout the ages. These ideas were not something anyone in the mid-nineteenth century could have held a working conceptual knowledge of that would allow their incorporation into the Book of Mormon. Provenance is a modern convention used today and developed in the past century to validate claims (notably in art auctions); Mormon made the chain of custody and provenance of his record abundantly clear from millennia prior. As “questionable provenance can still create an atmosphere of distrust,” conversely a secure, credible provenance can foster belief. The Nephite authors were doing something unknown from biblical texts, and unheard of in Joseph Smith’s day.
Anita makes the point that the treatment of provenance in the Book of Mormon fulfills the modern expectations associated with that term, including these issues pertaining to evidence for provenance: “Is the record (1) what it says it is, (2) in continuous possession by each individual who had possession, and (3) in substantially the same condition until it passed into the next person’s custody?” Analysis of the information provided in the Book of Mormon account, including its final transmission to Joseph Smith and its translation, provides a powerful and very modern “yes” to each of these questions. Thus, the Book of Mormon provides evidence for its provenance and reliability in a surprisingly modern way that was not part of the paradigms used by either farmers or professional record keepers in Joseph Smith’s day. And while that paradigm is not found expressed in the Bible, it is a reasonable paradigm for an ancient, literate society highly reliant on and dedicated to preserving ancient sacred records.
Perhaps we will find more of the archivist’s attitude as we recover more preserved records from other ancient Americans in the past, where in Mesoamerica we can see remnants of several ancient literate societies, most of whose ancient books and documents were destroyed by the Spaniards.
A final except from Anita Wells:
Richard Bushman noted that “in between Nephi and Moroni, we never lose sight of the records. Their descent is meticulously accounted for … [and] the Jacobean record tells us step by step of the passage from one record-keeper to another. For a time in Omni, the transmission of the records was nearly all that was written about. Throughout the Book of Mormon, there is a recurrent clanking of plates as they pass from one record-keeper to another. To my mind, it is noteworthy that there is nothing like this explicit description of records and record-keeping either in the Bible or in books current in nineteenth-century America” [Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 68-69]. Science fiction author Orson Scott Card explained that written hoaxes are a product of their time, easily unmasked by later scientific understanding. If the Book of Mormon was purely a Joseph Smith creation, how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers. Yet the more we learn about archival provenance and chain of custody, the more remarkable it is to discover the precise documentation of such practices in the Book of Mormon.
64 thoughts on “The Surprisingly Modern Book of Mormon: The Perspective of an Archivist”
I was just thinking the other day that Mormon and Moroni seem to be much better historians than either the old testament scribes or the early Christians of the new testament. To me this is one of the ways the BoM can be "the most correct" of any book on earth. It's certainly the most transparent scriptural record we have available, and the archival practices of the Nephites likely allowed them to tell the distinguish history from myth in a way that would've been much harder for scribes collecting stories about the patriarchs (or even stories about Jesus).
It's certainly the most transparent scriptural record we have available….
Well, except for the fact that we don't have any copies available in the original language.
We can trace extant biblical manuscripts, in the original languages and undeniably ancient, back for nearly two millennia. We can trace extant NT manuscripts back to within a century or so of the time of the originals.
Not so with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon was supposedly composed between ca. 600 BC and 400 AD, yet the earliest extant text dates back to … 1830. And as I said, that earliest text is in English, purportedly "translated," by a treasure-seeker peering at a rock in a hat, from an original that was subsequently taken away by a supernatural being.
Not very impressive.
Remember, people, that what Jeff is boasting about here is not an actual provenance for the Book of Mormon, but a description of a provenance within the Book of Mormon.
But the impressive part is the complete description of provenance within the Book of Mormon that was translated by a treasure-seeker peering at a rock in a hat. It is impressive because such a description of provenance is out of step from the current academic culture from which it sprang. That is the point of the article.
Your posts are somewhat good until you start spouting MesoAmerica, MesoAmerican as if it is the only correct area for the Book of Mormon place setting, and as if it is settled and verifiably true. It is not. Therefore you are misleading people, lying.
“how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers.”
How much more so if it had been authored millennia earlier? This chain of custody concept is another example of how self-aware the BoM is. This self-awareness is evidence of its creation as a text rather than a historical document.
Another fun discrepancy from Jeff above is in regards to the question “2) in continuous possession by each individual who had possession,” which he claims is answered with “a powerful and very modern ‘yes.’” Apparently he has forgotten the claimed period of the plates being buried in the hill Cumorah. I wouldn’t call that “continuous possession.” The plates not being around or verifiable also throws a wrench in the continuous possession claim as OK has stated above.
I don't think enough has been said or examined regarding the fact that SO MUCH of the Book of Mormon is written in autobiographical first person, a form that really didn't exist in the ways displayed until much, much later. No one wrote like that, let alone allll the way back to the supposed Tower of Babel myth. Yet Joseph Smith asks us to believe EVERY ONE of the Book of Mormon authors adopted this form. Nonsense! It would be like asking the reader to believe Herman Melville wrote in comic book format.
"Apparently he has forgotten the claimed period of the plates being buried in the hill Cumorah" — no, that's taken into account. Just like putting a document into a safe and then taking it out later, if there's no evidence that a thief broke in and altered a carefully stored document, then provenance remains secure. Keeping something in a safe place for later retrieval is a standard practice in careful record keeping.
Keeping something sacred in a stone box also happens to nicely fit Mesoamerican culture. And no, talking about Mesoamerica and recognizing it as the only plausible location for the account in the Book of Mormon is not lying. It's my carefully considered conclusion that we've debated here a number of times, with what I feel are overwhelming issues fitting Mesoamerica and nowhere else. The presence of volcanic and seismic activity near the time of Christ and the existence of extensive literacy and a tradition of keeping written records being just two of many factors.
“if there’s no evidence that a thief broke in and altered a carefully stored document, then provenance remains secure”
What if there is no physical evidence that the original document actually existed in the first place? At that point you’re discussing divine provenance, which isn’t the purview of archivists.
Also, are the guarding of said records by supernatural being and that being later absconding with the records also “standard practice[s] in careful record keeping”?
It’s a ludicrous statement to even infer that there is anything “standard” in a chain of custody discussion involving the origins of the Book of Mormon.
K.R., normally a post to a URL alone looks like spam and either gets blocked by Google or deleted by me. I suggest you add some description of what the site is and what the document is so people can have reason to trust it and not assume it's just spam or perhaps something malicious. I did check and it seemed OK in this case, but I'm usually not going to bother checking in similar cases. Thanks, though.
OK, if we had the plates authenticated in a museum and had a nice 3D, surround-sound holographic, time-stamped and blockchain-secured video of Moroni presenting them to Joseph Smith, I don't think you would be any more accepting of the Book of Mormon or the Church given that your opposition is openly motivated by your hostility to our moral teachings. You'd find something to sneer at no matter what.
Laugh at the hat thing as you must, but it's a miracle taking place before our eyes to have Joseph dictating the intricate text at a prodigious rate without the use of notes, including dictating KJV passages without using a Bible, while adding numerous plausible and sometimes highly meaningful changes and a host of Old World intricacies beyond anything scholars in his day could have managed. Doing the translation the way he did is far different than spending years drafting and revising a text. It's one of many miracles related to the Book of Mormon that demand the dangerous and brave act of opening one's mind to the possibility that this text really is something other than a fraud.
“Old World intricacies beyond anything scholars in his day could have managed.” I’m not sure why you think you have the ability to predict what is or isn’t possible for someone to accomplish. It only betrays your lack of imagination and faith in human ingenuity. Be brave enough to open your mind to the possibility that this text could be produced by Joseph.
Also, back to the idea of Book of Mormon self-awareness as it relates to “dictating the intricate text at a prodigious rate.” Note how often the book excuses itself for possible errors. This betrays a paranoia on the part of the author that no matter how carefully contrived the story, he may have overlooked details, or come up short in connecting with existing scriptural canon. It’s not a practice one would expect to see in an autobiographical account.
Thanks, it was great to see that the ideas in my article resonated with you and other readers. I found the concept so striking and powerful as I examined it in depth.
One more just for fun:
If the Book of Mormon was purely a Joseph Smith creation, how he did or did not include lineage and custodial authorship information should conform to nineteenth-century manners and ring false to modern readers.
This statement is false, Jeff. There are plenty of works of 19th-century fiction in which some elements ring false to modern ears, and other elements ring true to modern ears. Some elements of Frankenstein (such as its association of organic life with galvanism) seem mired in the 19th century, while other elements (e.g. its criticism of masculine heroics and of scientific utopianism) ring quite true to us today. A good deal of literary criticism boils down to arguing about which elements of a work reflect its milieu and which transcend it to ring true today. (Anyway, if you're up for the exercise, I invite you to recast Wells's basic argument as a syllogism so you can see how ridiculous it is.)
Even more ridiculous than Wells's argument is the idea that it's a miracle taking place before our eyes to have Joseph dictating the intricate text at a prodigious rate….
A miracle taking place "before our eyes"! Not my eyes, Jeff, and not yours either. Unless, of course, you're referring to our spiritual eyes. Ha ha. If only I had such eyes, I could be the 12th witness.
It's not the rock in the hat we laugh at, Jeff. We laugh at the ludicrous attempts to make that into something other than what it so obviously was. So too we laugh at the gullibility involved (before our eyes!). Really, though, we shouldn't laugh, both out of charity and because there's nothing funny about the power of religious indoctrination.
See how the author attempts to create distrust in the Bible. Further demonstrated by his followers such Rasmussen. I am sorry they feel that way. They are openly motivated by their hostility to "improper" Christian authority.
Anons observe "This self-awareness is evidence of its creation as a text rather than a historical document" and "autobiographical first person" are evidence against the Book of Mormon origin claims, but obviously no amount of evidence will make the Mormons anymore trusting of the Bible, the body of Christ, or understanding the Spirit.
One small camp (the Mormons) and one large camp (Chrsitians) say the Spirit tells them different things. Someone is confused. Blogs such as this prove it is the Mormons that are confused.
It is interesting that Mormons call those that question the Book of Mormon origin claims anti-Mormon. To be consistent, their distrust in the Bible would make them anti-Christian.
Anita, I really enjoyed your paper. I appreciate the different perspective and approach to the subject matter. Also I noticed you studied at Drexel University. That's my Alma Mater too!
What part of any of this is attempting to "create distrust in the Bible?" What "hostility to 'improper' Christian authority?"
no amount of evidence will make the Mormons anymore trusting of the Bible, the body of Christ, or understanding the Spirit.
Since Latter-Day Saints already trust all of these, this is technically true.
Ramer – Welcome to Christianity. Glad to have you in the body of Christ. Please help Mormons and especially the LDS come to your and my understanding that Christians, like you and I, also have "priesthood" "authority" to baptize, that the Book of Mormon is nice, but not necessary given that the New Testament contains all that we need for salvation. Though the extremely few LDS you know may trust all these things, the fact is the majority do not.
While that response contains many blanket statements, falsehoods, and jabs at Latter-Day Saints disguised as concern for their supposedly non-Christian wellbeing, it doesn't answer the question I asked.
Again, what part of the post is attempting to "create distrust in the Bible?" Where is any sort of "hostility to 'improper' Christian authority" seen?
What falsehoods? Your false claim of falsehoods pretty says it all. It appears your concern is with the Blog Administrators definition of "hostility" and "anti". You will have to ask the Blog Administrator why he uses those words the way he does.
Hi Anon 1:43PM Oct 26,
Nit picking here – when you mention that the New Testament is all we need for salvation, I am sure what you meant to say is that the New Testament testifies of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is all we need for salvation. It is an important distinction that we don't worship the book though I am of the opinion that sacred books should be handled with care.
The Book of Mormon is another book that testifies of the divine nature and role that Jesus Christ plays in our salvation.
Steve – oh ok, thanks. So no nit pick to the fact Mormons r not the only Christian's w "preisthood" "authority" to baptized. Especially given neither the book of Mormon nor the new testament claim there is such a thing as "improper" authority and have ZERO examples of a baptized christian needing to be rebaptized w "proper" authority and God and Jesus made zero mention of "improper" authority as a reason for joseph Smith not to join another religion in the first vision.
Also, no nit pick to trusting the New Testament when the apostles Paul says it does not which christian baptizes another in 1 corin 1 and 4 eph that says mormons r to cease and desist to to divide Christians into valid and invalid authority
Actually, the Book of Mormon does refer to proper authority to baptize in 3 Nephi 11:18-27. I don't know about the bible specifically referring to authority to baptize, but it does refer to authority to give the gift of the Holy Ghost in Acts 8:18-19, and there actually is an example of baptized christians being rebaptized when they did not receive the Holy Ghost after baptism- Acts 19:1-5.
Also, I'm not finding the reference to mormons in Ephesians.
No Baker, in 3 nephi, it refers to authority only. Not "proper" authority and it was a priesthood which nephi already possessed. Yes, Baker we all know 3 nephi and Mark in the new testament r what r referenced by Mormons. The mark referenc mentions "authority" to preform miracles not baptism. With regards to miracles the new testament also says only faith is required for miracles, indicating that the Mormons have invented a different definition of authority. Especially given nephi is given "power" for Authority he already had. The counsel in 3 nephi 11 is similar to 4 eph and 1 corin 1 to avoid the he current Mormon cultural position that what Christian baptizes another matters. This is an long standing errant spirit of contention that should pass
Christian's r followers of Christ, not of John, even if Jesus himself was a follower of John.
So Baker, after all your hunting those were the only weak groundings u could come up with for the keystone mormon, anti-Christian theology of authority. Telling.
I hunted for about 10 seconds. Moving the goal posts, huh? Telling.
Yes u r. Telling. Suggesting John the Baptist did not have "preisthood" "authority", now that is new one. Anyways, u r confessing that is all u capable of finding and they don't come close
Yes ur moving the goal posts.
So, Baker, do you wish to address the actual goal posts? Or were you are the wrong side in the war in heaven? Surely you understand that my original goal posts had 3 Nephi 11 and Mark specifically in mind? Notice the quotations marks around "improper":
Especially given neither the book of Mormon nor the new testament claim there is such a thing as "improper" authority and have ZERO examples of a baptized christian needing to be rebaptized w "proper" authority and God and Jesus made zero mention of "improper" authority as a reason for joseph Smith not to join another religion in the first vision.
Especially telling how 3 Nephi 11 says neither "proper" or "authority", but you added them to make them fit your goal posts.
Baker provides us an excellent of example of how the keystone theology of Mormon anti-Christianism evolved overtime. After a few years of the Book of Mormon, the leadership realized the Book of Mormon was not enough to cement their power over other humans. As Baker demonstrates, the goal posts needed to be moved. With no record of the John the Baptist apparition in the first years of the church, the invalid/valid, improper/proper priesthood concept evolved, moving the goal posts from the Book of Mormon to a mythical appearance of John the Baptist which only one other person supposedly witness and they were too busy to tell anybody about for a couple of years.
Before this thread, I chatted with a Missionary on Mormon.org. We discussed 3 Nephi 11 and authority. The young lady had the same befuddled difficulties as Baker. Like Baker, she ran away with gnashing of teeth as I pointed out to her that there was no mention of authority in the first vision.
Authority is mentioned 52 times in the Book of Mormon. Jesus gives his disciples power and authority to baptize in 3 Nephi 11. Alma invokes the authority he had to baptize in Mosiah. Also Oliver Cowdery wrote in his journal the manifestation of a John the Baptist on May 15, 1829. Also D&C 27 recorded August 1830 refers back to the manifestation of Peter James and John in May of 1829. So priesthood authority occurred early. The scriptures being translated teaches it and it was given to them before the church was organized not late like you are claiming. Also Moroni taught Joseph about the necessity of authority as early as 1823 during his annual visitation and tutoring.
Careful interacting with that anon, everyone. I'm starting to think they are the same person as a previous regular known as "Mormography," a notorious anti-LDS commenter that some consider a troll, and who I suspect might be narcissistic.
Jason – So no discussion of improper/proper or valid/invalid authority in the Book of Mormon? I give you power to respond. Besides, if some of the things you wrote were true you could publish a book or win an amateur historian award. But your impulse to make these things up shows the powerful psychological forces involve.
Ramer – Why does the term anti-Christian bother LDS so much? Especially when they so lightly call others anti-LDS and they expressed such virulent anti-Christian?
Jaason – Oh, in case you did not get it, the winning an amateur award was an allusion to Van Wagoner, who was neither ex-communicated or labeled anti-LDS.
RAmer – narcissistic, u mean like going door to door and spending a life time demanding attention for your own self important Superior preisthood and when those that already have faith in Jesus, repentance, the Bible, and baptism express skepticism accuse them of lacking sincerity and name call them?
"Jason – So no discussion of improper/proper or valid/invalid authority in the Book of Mormon? I give you power to respond."
You have neither power nor authority over me so I'm not sure how you have given me any power to respond?
I don't think you understand the nature of authority. Either a person has authority over something or they don't. There is no such thing as "improper" authority. "Improper" authority as you term it is having no authority at all. The Book of Mormon is clear that the 12 disciples of the Nephites needed authority. Jesus gave them power in 3 Nephi 11:
"21 And the Lord said unto him: I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven.
22 And again the Lord called others, and said unto them likewise; and he gave unto them power to baptize. And he said unto them: On this wise shall ye baptize; and there shall be no disputations among you."
A few verses later we read that the baptismal wording is:
"Having authority given me of Jesus Christ…"
This is very clear that Jesus gave authority to baptize and organize his church to the disciples in the new World. In fact it was after translating this verse on May 15th 1829 that Joseph and Oliver went to a nearby grove to pray to inquire about the priesthood authority. This is when John the Baptist appeared to them and ordained them and taught them how to baptize each other.
"Besides, if some of the things you wrote were true you could publish a book or win an amateur historian award. But your impulse to make these things up shows the powerful psychological forces involve."
I cited my sources. What I wrote isn't made up.