In my most recent podcast episode Book of Mormon content, which focuses on modern theological content in the Book of Mormon, I point out a couple instances where study of 19th century works help illuminate confusing passages in the Book of Mormon.
The first one is from Daniel McClellan. Daniel wanted to understand how to translate the scripture 2 Ne 25:23
23 For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.
This has been interpreted as a works scripture. Grace comes in only “after all we can do”, with the emphasis that we must do our part. Stephen Robinson argued in the 1990’s that the phrase “after all we can do” should be considered ironic or in exasperation, ie it should be read “in spite of all we can do”, meaning that we can’t do very much, and that this is a grace scripture.
Daniel McClellan searched literary works in Joseph Smith’s day and found over 10 times this is used, all in the same way Brother Robinson wanted us to understand. A couple examples:
“The reason is, they have no desire for that in which holiness consists; the fountain still remains corrupt. And after all they can do, without this Divine influence on the heart, they remain utterly unprepared for the kingdom of heaven.”
- The Evangelical Magazine, vol. II, 1834, pp. 493–94
“Here there is an evident misstatement; there is no merit in the performance of the conditions; after all we can do we are unprofitable servants, the performance of any condition can no more obtain for us eternal life than our own natural strength can move the universe; eternal life is the free gift of God.”
- William Brudenell Barter, Observations on a Work by Mr. Bickersteth, 1836, p. 17
See his facebook post showing this documentation here. https://www.facebook.com/rob.terry.church.is.true/posts/628284740849766
Another example I noticed is when I searched a phrase from Alma 13:3.
3 And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
Brother Tad Callister has recently pointed out this verse is teaching about the LDS concept of pre-Earth life. I disagree with this opinion and did some research, like Daniel McClellan did, to see if I could find anything. I found this quote from a sermon from Massachusetts in 1828 by Jacob Wood quoting John Wesley.
The celebrated John Wesley a distinguished opposer of Calvinism and advocate of Arminian principles has given us a plain statement of this subject in his Sermon on Predestination. He says The scripture tells us plainly what predestination is it is God’s fore appointing obedient believers to salvation not without but according to his fore knowledge of all their works from the foundation of the world. And so likewise he predestinates or fore appoints all disobedient unbelievers to damnation not without but according to his fore knowledge of all their works from the foundation of the world. We may consider this a little farther. God from the foundation of the world fore knew all men’s believing or not believing And according to this his fore knowledge he chose or elected all obedient believers as such to salvation and refused or reprobated all disobedient unbelievers as such to damnation. Thus the scriptures teach us to consider election and reprobation according to the fore knowledge of God from the foundation of the world
It’s quite clear to me, based on the the same context and the same phraseology (according to God’s foreknowledge from the foundation of the world), that the Book of Mormon is using this same logic. This logic is the Arminian-Wesleyan (remember Joseph Smith was connected to Methodism in his formative years, founded by John Wesley) approach to arguing against the Calvinist view of predestination.
I propose that we can learn more about the Book of Mormon by acknowledging it as 19th century scripture, and analyzing its doctrines and meaning the same way we would explore other 19th century documents.
Try this at home.
Go to google advanced book search. https://books.google.com/advanced_book_search Put in your favorite phrase from the Book of Mormon to see if you can find any other insights into this scripture by analyzing matching hits from the 18th and 19th century.
Try these phrases from an analysis I’ve done previously as a starting point.
plan of redemption
chains of hell
demands of justice
temporally and spiritually
retained in remembrance
bowels of mercy
can in nowise inherit
racked with eternal torment
state of endless misery
infinite and eternal sacrifice
mercy claimeth the penitent
eternal plan of redemption
mankind must unavoidably perish
all mankind becoming carnal
Thoroughly enjoy your podcast!
We know that Joseph Smith was influenced by contemporary sources when writing the BOM. There’s just too much evidence to deny that. My faithful friends who are informed (many don’t even know) on this point say that “revelation” can include feelings and thoughts that result from reading and studying other works. In other words, JS put into words the revelation he received from his translation powers AND his thoughts and feelings related to what he was reading and studying.
I know that’s a stretch and the mental gymnastics required to deny the semi-obvious plagiarism involved is strenuous. But I mention it because I assume that if I start googling BOM phrases, I’m going to discover many references contemporary to JS. My take on that is that JS wrote, not translated, the BOM. My faithful friends’ take is, yes, we are all influenced by what we read and study and JS was no different. So what. See how cognitive dissonance works?
Interesting examples. However, I think it best to approach the Book of Mormon in a multi-dimensional text, something that is a “translation” into the language and understanding of the translators of an ancient text. It’s certainly legitimate and often helpful to look at the 19th century context and language, but I have often found that treating the text as ancient, and looking to the ancient context, trying to “stand where they stood and look where they looked in order to see what they saw” can often reveal things that the 19th century approach overlooks. For example, Paul Hoskisson wrote a very careful and learned essay on what it means to “look beyond the mark” in Jacob 4:14.
“Even Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language contains nineteen definitions among three entries for mark. More recent dictionaries, which do not usually give the meanings of words in their historical context, can be just as confusing. Therefore, an indirect approach that takes advantage of historical context may prove more fruitful. For example, is mark used in the King James Bible, and if so, what does it mean? Mark occurs twenty-one times in the Old and New Testaments. By limiting the search to the Old Testament (Jacob spoke of the Jews in Lehi’s day) and by eliminating all occurrences except nouns, only seven verses contain the word mark. Three of those seven verses can be eliminated because they do not meet the criteria mentioned above, namely, that a mark was an object that, when used in its real-life setting, was supposed to be looked at and that it was desirable to look at.”
“With only four Old Testament verses left to consider, 1 Samuel 20:20, Job 7:20, 16:12, and Lamentations 3:12, the meaning of mark quickly becomes evident. In all four of these passages, mark as a noun consistently and exclusively denotes a target. The most straightforward example is 1 Samuel 20:20. [SNIP]…
“From the context of this passage, it is clear that the specific meaning of mark is a target for bow and arrow practice. This meaning is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, the word target in its current meaning is not attested in Modern English until a few decades before the translation of the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, the word mark already meant target in the sixteenth century, decades before the King James Bible was translated, as is evident in the 1535 Coverdale translation of Lamentations 3:12: “He hath bent his bowe, and made me as it were a marck to shute at.” It is from this traditional meaning of mark that English has derived the noun marksman, the verbal phrase “mark your target,” and the expression “He is a marked man.” Therefore, when the Prophet Joseph used the word mark in the English translation of the Book of Mormon, his nineteenth-century readers would have known that a mark was something to aim at.”
“In the context of Nephite culture, mark meaning a target in Jacob 4:14 also makes perfect sense. ”
However sensible and reasonable this approach, it turns out that a very different reading is possible. Hoskisson’s survey of Bible passages using “mark” overlooks one important one in Ezekiel 9, and this matters because Ezekiel, like Jacob, is a consecrated temple priest in Exile. I’ve drawn on Margaret Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 162.
Barker characteristically looks at the temple priesthood in a way that illuminates the significance of Jacob’s mark as the anointing behind the title of Messiah:
“An angel was sent to mark the faithful: “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who groan and sigh over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezekiel 9:4). The Lord then spoke to the other six angels: “Pass through the city after him and smite … [Page 50]but touch no one upon whom is the mark. … “ (Ezekiel 9.5‒6). The mark on the forehead was protection against the wrath. “Mark,” however conceals what that mark was. The Hebrew says that the angel marked the foreheads with the letter tau, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the ancient Hebrew script Ezekiel would have used, this letter was a diagonal cross, and the significance of this becomes apparent from the much later tradition about the high priests. The rabbis remembered that the oil for anointing the high priest had been lost when the first temple was destroyed and that the high priests of the second temple were only “priests of many garments,” a reference to the eight garments worn on the Day of Atonement. The rabbis also remembered that the anointed high priests of the first temple had been anointed on the forehead with the sign of a diagonal cross. This diagonal cross was the sign of the Name on their foreheads, the mark which Ezekiel described as the letter tau.75”
Like Ezekiel, his exact contemporary Jacob is a consecrated temple priest in exile (2 Nephi 6:2). It seems to me this high priestly anointing that designated some as a messiah gives the clear meaning of Jacob’s mark in a passage that I take as a direct comment on the reform:
But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came from looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them.76
As we have seen, Jeremiah, Nephi, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, and 1 Enoch also describe the blindness in Jerusalem in Lehi’s day and do so in express contrast to the seeing and hearing that came with their own theophanies. When Jacob attempts to cast light on the meaning of Messiah, he adds other titles, affirming that “the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, should manifest himself unto them in the flesh,” and they shall “crucify him” (2 Nephi 6:9). Jacob’s discourse, as Professor Hamblin has observed, contains themes [Page 51]consistent with the Day of Atonement.77 In 2 Nephi 9: 5, the Creator will show himself to those at Jerusalem and die and provide an infinite atonement (2 Nephi 6:7). In the passages in Jacob 4 leading up to the discussion of the mark and the blindness in Jerusalem, Jacob’s themes also happen to resonate with the wisdom tradition that Barker works to recover.7
Since our interpretations are very different, and we both cannot be right, the question arises, which one is better? A target? Or the anointing of the First Temple High Priest with the divine name that designated the Messiah? And that question raises the issue of how do we measure better in a way that is not completely paradigm-dependent? “Better” requires comparison, and one consequence of a strictly 19th century approach is that it strictly limits comparisons to the 19th century. Mark Twain once commented that “the difference between the right word, and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” The same can often be said of the right context for a word.
3 Nephi 9:18 “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Unless the Nephi’s were speaking Greek, that phrase would have been meaningless to the Nephites which means Jesus probably didn’t say that. Joseph used it instead since that’s the verbiage a modern reader would have understood. This is called a dynamic translation (See the NIV Bible methodology) so that the modern reader would understand what the ancient writer meant.
Thus, it’s valuable to search out these phrases in the context of the 1830’s usage since that’s the audience who the book was written for.
When I see or hear this phrase from 2 Nephi, I now think of it in relation to the second part of Alma 24:11 . The people of Ammon looked for grace “for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God . . . .” I can no longer think that anything I can do more than this will be found as better than filthy rags.
andy norman: so if I read a General Conference talk by one of the General Authorities, and I rewrite it in a way that relates to my audience, that’s “dynamic translation”? This could be fun, depending on my audience. And I could still claim that my “translation” was rooted in the original text?
josh h– Yes, if you’ve ever heard a sacrament meeting talk or EQ lesson based on a conference talk, that’s exactly what’s going on. In fact, I think that’s why certain church leaders prefer this exercise.