What if we could put the CES Letter to good use? Let’s face it–whether you love it or hate it, the CES Letter (and its derivatives) will never completely go away. For those in the dark, the “letter” was a 2013 book-length bullet list of common intellectual arguments questioning religious and historical claims of Mormonism (and the LDS church in particular). The latest incarnation is called CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts instead of Letter to a CES Director: How I Lost My Testimony, but the points essentially remain the same. What if we could use the CES Letter as a springboard to actually learn something? To acquire tools for more informed discussion on difficult topics? After all, there’s always new research on Mormonism emerging from both amateurs and academic scholars.
FairMormon suggests the CES Letter is not wholly erroneous, though that organization strongly objects to what it sees as additional spin, mistakes, and falsehoods. LDS scholar Patrick Mason views the CES Letter as successful in critiquing a certain kind of Mormonism, but he counters, “…I don’t think the Mormonism [the CES Letter] is responding to is actually the real, only, or inevitable Mormonism. Certainly, that was some people’s Mormonism, but it’s not my Mormonism, and I don’t think it’s the Mormonism that is going to endure in future decades and centuries.”
I strongly believe good information needs to be more easily accessible for those who want to better understand common complaints against the church. Admittedly, there’s already a lot of responses and rebuttals to the CES Letter (it’s been out for over 4 years, after all). The best single-post response I’ve seen is from fellow W&T blogger churchistrue at his personal blog. The FairMormon website is the best at addressing each concern individually.
Even with all that, I still haven’t quite seen what I’d want if encountering these topics for the first time. I wouldn’t just want one opinion; I’d want to look at issues from multiple angles (if possible). More importantly, I’d want to know options of where I could go to dig deeper. So I’ve decided to start a new series following the structure of CES Letter 2.0, methodically covering the criticisms and providing broader context. The number of concerns covered per post will depend on length (today it’s only three-ish). Since the posts obviously reflect personal bias, I’m hoping commenters will chip in with additional resources and viewpoints they’ve found helpful.
The target audience is members of the church, though I hope others can benefit as well. Since Mormons have a culture of suspicion when it comes to online sources (yay for you getting this far!), I’ve made a point to highlight resources on the church’s suggested list for seminary instructors released last summer. That list differentiates between official websites (content endorsed by the church), third-party websites affiliated with the church, and third-party websites unaffiliated with the church. Below, I mark official websites on that list in green (LDS Scriptures, Gospel Topics, Joseph Smith Papers, etc.), third-party affiliated websites on that list in blue (Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies, Religious Studies Center, etc.), and third-party unaffiliated websites on that list in red (FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, Interpreter, etc.). I’ll also link to other websites, some sympathetic to the church, some critical, and some straight-up antagonistic. I like seeing the different points of view, but skittish members who want to stick to highlighted resources from the church’s list should still be able to get a sense of the complexity of the issues.
The CES Letter attempts to make arguments based on reason, and I’ll attempt to do the same. Apologetics is the fancy word for defending religious claims using intellectual arguments, and many of the resources on the church’s list, and in my posts, are considered apologetic in nature. Note: some people feel intellectual arguments shouldn’t be applied to religious truth claims, either for or against (hence the common advice to deal with criticisms by increasing faith with scripture study and prayer). It’s a valid position, but it may not work for everyone.
CES Letter: Book of Mormon
The CES Letter introduces the Book of Mormon section with two quotes, one by President Ezra Taft Benson and another by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. These quotes establish the premise that the church’s religious truth claims hinge on the Book of Mormon. Thus, each of the eleven concerns use different methods to call the validity of the Book of Mormon, however you want to define that, into question. (Due to the length of the CES Letter’s Book of Mormon section, this commentary will be split among multiple posts.)
King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Mormon
1. What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon?…
2. When King James translators were translating the KJV Bible between 1604 and 1611, they would occasionally put in their own words into the text to make the English more readable… What are these 17th century italicized words doing in the Book of Mormon?…
The first two points cover the dependence of the Book of Mormon on the King James Version of the Bible. The CES Letter, surprisingly, only mentions minor concerns of translation errors and italics. At the Religious Studies Center, Daniel Belnap gives a basic overview of the problematic similarities between the two texts, from simple phrases (footnote 9 quotes Philip Barlow, “More than fifty thousand phrases of three or more words, excluding definite and indefinite articles, are common to the Bible and the Book of Mormon”) to long passages nearly verbatim. The simple answer is Joseph consulted a local bible, but the few witness statements we have of the translation process tend to agree no outside material was used. If the witness statements are to be trusted, those who believe Joseph truly translated the Book of Mormon from ancient text via the seer stone are left scratching their heads. This article highlights two options: Joseph Smith created his own wording from concepts given to him (loose translation), or Joseph was a conduit receiving every word with exactness (tight translation). Evidence exists for either theory. Regardless, it doesn’t exactly clear up why KJV language was used. (Note: for those who believe Joseph Smith authored the book himself, they also get to explain how Joseph recited long biblical passages while staring into a dark hat.) For more on the mechanics of the Book of Mormon’s translation, see the Gospel Topics essay.
But this is only part of the problem. The CES Letter doesn’t mention the larger issue of anachronistic content (inconsistent with the time period). The most famous is the book of Isaiah, though issues possibly exist with other biblical books (especially the New Testament). Let’s look at Isaiah as an example. Nephi had access to many books similar to our Old Testament on the brass plates up to the time he left Jerusalem around 600 B.C. So it makes sense he had the writings of Isaiah, a prophet who lived a century earlier. The problem is the current scholarly consensus says a good portion of our book of Isaiah was not written by the biblical prophet but, instead, by people involved with the Babylonian exile after Nephi left Jerusalem. The Book of Mormon quotes some of those chapters of Isaiah attributed to these later authors, so how could Nephi have access to them? The timing doesn’t make sense with current scholarship, thus anachronistic.
Through much of the 20th century, LDS scholars didn’t have any problem suggesting Joseph Smith used a KJV Bible to assist with translation. From Volume 3 of a FARMS Book of Mormon critical text project (available at the Maxwell Institute website), editor Robert F. Smith wrote in 1987,
In the course of this basic research project, we have made a number of text critical discoveries–several of which buttress what Roberts, Sperry, Vest, and Larson (and others) have noted about the strong likelihood that Joseph Smith (and Oliver Cowdery together?) utilized a King James Bible for comparison when translating clearly parallel sections of text.6 From our notes in III Nephi, for example, we can select words which are located in the midst of parallels to Matthew 5 & 6, Isaiah 52 & 54, Micah 5, and Malachi 3, which read in accordance with the 1828 H. & E. Phinney edition of the King James Bible and against both the 1611 and current KJV. This not only demonstrates Joseph’s strong bond with the KJV, but even tells us which possible edition, or editorial family, he (or Oliver) had in front of him on those rare occasions when it became useful or efficient. (p. iv)
Shortly thereafter, BYU English and Linguistics professor Royal Skousen‘s work analyzing the text of the Book of Mormon seems to have pushed apologists (those defending the church) to more firmly reject the idea of Joseph consulting a KJV Bible. This can be seen in some 1990s interplay between strong church critics and LDS apologists. The 1993 book New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, edited by Brent Metcalfe and published by Signature Books, had two essays arguing for Joseph Smith’s authorship by highlighting biblical Book of Mormon problems, “The Historicity of the Matthean Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi” by Stan Larson (quoted at the CES Letter website) and “‘In Plain Terms That We May Understand’: Joseph Smith’s Transformation of Hebrews in Alma 12-13” by David P. Wright. In a 1994 edition of the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon (available at the Maxwell Institute website), several articles were published in response to those essays. Davis Bitton responded to Larson’s article, suggesting that perhaps Joseph picked up biblical phrases while skimming the Bible previously, or maybe he had a phenomenal memory and used those words when convenient (same reasoning others used with consulting a Bible, but without the Bible), or maybe God gave Joseph the words directly. John Tvetdness argued against Wright’s article, positing that Alma and Hebrews were both drawing from older material available to Alma on the brass plates. John Gee rebutted both Larson and Wright by contending, “The eyewitnesses to the translation process deny that a Bible was used, and there is circumstantial evidence that Joseph may not have owned a Bible at that time.” Royal Skousen also responded with witness statements, and he shared research supporting the translation as a stream of dictation. John Welch responded to Wright by arguing that Genesis is a better source text for Alma 13 rather than Hebrews, so it’s not anachronistic. Five LDS responses to KJV plagiarism accusations; none suggesting the possibility that Joseph Smith consulted a physical KJV Bible in translation.
Current theories for believers about how KJV language entered the Book of Mormon run the gamut. With the traditional loose translation position, all content on the plates is from ancient Nephite records, but the KJV wording can be attributed to conscious or subconscious decisions by Joseph Smith to use more familiar framing. The older tight translation position is every word was given directly to Joseph by God, and God delivered it in the KJV language best understood by Joseph and his contemporaries. A newer hybrid of these theories is gaining ground with an angelic translator in the wings (like Nephi or Moroni). This absolves Joseph of any responsibility, as he was just a conduit for someone else’s wording, and puts the imperfect composition on another individual struggling to make an ancient text understandable to an early 19th-century American audience. (At the Maxwell Institute, Roger Terry summarizes these various positions in his review of Brant Gardner’s The Gift and Power: Translating the Book
of Mormon.) Edited to add: This shift towards arguing for a separate translator is, again, influenced by Royal Skousen’s work on the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project. Skousen has a controversial theory that meanings of many English words used in the Book of Mormon are particular to the 1500s and 1600s, including words that do not appear in the KJV Bible. For more on this angle, see Skousen’s 2005 FARMS Insights article (at a BYU Studies website) and his 2013 article at the Interpreter.
For those who believe the Book of Mormon contains significant modern content, or is wholly modern, the KJV language relates more to Joseph Smith’s milieu, either as the cultural expectation for religious language or a riff off a literary pseudo-biblical tradition (more on that in a later post). An example of the idea that the Book of Mormon is both parts ancient text and 19th-century creation is Blake Ostler’s “expansion” theory, basically an extremely loose translation. As Ostler explained, the Book of Mormon contains Joseph’s “unrestricted and authoritative commentary, interpretation, explanation, and clarifications based on insights from the ancient Book of Mormon text and the King James Bible (KJV).” Some people who see the Book of Mormon as a completely modern creation still maintain it contains important religious truth. Grant Hardy explained the intricacies of this “inspired fiction” idea in a Q&A at the end of an address at a FairMormon conference (Cody Hatch offered his viewpoint here at W&T, and at churchistrue’s personal blog, multiple options are discussed for people who see modern content in the Book of Mormon). But Mormons and non-Mormons alike often struggle with the idea of the Book of Mormon having any religious merit without being based on an ancient historical record (see, for example, Stephen Smoot’s article at the Interpreter, or Andrew’s general post on historicity and testimony here at W&T).
For a short, but thorough, overview of the problems in the relationship between the KJV Bible and Book of Mormon, I recommend Grant Hardy’s book, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (p. 66-70, DON’T skip the endnotes on p. 289-292). For more in-depth, academic insights into the relationship between the KJV Bible and the Book of Mormon, I highly recommend Colby Townsend’s 2016 senior thesis available at Book of Mormon Central. It contains an historical overview of how scholars have dealt with that intertextual relationship, highlighting major players (both LDS and non-LDS). Townsend makes a plea to the LDS academic community in his conclusion,
I hope that future academic research on the topic of the Bible in the [Book of Mormon] can escape the failings of the past several decades when this kind of study was beholden to a false dichotomy where if one claimed influence from the KJV or the [New Testament] then one was simply labeled a critic or anti-Mormon, or if another discounted one’s arguments they were simply an apologist. Understanding the development of the [Book of Mormon] and ideas and traditions behind it is much more important than personality conflicts or debates that revolve around one’s devotional life.
For more information on Isaiah authorship, there are two good articles from more traditional viewpoints. The first is John Welch’s “Authorship in the Book of Isaiah in Light of the Book of Mormon” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon (available as a PDF at the Maxwell Institute website). The second is Kent P. Jackson’s “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon” essay in the 2016 Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book joint publication, A Reason for Faith: Navigating Church Doctrine & History (Jackson also briefly covers the general KJV language issue). A more nuanced Isaiah view, yet still related to the traditional apologetic position, is Daniel T. Ellsworth’s 2017 “Their Imperfect Best: Isaianic Authorship from an LDS Perspective” at the Interpreter. LDS scholar David Bokovy is less traditional, arguing for more firm acceptance of the scholarly consensus in his two-part response to Kent P. Jackson’s Reason for Faith essay (part 1, part 2).
2b. “The above example, 2 Nephi 19:1,… quotes nearly verbatim from the 1611 AD translation of Isaiah 9:1 KJV… Additionally, the Book of Mormon describes the sea as the Red Sea.”
This is different from the KJV italics issue, so it merits its own discussion. The original KJV version of Isaiah 9:1 has “by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.” The Book of Mormon version reads “by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.” So what’s the problem? Most biblical readers don’t think Isaiah was referring to the Red Sea. Here’s the full Book of Mormon verses (2 Nephi 19:1-2):
1 Nevertheless, the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.
2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
Notice how they talk about the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali? Now check out the tribal land designations in this Bible map from the LDS Scriptures. See how the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are just west of the Sea of Galilee (a.k.a. Sea of Chinnareth)? That’s why Matthew 4:12-16 argues that Christ fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy when “he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim.” Capernaum is on the Sea of Galilee.
In a 1981 FARMS Preliminary Report, “The Isaiah Variants in the Book of Mormon,” (available at the Maxwell Institute website), John Tvedtness didn’t mince words.
However, [the Book of Mormon] must be wrong in speaking of the “RED Sea”, which is certainly not “beyond Jordan, in Galilee”, nor near the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. This appears to be a case of scribal overcorrection, due to prior mention of the Red Sea in the [Book of Mormon] text. (p. 45)
Tvedtness blames the scribe, Oliver Cowdery (and now we’re back into loose translation versus tight translation debates…). But others argue it might not have been a mistake. Many people think “the way of the sea” refers to an actual road. Some LDS scholars have posited that Isaiah’s “way of the sea” refers to the King’s Highway, a heavily used ancient route running from Damascus down along the countries east of Israel: Ammon, Moab, and Edom. (See p. 154 of Paul Nolan Hyde’s commentary at the BYU Studies website, and Jeff Lindsay’s FAQ.) I suspect LDS peeps like this option because it can be argued as “beyond Jordan” and connects with a Red Sea port on it’s way to Egypt.
Most scholars tend to argue roads that, you know, actually went through Israel. One option is the Great Trunk Road, which runs from Damascus to Egypt, also known as Via Maris, Latin for “way of the sea.” Unfortunately, that name was given much later (likely inspired by Isaiah 9:1), but it still passes through several cities around the Sea of Galilee in Naphtali, including Capernaum, and down through Zebulun. Anciently called the “Way of the Philistines,” it was the major arterial road running through Philistine lands along the Mediterranean Sea on its way to Egypt.
.A non-LDS scholar, Anson Rainey, has suggested Isaiah’s “way of the sea” refers to a road from Damascus to the Mediterranean port city of Tyre. This ran along the northern border Israel (which was the northern border of Naphtali). In this argument, Isaiah is referring to the Assyrian conquest, specifically areas “lost to Tiglath Pileser III in that first Assyrian campaign: the Upper Galilee (‘the way of the sea’ and the rest of Naphtali), Gilead (‘on the other side of Jordan’) and the lower Galilee (‘Galilee of the Gentiles,’ including Zebulon).” Note: “Galilee of the Gentiles” and “Galilee of the nations” referred to the ethnic diversity of that region. Many tie it specifically to the Assyrian policies of forced importations. (See Andrew Skinner’s BYU Studies article.)
Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible and the Book of Mormon
3. The Book of Mormon includes mistranslated biblical passages that were later changed in Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. These Book of Mormon verses should match the inspired JST version…
Newer research coming out of BYU is shedding more light on this, but first let’s back up. When I was growing up, I developed an impression, similar to the author of the CES Letter, that the Joseph Smith Translation was all about Joseph restoring the original text of the Bible. Although not explicit, it’s definitely suggested by verses in the Book of Mormon and the Bible Dictionary entry in the LDS Scriptures, “The JST to some extent assists in restoring the plain and precious things that have been lost from the Bible.” For those of us who viewed the Book of Mormon biblical passages as coming from the brass plates which theoretically still contained the “plain and precious” stuff, it made sense that Book of Mormon passages should match Joseph’s later biblical “restorations.” But LDS scholars figured out long ago there was more to the JST than restoration of ancient text. One of the foremost scholars on the JST, Robert J. Matthews, suggested Joseph’s changes to the Bible fell into at least four categories (as quoted at FairMormon):
1. Portions may amount to restorations of content material once written by the biblical authors but since deleted from the Bible.
2. Portions may consist of a record of actual historical events that were not recorded, or were recorded but never included in the biblical collection
3. Portions may consist of inspired commentary by the Prophet Joseph Smith, enlarged, elaborated, and even adapted to a latter-day situation. This may be similar to what Nephi meant by “Likening” the scriptures to himself and his people in their particular circumstance. (See 1 Nephi 19:23-24; 2 Nephi 11:8).
4. Some items may be a harmonization of doctrinal concepts that were revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith independently of his translation of the Bible, but by means of which he was able to discover that a biblical passage was inaccurate.
What many of us grew up thinking about the JST only applies to that first category.
A few months ago, in a LDS Perspectives podcast, BYU professor Thomas Wayment suggested we may want to adjust our thinking on the JST even further: “It probably doesn’t restore the original text, but it does restore meaning to that text.” Wayment’s viewpoint is the vast majority of the JST was about clarifying the Bible, making it “easier to read.” Not that there weren’t some “revelatory” chunks, especially in Genesis, but they were additions, not restorations, to original content.
So here’s the kicker; this idea isn’t new, even though it can feel pretty revolutionary. In 1987, Kevin Barney shared research exploring the JST as restoration of ancient scripture in his Dialogue article, “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible.” His conclusion?
[I]t is unlikely (with very few exceptions) that the JST represents a literal restoration of material that stood in the original manuscripts of the Bible.
Last March, in the article “A Recently Recovered Source: Rethinking Joseph Smith’s Bible Translation,” at BYU‘s Journal of Undergraduate Research, Haley Wilson and Professor Wayment further explain that, through much of his translation project, Joseph appeared to rely on a popular 1831 biblical commentary for “grammatical, historical and linguistic aide.” No association was found between that commentary and the much longer, “revelatory” passages Joseph added to the Bible (like those canonized in our Pearl of Great Price), but it still calls into question how we look at the JST overall:
With some of the changes that Smith introduced into the text of the Bible resulting from academic sources, albeit modified and altered, the question arises as to whether the changes that arose via Clarke would have the same claim to canonicity that the longer revelatory insertions might have.
So if the Joseph Smith Translation wasn’t really about restoring ancient biblical text, then that particular concern in the CES Letter is moot. But we still have a bigger problem of adjusting our expectations of the Joseph Smith Translation. (It’ll probably be awhile before we fully shake that whole “restoring ancient biblical text” perspective.) For more information on the JST, check out this detailed 2005 book review by Royal Skousen at the Maxwell Institute website. Edited to add: Yesterday, Kevin Barney posted valuable information about the Joseph Smith Translation at By Common Consent, intended to help Gospel Doctrine teachers for the upcoming year: “Toward a Paradigm of JST Revisions.”
Well, that’s it for today. Next time we’ll cover DNA, anachronisms, and archaeology. (For a sneak peak, check out my Book of Mormon archaeology post from last April.)
Commenters, what other sources can you suggest to better understand the relationship of the Book of Mormon with the KJV Bible and/or Joseph Smith Translation?