Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Mormon response to biblical authorship hypotheses

After writing this three different ways, here is the best and least dogmatic. I don't give references, but I will identify or insert them upon request.

Here are some dominant hypotheses on biblical authorship:

The Pentateuch was written by at least three authors, J, E, and D, and it was edited during or after the Babylonian captivity.
Isaiah was written by two and possibly three authors, with at least one of them during or after the Babylonian captivity.
The Sermon on the Mount was constructed from a sayings document and wasn't ever give by Jesus in one place (or maybe at all).

What problems does this cause me as a Mormon?

I have to explain 2nd Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. I have to explain the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Mormon. This has contributed to some interesting and intelligent analyses of what Joseph Smith meant when he thought he was translating. One is Blake Ostler's expansion hypothesis—the Book of Mormon really had ancient records, but while Joseph Smith was translating, God inspired him to insert other passages that weren't on the plates. It's also contributed to Brandt Gardner's view that the translation process was rather loose, with God communicating ideas that were on the plates into sometimes completely different language than the ancient authors would have used. I've heard other people reconcile these, and other, problems by viewing the translation process as channeling. I think this is supported at least superficially by Joseph's translations of other documents.

I don't happen to like any of these explanations. I believe too many things about the Book of Mormon. I believe it was written by real, ancient prophets. I believe that Nephi actually had the writings of Isaiah and copied them over onto his plates. I believe Jesus really visited the Americas and gave a sermon like the Sermon on the Mount. I believe that Joseph Smith really believed he was transcribing into English the writings of the ancient prophets and that, even though he mostly never looked at the golden plates, he believed he was communicating what was on them. He says he took the title page from the last plate.

Why is it a problem for me to give up these beliefs in favor of something that's more symbolic and agrees with predominant scholarly views of biblical authorship? Here are three reasons:

  1. The best objective, statistical, language use analysis of the Book of Mormon (performed by multiple authors only one of which was LDS) shows that Nephi and Alma, at least, are two different authors and that neither is Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, or Solomon Spaulding. Criticisms have been published of this work that leave a small amount of room for error, but do not effectively refute the results. Other published studies contradicting the conclusion of multiple authorship, or supposedly supporting 19th century authorship, have easily identified and demonstrated flaws in their methodology. I understand enough statistics to come to this conclusion myself, and I'm willing to help anyone else who wants to read the papers see how I arrived at my conclusion and come to their own better informed conclusion. That's a serious offer, but I warn you that you will have to do homework.
  2. Royal Skousen's work on the original and printers manuscripts of the Book of Mormon best supports a tight control over the translation, where Joseph Smith was given the words and phrases that he should speak, sometimes including the specific spelling of names, and other times including really awkward English constructions that were removed in later copies.
  3. The historical evidence is that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries believed he was translating the actual words written on golden plates, even though he wasn't looking at the plates most of the time. They also believed that these words were written by real, historical people. Joseph said he met Moroni, at least, and stories are that he met other ancient prophets. Multiple witnesses attest to the existence of golden plates with writing on them. Joseph's enemies believed he had the plates and went to some lengths to relieve him of them.

None of these evidences rule out the views of Blake Ostler, Brandt Gardner, or others, but they do give me reason to doubt them. They also give other Latter-day Saints reason to doubt these more symbolic views of the translation process. I fall, at least superficially, into the conservative, Sunday School view of Book of Mormon translation. To me it seems to make God as much of an elaborate deceiver as he would need to be for the earth to only be 12,000 years old. Why make it appear to Joseph Smith like he was translating an ancient text from multiple authors, and put in statistical and historical evidence to back that up, when what was really happening was God was constructing a book in some other way? I don't like that God any more than I like the God of Intelligent Design.

So I've put in a little effort to understand just how seriously I should be taking the biblical scholarship. I haven't come to a final conclusion, yet, but what I have concluded is that someone else is going to have to do this job if they want me to believe differently about Book of Mormon and Biblical authorship. Here, in brief, are my current hypotheses for biblical authorship:

Some single author wrote the Pentateuch (carefully crafted from older, oral traditions) and it was edited during or after the Babylonian captivity.
Some single author wrote Isaiah and it was edited during or after the Babylonian captivity.
Jesus really gave the Sermon on the Mount.

What biblical scholarship do I have to ignore to believe this? None that I'm aware of. There are serious scholars who believe each of these things, even if they are in the minority. I just have to believe a minority view, not ignore a majority one. Believing these things also allows me to not hypothesize documents that no one has found. I don't have to invent original Jahwistic and Elohistic authors who haven't left any records behind. I don't have to look for a 1st Isaiah without a 2nd Isaiah (although I'm fine if people keep looking. Ancient documents are cool). I don't have to invent a sayings document that hasn't been found. I also don't have to reject Joseph Smith's more literal view of how he translated the Book of Mormon.

So what's my point? To you believing LDS biblical scholars—don't assume that you can rely on the authority of predominant scholarly views to convince thoughtful, well read, academically inclined Latter-day Saints to view the scriptures as you do. You have your work cut out. If you think we would benefit from believing the Documentary Hypothesis or one of its offshoots, you need to do a lot better job of making explanations of the hypothesis more accessible to interested Mormon readers. That's a harder job than for an audience that doesn't believe in the Book of Mormon. You aren't just fighting fundamentalist prejudices, you are fighting statistical and historical evidences that are about as strong as they come. You may be able to deal with these evidences and preserve the dominant source critical hypotheses, but you can't rely on non-Mormon scholars to do that job for you. Alternatively, you could take these evidences of the Book of Mormon seriously in the ways I and some Book of Mormon scholars do, and let it shape your biblical scholarship. I know of at least one Isaiah scholar (Avraham Gileadi) and one New Testament scholar (Wilfred Griggs) that have done this and made successful careers of it. I don't know that they were right to do so, but they've impressed me. You'd be exploring minority views, and you'd have to work a lot harder to get anyone to listen to you, publish you, or give you tenure. That said, if I were a betting man I'd bet that scholarship that goes against a mostly literal view the Book of Mormon won't last. I'll keep reading biblical scholarship, when it interest me, but if you want me, and others like me, to keep listening to you, you've got to meet us more than half way. I tried going the other way, and it's too much work for too little reward.


  1. Thank you for this interesting post. You wrote:

    "Alternatively, you could take these evidences of the Book of Mormon seriously in the ways I and some Book of Mormon scholars do, and let it shape your biblical scholarship. I know of at least one Isaiah scholar (Avraham Gileadi) and one New Testament scholar (Wilfred Griggs) that have done this and made successful careers of it. I don't know that they were right to do so, but they've impressed me. You'd be exploring minority views, and you'd have to work a lot harder to get anyone to listen to you, publish you, or give you tenure. That said, if I were a betting man I'd bet that scholarship that goes against a mostly literal view the Book of Mormon won't last."

    To Gileadi and Griggs you could add John Welch, who published a treaties on the Sermon on the Mount as a unified text related to the temple. He did so with an academic press, and got some generally positive, though cautious, reviews. The seed for the idea, though, was planted by his reading of the Book of Mormon sermon.

    You mention among your views that, "Some single author wrote Isaiah and it was edited during or after the Babylonian captivity." This is similar to my own views, but I was wondering, since you say, "There are serious scholars who believe each of these things," if you could point me to some reading/resources I could look up on the topic. I'd love to find something along those lines.

    Anyhow, thanks for the interesting post.

  2. I'm going to admit my limited knowledge and open myself up for likely well deserved criticisms in my response (I think I'm ready to not let these bother me). Avraham Gileadi is my Isaiah example, and I've only read reviews and summaries of his work. My libraries don't have his books, and I can't afford them right now. (http://www.isaiahexplained.com/isaiah_ch_1.html) Apparently his translation of Isaiah is respected.

    My Pentateuch example is Kikawada and Quinn. I summarize some of their arguments in this previous post:


    They don't do the whole Pentateuch, but they outline a possible approach that is both engaging and brief. I liked the book a lot. I've also heard that most European scholars accept alternatives to the DH that eliminate one of the sources of the Pentateuch, but they still retain E, P, and D. I don't know if that should bother me, or interest me, because I can't find that scholarship in an easily accessible form. This is one of the things I wish some LDS scholar would address. I'd like to be told enough that I can pick the hypothesis I prefer rather than being left with this choice: accept the DH (and I respond, which part?) or make up your own non-scholarly alternative. I've picked the latter, but I have no intention of staying there if scholars will give me something better that incorporates the Book of Mormon.

  3. Interesting post. I recommend reading the following blog post responding to yours, as well as my comment to it:


    1. Thank you, Erik. The posts author pointed it out to me, and we've had a nice little back and forth. I think his answer is a really good start, and I look forward to seeing more of what he writes. I hope he, or someone else, will take the time to explain the strongest reasons European scholars give for discounting J, sometime.

      I will go look at your comment, there.

    2. Erik, I read your comment. It does capture some of the things I mean, even though I didn't know all the things you mentioned. I am inclined to believe Moses was a real person (and Abraham and Adam and Eve), even though I don't have a problem with the stories we have about them being mostly or completely invented, later (I just ask for evidence).

      The post I've written above was my third try, and left out a lot of stuff. One thing it left out is what I think it means for God to speak according to our language and understanding. On that point I do believe that all revelation is limited and imperfectly represents what God might want us to understand. I think believing otherwise doesn't fit the facts. I believe this is the case even while believing that the translation of the Book of Mormon was a tightly controlled process. In this regard I deviate rather strongly from the typical Sunday School version of translation and revelation (although I have heard more nuanced beliefs spoken in Sunday School--maybe by me, though. That's one of the joys of being the teacher. You can frame things so people will accept the otherwise unacceptable). That doesn't really contradict anything you wrote, but maybe clarifies my position.

    3. Jonathan, thanks for the response. I am currently in the process of reconsidering the nature of Joseph Smith's revelations from being purely words spoken by God to being more of an interaction between Joseph Smith and God. I don't believe that the Book of Mormon was a tight translation, however. In my view, the presence of so much 19th century Protestant terminology and the saturation of the KJV in the BM is proof against a tight translation. Brant Gardner's "Gift and Power" makes a good case for a generally loose translation. While I do believe in the Book of Mormon as scripture, and that the book was based on the writings of Mesoamerican prophets on metal plates, I also think there is at least some level of expansion from the original plate text. Perhaps part of that expansion was via revelation from God and part via the mind of Joseph Smith, but it at least partly conveys the language of Joseph Smith.

      I am interested in the word print studies... I've heard of them but know that studies have been done showing supposed statistical correlations for the Book of Mormon drawing on Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Solomon Spaulding - but also studies showing that there are different authors in the Book of Mormon, Alma being a separate voice, etc. Not having studied both sides further, I'm mildly skeptical of word print studies being able to prove either side conclusively. Maybe you could refer me to an article covering the debate more comprehensively?

    4. Btw, one book that I am waiting to come out, and that will probably cover at least aspects of BM translation more in depth than Gardner, is Jared Hickman and Sam Brown, "Human Cosmos: Joseph Smith and the Art of Translation". Heard of it online a couple of places and don't have a clue as to when it's coming out. But you might want to keep in on a list, I definitely am planning on getting it whenever it's released.

      Also, back to the Documentary Hypothesis. You've hopefully heard about David Bokovoy's upcoming Vol. 1 of a 3-volume series on the Old Testament, which presents the Documentary Hypothesis to an LDS audience. The book should be available for ordering in the next few days or couple weeks and might be something for you to read up on in considering the Documentary Hypothesis. I've been waiting for the book since last Fall and will order it as soon as I can!

    5. Erik, I've been working on acquiring copies of the original papers on Book of Mormon stylometry. I will write a ranting blog post about them sometime soon and include links to as many of the papers as are publicly available (most of them). The discussion may be best continued, then, and perhaps by email, if needed.