Reason #89: LDS “scripture” scholarship

What is so amazing about Royal Skousen’s “critical text” of the BofM published by Yale University Press?

It’s that Mormons are touting it as being “on a par with” the “critical texts” of the Bible — that is, a look at different original language (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic) sources for the Bible.

What’s the problem with this comparison? There are no original language sources for the Book of Mormon. Only the English that Joseph Smith thought sounded Biblical. And the fact that even with supposed direct, hands-on revelation over a period of just a few years, there could be so many English versions of the BofM.

For more information, see The Mormon Mirage 3rd Edition:  A Former Member Looks at the Mormon Church Today(Zondervan, 2009). Also available as an audiobook and as an expanded-text E-book for Nook, Kindle and other reading devices.

10 Comments

  1. BHodges
    Aug 25, 2009

    Your comments seem to be based on a misunderstanding of both “critical texts” and Biblical text criticism.

    There are many different types of critical texts. Critical text analysis is a type of literary criticism where one analyzes any text (in any language) in order to establish the “correct” or “earliest” reading possible. The “original” text does not need to be extant in order to do such a project. Further, textual criticism need not apply only to texts which have been translated from one language to another.

    In regards to Biblical critical text scholarship, there aren’t any known extent originals. What we have to base Biblical critical texts on are copies of copies of copies. So when we look at critical texts of the Bible we are looking at the earliest known sources, regardless of language, and trying to determine what those earliest sources said. For an easy-to-read primer on the subject you might be interested in Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” (HarperSanFrancisco. 2005). While I don’t agree with all of Ehrman’s conclusions, it is a good and brief overview of Biblical “higher” criticism that a layman can grasp. Moreover, the Bible is a collection of books and leters and so forth. It was not given from heaven to earth in one piece. To establish a critical text of the Bible is to try and discover the earliest autographs and then determine precisely what they say.

    You also state: “And the fact that even with supposed direct, hands-on revelation over a period of just a few years, there could be so many English versions of the BofM.”

    I am not sure what you mean by this statement. A critical text project can be based on one known text if that is all that is available. There need not be a host of texts to compare. Dr. Skousen has taken the earliest manuscript from the dictation of the Book of Mormon and the printer’s manuscript that was copied from it in order to set the type for publishing. He also has looked at all changes to the text up to the present edition. By so doing he has sought to compile the “earliest text,” just as the Yale site explains.

    In sum, calling the book “on par” with critical texts of the Bible is entirely accurate.

    -Both involve books which religious groups deem as scripture.

    -Both seek to discover the earliest autographs and then determine precisely what they say.

    -Skousen’s work follows extremely rigorous and academic analysis, like the best Bible critical texts do.

    -One significant difference is the age of the documents. The Book of Mormon text is more contemporary than many Biblical critical texts. However, the goal is the same.

    Skousen’s work is best analyzed and judged by the methods and goals he has clearly outlined. He has sought to discover the original manuscript text of the Book of Mormon. The result of his 20+ year analysis is an exciting publication for students of American religion, and Mormons most especially.

  2. admin
    Aug 26, 2009

    Dear BHodges,

    I apologize for the informal address; since you did not sign your comment it is not possible for me to address you in any other way.

    I believe you have underestimated my knowledge of textual criticism and are unaware that I have taken master’s level classes in textual criticism (and literary criticism as well, for that matter) and my education in Biblical languages. Although I appreciate your attempt to explain what you see as the basics of textual criticism, we must disagree on several points.

    First of all, if you knew what “higher criticism” means in Biblical scholarship, I doubt you would enlist higher critics to support your contentions. One of the bases of higher criticism is the contention that the Bible is not an inspired document and is simply the product of human endeavor. Such an understanding cannot be reconciled with the LDS 8th Article of Faith. Therefore if you are saying that Skousen’s work is a work of higher criticism, that by definition says he is treating the Book of Mormon as an uninspired document. Is that your contention?

    Secondly of all, the only way that a document of the scope of Skousen’s work (with an extremely finite number of modern “source materials” and their variants) can be compared with something correlative would be with textual criticism of another piece of 19th century fiction. To say that his work is “on a par” with Biblical scholarship demeans the wealth of the Bible’s history, documents, and discipline. (You are wise to dismiss from your contentions the notion of original languages because of the utter absence of anything in literature, archaeology, or any other supportive discipline of the imaginary “reformed Egyptian.”)

    Finally, we have written testimony of Joseph Smith regarding the Book of Mormon: of its manner of translation – including the famous account of words not disappearing until Smith had written them down correctly and other mechanics that were meant to assure an error-free document. At each step of literary production from that moment forward inspired priesthood authority could have squelched all variants (and negated the need to carry on for a century and a half such things as “white and delightsome” that was changed to “pure and delightsome,” for instance.)

    And for that matter, why in the world would there be so many ongoing variants from an extant source document within the lifetime of the writer who claimed it was provided by plenary inspiration?

    I do not doubt Skousen’s diligence and methology. I rather imagine Yale’s publication of the book attests to that. But the very work he has produced is perhaps the most powerful witness I know of the lack of inspiration of the Book of Mormon and the LDS priesthood authority and corporate structure that produced, maintained, and continues to support it.

    For those of us who believe the Bible to be an inspired document in its autographs, to say that Skousen’s work is “on a par” with Biblical scholarship is not just an arrogant overstatement, it is preposterous.

  3. Bruce Mac Arthur
    Aug 27, 2009

    Recognizing my lack of “credentials”, I begin by stating that Dr. Scott’s comments are completely consistent with everything that I have ever read on the topic; I concur with her analysis.

    I am concerned by several facts.

    FIRST, the fabled “golden plates” were NEVER observed by the physical vision of ANY human being! An informed and intelligent person can hardly be faulted for wondering if they ever existed at all! If they didn’t exist, they could not have been translated — in any responsible use of that word. And if they could not be translated, then ANY “translation” is obviously bogus!

    If, on the other hand, they DID exist, where is the empirical evidence of that fact? And why do we have absolutely NO evidence of what was inscribed on those plates? The true God of the universe has left plenty of evidences of His word; the Mormon god dared not do so.

    SECOND, Mormon writing imposes upon us serious confusion as to what language was supposedly inscribed on those plates — was it Reformed Egyptian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese, or what? Biblical Christians know that confusion originates with Satan. And, if even the identity of the written language is so thoroughly in doubt, what is the basis for confidence in its alleged translation? Who can vouch for the translation of a language which cannot even be conclusively identified?

    THIRD, there is no evidence that any of the early Mormons was competent either to work with or to analyze work with ancient writing of any kind. John Doyle Lee knew Joseph Smith, and came to be able to communicate with some of the Ute and Paiute Indians — but he never “dared” to deal with the ancient languages. This means that there never was anyone who was basically competent to be a “witness” to the Book of Mormon.

    FOURTH, so-called “witness” of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris, formally recognized his incompetence — as he took a scribling to Dr. Charles Anthon for evaluation! Although there is a document which is called “the Anthon transcript”, it is not at all like the document which was physically described by Dr. Anthon! Not only is the physical layout radically different, but (if we are foolish enough to believe the story found in the Pearl of Great Price) some of the REAL document was an English translation which nobody else has ever seen! And Dr. Anthon identified the document he saw as a deception.

    FIFTH, “textual criticism”, in the sense of seeking to know the “original form” of a document, is not applicable to the Book of Mormon. All that is needed to have this effect is for the LDS Church Historian’s Office to publish the manuscript — the “hand-writing” — itself. We already have the printing of March 26, 1830, so very little verification of the proof-reading is necessary.

    If we are silly enough to accept ANY of the stories of how the Book of Mormon was “translated”, then Joseph Smith was essentially nothing more than another piece of a mechanical process (precisely as Dr. Scott has already mentioned). Therefore, he never had any real understanding of what was written! Therefore, once he had returned the fabled plates to the fabled angel, even he himself had absolutely NO empirical basis for modifying that which was written “by the grace and power of God”. This means that — especially IF the 1830 edition were the very Word of God (preposterous!) — the highly-edited subsequent versions (from Joseph Smith’s time through our own) are NOT.

    BETWEEN completely non-existent source documents (such as rubbings from the plates), total lack of visual witnesses, total lack of linguistic competence within the early Mormon community, and numerous other “Problems With The Mormon Text”, Mormonism can be sincerely believed, but it cannot be accepted intellectually by any properly informed person. In this environment, “textual criticism” of the Book of Mormon is intellectual fraud — at best.

  4. BHodges
    Aug 27, 2009

    Latayne:

    I can appreciate your credentials but have to disagree on a few points.

    First, as pertaining to “higher criticism,” I apologize for any misunderstanding. You appear to approach the concept from a fundamentalist mindset, (though I could be wrong) seeing higher criticism as necessarily proclaiming the Bible to be merely “man made.” However, higher criticism does not preclude the possibility of revelation. Not all higher criticism demands no interplay with God and revelation. Bart Ehrman engages in both textual and higher criticism in the book to which I referred. He seeks to determine earliest readings based on the available texts and also draws conclusions about authorship, inspiration, etc. This distinction is important, but those who hold to Biblical inerrancy or infallibility struggle to grant the distinction. In other words, in citing Ehrman, I do not indicate complete agreement with any of his conclusions. Instead, I hoped to to demonstrate how careful analysis of textual evidence can yield interesting work, and controversial work.

    I don’t wish to conflate “higher criticism” and “textual criticism,” two subjects which intersect, but often have different methods and goals. Higher criticism can involve textual criticism, but it is not a 1 to 1 term, though some use it interchangibly (as you appear to).

    You beg the question when you state the BoM can only involve ” another piece of 19th century fiction.” To clarify what Skousen’s project is, quite simply: an attempt to provide, through literary and textual analysis, the “earliest” text. This does not include faith claims of the book, it is simply the “earliest text.” The same procedure can be (and is) done on extant texts of the Bible (though no original autographs exist) to determine earliest known texts. You appear to want to address the argument from a “faith claim” angle rather than what I am attempting to address, namely: it being the scholarly result, an “earliest text.”

    As a side note, you mention the “utter absence of anything in literature, archaeology, or any other supportive discipline of the imaginary ‘reformed Egyptian.'”

    This is simply not so. A hybrid Hebrew/Egyptian/Pidgeon concept (called “reformed Egyptian” in the text of the BoM) was ridiculed by contemporaries of Joseph Smith, and some critics today employ the same claim, as you have. However, several examples of reformed Egyptian scripts have been discovered. See William Hamblin’s overview here:

    http://mi.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=36

    You might disregard that publication because of its publisher. In that event, please carefully follow the footnotes Hamblin provided. This evidence is from non-Mormon scholars.

    As for translation descriptions we have many different accounts. They all need to be collected into one place for full analysis which is a project that is actually ongoing as we speak. Also, Brant Gardner has some great new work coming out dealing with the witness accounts. Finally, Royal Skousen himself has some opinions on the subject which I linked to in this post you are responding to, I advise checking them out.

    You noted **”Finally, we have written testimony of Joseph Smith regarding the Book of Mormon: of its manner of translation – including the famous account of words not disappearing until Smith had written them down correctly and other mechanics that were meant to assure an error-free document.”**

    The grammar is ambiguous in this claim but the statement can be taken in at least 2 ways. First, you might mean that we have witness statements regarding the translation from people who were with Joseph Smith as he translated. Or you might mean we have descriptions of the translation from Joseph Smith himself that describe the things you mention (spelling and word accuracy, etc.)

    In regards to the first possibility, that you are referring to various witness statements *other than* Joseph Smith’s, many of the few direct witnesses describe a process (years later) of JS reading directly from the seer stone and not allowing any errors, or making sure names were spelled correctly, etc. These witness statements should be analyzed historically for accuracy and authenticity compared with the evidence at hand. We must determine whether they are direct written statements, hearsay, news reports, or first or second hand, as well as determine the time elapsed since the translation of the Book of Mormon was actually witnessed. They also need to be compared against competing descriptions for similarities (and as some witnesses gave several explanations over time, these need to be compared for consistency). Finally, the witnesses never mention actually looking into the seer stone to see how it worked or to see what JS saw. Statements describing something the witness couldn’t have observed need to be closely analyzed. For example, you’ll note that none of the statements mentioning these particulars (by Emma Smith, David Whitmer, or Martin Harris, for example) attribute their description to JS. They made guesses about aspects of the translation they did not actually witness in order to create a whole picture to the bes of their ability.

    In regards to the *second possible reading* of your claim, that we have “statements of Joseph Smith,” or statements from him, that describe these particularities, that simply isn’t the case. So far I have been able to discover only eight actual descriptions on record from Joseph Smith himself discussing the translation, and in each case he simply states that he did so “by the gift and power of God.”

    You ask about variations, such as “pure” and “white” changes. Why variations? Because Mormons are not scriptural inerrantists of infallibilists. JS himself made changes to the BoM between editions (he was he one who changed “white” to “pure,” and this was done in 1841).

    You said: **”For those of us who believe the Bible to be an inspired document in its autographs, to say that Skousen’s work is “on a par” with Biblical scholarship is not just an arrogant overstatement, it is preposterous.”**

    Again, I think you might misunderstand the claim. Scholar Grant Hardy said the Skousen project is at a “professional level on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship.” Keep in mind you oversimplify when you say “Mormons” are call it “on par.” Further, Hardy is not committing the fallacy of the perfect analogy as you seem to assume. Of course there are differences between Skousen’s work and other textual criticism of the Bible, no one is claiming otherwise. (You seem to believe such a comparison somehow demeans the Bible, and on that point we will have to disagree.) Beyond that, though, Hardy’s point is that the approach, scholarship, thoroughness, etc. of the Skousen project are on par with the “professional level” of similar work on the Bible. Because both are considered scriptures by some people or the invention of man by other people (or perhaps some combination of the two) I believe the comparison is appropriate and apt.

    Best,

    BHodges

  5. BHodges
    Aug 27, 2009

    As for the second comment from 1:33pm, I stopped reading after your first claim: “FIRST, the fabled “golden plates” were NEVER observed by the physical vision of ANY human being!”

    This is simply false according to the historical record. If we are faithful to the historical record the evidence shows that the eight witnesses and the three witnesses (and a few others) actually looked at and handled the physical plates. Various critics of the church have attempted to distort the actual historical record for polemic purposes. See “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” by Richard Lloyd Anderson. You can read it here:

    http://mi.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=14&num=1&id=357

    Or check out the topical guide from FAIR on the subject here:

    http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon_witnesses

    Since the first point you made was false prima facie, I decided it would be best not to use more time going over your subsequent points.

    Best,

    BHodges

  6. admin
    Aug 27, 2009

    Dear Mr. Hodges.

    I’ll go back to my original contention and try to explain it.

    1) I never called into question any of Skousen’s methodologies, character, nor scholarship. Nor did I ever question the methodology of trying to determine the original (Smith) text of the BofM.

    2) I did say that “Mormons” are calling his work “on a par” with Biblical scholarship. You quote Grant Hardy. He is LDS, right? Your blog quoted Hardy – in fact was where I first saw the “on a par” statement. You are LDS, right? The people who commented on your post, at least some of them who were congratulating the post, are LDS, right? So why would I not say Mormons are saying that?

    3) Begging the pardon of Dr. Hardy, but the differences between a critical text of a single-language 19th century document whose writer claimed to be inspired and who said he had produced “the most correct book” and then within his lifetime (and later under supposedly equally-inspired prophets) produced this many textual variants under their inspired supervision has no parallel in Biblical scholarship.

    4) Finally, your appeal to http://mi.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=36 made me very happy. Of course the Egyptian language underwent revision (the Rosetta Stone itself showed that.) Of course ancient languages adapted each other and wrote in each other’s script/language (the Septuagint shows that –nothing new there.) Of course ancient people in the East wrote on metal as well as on other materials. None of those concepts are new – and it is the only information on that Internet document that I saw that was from non-LDS sources (except Nibley and you’ll have to excuse the fact that his credibility as a scholar is increasingly in question)– But where is there any example of reformed (or regular) Egyptian hieroglyphics and/or record-keeping on metal plates in the Americas? So I return to my original contention: there is no evidence for New World reformed Egyptian written on metal plates as a lingustic source for what Smith wrote (and rewrote.) Therefore again there is no parallel nor justification for comparing Skousen’s work to Biblical scholarship – which for its validity, especially when treated with “higher criticism,” looks at original languages and also seeks verification from archaeology, linguistics, sociology, and other disciplines.

    (Please, be objective here. Would you accept any scholarly look at a book of the Bible – or any other document of antiquity — if that work had no access to the original language, and had no corroborating documentation from the time, culture, and languages of the source language?)

    5) Finally, you said you refused to read the post of another person on my blog, http://www.latayne.com because of your contention that the BofM witnesses said they saw the plates. Please, even LDS scholars including Dan Vogel would strenuously disagree with you.

    Here’s the problem. I remember being a faithful Mormon and giving talks in church. If I quoted from the book of Mormon and wanted to know what a word meant, I 1) looked it up in an English dictionary or 2) saw what McConkie or some other GA said about it or 3) saw how the word was used in other places using a concordance.

    But look at the wealth of scholarship available regarding the Bible! If it’s koine I can see how Greek writers of the day used it. I can see how the tenses of the word affect the reading. I can read about Hezekiah’s tunnel or Paul’s Philippian jail cell or Temple Mount – and even go and visit them!

    Please, don’t call the lining up of Joseph’s Smith’s self-corrections on a par with Biblical scholarship.

    And please don’t read too much into the fact that I am returning to other writing projects and probably won’t respond to further posts.

    If however you provide information that changes my mind about my original post, I’ll be the first to let you know it. One very good thing about being a former Mormon is that I do know what it’s like to find out that I have been wrong.

  7. Latayne C Scott
    Aug 27, 2009

    Dear Mr. Hodges:

    The comment you responded to, posted at 1:33, was not posted by me; but I do not disagree with its contents. I am sorry that you chose not to read it.

    Latayne C Scott

  8. BHodges
    Aug 27, 2009

    Latayne:

    **”I did say that “Mormons” are calling his work “on a par” with Biblical scholarship. You quote Grant Hardy. He is LDS, right? Your blog quoted Hardy – in fact was where I first saw the “on a par” statement. You are LDS, right? The people who commented on your post, at least some of them who were congratulating the post, are LDS, right? So why would I not say Mormons are saying that?”**

    It’s a matter of being precise. I quote many people on my website and I do not always agree with those whom I quote. If that doesn’t concern you that is your choice.

    **”Begging the pardon of Dr. Hardy, but the differences between a critical text of a single-language 19th century document whose writer claimed to be inspired and who said he had produced “the most correct book” and then within his lifetime (and later under supposedly equally-inspired prophets) produced this many textual variants under their inspired supervision has no parallel in Biblical scholarship.”**

    Well, you seem to be calling not only Dr. Hardy’s judgment into question, but Yale Press and their publicity folks. But again, you are hung up on truth claims. I don’t care to debate truth claims with you, most especially in regards to this Skousen project. (Your “quote-mining” of Joseph Smith is one reason I feel disinclined to engage. “The most correct book” statement has simply nothing to do with your notions of infallibility of scripture.)

    With regards to Reformed Egyptian you are merely shifting the goalposts. Again, I am not interested in a polemical debate. It should be known, however, that your assertion about there being “no Reformed Egyptian” is false, as Hamblin demonstrates. You add several more qualifiers that depart from your original contention. Location has simply nothing to do with the existence of a reformed Egyptian script. You would have to argue that all or many people in lands near the Book of Mormon lands kept records on plates. The Book of Mormon itself contradicts that position, the plates were limited to the one group, and they didn’t keep making them. But this is entirely peripheral to Skousen’s text project.

    **”Please, even LDS scholars including Dan Vogel would strenuously disagree with you.”**

    Dan Vogel isn’t an “LDS scholar,” he is a former-Mormon-turned-atheist. But even still, that is not relevant to his actual arguments, and his work on the witnesses has been demonstrated to be severely flawed by other historians. I am not interested in trading expert opinion with you, though. Please refer to the analysis of his claims as linked to above. See also http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon_witnesses/Spiritual_or_literal, and the bibliographical references there.

    In sum: your original blog post (and subsequent arguments) are merely victims of the fallacy of the perfect analogy. You also incorrectly conflate textual criticism with higher criticism and misunderstand the actual nature of Skousen’s project.

    I do appreciate your comments though, because they have assisted me in better articulated my own, and for that I thank you and wish you the best. :)

    Take care,

    BHodges

  9. admin
    Aug 27, 2009

    Well, I’m content to let Mr. Hodges have the last word because it so clearly explains a certain mindset; and equally wish him the best.

    Latayne

  10. BHodges
    Aug 31, 2009

    Grant Hardy has also sounded off to clarify his remarks regarding the project being “on par.” You can check it out here:

    http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2009/08/hardy-says-skousen-project-on-par-with.html

    Thanks for the conversation, Latayne.

    Best,

    BHodges

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